Sep 07 2009

Kryptonite-style Weaknesses Are Usually a Weak Option

1.  Well-constructed characters generally do not need weaknesses. If you have to resort to something like a vulnerability to Kryptonite or the color yellow or whatever, it’s probably because the character is too powerful to begin with.  Something like Kryptonite is not a satisfying or particularly effective way to resolve that.  For one thing, going from “largely unchallengeable” to “helpless rag-doll” does not make for great fight scenes.  Also, relying on Kryptonite may force writers to pull goofy Kryptonite Ex Machinas where minor criminals somehow acquire rare and random substances.*

*Some Superman stories explain this by having Lex Luthor give Kryptonite out to criminal groups, but it’s incredibly rare.  Why would a random gang have a better chance of killing Superman than his own assassins?

 

2.  Kryptonite-style weaknesses are a bit outdated. In the past twenty or thirty years, there haven’t been many major superheroes that have been successfully introduced with a serious vulnerability to something that’s usually harmless.

 

3.  Rather than using something like Kryptonite to limit your protagonist, I’d recommend limiting his capabilities instead. If the character is practically indestructible and can move as fast as a space shuttle, then you practically have to pull something like Kryptonite out of a hat whenever you want to challenge him.  But the fight scenes are generally more interesting and the character will probably be more relatable if his powers are less impressive to begin with. Over the past thirty years, heroes that are merely somewhat better-than-human (like Wolverine, Batman and Spiderman) have been dominant. Heroes that are so impervious that they need a gimmick weakness have generally not fared as well.

3.1. Another approach would be making the character’s opposition more powerful. As long as the character can be challenged, it’s not a cosmic disaster if he’s essentially a demigod. (That said, unusually powerful characters do raise some obstacles for writers — for example, if you’re writing a character like Batman, you can write interesting scenes with unpowered criminals, but a character like Superman basically forces you to pull out supervillains if you want to do anything. Supervillains usually require more thought/preparation/attention than an unpowered mook would).

 

4.  If you’re deadset on using a vulnerability, I’d recommend using something that is usually dangerous. For example, the Martian Manhunter has sometimes been vulnerable to fire.  That is a lot less goofy than the Green Lantern’s one-time vulnerability to the color yellow or wood. Alternately, if you’d like to try something creative, I’d recommend looking at things that are plausibly dangerous for someone with his powers.  For example, someone with particularly good hearing might be sensitive to loud sounds.  Someone with psychic abilities might be vulnerable to anything that disrupts his concentration.

 

5. If you’re deadset on using a Kryptonite-style weakness, I’d recommend having it be merely damaging rather than incapacitating. As noted above, if the protagonist is limping around like a rag doll after getting poisoned by Kryptonite, that really limits your opportunities for fight scenes and other interesting sequences. One alternative would be having the weakness temporarily disable the character’s powers. The character would still be very vulnerable without his powers, but at least he’d be able to try to do something. (For example, you might have him fight an unpowered battle against low-level mooks or do an escape scene where he tries to get away from a superpowered villain that is far too tough for him at the moment).

57 responses so far

57 Responses to “Kryptonite-style Weaknesses Are Usually a Weak Option”

  1. GGon 08 Sep 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you so much! This really helped!

  2. Paul A.on 10 Sep 2009 at 11:38 am

    Have you considered this approach?

    Have the protagonist’s ability slowly kill him. While your story may not necessarily have to end with his/her death, it will certainly build up to a climax.

    If your hero starts off using his powers to fight petty crime, and it’s easy because he’s so healthy and powerful…then what happens when he has to face the main villain when the hero is weezing, faint, and feverish?

  3. ShardReaperon 10 Sep 2009 at 7:04 pm

    But then it sort of defeats the purpose of the hero being the hero. If he’s in some epic battle and his health is slowly wittling away, he’ll end up either dead or hospitalized for a long time with his identity (possibly being discovered).

  4. StarEon 10 Sep 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Depends on the kind of story you wanna write, ShardReaper. 🙂 Paul A.’s comment sounds a lot like a plot element I’ve been wanting to work into my novel, “Second Life”, where the hero’s powers are slowly killing him. But I’m hesistant on going with the idea, because there’s so much going on in my story already.

    With a hero whose powers are draining his life force, he’d probably need to find some crafty way to defeat the villain BEFORE his time is up. That adds suspense because the clock is ticking for the hero. Maybe he DOES end up hospitalized at some point, and maybe his friends/sidekick would have to help cover-up his identity so he won’t be exposed? There’s a lot of neat stuff you could do with an in-the-hospital-cover-up. Maybe one of the doctors DOES discover the hero’s secret, but the hero convinces the doctor to keep the secret? After this brush with death, the hero would have to work very hard to defeat the villain without completely depending on his powers.

