Sometimes I play “All right, smart guy,” a mental game that I made up for times when I see a fictional character or situation that should work better than it does. “All right, smart guy,” I tell myself, “How would YOU do it better?”
Take the Phantom Stranger (http://www.dccomics.com/characters/the-phantom-stranger). A DC Comics character who’s interacted for decades with Batman and other major characters, he’s a mystery man of vaguely defined history and abilities. His cryptic, enigmatic nature is a large part of what makes him appealing.
But it’s hard for a reader to care much for a hero when he stays at a remove from humanity and doesn’t seem to mind being so aloof. And it’s hard to understand a character whose deepest feelings and motives are vague or entirely unrevealed.
Some writers have tried to engage the reader by emphasizing the Stranger’s humanity — for instance, giving him people to love. And it works for a while.
But eventually, it makes the Stranger too grounded in humanity, too much like us regular humans. The Stranger loses some of his strangeness.
All right, smart guy (I ask myself), how would YOU do it better?
First, I’d enrich the Stranger’s mystery not by hiding things about him but by revealing them. People from his past — daughter, wife, widows (now that’s a wild story), former partner in mystical adventure, and so on — attack him over things that they say he did.
(That situation, by the way, can also make the Stranger more sympathetic. We all know what it’s like to have people we know get angry at us.)
Their encounters with the Stranger and with each other reveal heretofore hidden elements of his life and personality, some of which contradict each other. Some characters are lying, some are deluded, and some are telling the truth. Thus we get tons of new information about the Stranger but still keep him mysterious.
And when we find something that’s unquestionably true, it only makes him more intriguing. He was in Dallas during the killing of President Kennedy. In 1947, he was in Roswell, New Mexico. Wherever anything strange happened, he was there —
— Or was he? In my version, it turns out that there’s more than one Phantom Stranger . . .