Dec 26 2009

Differentiate Your Writing or Else: What Kind of Superhero Story Is It?

Published by at 7:24 am under Genre,Writing Articles

When you’re laying out your book for agents, publishers and prospective readers, you need to keep in mind what the “default” story in your field is. If you say you’re writing a superhero story, people will assume it is a default superhero story unless you specify otherwise.  Be careful! Default stories will probably be rejected.

  • Audience: 13-30 year old males.
  • Genre: action.
  • Main character: a Peter Parker (student-turned-superhero) or Clark Kent (mostly unconflicted adult)
  • Character voice: none.
  • Interesting events: none.
  • Mood: none.
  • Authorial style: none.

Hopefully you’re thinking to yourself something like the following: “wait, that’s not fair! My story’s not like that!” (If not, I’d REALLY recommend fleshing out your characters and plot events and practicing your writing as much as possible).


What you should take away from this is that you cannot just call your book a superhero story. What kind of superhero story is it? If you leave it for literary agents, editors and (eventually) prospective readers to fill in the blanks, you are screwed.

Here are some questions to help you flesh out your story beyond the default.

Genre. What do your characters do besides fights and chase scenes? Is there a major romantic angle? Are there major elements of sci-fi or fantasy? Is the reader meant to spend a lot of the time laughing? (Comedy). Do the characters spend a lot of time trying to discover information and/or solve a particular crime? (Mystery). Does fear or a horrible creature play prominently? (Possibly horror).

Main character and character voice. What are some distinguishing traits of the main character(s)? What’s his personality like? What’s his background like? How is his voice different from other characters in the book? How do the main characters interact with each other? (For example, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are brothers with a love-hate relationship, Battlestar Galactica features paranoia and intrigue at every turn, Batman has notably few relationships, pretty much any romantic comedy has laughably hopeless lovers, etc).

Interesting events. Most superhero stories feature an origin event that gives the superheroes their powers, an act 2 fight where the villain comes out ahead, and a climactic battle where the hero(s) finally defeats the villain and saves the day. What else happens in your story?  For example, the climax of my first comic book is a job interview with a surly mutant alligator.   Maybe yours is a bank heist during prom.  Flesh out the details in a way that make sense for your characters and your story.

Mood (what the audience is meant to feel, mainly). This distinguishes, for example, a dark comedy like Dr. Strangelove from a wacky office comedy (Superhero Nation or The Office) or a quiet thriller by Hitchcock from a gruesome cut-’em-up.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Differentiate Your Writing or Else: What Kind of Superhero Story Is It?”

  1. thepopeofbeerson 26 Dec 2009 at 2:05 pm

    This article has given me a lot to think about. If I had to choose a genre for my book-in-progress, I’d have to call it a superhero horror story. With comedic elements. I think.

    I see where you’re coming from with the identifying-the-genre-of-your-story thing. If your story is mostly a romance, certain notes should be hit. Same for a thriller or a alternate history or historical erotica. Knowing your genre(s) can help solidify your plot/characters/voice as opposed to trying to write a story that’s equal parts survival horror, steampunk, parody, and mystery and missing the mark. Incidentally, I may have just come up with the most awesome combination of genres ever.

    But I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms before. Thanks.

  2. Struggling Joeon 27 Dec 2009 at 7:03 pm

    Good call on the character voice. A plain superhero without tragedy won’t work, but even the tragedy has to be unique to a much higher degree. Lost parents? Seen it. But a superhero who hates the fact that he’s a super hero and hides it from his pregnant wife who is soon to divorce him for being unable to fully commit. did I mention he’s a raging alcoholic? There’s some angst. It wold certainly add some voice and stop a stereotype.

  3. Luna Jamniaon 27 Dec 2009 at 7:17 pm

    So … it is quite typical for a young soon-to-be-superhero to lose his family and have to live with another relative? Darn. :/
    Not that I didn’t know that. It’s just when I think of a superhero’s family dying it seems like such a huge event but when I think of the way Zach’s family is going to, it seems like they die in a normal, random, sad way just like everyone else. Except all the superheroes families’ die the same way, seems different for Zach though but it’s probably just me.

  4. B. Macon 28 Dec 2009 at 2:59 am

    I think that it’s pretty typical for a superhero to lose at least one parent and often both. Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Tony Stark (Ironman), Superman, Wolverine, etc. Often violently and usually in a way that propels the story. (For example, in Armored Adventures, the Mandarin kills Tony Stark’s father in an attempt to steal a ring that Ironman later has to recover).

    It’s probably not a problem that your hero will be an orphan, like many other heroes. Just execute it well. For example, give him a fresh set of adopted parents. For example, what if the adopted parents were (for whatever reason) largely incompetent or unwilling? Harry Potter used nasty adopted parents to great effect, but maybe you could try the reverse: the parents are too coddling and leave him poorly prepared to handle himself as a superhero.

    What if the biological parents are alive but bad people? This could range from something as high-scale as Darth Vader’s offspring being hidden from him to something as sadly mundane as abusive/negligent parents.

