Feb 20 2010

How Creative Do Your Superpowers Need to Be?

Published by at 3:42 am under Superpowers,Writing Superhero Stories

1.  It doesn’t matter much whether the superpowers you use are unique or not. It is virtually certain that several published superheroes will share the same main powers as yours, and possibly a few of the secondaries as well.   The key to differentiating your characters is giving them distinct personalities, voices, attributes, flaws, goals, obstacles, backgrounds, etc.  If you have those things, you don’t need unique superpowers.  If you don’t have those things, unique superpowers won’t save you.

 

2.  The superpowers are merely a means to an end, an interesting story. But the superpowers themselves are rarely interesting.  When you’re picking powers, please focus more on whether the powers can make interesting scenes than on whether the powers are original.

 


3.  I would recommend against spending more than a few sentences explaining a character’s superpowers in the submission.  In most cases, each extra sentence spent describing a character’s superpowers (or, worse, how they work) is a sentence not spent on something that develops the story.

 

4.  If you’re dead-set on using unique superpowers, it may be easier to use unusual combinations of well-known superpowers rather than really exotic powers.  Readers are familiar with martial arts-based characters and a bajillion varieties of elemental controllers, but probably not too many martial artists that control an element (besides Avatar).  One of the advantages is that you don’t have to spend much time explaining the powers and they may have unexpected and interesting uses.  For example, the aforementioned earth controller/martial artist might hobble his enemy’s footing by messing with the ground and then beat him silly.  In contrast, if you go with a power that’s very rare (like the ability to control something unusual like gravity), then you’ll spend more time explaining to readers what the character can do.

 

5.  If your character’s powers include the word “reality,” tread very carefully. To me, “reality warping” and “reality manipulation” are code for “this character can do whatever the author wants,” which will make it very hard to challenge the character and/or explain the powers to readers.  Will you be able to set up limits so that readers can understand what the character can and cannot do?  Can you come up with enough ways to challenge the character?  If not, please go back to the drawing board.

 

Are you writing a fantasy or sci-fi?  I think these guidelines apply to magic, supernatural abilities and the abilities of nonhuman races just as easily as superpowers.

45 responses so far

45 Responses to “How Creative Do Your Superpowers Need to Be?”

  1. Contra Gloveon 20 Feb 2010 at 5:02 am

    My heroine’s power is basically a downgraded version of Static’s, though I did not set out to copy him.

    Sometimes I forget that my heroine has superpowers at all — I’m usually more focused on her motivation for fighting.

  2. Bronteson 20 Feb 2010 at 10:18 am

    My main character has a sort of “reality altering” power but in the sense that he is able to merge past and current events to suit his own vision. The thing is once his powers are active other peoples perception are also included in the “big picture”.

  3. Contra Gloveon 20 Feb 2010 at 10:47 am

    @ Brontes

    You might want to work on that — “reality warping” sounds like something troublesome.

  4. Princess GGon 20 Feb 2010 at 11:46 am

    That’s rather complicated, Brontes…

  5. B. Macon 20 Feb 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Hello, Brontes! I have two main concerns about these sorts of powers.

    1. Can the character be challenged? How would other characters beat him? (I think Sandman did a pretty good job of this).

    2. Can readers easily understand what he can do? I feel like this is a pressing issue in your case. In particular, I’m having trouble envisioning how other peoples’ perception and “the big picture” tie into the ability to merge past and current events.

    Also, I think his powers might make it harder to remember what’s going on because he may be able to radically change the past events of the book. For example, let’s say your book has John die and Lucy born fairly early. Can he merge past events of when John was still alive and/or when Lucy was unborn to bring John back and/or get rid of Lucy? If so, readers might have trouble keeping the story together. “There WAS a character named Lucy, but she’s gone now. Also, please try to forget that John died; that never really happened, either.”

  6. Lighting Manon 20 Feb 2010 at 2:10 pm

    This is actually a really comforting article to me, I’ve always felt insecure about my primary protagonist’s powers due to the number of superheroes with similar abilities, he is a Jekyll/Hyde type with lycanthropy mixed in for giggles, but I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to make his personality, backstory and the predicament presented by his powers unique. The thing that worries me is you’ve got Hulk, Wolverine, Timber Wolf, several Jekylls, the Astonishing Wolf-Man, Beast from X-Men, Wolfsbane and a few others all in either the Jekyll or Werewolf-y camp, which is quite daunting.