    I think it’s a fun idea, but sort of a downer, LOL.

  5. Lwrcaseltrson 17 Oct 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Hmm. And suppose that the doctor finds out his secret identity, then tells the villain. The hero would then have to possibly go into hiding. Or get plastic surgery.

    There are endless possibilities when writing. That’s why I love it. 😀

    On another note I have a friend that wrote a story that her two main characters could not only turn invisible and intangible, but were also super strong, super fast, extremely brilliant, they have extremely dangerous poisons that can kill the hero but they are immune, and they can’t be killed. I asked her if they had any weaknesses at all and she said that they could only be killed by obsidian. I rolled my eyes at her two utterly too superman-like characters. I think I’m going to show her this article. I’ve already told her that her characters are way too powerful to make the story interesting.

    My question is why don’t the villains just load their guns with kryponite bullets and shoot Superman? That would solve all their problems.

  6. Dillanon 17 Oct 2010 at 6:41 pm

    @# Lwrcaseltrs krytonite bullets made me laugh they could blast him in the eye like in superman returns,except he’d be missing an eye or most likely dead lol

  7. Cazadoron 19 Oct 2010 at 7:44 pm

    My weakness… is bullets.

  8. B. Macon 20 Oct 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Bullets, my only weakness! How did you know?

  9. Rachel Mon 20 Oct 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Lol! “Bullets! How did you know?” That was great!

    Hey, does anyone know the episode of JL where Batman takes a bullet for Superman?

  10. Dillanon 20 Oct 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Lol harold straight blasted that a**hole cop.

  11. B. Macon 20 Oct 2010 at 7:42 pm

    I’m pretty sure he said something like “I took a bullet for you” in the episode “The Doomsday Sanction,” but it was actually a missile, not a bullet.

  12. Rachel Mon 20 Oct 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Ohh.. Thanks! 🙂

  13. Freshon 30 May 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Hmm I just wanted to point out that Superman over the years has grown resistant to kryptonite so he can actually fight, and move aroud when exposed to kryptonite an example in live action is when he shoved that krytonite mass into space.

    And Superman does have some ways to harm him such as magic, but then again he can heal.

    Anyway what would be a good weakness for a few characters, none of them have as many powers as Martian Manhunter, just some recommended weaknesses. I was thinking what is a weakness for superhumans that gain their powers from residue energies from the Big Bang?

  14. Silveron 03 Jul 2011 at 9:37 pm

    What are their powers? That could help me think of somthing.

  15. Zaft2314on 28 Oct 2011 at 4:09 pm

    I have a hero with a weakness that’s like a kryptonite style weakness. Any suggestions to make it more interesting rather than just the bad guy using the weakness against him?

  16. B. McKenzieon 28 Oct 2011 at 4:53 pm

    With the caveat that I think it’s generally not a promising approach (see above), here are some things you might consider.

    –How does the villain find out the hero is vulnerable to the substance?

    –How does the villain use it? Simply putting a kryptonite bullet in a gun would probably not be enough to kill someone that has impossibly fast reflexes. For example, maybe the villain deliberately weakens the kryptonite and then plants it in Clark Kent’s wallet or in Clark Kent’s desk, figuring that he’ll be gradually poisoned without realizing it (a boiling frog approach*).

    *Well, a frog actually will jump out of gradually boiling water before it gets cooked, but the myth is vaguely plausible.

    –How are you going to keep this from sounding like Superman and Kryptonite? (Your character’s powers are already pretty similar to Superman’s, right?)

  17. Zaft2314on 28 Oct 2011 at 7:16 pm

    No his powers are fairly different from Superman. He has durable skin and organs(not to be confused with invulnerability), he can fly as fast as a jet, shoot beams of heat, heat vision, slight intangibility and super strength.

  18. Zaft2314on 28 Oct 2011 at 7:28 pm

    There are also some similarities to Superman though. Like superman his powers run on a type of solar battery and the heat vision. Could you comment on my power set, if you don’t mind?

  19. B. McKenzieon 29 Oct 2011 at 4:41 am

    Between the enhanced durability, the enhanced speed, the heat vision, superstrength, the connection to the sun, and possibly a vulnerability to something like Kryptonite, my vague impression so far is that DC might sue you over the similarities to Superman if the story gets published. Both DC and Marvel have very aggressive legal departments, particularly when major characters are involved.

