Aug 10 2009

How to Handle Competence on a Superhero Team

Published by at 8:31 pm under Superhero Teams,Writing Articles

It’s usually a problem when some of the characters on a team of superheroes are substantially weaker or less useful than others.  Here are some tips to avoid those problems.

1.  I recommend giving all of the teammates skills and/or powers that can be useful in a variety of situations. If a character’s skills are so limited that he doesn’t have the ability to participate, he will probably come across as useless and may attract the scorn of readers.  (I’m looking at you, Aquaman).  Additionally, if your characters have versatile skills, you won’t have to come up with goofy contrivances so that each teammate can contribute.

2.  In most cases, I would recommend keeping the characters roughly as powerful as each other. Otherwise it will be hard to come up with challenges that match one hero without being effortlessly easy or absolutely impossible for the rest of the cast.  For example, any hit hard enough to hurt Superman should kill Batman, right?  If teammates one teammate is that much more powerful than another, the writer will probably have to just pretend that Batman is actually strong enough to shrug off a punch that can break a skyscraper. That is a goofy and contrived way to try to work Batman-like characters into a Superman fight.  If you’re dead-set on a significant superpower disparity, the best solution is probably having them split up as much as possible.  Alternately, you could do fights with some weaker antagonists and some tougher ones.  The problem is that this usually relegates the weaker heroes to cleanup duty, because the most plot-central villains are usually the most dangerous and get the most face-time in battle.   (If the weaker heroes are minor characters, that might not be a problem).

2.1.  You might want to make one character noticeably more powerful or competent than another for comedic effect or because the weaker character is a sidekick. However, generally a character like Robin is closer in power to his mentor than Batman is to Superman.  Robin can still contribute to a Batman fight even though he isn’t quite as strong as Batman.

3.  It is usually best to give the characters distinct roles and powers. For example, if Superman has superspeed and a slew of other powers, why bother having the Flash?  Redundancy is usually a problem because it takes up valuable space and makes the redundant character useless.  The character will feel more special and impressive if there isn’t a character like Superman that can do everything he can and more.

4.  If you focus on a character, please focus on the most active characters. Soon I Will Be Invincible’s main hero was ostensibly Fatale, a heroine that rarely contributed to her team.  For example, she’s locked up in the villain’s dungeon as the villain gets taken down by a minor character that has shown up only a few times.  As a rule of thumb, it is usually best to focus on the character that does the most.  They usually seem the most impressive and often have the best perspective on interesting events.  In contrast, readers often bristle when they’re forced to watch characters that don’t do very much.  For example, that’s one of the (many) reasons that many readers hate the Sentry.  Active characters are more interesting.

4.1.  Under certain rare circumstances, you might want to use a point-of-view character that isn’t very active. See “Chronicling an Epic Downfall” here if you’re interested in trying something like The Great Gatsby or All the King’s Men.  In this case, the POV’s main purpose is usually to bear reliable witness to an epic figure falling from acclaim and power rather than, say, actually cause his downfall.

5.  It is critical that the most active characters on the team be likable. For example, take Wesley Crusher.  He was an obnoxiously earnest cadet that was so intensely reviled by Star Trek fans that his hatedom has its own page on TV Tropes.   His personality was grating.  He rarely failed and never had to work hard at anything. It probably would have still been a problem that the main characters kept getting saved by a lowly cadet, but less so if he had been a likable cadet.

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “How to Handle Competence on a Superhero Team”

  1. XoXoPhyreon 10 Aug 2009 at 11:41 pm

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve been waiting for an article on hero teams since that’s what my novel is about. Keep up the great work guys.

  2. FarawaySoulon 14 Aug 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Same here. Only the team is broken up into smaller teams of two or four…

  3. Wingson 17 Aug 2009 at 8:25 am

    I’m pretty confident with the two teams in HTSTW:

    Team One:
    Leader: Sparks (electricity manipulator)
    Gabriel (flyer and physical healer)
    Mindwave (telekinetic)
    Nimbus (aura manipulator and mental healer)
    Nightshade (animal shapeshifter)
    Titan (metal manipulator)

    Team Two:
    Leader: Nimbus (aura manipulator and mental healer)
    Frostbite (ice manipulator)
    Oracle (seer)
    (name needed) (mind controller)
    (name needed) (power needed)

    The only one who I can see is overpowered is Connor, and it’s critical to remember he doesn’t have all these powers at once. In the beginning, he only has the shields, and gains the aura blasts and mental healing later on. His aura sense (alows him to tell if someone is coming) doesn’t make an appearence until the second book.

    – Wings

  4. Loysquaredon 15 Jul 2010 at 3:36 pm

    “We fight as a single impenetrable unit, that is the source of our strenght. Each Spartan protects the man to his left: thigh to neck, with his shield.” – Leonidas: 300. I love that quote, hahaha. It reminds me how teamwork is supposed to be.

    I’m no expert, but if I may, a few pointers:
    In “problem 1”, I find interesting when a character has some weakness of other caracter’s power (but not in a rock-scissor-paper kinda way). For example, having a heroe with a metal/electric-powered armor-suit and a hero which controls magnetic fields/metals in a battle scene. They should be extra careful in getting in each other’s way, even more if the villain knows that weakness, he could exploit it!
    In “problem 2”, an adequate way to deal with this is to [hipothetically] pin the characters against each other, and see if he/she can hold his/her ground. With that in mind, round the characters’ abilities and see them as a whole, rather than lone characters.

  5. mythos manon 04 Aug 2012 at 6:15 pm

    “Team One:
    Leader: Sparks (electricity manipulator)
    Gabriel (flyer and physical healer)
    Mindwave (telekinetic)
    Nimbus (aura manipulator and mental healer)
    Nightshade (animal shapeshifter)
    Titan (metal manipulator)”

    sweet superhero names. ecspecially mindwave and nightshade.

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