  7. B. Macon 20 Feb 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Not even mutant crocodilians are unique. They came up in TMNT, Elephantmen, and probably Batman depending on how you classify Killer Croc.

    Also, there are so many comic book characters named Agent Orange (four) that it has its own disambiguation page on Wikipedia. And one of THOSE is another reptile (the Green Lantern villain).

  8. Bronteson 20 Feb 2010 at 3:33 pm

    My character is able to produce a virtual reality based upon his perception of time. The reality he creates is not concrete, but is a maleable substance. This is true only after his power is activated. It takes a independent course which can be altered.By each sentient individual
    based upon their own perception of the past and their immediate time. He is vulnerable and dies because of the side-effect of another character’s power. When this happens reality is restored to its original state.

  9. Contra Gloveon 20 Feb 2010 at 4:36 pm

    @ Brontes

    I dunno…it still seems like it would be confusing.

  10. Lighting Manon 20 Feb 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I think it might be a short-story or small graphic novel from his description, not an ongoing series. I think there is a market for it, and without achieving months, years, or even dozens of pages of continuity that is constantly being remolded and needing to be kept in mind, most of the common concerns don’t really apply, as plenty of Philip K. Dick-ian type stories of altered histories, unreliable narrators and drug addicts have worked, even from first time writers.

  11. Gurion Omegaon 23 Feb 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Don’t forget this: readers are often even MORE thrown into the story if the see character struggle; that is, they’ll keep thinking: “Cool, but I wonder what’ll happen if the character has to fight someone who is good at there weakness?” Make sure the weaknesses balance out the strengths. One shining example is Ender’s Game . Ender was a born leader. But Bonzo cornered him alone in the bathroom. Yes, Ender kicked his jass, but the danger was, NOBODY ELSE WAS WITH HIM! Or Bean, a loner, buuuuuuuttt he manages to get five other people to witness Achilles’s confession.

  12. Call of Cthulhuon 17 Mar 2010 at 8:10 am

    In my ongoing…thing, I do use some standard powersets, but I also have some I think are unique:

    The main character can manipulate momentum and inertia (if something is already moving he can change it’s direction, speed it up, stop it, etc.) of inanimate objects that aren’t moving too fast and aren’t too heavy. Sort of a limited telekinesis for mobile objects.

    Other powers are:
    Musclemass manipulation. The character can move his muscles around his body so if he wants to run faster he’ll make his legs more muscular, if he wants to hit harder he’ll increase his arm strength, etc. He can only work with what he has, so he can’t spontaneously create muscles.

    Unlimited metabolizing of alcohol. Essentially the guy can drink all he wants and never gets drunk or impaired. He’s used as a sort of spy; he’ll infiltrate an organization, go partying with the people, and get them drunk to try and get information out of them.

    And a few others.

  13. Ragged Boyon 17 Mar 2010 at 6:55 pm

    I used to (and still do) suffer from the problem in #2. I’m always trying to come with inventive, original powers. I doubt it’s something I’ll train myself out of, though. I have a lot of fun coming up with unique powers. Although, water manipulation is a bit generic for Showtime, but I feel it’s very malleable to my creativity. Also, I added that he could control its properties for a little extra kick. I think a writer’s creativity is also a very important factor in writing powers. A good writer can take a generic power and use it interestingly.

  14. TheNewHeroon 30 Mar 2010 at 9:42 am

    Yo guys, as a possible strategy for those of us who like to come up with unique powers (like Ragged), how about using simple logic. Identify a problem, fix it. All you need is a basic knowledge fo scientific principles I say. e.g No fire underwater? YOu could use the lame excuse about how your character is SO powerful, or you could look at fire and what it’s all about. It’s energy, essentially. And if you could continue that energy… Okay, that’s not really my idea. (http://www.superheronation.com/ – look for energy continuation or something) but it works! Your ketchup/tomato sauce is too slow? Have a hero that can manipulate the viscosity of liquids (Then put some limit like what he is in physical contact with) and viola! He could do stuff like run on water, make his saliva sticky, swim faster than most, make water thick etc.

