[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Mur Lafferty on Limitations for the Supernatural
Insightful, witty, and passionate, Mur Lafferty is a pioneer in podcasting and an exciting new voice in urban fantasy. After making her podcasting debut in 2004, she has become a respected contributor to podcasting and the speculative fiction genre. In January 2014, Mur graduated from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine with an MFA in popular fiction. In 2013, Mur won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her first professionally published novel, The Shambling Guide to New York City, debuted with Orbit Books in 2013. The sequel, Ghost Train to New Orleans was published in March 2014. Mur currently lives in Durham, NC with her family. She enjoys running, martial arts, board games, video games, and cooking. You can learn more about Mur by visiting her website.
by Mur Lafferty
Commonly, supernatural creatures are drawn as stronger, better, and with more opportunities than mere humans. Vampires can do anything from fly to shapechange to hypnotize to sparkle, depending on the story involved. Zombies kill/infect with just a scratch, and their strength lies in numbers. And being really gross. Even in the urban fantasy stories that place these monsters in our contemporary lives, these creatures manage to be a lot better settled within life than humans.
Ever notice how all vampires of a certain age (like 100+ years) are wealthy and sophisticated? No one is like your skeevy Uncle Larry who’s always coming around for a loan. I suppose Uncle Larry would be an easy target for someone like Buffy, but I do wonder why there aren’t more vampires who are very good at getting by, but very bad at investing.
When you’re ‘on the grid’ as most of us are, things like finding a place to live, for example, or getting a cell phone or a car, are damn hard to do if someone can do a quick credit search and find out if you’re dead or not. While I don’t enjoy at all the trivialities of real life in my fiction (please don’t give me a chapter with details about a bounced check, or passport renewal difficulties, or arguing with the IRS) I do wish to realize that in a connected world, it’s got to be tough to live as a dead, or immortal, type person.
With magic and superpowers and magical beings, it’s important to include balance – this is why Superman has been retconned to include weaknesses. No one is interested in something too overpowered; it’s boring. So vampires have their sunlight weakness and zombies are slow and not very smart. Gods usually fall under the weakness of hubris. But when it comes to urban fantasy, a lot of that balance simply has to do with living in plain sight of regular humans. My human editor can end an argument with her vampire writer simply by going outside during the day, for example.
In presenting these monsters in a way that both shows off their abilities and limits their ability to live easily in modern society, I have leveled the playing field so that my human protagonist might have a way to remain alive while she works with them. She has to know how to distract a dragon, where to go when the vampires get angry, when the incubus gets hungry, or when the god of smallpox comes calling.
Great characters are defined not by their good qualities, but by their weaknesses. We think “hubris” when we think Oedipus (OK, and him having sex with his mom. But that isn’t a good quality either.) We think “so honorable he’s dumb as a bag of hair” when we think Ned Stark, and we think “doesn’t look behind doors and hangs out with cannibals” when we think Clarice Starling. And when we think vampires and zombies, we remember their weaknesses. (My rapper friend Devo Spice has a joke he does on stage where he asks the audience how to kill a zombie, and everyone knows the answer, and then he says, “and what do you do if there’s an earthquake?” And there is almost always silence.)
Making superpowered, mighty, unstoppable characters is fun, but definitely a power fantasy. Characters must be dialed down and rounded out to work, and that’s what we need to do with the supernatural types.
Filed under: Special Needs in Strange Worlds
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