Jul 25 2010

13 Ways a Friendly Cop Can Help Superheroes and Urban Fantasy Protagonists

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

In most superhero stories and some urban fantasy, the protagonists know at least one friendly police character. Here are some ways police characters can help the heroes.

1. Alerting the heroes when there’s a problem too large for the police.  Common examples include superpowered robberies, jail breaks, and supernatural/occult/magical serial killers.

2. Crowd control (clearing out civilians during or before a superpowered brawl).  This helps explain why civilians don’t get killed in the crossfire and gives the police something to do besides watch the fight.

3.  Helping the heroes avoid legal trouble.  Or, if the cop is REALLY friendly, helping them break out of jail.

4. Helping superheroes maintain a secret identity.  “This picture of Superman turning into Clark Kent is obviously fake.  At the time it was allegedly taken, I was with Clark Kent on the other side of town.”  Alternately, this might help any protagonist avoid a case of mistaken identity/imposters.  “That bank robber wasn’t the real Harry Dresden! I was discussing a case with Dresden, so the the robber must have been a shapeshifter.”

5. Passing along messages and packages to the heroes, particularly from a villain.  When the Joker wants Batman to see something, the easiest middleman is the police because it wouldn’t make much sense if the Joker knew where to find Batman.

6. Delaying and/or thwarting hostile police officers. In many cases, some police officers are against the heroes, particularly if an antagonist impostor has torn up the town or the heroes are not very careful about collateral damage.  In urban fantasy, some police officers may be uneasy about working with a sorcerer, werewolf or other supernatural creature.  (“I went through six days of testing before I could take my firearm into the field.  How about your wand?)

7. Pointing the heroes to strange things that they should look into, particularly if regular police efforts have failed.  For example, maybe the police chief has axed an investigation into Lex Luthor because Luthor is a close friend of the mayor.  Alternately, perhaps the suspect is working some sort of supernatural or sci-fi voodoo.

8. Possibly lending the heroes resources and equipment they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.  A protagonist could probably buy a police-grade tape recorder (designed for concealment) for under a thousand dollars, but that wouldn’t help him much if he were a pizza delivery boy in junior high school or a wizard without a full-time source of income.  Other technical equipment that might be helpful: a police scanner, video equipment, seized weapons or drugs (for setting up stings), maybe a helicopter ride, and specialized equipment like bomb defusing gear and maybe Geiger counters.  Depending on police-hero relations, the police officer’s assistance may be off the books–if anybody asks the officer, he can say he lost the equipment and is still looking.  Note: this explanation will probably not work for a helicopter.  Not even the police union could protect a cop that lost a helicopter.

9.  Providing access to police evidence. This is particularly useful if the story is more action-oriented and you want to focus on the combat rather than the mystery.

10. Alerting the heroes to potential targets for crime and/or asking for help. It seems like some New York museum is always holding a poorly-guarded exhibit featuring magical artifacts.

11. Interfering with minor antagonists and doing cleanup work. For example, the hero subdues the criminals and leaves them for the police to arrest.   This is particularly helpful for protagonists that lack a vast paranormal organization equipped to handle supernatural trials.  Most superheroes don’t have anything like Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic or the sects of the Vampire Masquerades universe to do the cleanup, so the police are a good fallback plan.

12. Providing an occasional cover story for the heroes. Peter Parker can’t admit to his aunt that he missed curfew because the fight with the Green Goblin took longer than usual, but Nick Fury could “explain” that Peter witnessed a mugging and had to provide a witness statement at the police station.  Note: this works best if the officer knows the hero’s secret identity.

13. Boxing in the villain (early).  Early in the story, many villains need to pretend to be legitimate businessmen (or scientists or whatever), so police involvement can temporarily limit the options available to the villain. For example, a villain under police suspicion may have to avoid outright assassinations in favor of more subtle (and less reliable) staged accidents.  Once the protagonists know what’s going on, secrecy matters much less to the villain and the police become much less useful.

UPDATE: I originally wrote this article with superheroes in mind, but Marilynn Byerly points out that it could be useful for urban fantasy as well. Good thinking! I’ve rewritten some of the points accordingly.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “13 Ways a Friendly Cop Can Help Superheroes and Urban Fantasy Protagonists”

  1. Cassandraon 25 Jul 2010 at 7:42 pm

    I enjoy this article! My character has a police contact and it’s always great to look at new ways they can interact.


  2. NicKennyon 06 Aug 2010 at 9:29 am

    I’ve actually been planning a military captain or lietenant or something in the second and onwards books in the series that I’m writing. He’ll be the field leader of a military based unit that work alongside the heroes.

  3. B. Macon 06 Aug 2010 at 9:55 am

    Hmm, that would be very interesting, NicKenny. I think that a military guy would be an interesting twist on the “friendly authority figure.” The only such example I can think of at the moment is James Rhode before he turned into War Machine*. And maybe Captain Atom in Justice League.

    *In the movies, at least. He’s not that friendly in the comics.

  4. Anonymouson 09 Mar 2013 at 10:34 am

    I have an odd question for you, BM. I haven’t read the Dresden Files sieries, but I heard they were good books, and I know the basic plot of them. Now, if I write an urban fantasy novel with a detective protagonist, how do you suggest I differentiate it from the Dresden Files and other such novels? The basic plot outline I have is that the protagonist, Sam Davis, grew up in a family of voodoo queens but never believed in the actual magic they used. Then, his mother’s wand is stolen and he is charged with recovering it. On his quest, he is introduced to the world of black magic and his ability of talking to ghosts manifests itself. After he recovers the wand, he catches the attention of a mystic PI Agency and signs on. Is this too much like the Dresden Files?

  5. B. McKenzieon 09 Mar 2013 at 7:09 pm

    I think the premise sounds similar, but if the two characters are substantially different (e.g. in personality, major choices, goals/motivation, voice, background, etc), then you’ll be less likely to come across as too similar to the Dresden Files. Giving him substantially different targets of investigation beyond what Harry Dresden has done would also likely help. I’ve only read the first novel–I’d recommend reading them, if only because it will help you differentiate yourself.

  6. Anonymouson 09 Mar 2013 at 7:14 pm

    Alright, thanks. I will pick them up as soon as I can afford to do so.

  7. Fact-Or-Fictionon 11 Apr 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Hey, BMac. I’ve begun the planning stages on an urban fantasy novel, and I had a question. Thus far, it is essentially a buddy cop story starring two partners at a government agency that handles paranormal crises. There are comedic elements, of course. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the basic premise of the novel is fairly typical. I’ve worked on differentiating the characters, but I’m having a little bit of trouble with the setting itself. I could go with the standard fantasy tropes. You know, vampires, fairies, etcetera. This sounds like it could be fine, but I’m hoping to go with something a bit more unconventional. I was considering going with a Lovecraftian flair, with the Great Old Ones playing a central role in the book. Is there interest in that kind of story, or should I stick to what everybody knows?

  8. B. McKenzieon 12 Apr 2015 at 7:06 am

    “Is there interest in that kind of story, or should I stick to what everybody knows?” My impression is that finding readers for urban fantasy would probably be easier than Lovecraftian fiction. Also, I’m guessing that the typical reader for Lovecraftian works expects a particular mood to the work (e.g. an absolutely overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding, main characters going insane, a very real possibility that the protagonist will fail, etc) that may be very challenging to work into a buddy cop comedy.

  9. Fact-Or-Fictionon 12 Apr 2015 at 1:23 pm

    That’s what I figured. I’ve gone with the more traditional fantasy fare, but I’m trying to put my own spin on it.

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