    And how would you explain that in 2 sentences? “I can manipulate viscosity. Basically, my ketchup.tomato sauce is never runny – so long as I can touch it.”

  15. Wingson 17 Aug 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I participated in a collaboration in which the main characters were Reality Warper gods. However, they existed in a universe where almost everyone had equal or greater power than them. Would they still be considered overpowered?

    – Wings

  16. B. Macon 17 Aug 2010 at 7:23 pm

    If reality warping is something like “My character can do anything he wants to do,” I think it would be a problem. It’ll probably feel like the author is just making up stuff as he/she goes along (i.e. why a character is able to get past some situations but not others). If readers know what the limits are, it might not be. Otherwise, it’ll be hard to challenge the character without readers wondering “Umm, he can bend reality! Why can’t he get himself out of that one?”

  17. Wingson 17 Aug 2010 at 8:12 pm

    At the beginning, both of them main characters are nearly omnipotent- but bear in mind that they live in a world inhabited by people with that are equal to theirs – and in some cases, more powerful than theirs (A Greek goddess, the personification of vengeance, and a demonic Evil Counterpart come to mind). Recently, both have been brought down to normal, with one’s powers being greatly diminished and the other one only retaining Batman superpowers (Money, resources and a faithful butler).

    – Wings

  18. xmarkson 09 Oct 2010 at 11:28 pm

    I got an idea for a new power. Psionic disruption, gives the power to cause disturbances in matter including, making things freeze or heat to extreme temperatures. It also allows the user to rearrange atomic particles. Not sure about it tell me what you guys think.

  19. Ragged Boyon 10 Oct 2010 at 12:54 pm

    It’s reminiscent of Jinx’s abilities in the Teen Titans Animated Series, but I don’t think the idea is unoriginal. I’m still not exactly sure of her capabilities but the ability sounds doable.

  20. haha... no.on 01 Feb 2011 at 1:05 am

    i’m still on the drawing board for my book at the moment, but my main character has the ability to control the air around him (eg. in a small room). I know that sounds rather vague as its main description but there are various sub powers that come as part of it which manifest sporadically throughout the book a) can influence air temperature; b) air composition (eg. amount of oxygen etc.); c) manipulate refraction of light around him to become invisible (sounds kind of corny but based on scientific theories) d) fly by creating air currents… just wondering if it’s kind of overkill? :S haha

  21. Nicholas Caseon 01 Feb 2011 at 6:21 am

    Well it is too vague. And if he can control how much oxygen is in a place then all he has to do is suffocate the attacker/victim. Those sub powers are a bit too much.

  22. B. Macon 01 Feb 2011 at 7:29 am

    “And if he can control how much oxygen is in a place then all he has to do is suffocate the attacker/victim.” Possibly, but I got the impression that his ability to control the air composition might not be that precise. For example, maybe he couldn’t suffocate someone in the room without suffocating everybody else (including himself) because he can’t control just one person’s air supply at a time.

    The invisibility sounds believable. The flight, maybe less so. Is the flight really important to the plot? If not, one related ability that might be more believable would be the ability to safely fall great distances. He could do that by dramatically increasing his air resistance* or by thickening out the air enough so that the impact of him hitting the ground was drawn out as long as possible. (It hurts less to fall onto a bed or trampoline than concrete because the springier surfaces distribute the force over a greater period of time). Levitation would also be believable, I think.



    If this is for a comic book, one concern I’d have if this were the main protagonist is that these powers don’t seem to lend themselves well to interesting visuals. (If it’s a novel with a heavy action component, the powers would probably not make for the most epic action sequences, but you could write around that pretty easily).



    *I suspect that 99%+ of readers won’t catch the friction problem here. If you think physic-minded readers are a major portion of your audience, you could briefly explain how he keeps the heat from melting him.

  23. Sylaron 04 Mar 2012 at 7:28 pm

    B.Mac, it would appear that I require your advice and services once again. I’m writing a comic called, “Unstable”. The story focuses on two main characters with electricity-based powers (to an extent): The muscular, yet intelligent Samuel Macon (powers: Electrical generation, telekinesis, and electrical manipulation) and the intelligent, yet insane Allen Lanoire, a villain operating under the alias “Lucifer” (his powers are exactly the same as Samuel’s).

