Character on the Couch: A Superhero with Self-Esteem Problems

Image Source:  http://samurai-ko.deviantart.com/art/Close-Enough-to-Touch-by-HPS-102055941

One of my Twitter writing friends sent me the following dilemma (and the above and below awesome pictures):

Character name: Sorina Tavarisch

Age: 36
Gender: Female
Species (if applicable): Human
Cultural or historical context (if important to the story, e.g., if it’s a Regency)
Modern-day/slightly futuristic US city (a la Metropolis or Gotham), where superheroes (and villains) are a common sight.
Brief description and relevant history: (Height 5’10”, weight 145 lbs, a rangy, athletic build, long dark hair and dark eyes)
Theoretical physicist, paramilitary munitions expert, and field technician, Sorina “Tava” Tavarisch is one of the new generation of scientists and superheroes taking part in the cooperative efforts of the United States and Russia. She is also a low-level telekinetic – at best, she can move small things around with just a thought. It was these unexplained powers that led her into becoming a physicist, but to this day, she still doesn’t understand how she does what she does. As far as she’s concerned, though, if it works, it works. With a little help from some customized technology, however, her powers become much more potent.
Where you’re stuck, or why your character needs a psychologist
Two areas of her life are causes of concern. The first is that, despite her being a decorated war hero, a superhero, and a scientist, Sorina constantly feels inadequate. No matter how good her inventions are, no matter how hard she tries, no matter how many lives she actually saves, she feels guilty that it’s not more. The second is that she is absolutely clueless when it comes to romantic relationships. She is far more comfortable in a lab or a classroom or on the battlefield than she is on a date… and now she’s dating one of the other leading scientists and superheroes of Paragon City, who is probably just as clueless as she is when it comes to relationships. And she’s terrified of screwing it up.
What you may not want me to share generally in the post: Oh, feel free to share!

My follow-up questions:

First, what is at the root of her insecurity? Or is that part of the question? It sounds like your heroine is quite accomplished (and fascinating, btw), but there’s got to be a failure or perceived failure in her past that keeps her from owning it. Is it that her superpowers aren’t as good as everyone else’s? Or did she fail in something in her past that she feels she should’ve done better with?
Basically, it’s that her superpowers aren’t as good as everyone else’s. And after getting shoved headfirst into a worldwide invasion where everyone (super and normal alike) are doing all that can to keep humanity from being wiped out, the one area that she was good at (scientific invention) was immediately pressed into service of “if this doesn’t work, people will die”. It doesn’t matter that her work HAS saved countless lives and in several small ways, helped turn the tide of the war; all she sees is how her skills are inferior to the challenge of facing alien technology, and that no matter how many times she improves it, she’s haunted by those who died because “she didn’t get it right the first time”.

Second, a similar question goes for the relationship problems. Is she in her first serious relationship at the age of 36? What kept her from doing so previously? Or, in other words, what beliefs does she hold about herself and relationships that caused her to wait so long?

She has been in semi-serious relationships before, but originally her research and her teaching kept her from longer, more serious commitments. And after the Rikti invaded, and she saw so many people die, she became almost afraid to become too attached to someone. (At one point, she has a complete emotional breakdown after she inadvertently jeopardizes a mission because she is more concerned about protecting the guy she’s with at the time instead of taking the lead in combat.) Her natural seriousness, plus as I mentioned, her credentials as a war hero and a scientist, tends to distance her from a lot of men.
Image Source:  http://aentheartist.deviantart.com/art/Commission-After-The-Storm-210059056
Dear Michelle,
Your heroine is fascinating and troubled, just how I like ’em. You made her particularly challenging in that she seems like a very concrete person rooted in the literal, not theoretical, which is somewhat ironic because she’s a theoretical physicist by training. That seems like it would make it particularly hard for her to translate her research into something immediately useful. Perhaps that’s one of her problems.
Tava would be a tough patient because she’s got so much evidence – at least according to her – of her unworthiness. One question would be what holding on to the core belief of unworthiness, which translates to feelings of inadequacy, allows her to do or not do. Has she not tried to grow as a scientist, focusing instead on the five years of superpower training that didn’t go anywhere, because she’s afraid she’ll fail or will somehow be found lacking in spite of evidence to the contrary in the scientific realm? What does she risk if she allows herself to be worthy on her own rather than because of her superpowers or scientific inventions?
One way to get her to budge from her stuck position would be to work on reframing and refocusing. The rant you pasted above sounds like someone in a lot of pain but also someone who is focused very much on themselves, as we tend to do when we’re hurting. One thing that may help would be to figure out Tava’s core values and having her be in situations where she can act on them in different ways. Also, she seems to have bought into her society’s values that the individual is measured by his or her superpowers and following that, how many lives they can save. How does this conflict with her own values, or the principles she lives according to? I’m not saying that saving lives isn’t important, and it seems like she’s been fairly successful at it, but there might be another value at play. She needs to figure out what motivates her more than fear.
For example, she sounds like she’s ruled by her head, but there’s a huge compassionate component to her heart, which she’s focused on success as defined by numbers, which seems to be how things work in her world. Perhaps she can translate that to individual people rather than focusing so much on statistics and learn not to discount the lives she saves in favor of obsessing over the ones she couldn’t. Often my clients who feel like they’re not doing enough in whatever area can benefit from giving themselves credit for what they have done, even if it’s just a few things per day. Is she making a difference on an individual level, or is she even aware if she is? Yes, it will be uncomfortable to move to that realm since she prefers the predictability of the lab or classroom, both of which provide distance between the professor and others.
From what you described, another one of Tava’s values is independence. Of course this gets challenged in the face of invasion for two reasons. First, she doesn’t get to choose her own path professionally because of where her talents are needed. Second, you didn’t say whether the Rikti are aliens who enslave or who kill, but either way, they take the ability to decide one’s fate out of one’s hands. It makes sense that she would choose a partner who is also constantly in danger because the chance of losing her independence to a long-term relationship is lessened, not to mention going through the emotional pain of grief.
It seems that what we’re coming down to is that she needs to find a principle that’s more motivating for Tava than fear. What you want to do with her character arc is up to you, but it sounds like she needs to get out of her “invadee” mentality, which is reactive, and focus her energy on what she truly wants and needs.
Figuring out the principles one lives according to can help, as can focusing more in the moment and on what one can truly control. Doing so will help Tava move toward what she can do with others and find other ways she can be helpful and worthy. Maybe she doesn’t need to enhance her literal superpowers but rather to develop her own emotional abilities through gradually allowing herself to connect more with others, perhaps some of the people whose lives she saved. Yes, this will feel like a risk to her. As she grows emotionally, she’ll be better able to advance her science and her relationship. She could also teach something to her society, which is fragmented into superheroes and villains, about what’s needed to repel technologically advanced alien invaders. You have the potential for a great story here, and I look forward to reading what you do with it.
Michelle tweets as @Samuraiko, and hopefully her website will be up soon at superheroromance.com 
If you want more superhero writing, check out Tony Noland’s guest blog post from September on superheroes and alcohol.

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