Special by Birth vs. Special by Action

When I’m reading, I often classify heroes into one of two camps: special by birth or special by action.

The special by birth folks often have super-human powers, unnatural talents, and/or live at the centers of prophecies. This group has many famous members: Harry Potter, Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), Bella (Twilight), Superman, Aragorn (LotR), Katsa (Graceling), Harry (The Blue Sword), Garion (The Belgariad), Luke Skywalker, almost all comic book mutants, long-lost princesses, etc.

Just by being born, these folks are ahead of the game. They didn’t do anything to be long-lost heir to Gondor, the Chosen One, the Last Son, the only one who can withstand Voldemort. Most of them are pretty awesome people, but without the special circumstances of their birth/genetics/cosmic alignment, they’d probably be supporting characters.

The special by action folks may have interesting upbringings and the opportunities to become awesome, but mostly, they’ve attained their hero status by working hard, doing interesting things, making good (or bad) decisions, or generally just stumbling through life. Some impressive people live here, too: Willow (BtVS), Katniss (The Hunger Games), Batman, Frodo and Samwise, Starbuck (in my version), Turtle (The Westing Game), Lisbeth Salander, the Mission: Impossible team, Indiana Jones, etc.

You could argue that these folks are also special by birth — some of them have pretty awesome parents and/or a whole lot of privilege — but in general, their skills still fall within human (or hobbit) norms.

As a kid, I vastly preferred the special by birth heroes, because I secretly wanted to be The Chosen One, the one person who could make a difference, who could save the world, who was undeniably special. (Yes, I tried to manifest my mutant powers, use the force, and look for signs that I’d been adopted under strange circumstances. Didn’t we all?)

As an adult, I find I vastly prefer special by action heroes, the ones that don’t owe their specialness to an accident of birth. I think it’s because I want to live in a world where hard work and character (in the general sense) are more important than genetics, lineage, or something like Mystic Heritage. I know it’s naive, and probably a product of my upbringing, and that most people in our world struggle just to survive — but still. That’s the world I want.

Oh, I still love stories of all kinds — even the ones with princes and superpowers and ancient prophecies. But the stories that speak to me most strongly, the kinds of stories that I want to write, are the ones where the heroes make themselves.


Comments

Greg van Eekhout 7 years ago .

I like your categorization scheme. I find more and more, my egalitarian tendencies make Special by Birth heroes less and less interesting.

Over the years, some writers have tried to make Superman more of a Special by Action hero. True, he's the Last Son of Krypton, but for a Last Son, he shares the universe with a lot of other Kryptonians, not to mention hundreds of other superpowered heroes from Earth and elsewhere. So, the challenge has been defining what makes him special beyond his birthright, and somewhere in those stories emerges a Superman who is special primarily because he's a good man.

Ha, you said Superman and look what happened!

    T.D. McFrost 7 years ago .

    This is a very fascinating take on the whole archetype. I think writing a special hero who is mighty through actions is a lot harder than those born by birth. It takes skill to weave a story in such a way.

    Do you agree?

      Jenn Reese 7 years ago .

      I’m honestly not sure if it’s harder or not! I have only written three novels so far, and they all have “special by action” characters. I have no experience writing “special by birth” characters with which to compare.

      If I had to guess, I’d say it’s equally hard to write good, compelling characters of either sort. The specifics might be different, but both require the same sort of writing craft.

      Just my opinion, of course!

      Greg van Eekhout 7 years ago .

      Hrm. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily harder to write a Special by Action hero. I think it may seem easier to write a Special by Birth hero, because it seems like a lot of the work’s been done for you, but the result is often a character whom we’re told is special by the author but who doesn’t rise to specialness on the page. Or, maybe the character is obviously special, but I don’t care a hooey about him or her. So, for me, given my idiosyncratic reading values, if an author can pull off a Special by Birth character I care about, they’ve performed a tricky feat.

    Jenn Reese 7 years ago .

    I must confess, my inclusion of Superman on the list was mostly based on my limited, mainstream knowledge. I didn't know there were a lot of other Kryptonians around. But I still think he's mostly Special by Birth. Without superpowers, he'd be a really nice police officer or something.

    I think Thatcher and Trudy (in Kid vs. Squid) may be some of the only "special by action" characters I read about in SF books last year.

      Greg van Eekhout 7 years ago .

      But Superman operates in a universe in which superpowers are the norm. The extraordinary is the ordinary. I think the more thoughtful Superman writers use that as an opportunity to explore his humanity, and how he is what he is because of the Kents more than Jor-El.

      On the other hand, many Superman writers do go for the Special by Birth appeal. I just tend not to find those stories, or those parts of the stories, as neat. :-)

      (And I'm really glad you found Thatcher and Trudy examples of Special by Action. That's what I was shooting for.)

Rachel Heslin 7 years ago .

I'm a big fan of the "special by action" type of superhero. You've probably heard me rant about The Incredibles, and how we explained to Hunter that the bad guy *could* have been a superhero if he had chosen to use his awesome inventions in the service of helping others, and it was very sad that he chose to do bad things instead.

    Jenn Reese 7 years ago .

    I love The Incredibles, but I agree that thematically, they REALLY made a mistake with how they handled specials vs. non-specials. Glad that Hunter has such good parents!

Girl Friday 7 years ago .

Great post. I think you're right about kids liking the special by birth heros so they can pretend the same. And actually, writing special by birth heros can be hard – you have to give them plenty of interesting flaws so people can still relate to them. But I agree that special by action characters are often more interesting – it probably explains why I love Indiana Jones so much :)

    Jenn Reese 7 years ago .

    I’m definitely glad that we have all sorts of heroes — Indiana Jones is responsible for my archaeology degree, but Harry from THE BLUE SWORD made me learn how to ride horses. In the end, it’s really the quality of the character that matters. The best “Special by Birth” characters are *also* Special by Action, imo.

Kelly Hashway 7 years ago .

I prefer the special by action type. There aren’t just handed something. They have to work for it, and to me, that’s much more impressive.

    Jenn Reese 7 years ago .

    I think that may be why adults like "special by action" characters. Kids, however, love the idea of having special powers *without* having to work them. :-D

      Jessie 5 years ago .

      I don’t think kids don’t want to work! I think it’s hard for kids to imagine themselves into a scenario where their action will make an enormous difference, but if you’re special-by-birth, the action/importance will come to you.

Elissa J. Hoole 7 years ago .

Wow, interesting to see how your preference for each type of hero changed as you grew older, and I think it's true–how I loved fantasizing as a child about being special in some so-far undiscovered way. Maybe now that I'm older and obviously aware that any special by birth characteristic would have been revealed by now, I'm still full of hope that I can be a hero by action? Great post, interesting topic!

    Jenn Reese 7 years ago .

    Hey, Elissa — thank for stopping by! And for the record, I'm still kind of holding out for special powers… :-D

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