    Anyway, their powers come about as a result of an unstable amount of human voltage and electrons in their body.

    But how can I get the powers I’ve listed to work for them accurately, while making the confrontations interesting?

  24. B. Macon 05 Mar 2012 at 6:04 am

    “How can I make the confrontations interesting?”

    –It may help to tweak one of the character’s powers so that they don’t overlap as much. Right now, it looks like a mirror matchup, which I think is relatively difficult to make interesting. Some of the mirror matchups that come to mind are Hulk-Abomination, Superman-Bizarro, Green Lantern-Sinestro and Snake Eye-Storm Shadow. Maybe Wolverine-Sabertooth. I think SE-SS, Wolverine-ST and maybe GL-Sinestro are the most promising because their powers lend themselves well to a fight where the characters put more thought into it than just rushing at each other or a DBZ-style battle where the characters just mindlessly blast each other with their powers and pray that their powers are strong enough that they win the inevitable moment when their laser blasts hit each other in the middle.

    –What settings did you have in mind for the battles between the two? For example, in a Wolverine vs. Sabertooth wilderness battle, the wilderness adds a few layers (e.g. the hunting aspect, more of an element of surprise, maybe luring the opponent into an unfavorable position so that he can’t easily flee, etc). In Chronicle, a movie with one battle between telekinetics, I think the urban setting added a third and fourth party to the fight (police and helpless bystanders). That and the chase element made it a bit more complex and enjoyable than just two telekinetics trying to zap each other.

    “But how can I get the powers I’ve listed to work for them accurately…” I’m not sure I understand this question. Could you please clarify? (Does “accurately” mean “in a precise fashion,” “in a scientifically believable way,” or something else?)

  25. Sylaron 05 Mar 2012 at 1:22 pm

    I mean accurately as in scientifically believable. How can someone have telekinesis via human voltage?

    BTW, the settings are mostly urban.

    And, while they have the same powers, they are not equal. Lucifer kills people who give off electrical charges like him and Samuel. Then, he absorbs the charge to enhance his own powers, making him stronger than Samuel.

  26. Zangetsuon 06 Jun 2012 at 7:06 pm

    First off, I do want to thank you for writing this article. It was quite informative and such has helped me a lot.

    With that said, I do have a couple of concerns regarding my character and his powers. Specifically, before even considering powers, I wanted to focus on his characterization, for as you have stated, that should be the real focus of any story.

    That said, in regards to powers, I decided on sound manipulation. Here’s a the two sentence description: “Derek powers revolve around sound. He can modify, create and mimic sound wave for offensive, defensive and other purposes”.

    Hopefully that isn’t too vague, because you have claimed that if one can explain powers in one or two sentences, then that’s good. Specifically, to my knowledge, I

    don’t know a lot of sound-based heroes, aside from Black Canary and Songbird. Aside from the generic sonic cry, there was two other things I had wanted to give him,based on the powers.

    First is something I like to call audio recall. In essence, Derek, has the power to take in a sound and recall it exactly as it was played. He describes it like a audio recorder, where he’s able to understand pitch, tone and frequency of a sound and such store it.

    To reign in the ability and not make overpowered, there are two drawbacks. First is concentration. Derek needs to actively listen and focus to use the power. In the story, he jokes how like a recorder, it’s like him flipping the “record switch”.

    Given he needs to concentrate, he can also only capture only a few minutes of noises.

    So while he could catch important parts of conversations, he can’t recall lengthy conversations or continuos sounds.

    The next ability I want to give him is a type of super speed, which he calls “Sonic Sprint”. Now, I understand this could be a huge risk. Super speed, strength and any of those generic powers tend to make superheroes either forgettable or hard to challenge.

    How it’s explained is that he can ride atop sound waves, which are generated by his feet. That said, there are several nasty drawbacks.

    One is distance. While able to traverse a couple of blocks in an instant, Derek cannot maintain the power for long. This is because of the fatigue (specifically lactic acid build up) which accumulates around his legs. So while he could zip through a couple of blocks, he can’t pull a Flash and zip around the world, because of fatigue.

