We’ve been watching The Greatest American Hero lately, and it amazes me how well they focused on story and character. At first glance, it’s a goofy show about an unlikely pair of companions (Tough, conservative FBI Agent Bill Maxwell and bleeding heart high school teach Ralph Hinkley) who are thrown together by aliens and bumble through past their own mutual ineptitude.
If you look deeper, the show actually works to reveal that these characters each have their own inherent strengths which complement each other in their quest to “do good.” Neither character thinks the other character has a clue, and they both gradually realize that the other character has more substance than they originally gave them credit for. Ralph grows to appreciate the fact that Bill has put his life on the line for the good of his country and his fellow citizens and that he works hard because he believes in his job. Bill grows to appreciate the fact that Ralph genuinely cares about people, including Bill (he even willingly takes a bullet for Bill at one point when he’s not wearing the suit that makes him invulnerable). By the end of the series, they understand the nature of their partnership and the different roles they each play.
Similarly, the story is developed in a way to allow the characters to grow. At the beginning of the series, Ralph is given a suit with a wide variety of powers. The biggest problem is that he loses the instruction manual and doesn’t know how to use many of these powers (or even that they exist in some cases). Ralph and Bill are forced to stumble into knowledge of his powers of flight, invisibility, telekinesis, telepathy, etc. as circumstances gradually force them to understand them.
“That’s a ludicrous premise! How could a story work with a character possessing an ultra-powerful item and never understanding or appreciating (or maybe using) the item?” you might say. Is it really? Is it more ludicrous than a middle aged hobbit stumbling across a small golden ring and using only its most trivial ability for the next ninety years? Is it more ludicrous than the discovery of a magical sword forged for the express purpose of killing the dark lord and not realizing this until years later, after it was almost inadvertently used to kill that dark lord? Good stories are full of gradually revealed powers and abilities. Some times, you can go so gradually that the reader almost doesn’t catch a reveal until it is the perfect “Aha!” moment.
I hope that as I write, I can craft wonderful complementary characters and intriguing but believable plot devices. I hope that you will go back and give The Greatest American Hero another watch.