Way back in 2011, I wrote that the real test of a hero is that they have courage and heart, not just strength or super-powers. Even if they’re stripped of their powers, they fight on. A post on Fred Clark’s slacktivist blog (I don’t have the specific link but it was part of his discussion of the Left Behind books) makes the same point more generally, discussing stories where the protagonist is falsely accused or framed: “Who are you really, once your status and prestige are stripped away? Are you still a kind and decent person, or are those merely luxuries dependent on the power and safety afforded to you by society? It’s a powerful device for revealing character.” (which he thinks the books blow).
It’s a compelling question because it’s relevant to real life. Many people go through life buoyed by privilege in one way or another. George W. Bush was a legacy admission to Yale and the deputy governor of Texas arranged for Bush to go into the National Guard, where he was unlikely to be sent to ‘nam (said politician does not claim Bush asked for the favor, but says it was family friends). Donald Trump is rich primarily because his father was rich. Even people who don’t really get a boost in life can gain satisfaction from their status: doing a man’s job, being head of the family. Beautiful, charming people may take pride in being able to win over any romantic partner they want. Smart people may enjoy being smarter than anyone else. Fashionistas may define themselves by their cool, cutting edge traits. Actors may delight in stardom.
Take all that away — they’re framed, swindled of their money, their beauty is gone, their expertise discredited, their super powers or their fame fade— and they have to redefine themselves, at best. At worst, they have to fight for survival against their enemy or try to continue being a cop/prosecutor/spy/force for good despite being on the run or stripped of their powers. It’s a concept adaptable to many different settings and genres.
The Main Event has entrepreneur Barbara Streisand swindled out of her wealth. She has to use her one remaining asset, a contract on retired boxer Ryan O’Neal, to force him back into the ring to raise money. Private Benjamin has spoilt, pampered Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) lose her husband on their wedding night (he died during sex), so she joins the Army and goes from pampered to pummeled.
In comics, heroes stripped of their power is a common plot ploy. Superman’s lost his multiple times, but he never hesitates to protect people. In Action #484, the Wizard magically erases the Earth-Two Superman’s memory of who he is. He’s just plain Clark Kent, but with no memory that he has to play meek and mild he becomes as dynamic a crusading reporter as Superman’s a crusading hero (it’s a really good story).
Or consider 1975’s Three Days of the Condor. Robert Redford’s entire CIA research unit is wiped out. He doesn’t know who’s responsible, suspects someone in the agency so he can’t trust anyone. Can he survive long enough to find the truth?
I use this myself in Impossible Takes a Little Longer: the mystery villain frames KC for murder, forcing her to go on the run. She still has her powers but everyone she loves turns against her. Can she win? In this case, she breaks apart mid-book, but comes back stronger.
#SFWApro. Cover by José Garcia-Lopez, all rights to image remain with current holder.