    The second disadvantage has to deal with velocity. While able to accelerate, the character can find it hard to adapt to sudden chances in direction. So for example, when faced with a turn, he has to deliberately slow himself down, because, if not, he’ll loose control and be sent flying.

    In fact, the velocity weakness can be his downfall. While sheltered from the air pressure from his powers, if Derek, at top speed, were to run into an object, like a car, he could end up severely injured or possibly killed. If you are curious this was inspired by a character in an anime series called Darker than Black.

    Without giving spoilers, while able to move fast, he needed to be careful where he ran, because if he collided into certain objects, it could injure, if not, kill him. Hopefully that suffices as a good explanation, as again super speed could break him.

    Finally, for all around weaknesses, this was a little harder, but I think I may have found several. First I made Derek’s powers tied with his emotions. So, if he’s overly angry or sad, he could accidentally trigger them. Next, I stated that while his vocal cords are enhanced to generate such high pitches, continuous use of his powers will wear at them and in essence give him a sore throat.

    Finally, aside from sensitivity to noises from his enhanced hearing, I understand that Sound requires a medium. So in areas, like a vacuum, Derek’s powers will be useless. All in all, I do apologize for the length of the message, but I hope these ideas don’t make him too complicated or powerful.

  27. Red Rocketon 14 Jun 2012 at 6:14 pm

    The problem is that my guy’s powers are unique, but I’m not sure how practical. He can break up into little particles and fly around like a swarm of bees, almost like Sandman from Spiderman 3, as well as break up individual parts of his body in that fashion, but I have a feeling his adventures may start to look too similar after some time.

  28. Nowadayson 21 Oct 2012 at 3:39 pm

    For my heroines powers, well she actually has eyes in the back of her head. Not actually eyes it’s more like slits in space that act as eyes. That she can move around to look for hidden things. I might actually use them as a tracker device

    . I think that it doesn’t matter how unique a power is, it’s how you use them…….ugggg I sound like a TV add

  29. edgukatoron 21 Oct 2012 at 5:05 pm

    @Red Rocket – that actually sounds more like the villain Swarm, but he is literally a collective of bees.

    @Nowadays – that actually sounds like a well balanced power. The only difficulty you might have is the same problem you would have with Clairvoyance. If your character can just unlock the secrets plans of the enemy by using their powers, then it stops you being able to play around with mysteries.

  30. Dr. Vo Spaderon 21 Oct 2012 at 6:13 pm

    @Nowadays,
    … “I might actually use them as a tracker device” – this confuses me. How do you plan to do this?

    @Any and Everyone,
    …With a character who can create a virtual reality (think Matrix), would this raise the same problems as in point #5 above? From what I can tell, the plan is to use him as an antagonist who tries to put the world in denial about their true reality.

  31. B. McKenzieon 21 Oct 2012 at 8:09 pm

    “…With a character who can create a virtual reality (think Matrix), would this raise the same problems as in point #5 above? From what I can tell, the plan is to use him as an antagonist who tries to put the world in denial about their true reality.”
    –Perhaps, although I think it might be less of a problem for the villain than for a hero. It’s unusual for a villain to be too hard to challenge. “This character can do whatever the author wants him to do” might be an issue, though. Are there any limits readers would be able to grasp?

  32. Dr. Vo Spaderon 21 Oct 2012 at 8:18 pm

    …I think the limit is that he can only put people in their “dream-states” by forcing them to come in contact with his blood. He breaks down the exact chemical/gene that causes this, and spreads it via minions. This is an adequate limitation, right?

  33. Vvonon 07 Nov 2012 at 1:15 pm

    For my character his powers are to manipulate electricity, but if there is a storm he can maniplulate the power of thunder and lightning. Would this be ripping off of Static and Thor? Even though my character uses his power in a diffrent style.

  34. M. Happenstanceon 08 Nov 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Depends on how different the style is. Take it in a different direction than Thor and Static, and you should be fine. If your character’s alarmingly similar to one of the two, though, you might want to change it.

  35. Anonymouson 16 Dec 2012 at 8:10 am

    My character can summon anything he paints with a magical brush, but I think this power is too outlandish or juvenile. Any thoughts?

  36. Anonymouson 16 Dec 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Disregaurd that last comment. I figured out my problem.

