It’s really about departing from expectations
So I’ve been watching “The Boys” on Amazon Prime the past couple of days, and it’s hailed as revolutionary deconstruction of the superhero genre. It’s got lots of revenge killings, rape, an invisible voyeur, corporations taking over through blackmail, and a lot of the other stuff you see in dystopian fiction, but this show gives all the bad qualities to the ones you usually think of as the good guys: the superheroes.
You end up rooting for the ones who are picking off the corrupt superheroes one by one, almost all of them motivated by revenge. (One’s girlfriend gets smashed to a pulp by a careless super speedster just as she is proposing that the two of them move in together.)
This thesis about the temptation of selfishness when you get a certain amount of power is nothing new, though. The seminal phrase:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
was written by Lord Acton in 1887.
What is actually happening in “The Boys” is much simpler than Derrida’s complicated take on language and contextual meaning. It is about playing with readers’ expectations.
Like many other shocks and surprises in stories, going against type and going against convention is a good tool when used in moderation. One of my favorites is when in Lord of the Rings Arya kills the Night King because he is only protected from men, and she is not one.
Another in recent pop culture was Peni Parker, a Japanese girl from the distant future and her robot SP//DR, in the animated film “Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse.” A young schoolgirl isn’t the usual type to be fighting super villains.
Some writers will kill off point-of-view characters halfway through a story. Others will use a narrator whom the reader knows is a liar. You can set up two characters to fall in love, and then dash that expectation in some way.
There are a multiplicity of ways in which one can shock or surprise an audience, but it is important to keep one or two fingerholds in convention, or your audience will be so lost in what to expect, they give up.