May 05 2009

How to Do Superhero Gadgets Well

Published by at 9:11 pm under Superpowers,Writing Superhero Stories

1. A hero’s gadgets are only interesting when he uses them in an exciting and/or unexpected way. No one will say “Wow, he had shark repellent!” But they will be impressed if your hero comes up with a clever way to apply a general tool. Versatile, general tools tend to be more interesting than gadgets that are only useful in a particular situation.

2. Narrow tools may force you to write an Eigen plot. Eigen plots are contrived set-ups where the superhero gets opportunities to use gadgets and/or superpowers that are typically useless. Eigen plots typically come off as cheesy. When the hero catches a golden opportunity to use his shark repellent, it won’t make him look good… it will probably just make you look bad.

3. Tools tend to be more creative and versatile when they draw on the scenery. For example, a grappling device lets the hero use the setting and scenery in ways he couldn’t before. He can set ambushes, try alternate entrances and exits, etc. A cutting tool can do many things depending on the situation. The hero may be able to cut through doors and other hard obstacles, or fashion bandages out of a shirt, or maybe even knock a streetlamp onto an enemy.

4. I recommend sticking with gadgets that are easy to understand. Gadgets that are really high-tech may require more explanation.

55 responses so far

55 Responses to “How to Do Superhero Gadgets Well”

  1. Avi Arunon 06 May 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Finally, the magnum-opus post is here. Thanks, B. Mac! Include this under Superhero Writing Advice in the sidebar.

  2. B. Macon 06 May 2009 at 8:57 pm

    I find this post useful, but I wouldn’t say it’s my magnum opus. ;-)

  3. ikaruson 06 May 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Your Latin confuddles me.

    I’ve always liked gadgets that worked with a hero’s powers, like Spiderman’s homing devices.

  4. B. Macon 06 May 2009 at 9:16 pm

    “Magnum opus” is someone’s greatest or largest work.

  5. Marissaon 06 May 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Yeah, I’m including a few scenes where the usual methods don’t work. Like, there’s an ambush/invasion, so a character has to fight in the kitchen unarmed, so she grabs the meat tenderizer laying on the counter and swings it into the side of the intruder’s head.

  6. B. Macon 07 May 2009 at 2:44 am

    Umm, hmm. Remind me not to startle you when you’re cooking.

  7. Marissaon 07 May 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I don’t cook. I burn water. Smoke alarm and everything. :D

  8. B. Macon 07 May 2009 at 3:03 pm

    The trick is to leave the lid slightly ajar. Otherwise it will boil over. ;-) It took me three months to figure that out, and another six months to discover that pasta should be put in the water AFTER the water is boiling, not before. Perhaps that is why I do a superhero writing advice site and not a cooking advice site.

  9. Marissaon 07 May 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I have been declared a lost cause. People say that if I don’t find and marry a guy who can cook, I might starve.

  10. Davidon 07 May 2009 at 4:06 pm

    I can cook. :)

  11. Wingson 08 May 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I can’t cook. Did you know that dried scrambled eggs don’t taste as bad as you think they would?

    - Wings

  12. Marissaon 08 May 2009 at 9:58 pm

    They would if I got ahold of them. >_>;

  13. Chulanceon 09 May 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Oh Rorsach from Watchmen can use household items in many ways! Some people with good gadgets are Batman(Bruce Wayne) and Ironman(Athonry “Tony” Stark)

  14. Ragged Boyon 09 May 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I’m not so sure about Ironman for good gadgets. In my opinion, his suit isn’t really a gadget, its more of a mode of operation. Batman would be Batman without his gadgets, but I don’t think Ironman would be Ironman without his suit.

  15. Chulanceon 09 May 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Well his suit has different gadgets such as uni beams,repulsor beams. energy shields, anti gravity beam, different suits. Also his suit is in his bones he can mentally summon it around him so he’s not going to be loosing it anytime soon. Tony has lots of suits anyway batman would be batman without his suits.

  16. shiva666on 24 May 2009 at 10:54 am

    I understand this is for and from a writing perspective.

    From a visual perspective, I would add some other points:

    Visual plausibility: it should look like it could actually work.

