Archive for September 19th, 2008

Sep 19 2008

Creating Weaknesses for Your Superheroes

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Writers sometimes add unique weaknesses to challenge their heroes or rein in heroes that have gotten overpowered. For example, Superman has kryptonite and for a while Green Lantern’s powers couldn’t affect anything yellow.  Those two feel gimmicky.  The powers don’t work on yellow? How does that work?   Why would anyone be vulnerable to his own planet?  Etc.

A better example of a unique weakness is the Martian Manhunter’s vulnerability to fire.  It doesn’t feel arbitrary that fire might damage something.  Unlike yellow or kryptonite, fire is dangerous to most living things.  Compared to kryptonite, something generic like fire has the added advantages that it’s easier to acquire and use.

Other authors sometimes use completely innocuous weaknesses, but that’s tricky and usually contrived.  Let’s say your hero is vulnerable to marshmallows.  You’d probably have to come up with a (goofy) explanation for his weakness, then show that he somehow discovers that he’s weak against them, and then show that the supervillain somehow discovers it as well.  Generally, it’s easier to work with weaknesses that are plausible and logical.  That helps you avoid relying on ridiculous contrivances to explain how the villain discovers the weakness.  (You could work something like fire into a fight scene even if the villain doesn’t know it’s his weakness.  I don’t think you could do the same for marshmallows).

I think the best weaknesses are side-effects of the hero’s strengths.  For example, a hero with supersight might be vulnerable to intense light.  Someone with superhearing might be vulnerable to loud sound.  One advantage of these weaknesses are that you can work them into secret-identity stories.  Clark Kent isn’t likely to run into kryptonite when he’s having dinner with Lois, but he might get a migraine when a jet flies overhead.  Here are some other possibilities.

  • Superstrong heroes are probably too dense to have much buoyancy.  That would make it very difficult for them to fight in water– even treading would be a tremendous struggle for someone like the Hulk, let alone Ben Grimm or Slate.  If your villain needed to escape, he could take advantage of this by flooding the room with water, knowing that he will float upwards but that the hero will sink.
  • Super-fast characters would create a lot of friction when they run.  A supervillain might try to take advantage of that by dousing the room with a flammable oil (so that the friction will set him on fire) or anything slippery.  However, the slippery angle has already been used fairly extensively.
  • A psychic’s powers would probably require more concentration than physical powers.  A supervillain might try to take advantage of that by flooding the room with a weak tranquilizer gas to make it harder to concentrate.  Loud noises might also work.  Finally, if the villain sets distractions before his final plot is set to go off, the hero might be completely exhausted and badly in need of sleep when the final battle commences.
  • Someone that wears a powersuit is probably not very dexterous or precise when he has his armor on.  A villain may be able to trick him into taking off his suit (or at least parts of it) by planting a bomb.  I doubt anyone could manually defuse a bomb with metal gloves on.  Alternately, your villain might also try using a powerful magnet to reduce his mobility or an electromagnetic pulse to fry his circuits.
  • Unlike humans, most terrestrial animals cannot metabolize alcohol.  If your character is not human (like Superman), he might not be able to either.  That could easily lead to interesting social situations.  Additionally, you could probably work it in as an ingestible poison.  It would be much less incriminating to have an assassin armed with Bud-Lite than cyanide…
  • Capture the hero’s girlfriend.  Add an explosive booby trap.  Voila!  Instant trap.  Ideally that will kill the hero, but the worst-case scenario is that it kills the girlfriend, leaving the hero in an emo funk for years to come.

Alternately, you can try a quirky vulnerability to Kryptonite or something else that isn’t usually dangerous.  If you’re leaning that way, please see this cautionary article.

Did this article help? Submit us to Stumble!

345 responses so far

Sep 19 2008

Book Request

Published by under Book Review

What are some well-known books that have major flaws?  We’re looking for books to use to help our readers improve their writing, so I’d especially appreciate books that are superhero-related, fantasy or sci-fi.

4 responses so far