Is a Savior Complex Enough?

Today I interrupt the series on space (and I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am) to bring you a Batman-related post. For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a Batman kick. And no, it’s not just because he’s hot and brooding. For some reason, watching his antics always makes me feel better when I’m feeling powerless. Chew on that, psych majors! But there’s another reason for my Bat-brooding, one I’ll get to in a moment.


Batman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, and Beware the Batman (below)


When I admitted to watching Batman, I didn’t mean the movies, which I’ve seen and loved. Various animated series on WB/CW or Cartoon Network have featured my favorite non-super-powered superhero. I’ve seen them all. I cut my eyeteeth on Batman: The Animated Series (1992—1995) and followed that up with The New Batman Adventures (1997—1999) and The New Batman/Superman Adventures (1997—2000). I disapproved of then approved of Batman Beyond (1999—2001; with a non-Bruce Wayne Batman) and The Batman (2004—2008). Recently, I blew through three seasons of Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008—2011). (Um, not all in the last few weeks, mind you.) I recently investigated the latest awesomeness, Beware the Batman. Yee haw!

     BatmanAccent2 Batman Beyond W2

The Batman and Batman Beyond


Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Bruce Wayne as Batman has been a source of fascination not just to me but for many since his creation by Bob Kane and Milton “Bill” Finger in 1939. After all, he’s a bilionaire who fights crime at night with cool bat gizmos. (Can you imagine Bill Gates doing that?) Emotionally scarred by the murders of his parents, Wayne wages a one-man campaign against crime. And yes, he has the occasional sidekick: Robin, Batgirl, Katana, etc. But he mostly prefers to work alone.

Watching Batman in action has caused me to question the motivation of one of the main characters in my young adult fantasy novel. While not strictly a vigilante, this character has a chosen calling, which drives him to do what he believes is right. Unlike Bruce Wayne, he won’t stop short of taking a life.

While watching a Christmas episode of Brave and the Bold, I was struck by Batman’s declaration that he can’t take Christmas off, since crime doesn’t take a holiday. And in another episode, which causes me to wonder if the denouement of The Avengers movie was inspired by a scene in this episode, a severely injured Batman refuses to stay in bed and recuperate. After all, Gotham needs him. Apparently the police in that city are so incompetent, only Batman can save the citizens.

Batman seems to have a bit of a savior complex mixed in with his desire for revenge against criminals. What’s a savior complex? I found a handy definition at People Skills Decoded:

The savior complex is a psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.

This is what makes Batman/Bruce Wayne so fascinating. The dude can’t help himself! But this is not a master class in psychoanalysis, so I’ll get to the point of this post. As I contemplated my character’s emotional arc, I came to the conclusion that a savior complex wasn’t a compelling enough reason for this guy to keep doing what he does. I needed to go beyond that as I fleshed out his story. So embedded in his wound of rejection is the shrapnel of despair and anger—a combination with lethal results at times for others. I can’t help thinking of damaged heroes like Tony Stark/Iron Man (especially in Iron Man 3) or Wolverine/James Howlett/Logan. Sometimes, they don’t want to save people. Sometimes, they need saving, especially from themselves. They make mistakes. And since my character is a teen who’s trying to figure out his life, making mistakes is par for the course. So, his complex is really a chip on the shoulder + rebellion + temper + needing to prove himself + parental nagging (“Get off your behind, boy!”).

Hmm. He reminds me of myself at that age.

How about you? Is a savior complex what you look for in a superhero or just a plain hero who isn’t so souped up? What qualities make a compelling hero?

P. S. If you have more spare time, you might take this superhero quiz to find out which superhero you are. For some reason, I’m Superman. Not exactly what I suspected of myself. Go figure.

Batman images from,,,,, Wikipedia, and

40 thoughts on “Is a Savior Complex Enough?

  1. Hey, I’m Superman too! ‘Mild-mannerd, good, strong and love to help others’ – that sounds about right! Also good qualities for a superhero to have, although superheros with a darker side to them always seem more interesting.

    • Yes, and that’s something the writers bring up over and over in the series. Batman’s obsession “birthed” some of these villains. So I find that fascinating. It works for the series (and the movies). And I truly thought I was the kind of writer who could pull something like that off—a heroic character motivated by altruism. But I find that I’m not.

      • I haven’t tried it yet, but I have one or two vengeance-based characters. It’s difficult to keep the character going for long without them falling into the abyss.

      • I also have a character who is motivated by revenge. But he’ll only appear in this book, unless I write a prequel (which might be interesting).

        Remember that old Charles Bronson movie, Death Wish? A character like that is very compelling. But I don’t think I could write that type of character for more than one book.

      • That series went for a while. One of my revenge characters has a prequel after his debut in another series. He sticks around though because he gets his revenge and has to find a new reason to live. So, he chooses loyalty to the friends that helped him and becomes a brighter character. There is a way to evolve the character, but it’s usually the abyss or rising above their initial goal.

        Personally, I find the revenge characters more interesting after they achieve their goals.

      • I’ve never taken a character beyond revenge. Hmm. The “now what?” question might be interesting to investigate. But that would mean a trilogy and I’m trying to avoid writing those. 🙂 But I like the evolution of your character.

  2. I tend to lose interest in protagonists who are motivated primarily by altruism. It doesn’t ring true to me, I keep asking myself, what’s in it for him or her? (Maybe that’s why I scored as Iron Man on that test.)