    Useful to the character : why would Batman (who has a code against killing) carry swords or guns? He would have a less lethal weapons arsenal instead.

    Unique design and use: Spiderman’s bracelet design forces him to do those trademark hand positions. It’s very iconic. The gadget it self can become a representation of the character if it has something unique to it.

  17. Ragged Boyon 24 May 2009 at 12:36 pm

    “Well, his suit has different gadgets such as uni beams, repulsor beams, energy shields, anti gravity beam.

    I don’t think those count as gadgets, though. I think they’re functions.

  18. Chevalieron 13 Jun 2009 at 5:16 pm

    What would be some interesting non-lethal gadgets for a clown themed vigilante? I was thinking something along the lines of razor sharp playing cards, and maybe a rubber sledgehammer.

  19. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 13 Jun 2009 at 7:56 pm

    How about a red nose that is actually a smoke bomb and a cork gun (like from funfairs where you get to shoot a prize)?

  20. Mojamboon 29 Aug 2009 at 1:25 am

    The flower on the lapel that squirts some kind of acid/liquid would be good for clownish vigilante.

  21. u.n. owenson 29 Aug 2009 at 3:27 pm

    JOKER.

  22. B. Macon 29 Aug 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Yeah, I think that a clown-themed vigilante will probably feel a lot like Joker (even though Joker is a villain). He’s sort of got that niche locked up.

  23. Chevalieron 19 Oct 2009 at 6:10 am

    What about Jack-in-the-Box from Astro City?

  24. B. Macon 19 Oct 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Not sure how well-known Astro City is. I suspect that the typical reader is likely to know of Joker but not JITB.

  25. ekimmakon 23 Sep 2010 at 3:45 am

    One of the characters in my novel has super intellect as her power, and I’m trying to consider how to work that in.

    My current idea is that at first, she lugs around a huge bag stuffed with all sorts of tech. First mission? “I have just the thing! A (insert something that could only be used in this situation)”

    And then she spends the entire fight trying to find it. Its not until its over, and the bad guy is gone, that she pulls it out.

    After thinking it through back at the base, she decides to swap in 1001 useless gizmos for a smaller, but more useful repetoire.

    So what would these be? I’ll probably make one of them a tazer, to give her some self defence, and some sort of computer link, but what else could I use?

  26. B. Macon 23 Sep 2010 at 4:10 am

    Maybe something like a souped-up smart phone with a bajillion apps. I don’t know what would be applicable in your story, but at one point I have a protagonist search for a nuclear radiation leak using a smart-phone as a Geiger counter. The phone also serves as an all-purpose hacking device, a GPS locator, a decrypter, a remote detonator, a ballistics calculator, a bomb defuser, a remote control for a boat, and a hilariously unreliable medical diagnostic device.

    Later, he tries to rig up a portable electromagnetic pulse generator, but instead of creating a device that would be able to fry all circuits within a mile for days at a time, he gets a super-weak pulse that can only turn off the lights in a room for three seconds. Disgusted, he gives the pulse generator to Agent Orange, and by the end of the story the protagonists agree that the apparently pathetic device is actually the most dangerous thing he’s ever created.

  27. Phantomon 24 Jan 2011 at 7:04 pm

    What are some good gadgets and weaknesses for a character that can turn invisible.

  28. Nicholas Caseon 24 Jan 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Generally the only thing for a gadget is some laser. But maybe the invisibility turns off at random, or the character can only use if if their happy. Or maybe at the least cliche, they can only use it if no one is watching, it’s pitch black, ect.

  29. Nicholas Caseon 24 Jan 2011 at 7:55 pm

    The more usless the powers are, the more interesting it is-unless it is so pointless they might as well not have it.

  30. B. Macon 25 Jan 2011 at 12:25 am

    For limitations on an invisible hero, some options include…
    –The character can still be discovered with other senses. (For example, he still makes sounds, he’d leave tracks if he walked through rain or snow or mud, etc). A resourceful enemy could use infrared cameras (because he’d still have a heat signature) or dogs (because he’d still give off his usual smells).

    –It’d be challenging (but not impossible) for him to get into fortified facilities with well-guarded gates. The best he might be able to do is wait around for the gate to open for an authorized visitor and then follow the visitor as closely as possible without bumping into him.

