Aug 15 2008

Manuscript Killers: Homo Superiors

Published by at 4:47 am under Character Development,Writing Articles

Diagnosing the Problem

Homo superiors are characters that are like humans but better in every conceivable way. How would you describe how Superman differs from a human? “Well, he can do anything a human can, but a hundred times better.” He even looks like a human. Homo superiors are usually aliens or elves, but sometimes a human with enough superpowers or enhancements.

A homo superior is usually not merely better at fighting than everyone else, but also more sophisticated and savvy. If he has a character flaw, he’s probably arrogant because he knows he’s so much better than everyone else in the story.

Why Homo Superiors Wreck Stories

Homo superiors are usually undramatic. Superman never really struggles to do anything, because he’s the best at everything. But a struggling character is what makes stories interesting. If a police officer is in a standoff with a hostage-taker, that’s dramatic because we don’t know if the police officer will succeed. The police officer will only win if he’s wittier and craftier than the criminal. Perhaps he convinces the criminal to surrender. Maybe he convinces the criminal to lower his gun and then shoots him in the face. In contrast, Superman just uses his superspeed or eye-rays and stops the criminal. That’s quite boring, especially after you’ve already seen it a few times.

Homo superiors also usually lead to overpowered characters, which can make the plot feel unbelievable. Let’s say you want to write a fantasy story with a dragon rider. But why would the dragon take a rider? What does he think he gets out of having a puny human on his back? Why is Superman willing to risk his own life for humans? I couldn’t imagine myself being so charitable to ants and, from his perspective, we must seem something like smarter ants. Why would an incredible elven-mage be willing to join a ragtag band of adventurers? Etc.

Fixing the Problem

The best way is to try to explore ways in which the character is either mediocre or inferior. Maybe that elf, normally so elegant and well-spoken, completely goes to pieces in high-stress situations like combat. Maybe the dragon thinks that having a human might be useful in certain situations.

Here are some other ways in which a character might be different and/or inferior.

  • Physical– strength, dexterity, stamina, reflexes, senses, coordination, precision, aim.
  • Mental– logic, memory, cleverness, wit, associational reasoning, rhetorical skill, investigative prowess, gullibility, curiosity, adventurousness, bravery, education, magic.
  • Social– teamwork, selflessness, diplomacy/tact, persuasion, subterfuge

19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Manuscript Killers: Homo Superiors”

  1. Dallason 10 Dec 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I think a homo superior could be a cool character if he is used wisely. For example, Master Chief, even without his armour, is superior to humans in almost every way.

    I thought it might be cool to simply design a character as a homo superior (the next generation of homo sapien). He’s just naturally better at everything, but he’s still mortal. He’s not Superman, but instead of working out with 15 pound weights he used forty fives.

    His villain could be another homo superior, like they’re emerging all over the place. This would give the character an equal and opposite villain, and there would be more.

  2. Ragged Boyon 10 Dec 2008 at 5:20 pm

    That could still be problematic. Even if he did have another homo superior villain, it could get annoying. For example, being better than humans, he wouldn’t struggle with things that a normal person would. Being homo superior raises a character’s level of unrelatablity.

    I do think it could work, but you’d need to give him a trait that makes him imperfect. Mortality is good, but a trait that could be more frequently exploited would work better for a story.

  3. Dallason 15 Dec 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Master Chief is completely a homo superior. He’s better than humans at everything but socializing.

  4. B. Macon 15 Dec 2008 at 9:21 pm

    I don’t think that a video game character is a great example for most authors.

  5. Dallason 15 Dec 2008 at 9:27 pm

    You kidding? MC is a hero for kids all across the planet. Some people in Korea or Japan might not know who Superman is, but EVERYONE EVERYWHERE knows MC.

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 23 Dec 2008 at 11:08 pm

    Video game characters aren’t generally good examples for authors, but some cut scenes can be good references. Most of the games I’ve played have cut scenes, and sometimes I convert the visual of them moving and talking into little screenplay type things in my head.

  7. Ragged Boyon 11 May 2009 at 9:10 am

    You make a very good point about the social issues of superheroism. I, too, would like to get a more mental and social understanding of the issues that come with being a superhero. Besides, the secret identity and their overall motivation for their actions, I hadn’t thought much about what a hero thinks of more secular issues. I would suspect that most of them would have to come to grips with the fact that they can’t save everyone no matter how hard they try. I’ve also wondered: Would people mistrust a superhero because they wear a mask? Or would they understand that due to a superheroes obligations they have to conceal their identity?

