Speculative Fiction Tropes: Kryptonite
Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Kryptonite.
Since Superman's creators had written him to be nigh invincible, they needed a plot device that would even the playing field for antagonists and preserve drama. Kryptonite was the answer. Harmless to humans, the glowing green rock (and its various offshoots) would rob Kal-El of his power and bring him to his knees. It was his one glaring weakness as a superhero.
While Kryptonite is a great "K" word, this entry could just as easily have been named for Achilles. The central character of Homer's Iliad, Achilles was a mythological Greek war hero. While Homer never made mention of it, many later legends that spoke of Achilles attributed part of his ferocious skill on the battlefield to a mystical invulnerability. It was said that his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, had dipped him in the river Styx as a child in an attempt to make him immortal. Unfortunately, she failed to take into account that she was holding Achilles by the heel while submerging him, and that part of his body remained vulnerable. To this day, the phrase "Achilles heel" refers to an exploitable weakness that undermines an otherwise comprehensive strength.
One of the best examples of a fatal fault amidst terrible power is the infamous "thermal exhaust port," a design flaw that allowed Luke Skywalker to destroy the seemingly invincible Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope.
My own work has yet to see the use of this trope, at least not in the traditional way. There are no supermen in any of my stories, or Death Stars for that matter. I think vulnerability is one of the most important traits a believable character can have, especially a protagonist. However, I have had a few characters whose "Achilles heels" were psychological, fears they had to supplant before finding the strength to overcome adversity. In my opinion, psychological Kryptonite is the most compelling, and the least likely to get me rolling my eyes as a reader.
I'm still a comic book nerd at heart though, so if a little eye-rolling is necessary from time to time to keep me believing in superheros and their cliche weaknesses, so be it. Superman gets a pass.
Ilium by Dan Simmons
Dune by Frank Herbert
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
The Wizard of Oz
Shadow of the Colossus
Metal Gear Solid
Halo: Combat Evolved