    –In a tight space like a corridor, it’d be harder for an invisible character to avoid a collision with somebody.

    –An invisible character would probably have an easier time sneaking into a facility, but actually doing anything at the facility would still be highly difficult. For example, if his mission were to break someone out of a prison or something, he could get in pretty easily, but how’s he gonna get the prisoner out?

    –He’d probably be less useful in a straight-up fight, particularly a fight with heavy firepower. If hundreds of rifle rounds have been fired off, it’s possible he’ll get hit by a blind shot, particularly if the battle is taking place in a confined area.

    –A fire-themed adversary could probably smoke him out. Fire spreads very quickly and the smoke itself is highly dangerous. Also, the outline of the character’s body might show up in the smoke (a la Hollow Man).

    –There may be a time limit on how long his invisibility lasts. Maybe 15 minutes with a 2 hour cooldown? Ideally, long enough to do stuff, but short enough that it might peter out in a tense situation. (I would err on the side of overchallenging the character rather than underchallenging him).

    –Under certain circumstances, the invisibility might not function properly. For example, in a rainstorm, you’d be able to make out the impression of his body because the rain starts hitting something transparent.

    –He’d be just as vulnerable to booby traps (like tripped alarms or landmines) as anyone else.

  31. Anonymouson 30 Jan 2011 at 4:21 pm

    What gadgets would be good for a stealthy hero?

  32. Nicholas Caseon 30 Jan 2011 at 4:44 pm

    WELL…an invisibility cloak, a silent gun, sprinkling dust to reveal hidden alarm trips (Like those read beams in the movies), artificial eye with a bomb concealed within, ect.

  33. B. Macon 30 Jan 2011 at 6:55 pm

    “What gadgets would be good for a stealthy hero?” I think it depends on what you plan on having the hero do. What’s a typical job for him like? (For example, is he sneaking into buildings to steal things and/or download plans, or is he more of a saboteur or assassin?)

  34. Nicholas Caseon 30 Jan 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Yeah, B.Mac’s right. Your question was a bit vague. Specify a little more and we’ll be happy to help you. :D

  35. Anonymouson 31 Jan 2011 at 5:21 pm

    My character needs to sneak into places and obtain information or objects. He knows some martial arts. He prefers to use gadgets and techniques that don’t kill. I am considering if I should give him a regeneration ability or superhuman agility/reflexes as well to supplement his combat/stealth skills.

  36. Nicholas Caseon 31 Jan 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Well generally, if this is a human, regeneration wouldn’t make sense. Unless this is the future I would recommend against it unless they (at minimum) are a descendant of an alien race. A hybrid would be better, or a mutant. But it depends on what time it is. If it is in the distant future, go ahead. If it’s in the past or present then don’t do it. It wouldn’t make sense to have high-tech technology in a modern setting. One possibility is that someone from the future travels back in time and deliver the gadgets. Anyways I named a couple of spy weapons and gadgets up there. Hope it helps! Ask me if you need anything else!

  37. B. Macon 01 Feb 2011 at 5:33 am

    I think agility would fit the character concept more smoothly than regeneration.*

    I’m getting the impression that a stun-gadget like a taser might not fit the story (because it would be too loud), so something like a tranquilizer might work better. (Depending on your preference, it could be administered with a syringe and/or a dart-gun and/or a gas canister thrown like a grenade, etc).

    Although stealthy, tranquilizers would still have a few challenges you could use for dramatic effect. For example, they’d have considerably less range than a standard firearm (particularly if he were using syringes). Also, once he has tranquilized someone, you could force him to pick between disposing of the body somewhere or letting another guard stumble across it later.



    One potential concern I’d have is that I think it’d be tricky to come up with a stealth/gadgets/martial arts character without a lot of overlap on Batman. One way to differentiate your character would be to change the character’s personality and/or voice considerably. Another approach would be to significantly change the plot’s tone. For example, Dr. McNinja’s capabilities are pretty similar to Batman’s, but his stories feel totally different than Batman’s because he’s in a straight-up comedy and because he’s dealing with threats as wacky as raptor-riding banditos, Dracula’s secret moon base and Aztec tennis temples of doom.



