Jul 22 2009
B. Mac touched on this with a couple of powers, such as super strength, telepathy/mind reading, and to a lesser degree, power suits, plus he mentioned a few others at the bottom of his article on common superhero problems. However, this is going to be a more all-around list, touching on a number of different powers.
All superpowers could be potentially problematic. However, these powers make it unusually difficult to write an interesting story.
1. SUPERSTRENGTH. Superstrength is generic and cliched. It’s very difficult to intrigue a reader with a character whose main power is superstrength. Fight scenes will either be no challenge (since he busts through absolutely everything) or no fun to read (since all he does is bust through everything). Probably both. Hardly anything will challenge him. Locked in a cell? Bust out. Locked out of a building? Bust in. Girlfriend’s in trouble? Bust up the villain.
Mix it up: Limit his powers. Maybe he only has super strength when his adrenaline hits a certain level, so he has to stay hyped if he wants his powers. Or maybe his super strength only works against certain materials. (Though that would be difficult to logically explain, it would at least be a handy limit.)
2. SUPERSPEED. Speedsters are nearly as problematic as heroes with superstrength. If your speedster is faster than a speeding bullet, nothing that can challenge him can catch him, and nothing that can catch him can challenge him. Got a villain? Your speedster can just take the villain’s sword and stab him with it. Plus, there’s no way to add a ‘ticking clock’ sense of urgency. If he can run around the world in hours, he can meet any time limit or deadline easily.
Try this: Bring their speed down a ton. I’d recommend somewhere between 60 mph (a cheetah) and 400 mph (a fast car). Then, even if they can’t be caught on foot, cars and helicopters might still pose an interesting challenge. I’d make sure to add in some sort of restrictions for the usage of their speed. Do they tire easily, like the aforementioned cheetah? Do they start off slow and get faster with momentum? There are many possible restrictions, and I’m sure there’s one that would work with you and your hero.
3. INVULNERABILITY: Ahh, invulnerability. This appeals to many new writers, because it makes their character so ‘amazing’ and ‘impressive’ that they can’t be killed. However, invulnerability does not a good superhero make. Superman was clearly a victim of this, even with his vulnerability to Kryptonite. However, Smallville addressed this somewhat. Nearly every Smallville villain had a chunk of Kryptonite available, which forced Clark to fight like a normal human a good percentage of the time. To a lesser degree, Thing (Fantastic Four), Iron Man, Martian Manhunter, Claire and Sylar from Heroes, and various others are invulnerable as well. If your hero cannot be hurt, let alone killed, there’s nothing on the line. Sure, his friends might be in danger, or his kids, or his love interest, but there’s always that extra ‘oomph’ of tension when the hero might die that just can’t be duplicated otherwise.
Limitations: This is probably the toughest to limit well. At the very least, give him his own brand of Kryptonite. However, I’d very much advise toning his invincibility down a ton. B. Mac defines ‘invulnerability’ as ‘the point at which a typical human criminal could not conceivably endanger the character’. Will you be able to write interesting fight scenes with competent thieves, if not regular people? It’s hard to make up supervillains on the fly.
4. TIME TRAVEL: This one’s pretty simple to explain. If they can go back in time, they can cancel out anything negative that may have happened, which basically retcons a good chunk of your story. This is a problem because the reader just spent the last 30, 50, 100 pages reading about exactly what happened, and going back in time to redo it just wasted their time. The reader hates it when you waste their time.
Limit it a ton: Have it take them back a maximum of five minutes, or maybe even less. Thirty seconds would be interesting to work with. Or perhaps they can go back in time as far as they’d like, but they can’t interact with anything, since having two versions of the same person at once would mess with time-space. If they could only watch, that would dissuade them from using their powers. (I’d advise that you skip over the extra time, if you take this route).
5. SHAPESHIFTING: If you can turn into anyone or anything, that doesn’t leave much that you can’t do. Even if it’s limited to people, you could (theoretically) turn into a weight-lifter and fight someone brawn-for-brawn, but then turn into small child and crawl to your safety through a narrow space. The same goes for animal shifters (like Beast Boy from Teen Titans), but translate ‘weight-lifter’ to ‘tyrannosaurus rex’ and ‘small child’ to ‘mouse’.
Fixes: Limit them to a certain number of forms. Keep them stuck in a chosen form for a set length of time. Or perhaps give them a limit like ‘the person can’t be in the room, but must be within 30 miles’. Be careful, though, not to let it get too complex, or the readers might have trouble remembering the specifics.
6. TELEPATHY: Mind-reading is the focus here. Mental communication is much less of a problem than being able to read someone’s mind. If your hero can read minds, that takes a number of plot twists off the table. Betrayal, for example. The telepathic character could see it coming a mile away, unless it’s sudden. Plus, if your telepath is anywhere near the villain at any point in the story, they’ll know 100% of what’s going on right off the bat, which takes away the need for an entire novel to figure things out. If your character is telepathic, nothing anyone could ever do would surprise them.
It is redeemable though: Being telepathic is an entirely mental power. Perhaps it’s a highly uncomfortable feeling, to read someone’s mind, like being out in public, in the cold, without any clothing. Or even worse, like that borderline-painful, overly-sensitive feeling you get when you have the flu, but mentally rather than physically. Or perhaps they can only read certain minds, or under certain conditions. Or maybe they can just skim the surface. Character X could be angry about an argument they had with a side character, but all the telepath would get is the feeling of anger and the side character’s name/face from Character X’s mind.
What do you guys think? Are there any problems you feel should have made this list? Do you disagree with any of my six? Thanks.