  20. Zaft2314on 29 Oct 2011 at 7:42 am

    Lol yeah but the hero is still in the beta stage, thanks for the help 🙂

  21. Bad-Peopleon 09 Mar 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Kryptonite was more of an afterthought. It was less about, “Hmm, we need a way to make this story more dramatic.” and more about “Shit, we made him too powerful and now we have no story.” He was already immune to conventional weapons, all chemicals, all diseases, and highly resistant to virtually all natural forces, with only a mild intolerance to electricity. Since then they’ve been throwing everything they can at him in order to add conflict to the stories, magic, red sun, about eleven new variants of kryptonite. “Oh no, slightly opaque light fuchsia kryptonite!” Let this be a warning, think ahead.
    _ _ _ _ _

    By the way, I think a read somewhere that kryptonite itself isn’t harmful to Superman, rather that it’s laced with radiation from the explosion that destroyed Krypton and that’s what bugs him. So that explains how they were able to live there.

  22. B. McKenzieon 09 Mar 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Ah, okay, that makes sense. I vaguely remember Captain Atom threatening to use his radiation-control to go Kryptonite on Superman. That would suggest that it’s the radiation emitted rather than the rock itself which is dangerous. If so, his weakness to radiation would be a bit less ridiculous than a weakness to pieces of his planet.

  23. Super Heroon 04 Jun 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I liked the weakness that was used in Hancock.

  24. Red Rocketon 09 Jun 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I’m making a hero that can sort of separate into tiny molecule-like pieces and fly around like a swarm of bees you see on the old cartoons. I’m thinking that when he’s shocked with electricity (like lightning and the such) in his “molecular form,” it travels through all of his pieces and shocks him back into one piece. Thoughts?

  25. B. McKenzieon 09 Jun 2012 at 8:02 pm

    That sounds okay, but if you are planning on having multiple antagonists, it strikes me as unlikely that everybody will have access to electric attacks.

  26. Contra Gloveon 10 Jun 2012 at 7:28 am

    You think the color yellow is ridiculous as a weakness? Well I’ve seen worse.

    There is an anime and manga called Rosario + Vampire (I’ve only seen the anime) in which the main vampire character, Moka Akashiya, is weak to water, even in her powered-up form. Not holy water, just water generally. The purer the water is, the more dangerous it is. She has to dirty the water with herbs to bathe.

    One scene has Moka being interrogated by the school’s security committee, and they torture her by flicking distilled water at her. Imagine if they had waterboarded her! 🙂

  27. B. McKenzieon 10 Jun 2012 at 7:36 am

    “the main vampire character, Moka Akashiya, is weak to water, even in her powered-up form. Not holy water, just water generally.” That’s not so far off the vampiric canon. Old-school vampires were often fatally vulnerable to running water (which, in ancient times, was physically purer than stagnant pools and was used for baptisms–if vampires are vulnerable to holy water, it sort of makes sense that they’d be vulnerable to running water as well). It makes you wonder what ancient vampires did in a rainstorm, before they had the wherewithal to make umbrellas. 🙂

  28. Red Rocketon 11 Jun 2012 at 2:19 pm

    I was thinking that, but I was also thinking including tasers in that list would be able to stop him too easily.

  29. B. McKenzieon 11 Jun 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I really like the taser idea. Tasers are not extremely practical and it would take some skill to use one against a superhero (e.g. striking him from behind or otherwise incapacitating him before he has a chance to dodge). Another possibility would be abusing electrical outlets and sprinkler systems (or rain) to electrocute the hero, although this would probably require careful preparation.

  30. Red Rocketon 14 Jun 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks for your input, it helps a lot. I didn’t know much about the practicality of tasers.

  31. Hidden Manon 23 Apr 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I’m a big fan B. McKenzie but what if you’re making a vampire superhero? Can i make his weakness be Garlic or Wolfbane something like that? I just need some advice.

  32. Anon.on 24 Apr 2013 at 12:10 am

    Don’t look now, but vampires who aren’t called Edward *tend* to come with a prepackaged weakness that’s all big bright and obvious at all times of the day.

  33. B. McKenzieon 24 Apr 2013 at 4:39 am

    I think sunlight/garlic/wolfbane would work fine for a vampire, because they’re genre conventions for vampires. (Also, in the context of a fantasy, I think they’re less goofy than Kryptonite is for Superman).

  34. Hidden Manon 24 Apr 2013 at 3:57 pm

    So can I make Vampire lose his powers from garlic and not be weaken by sunlight?

  35. B. McKenzieon 24 Apr 2013 at 8:18 pm

    I think it’d be okay if sunlight weren’t an issue for him. (However, since this will likely contrast with reader expectations, I’d recommend handling it wittily*). I’d recommend giving him a more descriptive and/or imaginative name than Vampire, though.

