Lessons From Literature: Character Depth in Thor: Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron

Welcome to the third Lessons From Literature post! Today we’ll be discussing a comic book collection: Thor: Goddess of Thunder, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Russell Dauterman and Jorge Molina.

Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.

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Yes, that’s right. I’m calling a collection of comic books a piece of literature. Although, I grant you, there are plenty of trashy comics in existence, others provide good examples of storytelling. In our current Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-dominated culture, it might be prudent to examine what the comics are doing for their readers that more “sophisticated” forms of literature are not.

The comics I’m discussing today are five separate issues contained in the single volume Thor: Goddess of Thunder. While I wouldn’t call this collection one of my favorites (mainly because I like older comics better), and while I’ll always prefer the original Thor, I did enjoy the storyline and I learned an important lesson about creating characters.

Lesson from Thor: Goddess of Thunder: Let your powerful characters experience weakness.

In these comics, Thor becomes unworthy of his hammer and a woman (who, in later comics, turns out to be Jane Foster) picks it up instead. The hammer gives Jane the power of Thor, along with much of his knowledge and elements of his personality. What this means, character-wise, for the new Thor is that she simultaneously exhibits Thor’s bravado and her own insecurity. She’s both experienced at the whole superhero-thing, and has no idea what she’s doing.

I thought this paradox created a fascinating character. Especially in these comics, in which Jane first becomes Thor, she can be in the middle of a fight, taunting her enemy, and also wonder how to best wield the hammer. She can face down a death threat without blinking, and also worry about her friends. She can fly into space, and also wonder how to steer. This conflict does a lot to humanize the new Thor, making her both entertaining and relatable.

Powerful characters can be one of the most challenging types to write because they have to be a paradox. If they’re too weak, they’re boring. But if they aren’t weak enough, readers can’t connect with them.

A good way to tell if your character is too strong is to ask, are they too invincible to be troubled by conflict? If the answer is yes, then you need to weaken the character. Without conflict, you don’t have a story, so your characters have to be vulnerable enough to be affected by conflict. Anyone can create a character who can beat up bad guys. But not everyone can make readers care about that character, and you achieve that connection by letting your powerful character experience weakness, particularly any kind of weakness common to the human experience.

I admire the writer’s ability to balance Thor’s strength and uncertainty in this comic collection. Her strength made me cheer for her as a superhero, but her uncertainty touched me as a fellow human. I understood her struggles and felt invested in her success because she had to work for it, in spite of her extreme powers. As a writer, this is definitely a strategy I’ll find valuable in any genre I work with.

What’s another comic series that handles character development well? Leave me a comment below!

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