    I’ve never read much into the social issues, but I suspect it would be relatively fertile writing soil. That is, if it doesn’t get bogged down by preachy messages and an overly talkative storyline.

  8. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 9:51 am

    “You know, the socialising weakness is a massive one. Humans, and by extension superhumans, have an innate need to socialise; someone who’s socially awkward is ultimately going to be facing a lot of drama and feel quite lonely.”

    I suspect that poor social skills could also raise severe likability and relatability issues. For example, the Sentry is a extremely withdrawn homo superior; he is widely reviled. My take is that problems that originate from within the character’s own mind generally do not make for very satisfying obstacles. If the main thing holding back your character is himself, readers might feel that he’s useless. The Sentry has definitely reached that point. (Please read this article on the Sentry and his imaginary internal obstacle, the Void).

    I think the Martian Manhunter is another example where poor social skills compromise likability. Poor social skills are especially lethal when the character has an extremely exotic origin story, I feel. If the origin removes us from the character, it will really help to make him friendly and outgoing to reduce the obstacles between the character and audience.

    “The problem with a few of the articles on this site is that you’re using physical/violent issues as primary problems in stories when what you should be using is mental and social issues.”

    Mental/social issues are an option, but they’re kind of a niche option. I would definitely not recommend them for every author, and I don’t think that most authors want to write that kind of story. For every Rorschach or Dr. Manhattan, there are at least 20 superheroes that deal mainly with physical obstacles. There is a side-market for superhero drama as opposed to superhero action, but I would venture to say that the large majority of readers that buy superhero stories are looking for stories with at least a strong action component.

    I’ll look into an article on internal obstacles, though.

    “All of the super-strength, heat vision and flight in the world can’t bring someone back to life or cure a heart condition, for instance.”

    This is true, but I don’t feel that these sorts of storylines typically turn out well. For example, “One More Day” features Spiderman struggling to save his Aunt May and eventually he, umm, makes a deal with the devil. On the DC side, Superman loses Pa Kent to a heart attack. I think that these arcs are (at best) forgettable. On the other hand, Gwen Stacey and Uncle Ben provided extremely moving themes about the limits of power and the responsibilities of a hero. I think that the deaths of Gwen and Ben are much more memorable (in part) because hostile actors were involved.

  9. B. Macon 11 May 2009 at 2:20 pm

    “The other problem is that you’re citing these bad decisions… but all of them were very poorly handled as opposed to being inherently bad ideas.” Ok, but why will yours be better? How will you execute it differently? When you submit queries and proposals, I think it could only help you to be explicit about that.

    In particular, if you’re submitting this to a comic book publisher, I think that the Sentry will weigh on their mind. Since comparisons to the Sentry will probably render your work dead on arrival, I would really try to differentiate yourself from it. Here are some possible suggestions: your hero isn’t obnoxiously overpowered, you treat the character’s mental issues as something other than a comedy routine, you’re not inserting the character into the universe’s history, there’s no fake/imagined Void, etc.

    If you’re doing a comic book, I’d also recommend looking at Doom Patrol or any other series with emotionally troubled heroes. I feel like it’ll be a tough sell, though. These series often sell poorly.

    I hope that helps. Good luck.

  10. B. Macon 16 May 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I think it’s far more cliche for the elf to sneer about how everything elves do is awesome (as in Eragon or 8-Bit Theatre, for example). I’m not familiar with Drizzt’s odes to humanity, but I think that a person who is insecure about his own species has a lot more potential than the typical sneering homo superior.

    Tangent time. I’m annoyed that, when humans have a superior trait over elves or whatever, it is almost never that we are physically or mentally or magically stronger. It’s always something like “the human spirit!” or willpower or whatever.

  11. notsohottopicon 29 May 2009 at 8:03 pm

    ‘Tangent time. I’m annoyed that, when humans have a superior trait over elves or whatever, it is almost never that we are physically or mentally or magically stronger. It’s always something like “the human spirit!” or willpower or whatever.’

    Well, the human spirit thing applied rather skillfully in the Matrix. A robot can have complex functions trained to have emotional responses, but it can only go so far to mimic the human condition. Egad, did I just have a philosophical moment? Sorry, everyone. Either way, it can work sometimes, depending on how well it is incorporated into the story.

  12. B. Macon 29 May 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Also, Neo was much better at using the Matrix than the robots were. I’m not sure why that was, but it may have been for reasons other than the superiority of the human spirit. Neo was much better than other humans, as well, so that suggests that it’s not all about the human spirit.