    *E.g. In Dresden Files, one group of vampires has the weaknesses people are used to from Hollywood (e.g. holy water and stakes), and a second group has an entirely different set of weaknesses. The second group of vampires financed movies to make sure that humans would be able to destroy the first group of vampires.

  36. Smartyon 25 Apr 2013 at 3:58 pm

    Hey, I was thinking of making a superhero called The Hood. His superpowers aren’t superpowers, just intense training. He’s a teenager who’s sidekick is his best friend who’s kind of like Oracle. He’s got a wide array of gadgets such as:explosive and electric throwing knives(They’re blunt so they don’t kill anyone. The explosive ones are meant for a small explosion and are used after his moral code is slowly deteriorating) a bow staff, smoke pellets, and glasses that can anylyze things. (Like Detective Vision in the Arkham games). What do you guys think? Is he to much like Batman or another superhero? Any better ideas for naming?

  37. Elecon 27 Apr 2013 at 2:17 am

    To start, I think you should alter the name, as there is a Marvel Villain called “The Hood.” As previously mentioned on this site, Marvel are touchy about that sort of thing. Otherwise, sounds great!

  38. Smartyon 27 Apr 2013 at 9:22 am

    Ok thanks. If there are any ideas I’d be open. I suck at naming

  39. Elecon 29 Apr 2013 at 1:21 am

    how about a similar word to hood?

    The Cowl
    The Cloak
    The Covered Hood
    The Covered Cowl

    Just a quick thesaurus-based list 🙂

  40. Smartyon 29 Apr 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks. I actually thought about switching him a bit and calling him Jack of Blades. Any thoughts?

  41. Elecon 30 Apr 2013 at 1:25 am

    That … actually sounds awesome and a whole lot more original than “the Hood.” That’s just my humble opinion though 🙂

  42. Smartyon 30 Apr 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks 🙂

  43. GirlWonderon 31 Jul 2013 at 9:37 pm

    How do you create a weakness for someone who can induce fear/create scary visions?

  44. B. McKenzieon 01 Aug 2013 at 4:40 am

    “How do you create a weakness for someone who can induce fear and create scary visions?”

    Some possible ways to challenge such a character:

    –The opponent might be unusually well-defended against this sort of superpower. For example, Batman’s extremely resilient and well-trained, a robot or alien might not experience fear in the same way, and it might be hard to induce fear in someone that has never known fear (e.g. the Hulk).

    –The power might be a 2-way street. Opening oneself up to another person’s mind/emotions could be highly dangerous depending on what you find on the other side.

    –Any limitations on how the powers are applied. For example, Scarecrow’s abilities are generally derived from toxins rather than a psychic attack… Scarecrow needs to actually expose Batman to the toxins, which is easier said than done. Alternately, a character that relies on nightmares might be a lot more powerful against a sleeping opponent than one that is awake.

    –There may be limits on how many people can be affected at once. For example, a psychic character might face an additional strain from each additional person he tries to use it on in a short period. (Fatigue/strain).

    –If the fear-themed character is a protagonist, one limitation there would be that the powers may be hard to use outside of combat. While the ability to control fear could be useful in getting people out of a crisis safely, it’d be hard to do even 3 scenes like that without it getting monotonous.

  45. ChickenNoodleson 01 Aug 2013 at 7:49 am

    Wow bmac! I just read your comment above. Always such great advice.
    On a different note I left two comments one on superhero cliches and the superhero questionnaire page and was looking for your feed back. It would be appreciated.

  46. Batmaskon 15 May 2014 at 8:23 pm

    I’m currently creating a superhero who is definitely on the stronger side (he has the general super strength/speed, durability and flight as well as super hearing/vision, energy manipulation, limited telepathy, and darkness manipulation). To make him more interesting, I was thinking about making him lose control of his powers at one point, which puts a lot of people in danger, and after that, he subconsciously limits his powers to prevent it from happening again. However, if he’s faced with a foe that’s crazy strong and ticks him off enough, he would be able to gradually loosen the limit during the battle in order to deal with the menace but after it’s dealt with, the limit would automatically be reimplemented. He also has a strong psychological weakness to fire because his parents and little sister were killed in a fire before he got his powers and he has extreme survivor’s guilt. I would really appreciate it if anyone has any suggestions or feedback to help me improve him.

  47. sawsamwellon 13 Jan 2015 at 9:12 pm

    I had an idea for a team of superheroes, called the Y-wings.