    Batman, in particular, struck me as being particularly unbelievable, He expends huge amounts of money, time, and energy, takes huge risks, and routinely breaks the very laws he claims to fighting to protect. All for what? To get revenge on the man who shot his parents? Depending on the canon, that guy is long gone, dead or in prison or vanished.

    I want to see a hero who has some skin in the game. Who is fighting to protect her or himself. If the threat is big enough, defeating it will also help other people, maybe the whole world.

    Still, I don’t believe in “saving the world” as a motivation–that’s too big to keep anyone moving for long. (Which is why so many organizations that start out as altruistic end up as vehicles for advancing the personal ambitions of their members.)

    • I agree with you, Misha. I love watching Batman, but I don’t want to write that character. For me to invest time in a story, the character has to have compelling emotional baggage. If he or she is charged with saving someone he/she doesn’t know, there has to be a risk to him or her that ties in to his/her emotional journey.

      My character’s task isn’t to save the other main character. (I actually have three in this novel.) He’s sent to investigate her, and then kill her if proves to be a dangerous magical threat. That’s about as “saving the world” as his story gets. But he’s got his ego and his issues.

      I thought I would come up as Iron Man, BTW. 🙂

  3. I loved the original Batman series from the late 60’s. I started watching the re-runs in the early 1970’s. I tend to go for the more mellow, less obvious hero. I took the quiz and I was Spider Man! It said I was somewhat of a geek! I’ve been called worse, I guess. 🙂

    • Geek is good, Jill! I also liked the original Batman series. It’s very campy. Batman: The Brave and the Bold has a lighter, campier tone too (but not as campy as the original series).

      I have a mellow character in a different novel. In the current one, he’s moody and impulsive. When I first began the story, he seemed too adult and heroic, which decreased the tension. He needed to make more mistakes and suffer for them.

  4. Man, I LOVED Batman: The Animated Series! I should look into watching the rest of those.

    I agree that a character needs more to motivate him (or her) than a saviour complex, but it is a fascinating characteristic to explore, especially when giving oneself for others becomes a flaw rather than a positive trait. Your character sounds very interesting, especially because he’s so young.

    • Batman: The Animated Series was great. The others have their charms. I didn’t like The Batman in the first season, but it eventually grew on me enough to make it to season 3, where I liked it more.

      I agree, Kate, that a story exploring how a savior complex causes problems for a character would be interesting. I can see you writing that story.

  5. I think that in life (and therefor hopefully in fiction) people have a positive motivation and negative (or self-serving) motivation for almost every action. When guilt or low self-esteem are behind a savior complex I find it interesting. When I’m expected to believe this person or super hero is perfect, then it gets a little boring after awhile.

    • Very true, Alison; hence how people might feel about Superman or Wonder Woman. There are no cracks in his or her psyche. When I was a kid, I loved me some Superman. But then I grew up and realized I didn’t love him as much (and Man of Steel really emphasized that for me).

  6. My kids have just this week discovered the ‘old’ Superman films from when I was a kid, with Christopher Reeves in. My daughter now declares that 1.He is fit (she is six) and 2.Superman is her very favourite superhero. Probably because he is fit. (I cringe again).
    I used to prefer Spiderman.

    • I read Spider-Man comic books when I was a kid. I liked the fact that he was a geek. I even followed the newspaper comic where he married Mary Jane Watson.

      The Christopher Reeve Superman is a classic! But um I can understand your cringing. 🙂 I wonder what she’d think of Henry Cavill (Man of Steel )? (Not that I’d recommend that movie for someone her age.) There were quite a few sighs from the females at the showing I attended. (And yes, I contributed a few myself.)

      • I cringe because I can’t get used to my six year old daughter describing ANYONE as ‘fit’. Dreading the teenage years.

      • Sigh. It’s hard, isn’t it? A friend of mine made me laugh when his daughter was born. He held her in his arms and said, “No man will ever be good enough for you.” I laugh even as I think of that.

  7. Hmmm… I came up as Superman too. With Spider-Man a fairly close second. Spider-Man was my favorite comic when I was a kid. I’ve really enjoyed the recent Batman movies though–very dark and brooding, with various kinds of crazy. Like you, I liked the first Michael Keaton Batman when it came out–now not so much. A savior complex probably isn’t enough, unless that complex itself gets tested or questioned in the narrative.

    • Good point about the testing of the complex, Stephanie. That could help deepen the character’s motivation. Maybe next time, I’ll have to think about a novel with a character who has a savior complex.

  8. Another Spider-Man here.

    I think we have to write the truth for our characters. Sometimes, their base motivations are as simple as a savior complex (and that really isn’t so simple.) Other times, when we really ask the character what they want, their motivation comes from something else. That’s what you’ve done with you. To me, there is no right. It’s only what’s true for the character.

    • What’s true is so right, Andra. And that’s what stopped me from going with the savior complex–which is what I’d assumed I’d go with. (If that makes any sense.) But that would have been me not paying attention to the guy. I had to confront the fact that this kid is sometimes unlikable and selfish. Just like me. (We’re more alike than I’d thought.)

  9. Yes, it sounds refreshing to me to acknowledge a character’s more “narcissistic” or “egoic” reasons for wanting to go out and do heroic things, as it sounds like you are doing with your teenage protagonist, as opposed to portraying the character as nothing but altruistic and “pure.”

  10. Pingback: Rivals, Frenemies, or Just Plain Enemies? | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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