Jan 20 2008
If you’re writing a superhero story, don’t let your superpowers fall into these traps.
1. The hero’s powers can’t be used creatively. Readers really want to be surprised, so it’s very important that the powers be versatile. If your character is only superstrong, you can only surprise them by using different things as weapons. That gets tedious fast. (Watch a Superman or Dragon Ball Z fight scene). Test your superhero against some of these situations. Can he get through them in an unexpected way?
- Distracting a guard. (Cliche: mental control, illusions and possibly telekinesis).
- Nonviolently subduing a guard or cop (cliche: mental control and/or hypnosis).
- Preventing a building from falling (cliche: superstrength, telekinesis).
- Getting past a locked door (cliche: teleportation, phasing, lockpicks, blowing open the wall).
- Finding a password (cliche: anything electronic or electrical, beating it out of a bad guy).
2. The character’s limits are hard to grasp. In Heroes, a head wound will permanently kill the regenerating heroes, but a nuclear explosion won’t. Huh?
3. The character’s strength fluctuates arbitrarily. Most Superman cartoons feature two battles. Superman will lose the first bout (to raise the stakes) but he’ll win the second. He hasn’t gotten any stronger, so why does he wins the second time? That usually feels unsatisfying.
4. The superpowers are hard to understand. Ideally, you can explain each hero’s powers in a brief sentence. “He has spider-powers, like slinging webs and climbing and sensing danger” is OK. “She can control the weather” is even better. Please stay away from heroes that have many unrelated superpowers. What’s the connection between eye-beams, cold breath, flight, superstrength and x-ray vision? It sort of works for Superman because readers are exposed to him, but it is likely to ruin a superhero story that is completely new to its readers.
5. He’s overpowered. Superman is the best example of this. He can only have interesting fights with supervillains. (Theoretically, he could fight thugs armed with kryptonite, but Superman limping around isn’t much of a fight). If your character is completely immune to bullets and other common weapons, it will be hard for you to challenge him. Also, humans are vulnerable and we relate more to (somewhat) vulnerable heroes.
6. The hero’s superpowers ruin the drama. In particular, time travel, reading minds, erasing memories, and resurrection are particularly bad here.
- Time travel: if your hero can undo anything bad that happens, nothing will ever be dramatic. “Why doesn’t he just go back in time?”
- Reading minds: surprise, suspicion and uncertainty are all dramatic. A story about a psychic is all-but-unable to use any of them. (To some extent, lie-detection suffers from a similar problem).
- Erasing memories: this is probably the lamest way to protect a secret identity. It will also confuse readers because we can’t keep track of who actually remembers what.
- Resurrection: if someone can bring people back from the dead, death will become banal and the action will suffer. “He died, big deal. Why don’t they just bring him back?” This is almost as serious as time-travel.