  5. Luna Jamniaon 28 Dec 2009 at 9:29 am

    He loses his family when he’s 15 (car accident, he survives), and then an aunt takes him in. Nothing is ever said of his father though, he and his siblings grew up in a ‘single mother’ home.
    I was thinking it was different because he loses his siblings as well and because it’s in a ‘normal’ way … like people could relate more, because a lot of people (unfortunately) die in car accidents and it’s not so far a reach. He will have difficulty/be jumpy and all when he has to be driven somewhere/be in a vehicle; that sort of thing. I’d think it’d be natural to be that way though after what happened, even though he knows by then he can’t be too easily hurt, it’s all part of the psychological affects and all that.

    eh. Perhaps I aught to wait until I’m actually a good way into the story or I’ve finished it to ‘differentiate’ it. I’m supposed to be writing for myself right now I guess, and writing for others and getting it ready to send off to people will be a long time after. I just want it to be good. ^^

  6. PaintedSainton 28 Dec 2009 at 10:36 am

    Luna Jamnia:

    Oh, it is RIDICULOUSLY typical for the main character to lose both parents or only one of them. I actually don’t recall any of the Disney princesses having both parents, Mulan aside.

    Car accidents are an accepted way for parents to kick the bucket, but I don’t think it would be necessarily relatable if people who actually been in a car accident happened to pick up your work. However, I do like that you’re not shrugging off the accident as easily as some amateur authors would do by mistake.

  7. Beccaon 28 Dec 2009 at 3:59 pm

    My superhero has both parents, and they are very average suburban-type people. Insanely proud of him, of course, and they offer their home up as a Batcave when his place is destroyed. Not to sound pretentious, but I based him off the opposite of most superheroes… he also doesn’t have a secret identity or day job.

  8. Luna Jamniaon 28 Dec 2009 at 4:53 pm

    PaintedSaint: I just want it to be more realistic, I don’t know about relatable though. And yes, I did think it’d be more realistic/add a bit of realism to the story if there was actually a ‘side effect.’ I know I’d definitely be uneasy getting into a car if I’d been in an accident, and he’s had his whole family killed.

  9. PaintedSainton 28 Dec 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Why is it that his whole family is killed, except for him? Does his powers happen to awaken at that convinient time? That also raises the question of how he got his powers. For example, if he got his powers through genetic inheritance, it wouldn’t make sense for his entire family to die.

  10. Luna Jamniaon 28 Dec 2009 at 10:39 pm

    ‘Xactly. There are some things I still haven’t quite worked out. But one of the things is like the gene that causes it or whatever is dormant and useless in many of the lines that have that gene, only a few families/lines do have it and its, well, very rare that its active and stuff. Like say in a family w/ … 20 generations maybe one kid could get it? I have it all worked out in my head. >.>

    Anyhow it is possible that other people have that gene as well;jand most keep to themselves because it’s freaky (though now I’ve just come up with a side thing, a few could’ve joined a ‘freak circus’, that’d be great cover sort of). Like Zach could eventually find a small group, at the most five, of varying ages of people who have the same ability. It’s just random, who gets it, but it’s rare. (?) And maybe they all found out around 15 years of age, a little older/average ‘puberty’ age or whatever is when it starts to happen or something? Or there are clues before then? Or they never really notice, cause not necessarily their entire body is gonna be metal-ish, I’m thinking, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who go through life without being majorly injured/bumped so it is possible it could go unnoticed until then?

    Like I said … not all totally thought out yet. 🙂

  11. Wingson 21 Jan 2010 at 9:05 pm

    In my own work, I think that Darkstar Rising is both closer to established superhero story norms and farther away from them all at once. It’s set in a world with death rays and punch clock villains, powersuits and costumed heroes, in a city much like the ones of Marvel and DC lore. At the same time, I try to pull my universes away from older ones…and sometimes they just pull themselves. For instance, the Six evolved from a typical superhero group to something that’s a bit more like a dysfunctional law enforcement team which just happens to wear masks and capes. For instance, one almost traditional part of a superhero is the mask. Along with the cape, it’s a superhero icon and has appeared on the majority of popular heroes and many unpopular ones. However, the only masked hero on my team is Hikari – though, to be fair, Masochist has Clark Kent-esque glasses when not on duty, Shift was a shapeshifter, and Hummingbird’s helmet obscures his eyes…Overall, though, the team in Darkstar Rising is more “public” – that is, they have no secret identities. Again, not an angle I was trying for, but I think that a full-time group like the Fantastic Four or the Teen Titans fits them better than the whole “secret identity” idea.

    The heroes of HTSTW are definitely closer to established supers – the X-Men being the most prominent influence, especially with the mutation-based powers. However, I do my best to keep my naturals away from the X-Men’s mutants. For instance, “mutant” powers normally manifest in puberty according to the X-men. In my own little universe, people who were born with powers (Not including our main characters, who were genetically altered) have them since birth, although they do become stronger and more difficult to control as the person grows older. Still, it is presumed that for “altered” Naturals (Those who were changed by the Diamond or Crimson’s chemical) age, as well as subconscious desires, does help determine the strength and nature of the power. Connor, changed at age 11, is easily the most powerful Natural in the series, even after I took a few things away to make him less of a Superman. (Julian is technically much more powerful, but the fact that he was fused with the Diamond should be taken into consideration.)

    -Wings

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