    *One concern I’d have with regeneration is that it could seriously reduce the dramatic potential of the character trying to sneak in places. I think the most gripping part about a stealth operation is how quickly a single mistake can blow up in the character’s face. If the character can regenerate, I think it will be much harder to challenge him.

  38. Anonymouson 01 Feb 2011 at 2:58 pm

    The character’s personality is going to be the complete opposite of Batman. Thanks for the help. It really gave me a lot of ideas. Now on to his origin.

  39. Blonde Emoon 01 Feb 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Didn’t think of the versitality issue before now. Reminds me of Rorschach shooting a cop with a harpoon grapple gun.

  40. Max H.on 14 Apr 2011 at 3:43 pm

    In my superhero world, gadgets usually aren’t given (superheroes are heavily regulated and restricted) unless they can complement the superpower in some way. For example, one guy can secrete acid from his hands, and has a squirt gun that attached to one of his hands and can spray the acid.

  41. The Black Ostrichon 02 Apr 2012 at 10:29 pm

    I’m writing a story about a black ops agent, and one of his weapons is a compressed air pistol so it’s silent enough for assassination and sabotage operations (and it can’t be traced since it doesn’t leave powder residue or anything like that). Would CO2 be lethal enough or would something more potent need to be implemented? And I’m also trying to think of gadgets that aren’t too James Bondish or Batmanesque. Any ideas?

  42. B. McKenzieon 03 Apr 2012 at 12:07 am

    “Would CO2 be lethal enough or would something more potent need to be implemented?” 99% of readers wouldn’t know one way or the other. I don’t, and I’d give you the benefit of the doubt on this, whichever way you wanted to go with it.

    “I’m also trying to think of gadgets that aren’t too James Bondish or Batmanesque.” One possible theme is utility over style. I’d recommend checking out special equipment for black ops guys and spies. Everything James Bond has is sleek and sexy, but I would say that quite a lot of actual spy equipment is designed to be normal-looking and completely utilitarian. The Batmobile is nice, but good luck driving it across town without getting buried in cops. The Batman movies had him do something ridiculous like drive it across rooftops to get around that. More sensible? Probably an unmarked, heavily-armored SUV, with modifications specific to whatever goal he has in mind.

  43. Anonymouson 13 May 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Hey what would be a good idea for a assassin kind of like hawk eye likes to be far away with little way for someone to tell where it came from kind of like throwing knifes

  44. B. McKenzieon 14 May 2012 at 2:21 am

    “what would be a good idea for a assassin kind of like hawk eye likes to be far away with little way for someone to tell where it came from kind of like throwing knifes.” I don’t understand what you’re asking. Could you please rephrase?

  45. Anonymouson 14 May 2012 at 10:51 am

    he would be a assassin that likes to be far away when he kills someone but i cant think of any kind of weapons for him to use all i can think of are throwing knifes

  46. MoguMoguon 14 May 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Why don’t you google “long-range weapons”? That might turn up a more extensive list somewhere.

    Here are a few of them off the top of my head: bow/arrow, whip or some kind of rope, guns, bombs (can be detonated from far away).

  47. B. McKenzieon 14 May 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Guns (especially sniper rifles) come to mind. A telescopic lens would allow for a long-distance takedown and is harder to notice than a laser sight. If he’s REALLY hardcore about stealth, he might go with iron sights instead of a telescopic lens because TLs sometimes reflect enough light to give away a sniper’s position.



    Any sort of superpower which is not overt, like telekinesis or mind-blasts. For example, if he’s assassinating someone in public at a dinner by telekinetically throwing a steak knife, the target would probably get killed before anybody realizes anything is amiss. Then he could escape in the confusion. If you’re doing mind-blasts, I’d recommend keeping the range-limit fairly low (e.g. maybe ~20 feet) because his fight scenes will probably be more interesting if he has more reason to get in at least fairly close. If he is an illusionist, he might be able to assassinate people by causing accidents (e.g. causing a driver to speed into a truck by making a traffic light appear green and/or making the truck disappear).



