The Ubermensch Syndrome

15 Feb

   Today I would like to take a moment to step away from the desk, so to speak, and start a thread on a few mistakes that I find so many beginning writers make.  And I would like to start with something I call Ubermensching.

    The term “Ubermensch” was originally posited by Friedrich Nietzche, put forth as an ideal which humans should aspire towards.  Directly translated, the term means “Superman” (not the DC superhero, but the concept of human perfection).  The term has come to encapsulate the meaning of any supremely perfect person, either philosophically or fictionally.  As such, it is the perfect term for this writing faux pas. 

    Ubermensching occurs when a fiction writer creates a character that is just too perfect to be believable.  If you write a character who is the best at everything he or she does – above average or expert level in all skills and abilities – then you are ubermensching. 

    In order to appeal to a reader of fiction – regardless the genre – we must get that reader to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy what we are writing about.  Though I could write an entire other article on this subject alone, suffice it to say that every reader who picks up a book knows what is real and what is not – and they know going in that your story is going to be just that: a story.  If they wanted true crime, they would not have picked up a fiction book.  But in knowing that it is not true, they need to be able to put aside this fact in their own minds in order to enjoy the story.  

    This is the concept of willing suspension of disbelief –  a reader’s willingness to set aside their knowledge that the story is not real in order to enjoy it.  This is critical for us as writers to get through, and to keep the reader’s interest once we do.

    As writers, we are always trying to pierce this veil, and we do it by creating believable and relatable characters and scenarios that the reader can enjoy.  If the reader is able to maintain suspension of disbelief then they continue reading – if they cannot, then they stop.  And if they stop reading your book for this reason, they are never going to read anything by you ever again.  Period.

    Humans by nature relate to the flaws in a character, not what they excel at.  They want to see a character overcome adversity, not succeed at everything.  They want to know a character can have conflict, and even be capable of failure, but that in the end the character will overcome the obstacles to succeed.  If the character is perfect and cannot fail, a reader will not relate to them and their willing suspension of disbelief will be shattered.

   Let’s take a look at the most obvious example of ubermensching: Superman (the character).  When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally created him, Superman had no flaws.  He could not be hurt, he never failed, and no crime could ever be committed that he could not bring to justice.  He was popular to a point, because he was a unique concept.  But before long, the writers found they had to have the character fail before he succeeded in order to keep the readers’ interests.  Weaknesses were written into his backstory for him to be relatable.  If there was not a need for this, we would never have seen the invention of kryptonite.

    Without the capacity to fail, Superman proved unpopular.  And the reason was because he succeeded at everything he tried.  If there was a bomb, his super senses found it and it was disarmed before anyone could get hurt.  And no matter the crisis, he would always have – or develop for that one story – a super power to compensate for it.  Siegel and Shuster developed an ubermensch character. They enjoyed some initial success because the superhero was a new concept, but after the novelty wore off, the ubermensching became a detriment.

    To a certain degree, superheroes are still expected to be powerful and nearly undefeatable – though they still need flaws in order to be relatable.  But if you are writing a love interest in a book, you need to damper down the perfection.  And let’s face it – most of us are not writing about superheroes – or, at the very least, characters that should not be superheroes.

    Let’s take this example: I am presently helping a local author edit his science fiction novel.  In it, he has a professor at a college who is considered the leading expert in his field, his wife is the leading expert in her own field, they are both accomplishing impossible tasks without failure, and they have the most perfect relationship imaginable – even the villain of the story is perfect in everything he does. 

    This is ubermensching, making the characters so perfect that they simply do not fail at anything.  And this is exactly what will get a reader to be unable to suspend their disbelief – because they do not relate to someone who can handle a full-time professor position at a college, still be able to be considered an expert in their field, be married to the perfect wife who is also the perfect specimen of sexuality and an expert in her own field, etc. 

    As a writer, it is your job to make a character believable.  And this includes not making him a superman.  The best protagonist is someone who might excel in one area, but has other areas that hold him back.  Maybe he could be a weight-lifting champion from his high school days, but has declined in his middle age.  Or perhaps he can be a great mechanic, but struggle with numbers.  You get the idea.

    So after all of this prattle, what is my point and how can this article help you?  Well, truth to tell, mostly all I can do is make you aware of the issue.  I cannot write your stories or even possibly edit them all to point these things out.  But now that you are aware that this problem exists, I am hopeful that if you are properly self-critical, that you will recognize the problem and be able to write through it.

    Of course, I welcome input and responses to this article.  Do you agree, disagree?  I want to hear from you.

    May all your writing endeavors prove prosperous.

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Posted by on February 15, 2013 in Uncategorized


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