While reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaimen, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the adventures of Thor, Loki and Odin. We live in a time where characters are expected to be deep and often complicated with various emotions. My first criticism of any story I read is whether or not the characters are dynamic and interesting or if they are static and straightforward. Typically if you can summarize a character with a single word, they’re likely not a round dynamic character and the justification for them as a protagonist is dodgy at best. Thor is brash and Loki is mischievous but both are often the protagonists of these old tales.
It got me thinking about how these old stories compare to modern stories. For the past few months I’ve been struggling with the idea of modern pantheons and how to shape them. Typically it would be straight forward as gods and goddesses can be flat and static as the stories of old, but what happens when a central character is one of those gods? I wasn’t sure how to go about this until I read the adventures of Thor and then compared it to the modern interpretation of Thor we see in the MCU. If he was anything like the Thor of old mythology, he would make for an incredibly dull protagonist.
The basis of a dynamic and interesting character is struggle. There’s always got to be something that is forcing the character to grow to try and overcome this struggle. But how do you make a God/Goddess struggle? What problem do you throw at something so all powerful that physical threats to them are almost laughable? Stories of old Norse gods never appear as though they are in dire life threatening situations. Even when Loki’s life is on the line it never appears as though he’s truly terrified for his life. It got me thinking how any struggle a deity must face has to be personal, something that attacks the very core of what that divine being cares about for it to be a compelling story.
MCU Thor is a prime example of this idea. In Thor 1 we see him humbled and learning to hold his ego in check. Pride, like with many Gods and Goddesses, is their ultimate flaw that can lead to a story about said deity learning humility and ultimately becoming a more mature being. Frankly I feel that this is a very safe and almost generic route for an immortal being. By no means is it bad or flawed and still enjoyable, but what if the struggle was to protect something other than themselves? What if this godlike being was powerless to save their people or those they care about until they overcome their own weakness and ultimately become stronger for it? In Thor 3 we see the revelation of what Asgard truly is and Thor’s own self discovery of who he is (not the God of Hammers) that he overcomes his internal struggle and gains the power to fight his sister.
I think stories focused around a deity struggling to better themselves can make for an exciting and interesting story if done correctly. It takes a lot of effort to make such a protagonist interesting and someone the reader can empathize with. I feel that while the old stories of gods and goddesses can serve to provide great sources of inspiration, their conflicts are not as engaging as they could be.