    Blow-darts and/or a dart gun. The darts could be tipped either with lethal poison or a sedative depending on the situation. One of my antiheroes (SPOILER: an eventual villain) uses a dart gun because he figures he might need plausible deniability if he needs to murder someone (“I didn’t mean to fire it directly into his heart–he flinched!”) He’s also (SPOILER) the team medic, so it might be easier for him to “miss” without raising suspicion or compromising his position. (In contrast, if he were the team sniper, he’d be pretty useless if his accuracy were subpar).

  48. Rick Crawfordon 06 Aug 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Awesome! So informative.

  49. Neuromanceron 15 Nov 2012 at 9:11 pm

    I have a character who uses bullets and darts that release cyanide on impact he also uses darts the release nanites into the victims bloodstream which can be detonated later after they have been carried to different parts of the body, The victim could also be used as an unwitting “suicide bomber” (I hope Nobody in al-quaeda is reading this.)

  50. B. McKenzieon 15 Nov 2012 at 9:49 pm

    “I hope no one in al-Qaeda is reading this.” I wouldn’t worry about it. Somehow I’m guessing remotely-detonated nanites are not on their development schedule (and, besides, I’m guessing they’d probably be more interested in using them for voluntary suicide bombers than for more risky/unpredictable uses* with more potential points of failure, like the target noticing being shot with a dart and/or possibly the difficulty of maintaining surveillance on the target rather than detonating blindly and/or the potential for technical glitches).

    *I’ve heard of terrorists attempting to smuggle bombs through airport security by planting them in the luggage of unwitting dupes–e.g. I vaguely remember the security-screening question “Did anyone else help you pack your bags?” became standard procedure in the 1970s after El Al successfully prevented an attempted attack at Ben Gurion Airport where a terrorist boyfriend planted a bomb in his Israeli girlfriend’s luggage. Don’t quote me on that, though.

  51. L05T 80Yon 17 Jan 2013 at 12:03 am

    What kind of effective gadgets could be used by a fifteen year old vigilante on a regular allowance?

  52. Milanon 17 Jan 2013 at 3:33 am

    Hi L05T 80Y,

    Maybe you’re looking for gadgets that could be adapted to situations on the fly. If his actions are premeditated he could do a lot more. Here are some random suggestions. Anything is possible with superglue.

    Poisons. Laxatives, E. Coli, and worse, to change the situation whenever there is sufficient advanced warning.
    Sirens. Made with cheap electronics kits, they could mimic fire alarms, phones, crying babies, reinforcements.
    Disguises. Anonymity, age or a feared surname through wigs, borrowed IDs and a collection of well researched and reusable alter egos.
    Caltrops. Or less violent (but potentially more fatal) oil and marbles.
    Rubber spiders and snakes. Rubber dynamite. Fake blood.
    Small but powerful magnets. For messing up computers or hiding thin items under vehicles.
    Common medical goods. For faking medical conditions.
    Apps. To use his smart phone to onward dial another number as a distraction, for a GPS edge, or to stream video to his home computer.
    Materials for copying fingerprints. This would require careful practice rather than cost. An extreme case would be a CSI junkie who might mess with all kinds of evidence.
    An obscure language. For feigning foreign.
    Duct tape. For recording mallards and everything else.

  53. L05T 80Yon 17 Jan 2013 at 6:26 pm

    thanks, man

  54. don 22 Oct 2013 at 1:26 pm

    im starting up my own comic, wich im calling “lady sunset” it follows one dove sunset. a female mercenary /unwitting super solder. i dont have a polt for it as of yet. but she can regeate lost limbs, however it takes afue days. i was thinking that she had a collection of high tech artificial limbs. as a mercenary she does have a collection of “tools” i kinda want to present her as a bad @##. so any spasifc tips?

  55. Dmi Ron 03 Feb 2014 at 6:20 pm

    What would be some good gadgets for a superhero who’s only power is to use the energy charged up on his hands and either blast them at someone at a close range (since they primarily need a medium to travel through it will be hard to use it at a long range or sometimes even a few feet in front of him. The person has to be at least an inch away from his face for him to do this), or use a SOLID medium to pass it through (Walls, ground, concrete, etc.).

    So far the only good ideas that come to mind are a homemade tazer line (not even made by him) since he isn’t a super genius (he’s creative with the way he does things, but he’s no Batman) and some microscopic bombs he stole (that stun……..sometimes). Any other ideas?

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