    ElectronX- somewhat power over electricity

    Bluestreak- super speed and somewhat power over light
    Heatwave- power over fire and lava to some degree

    Gravity Girl- power over gravity to some degree.

    plz tell me if u think this is too over powered

    : D

  48. sawsamwellon 13 Jan 2015 at 9:14 pm

    I like it, bat mask.

  49. sawsamwellon 13 Jan 2015 at 9:21 pm

    bat mask, if your superhero has extremely good hearing, you could have a villain that could have
    battle techniques related to sound and maybe can use it to create earthquakes and maybe even
    shockwaves that can temporarily stun people. Think about it.

  50. sawsamwellon 13 Jan 2015 at 9:25 pm

    plz tell me what u think of ywings b mac: 😀
    I wanna turn it into a book someday.

  51. B. McKenzieon 14 Jan 2015 at 11:50 pm

    “I had an idea for a team of superheroes, called the Y-wings…” I don’t see any glaring issues with the superpower selection. I don’t anticipate that you’ll have a lot of difficulty challenging the characters.

    If I could make a suggestion for after your first draft of the manuscript is complete, I’d recommend revisiting the characters’ names then. I’d recommend trying 1-2 superhero names that are more varied and/or less comic book. For example, it may be worth trying a name or two that sound like they could be an actual name (e.g. ranging in mundaneness from Jean Gray and Robin to Cable and Rorschach).

  52. Cat-vacuumer Supremeon 12 Sep 2016 at 7:25 am

    sawsamwell:
    What do you mean by somewhat? What is limiting them? Just something to think about.

  53. James/Dakotaon 25 Oct 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Hello Superhero Nation.
    We’re working on a story and one of our characters has a weakness that we can’t figure out how to get around. His name is Mercedes (no hero name yet) and during the first battle between him, his two sisters Ril (audiokinesis) and Sky (wings) and a villain named Wildfire (pyrokinesis) Wildfire manages to catch him (he’s superfast) and blinds him by burning his face and eyes permanently. Ever after he wears a blindfold of sorts to hide the scars, but we don’t know how he’s going to get around quickly anymore without running into things.

    Please help us.

  54. B. McKenzieon 25 Oct 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Hello, James/Dakota. “we don’t know how [a blind character with superspeed] is going to get around quickly anymore without running into things.” One of his teammates has sound-based powers. It’s possible she might be able to do something there for echolocation, either constantly emitting sounds that he’s able to hear the echoes from or maybe making (or working with someone to make) a minor gadget that does. (Alternately, if his sister has sound-based powers, it’s possible he might have been born with really weak ones himself that allow him to handle this himself).

    One potential problem you could throw in would be that moving at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour could create “reception” problems where he’s moving so fast that his echolocations doesn’t have time to bounce back to him before he’s gone. In a pinch, he still could move faster if he needed to, but hopefully that’d be a very high-risk option.

    Also, I imagine that a scene with a lot of other ambient noise and/or smoke (e.g. a raging fire like he might encounter in a rematch with Wildfire) would create some interesting challenges. (There might be some conflict between his teammates and him on whether to involve him in a rematch. I could imagine there’s a lot of room for his teammates not to be excited about putting him back in the field against an enemy that thrashed him when he was fully healthy).

  55. James/Dakotaon 26 Oct 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Alright, so now that we’ve worked out how to get around his disability, we were wondering if you had any ideas as to what Merc (nickname) would be called. He’s part of a circus so most likely either his hero name will be the circus one or it’ll change after his blindness. Sky’s name has already changed from circus “Angel” to hero “Raptor.” Ril is Sonix but we aren’t sure whether that would be circus-y or hero-y.
    Please help again.

    PS thanks for the first time.
    PPS we’re posting this here since you ended comments on the character naming articles. Plus it’s where the first post was.

  56. B. McKenzieon 26 Oct 2016 at 5:51 pm

    “PPS we’re posting this here since you ended comments on the character naming articles.” I ended comments on those articles because I’ve generally stopped taking questions on character names. They’re generally not very interesting questions to answer (or very important to publishability).

  57. Greyon 25 Jan 2017 at 8:14 am

    For coming up with weaknesses, start with what seems logical for their powers.

    Intangibility (depending on the mechanics) may be weak to fire or electricity.
    Teleporters may have to see where they’re going, or risk telefrag.
    Many a super-strong character has been undone by a lack of anchoring ability.
    Invulnerability can be bypassed by intangibility.
    Speedsters are vulnerable to loss of friction or gravity.
    Pyro-wielders are vulnerable to low oxygen, water, and/or ice.
    Vis a vis, Cryo-wielders are likely vulnerable to high temperatures.
    Super-senses are more prone to sensory overload.

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