  13. Herojockon 31 Oct 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Slightly confused here B. Mac. You suggest using mental and social obstacles to solve the problem of homo superiors in your article. ”teamwork, selflessness, diplomacy/tact, persuasion, subterfuge”. Then make a post and state ”poor social skills could also raise severe likability and relatability issues”. Help ‘blonde’ out here 😛

  14. JVKJRon 05 Dec 2012 at 5:52 pm

    Can humans with magic be Homo Superiors?

  15. Zangetsu21on 23 Mar 2013 at 9:58 pm

    I am having trouble in regards to developing a race. Given that my story utilizes them as the central plot. Basically, the group I am focusing on are Elves. Now, I know what many are thinking.

    Elves,along with most fantasy races, have fallen into a set of overused clichés which really don’t make them stand out. One aspect I wanted to explore with the race is the idea of them acting like humans.

    Typically, Elves are often seen as the stoic,and having superiority complex, and believing they are above the problems of humans. Given they are the main enemies in my story, the superiority complex is all but inevitable, as why else would they be invading, if they cannot picture themselves capable of doing so?

    However, the trap I do not wish to fall in is to typify the race, and making them all fall into a category. One aspect I did want to discover, though, is the idea that with their emotions. The anger, joy and other feelings they experience, while like humans, are much more intense and extreme.

    This idea came from me seeing the Vulcans in Star Trek. However, unlike the extraterrestrial race, rather than attempt to curb them, the Elves acknowledge them and accept them. Sometimes they even relish in them, liking the notion of extremes.

    In terms of physiology, they have highly sensitive ears are more physically capable than humans. However, I can see there ears, being a liability, especially if they are so sensitive, that the slightest changes in pitch and pressure can cause them pain.

  16. A1on 06 May 2013 at 8:27 am

    @Herojock– I think if the homo superior were vulnerable to alcohol, like B. Mac said in one of his articles on how to make weaknesses, it would introduce some social problems.

  17. SquirrelShinobion 29 May 2013 at 12:15 pm

    In my story, almost every thing the elves have going for them spring from their long lives or their otherness. In this universe Elven Magitek is the equivalent of German Engineering or Japanese Electronics. They have a reputation for making incredibly superior magic based inventions. This is because their longer lives allow them to devote much more time to study, and they in general have a better understanding of, and access to more types of magic than humans and other races on average. However, they have yet to corner the market on clock-work based technologies (the other major technology in this world).
    Elves live in fear of a large scale elf on elf war because they know how destructive it would be. Elven young adults have a mandatory stent of military service, many will join mercenary companies (Elven mercenary companies are highly sought after but extremely pricey) This practice is encouraged by society in the hope that young Elves will get their warring out of the way abroad, and come settle down. In the event of an actual upstart, the Elven military will be deployed to end the situation with speed, efficiency, and lethality in the hopes that the unrest wont spread.

    In this story, one of the character’s is an Elven mercenary. Who signed up for a few military experiments during his mandatory service. He walked away from them with a set of sentient powered armor that’s bonded to him, and a series of implants offering the equivalent of minor telekinesis.

    As a character, he’s a carousing womanizer with a passion for books who is likely to spend his days in libraries and nights in taverns, when he’s not on the battle field. He is treated as an outsider in Elven society for a number of reasons. Firstly, he’s the Elven equivalent of middle aged, he should have long since come home from being a mercenary and started a regular life with a respectable adult job. He feels that there’s no real job for him other than being a mercenary. He spends too much time living among other races as well. In all, he’s treated as an outsider because he doesn’t conform to Elven culture, which is quite conformist.

    I know he has lots of potential to be homo-superior, especially because he’s from the dreaded Elves. I know his powers probably don’t help either. I’m not sure if my elves are well balanced enough, or if he’s a well balanced enough character.

    While powers and species don’t make a character interesting, they do heavily affect the character’s motivation and outlook.

  18. Andrewon 14 Apr 2016 at 5:44 am

    With my characters, they do possess superpowers but choose not to overuse them for petty things. They usually tend to only use their powers in combat or to solve puzzles if needed to. They usually depend on their wit and fighting skills to aid them

  19. SeñorHammyon 28 Aug 2018 at 8:11 am

    As people that have no weaknesses are boring, in the show One Punch Man, he was extremely strong, so strong, in fact, that he could kill anything with a single punch, as so, he was on a mission to find an opponent who was either stronger than him, harder to kill than just one punch, or equal to his power. The show is super comedic and funny 10/10 would recommend.

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