  37. Ragveekon 04 Sep 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I’m working on a story where my hero shoots fire from his arms, and i think he might be burnt if he uses it to often. Could that be a good limitation?

  38. Yuukion 05 Jan 2014 at 11:40 pm

    Greetings. I think I have a creative usage for my character, Derek, in terms of sound manipulation: improved balance. I did some research on the human ear, and know that it there are specific tubes to which are filled with fluid. When changes occur, the fluid changes adjusting with the use of a specific nerve to compensate. What if my character can subtly vibrate this inner portion, improving its capabilities. It could enable him to have a form of enhanced dexterity, where he has near perfect balance. All in all, it’s just something I thought up.

  39. JediJaxon 15 Sep 2015 at 12:09 pm

    My hero has the ability to alter his own molecules into lightning. Other characters in the story can also turn themselves into other forms of energy.

  40. Jackon 17 Oct 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I’m glad I found this article. I have been worried for a while that I have been explaining my character’s powers too much in my book. Parr of the story is him discovering what he can do, but I don’t want to waste too much time on it. Thoughts?

    Also a few things to note:

    My character’s story is basically him being forced to go on the run from some bad guys (one powerful guy in particular) and he needs to use his powers to fight back. I in no way want to cut to a point where he is fully in control and go on from there, since there is a specific time frame (about a month or so) in which this takes place.

    He will not access the full extent of his powers in this book.

    His powers are the ability to manipulate darkness. I thought of this when I was a kid and I think it’s mostly origional. His abilities include hiding inside shadows, making shadow clones (for lack of a better term) , and creating objects out of solidified darkness (such as weapons), a dark beam (kinda over used, might need to scrap it), and pulling objects or people into shadows.

    So far, it’s sort of a trickery thing mixed with combat, but there are a lot of abilities that might bore a reader if most of a story Is just talking about his powers.

    In later books, his powers will evolve into seeing into the darkest parts of a person’s mind or soul and less limits on his manipulation.

    During the book, the character has a conflict with a being inside him that is the source of his powers and wants to kill everything.

    I am afraid that if all these abilities might make the reader bored with me trying to explain it, but I don’t want to leave them in the dark (pun kinda intended].

  41. Jade Don 21 Oct 2015 at 8:42 am

    When talking about powers, I find it most interesting to talk about the unique aspects of the powers in respect to the protagonist. What is it like to use these powers? Are there any physical/psychological affects? What is it like to be affected by these powers? How dose it affect the protagonist? What is the relationship between him and the being inside of him? How dose this relationship help/hinder the plot? I know these are just more questions, but answering them can help you to find out how to make the powers more integral to the story an therefore more interesting to read. Also, by focusing on the effects of the powers, describing them is less challenging, because you don’t have to bog down your story with paragraphs of what the powers do, you can show rather than tell. Hope this helps!

  42. Jackon 25 Oct 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks, Jade. I have answers to all of those questions. I won’t answer them here, since I do intend to publish this and probably said too much already. I have a few good goals for the story and these questions did help me with what I want to do. I will try out the showing not telling method as well.

  43. Blaze Kodakon 09 Jun 2016 at 7:50 pm

    Most of my powers are completely unoriginal. The important part is how the character uses their abilities. The more creative, the better. One of my MC’s “Big Iron” can generate plasma via his body’s electric potential. But he uses it for a variety of effects. He can create concussive blasts, hinder radio communication, arc weld with his finger, sheath himself in plasma to protect himself from attacks (advanced technique he takes a while to learn), he blasts locks from doors, and my personal favorite being the way he contains super powered brawls. He creates a small ion storm to essentially create a bubble around the combatants and keep it contained. Another aspect I think is important is that he learn these tricks over time.

  44. B. McKenzieon 09 Jun 2016 at 8:36 pm

    “Most of my powers are completely unoriginal. The important part is how the character uses their abilities. The more creative, the better.” I think creative use of superpowers can be helpful (especially when it helps establish/reinforce a personality trait or a plot point), but I’d recommend focusing 99%+ of your effort/time on elements that usually have a greater effect on publishability (e.g. character development/personality, plotting, pacing and conflicts).

  45. Andrewon 10 Jun 2016 at 1:34 am

    How can you make powers more creative without making characters look like Mary or Gary Stus?

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