Jan 24 2011
I think it really helps superhero and urban fantasy stories when the supernatural abilities come across as special. Here are some ideas to help yours stand out.
1. Use them less often. The more scenes there are with superpowers, the more diluted their effect will probably be. For example, you could use fewer filler fight scenes or resolve more action scenes without superpowers. Perhaps the powers have limitations, such as their duration. Or maybe outside circumstances force the hero to resolve his problems in other ways (maybe he can’t use his superpowers without risking his secret identity, or he needs to avoid friendly casualties, etc).
2. Increase the costs of the powers. If the decision to use the powers is notable, the powers will probably be more exceptional and interesting. Here are some examples of costs that might fit your story.
- Alerting bigger fish. For example, Frodo can’t use his magical ring without alerting the Ringwraiths and the characters in Walking Dead can’t use guns without calling mobs of zombies.
- Ingredients/resources. For example, Mr. Freeze needs diamonds to fuel his death rays. He’s a villain, though, so he can rob jewelry stores. If your hero had a similarly expensive ingredient to worry about, it’d probably be trickier for him. (Alternately, if the character is extremely wealthy, perhaps the resource is so rare or illegal that it can’t be easily purchased).
- Time/endurance/need to recharge–the powers only last so long, so using them at every opportunity means that the character might peter out in the middle of a battle. Once in a while, the hero might be forced to try fighting without powers.
- Personal health/sanity. Too many stimpacks can have serious side-effects.
- Personality shift/loss of self-control. There are times when turning into the Hulk would only make things worse, such as always.
- Moral corrosion/loss of soul. For example, see Spiderman’s Venom symbiote, Frodo’s ring, and many uses of magic. This is distinct from a personality shift in that it’s usually more gradual and bleeds more into the character’s unpowered life.
- Dangerous debts. Perhaps the character’s powers force him to turn to a dangerous person or force for assistance. Maybe Tony Stark needs to work out a deal with a mad scientist to get a particular capability built into his suit. Other examples might include shady arms dealers, the human-hating magical spirits in Bitter Seeds, demonic forces, Canadians, aliens, demonic arms-dealing human-hating Canadians, etc.
- Relationships/approval. For example, in Bitter Seeds, each use of magic jeopardizes the main character’s partnership with a friend that strongly disapproves of the use of magic. There may be some aspects to a character’s powers that rub others the wrong way.
- Involuntary transformation. The character has little (if any) control over when he transforms into his super-self. The transformation might be triggered by something like his emotions (the Hulk), a time of the day (werewolves), near-death experiences (Kurama), nearby magic, nearby Nazis (Audie Murphy), caffeine and deadlines (B. Mac), etc.
- Secret identity. If a crime happens around Clark Kent or Tony Stark, it’d be harder for them to use their powers without compromising their secret identities. Tony Stark may have to save the day without using the Ironman suit.
3. Describe the experience. Don’t just talk about the end-result (“John teleported to Kansas”). Talk about what it’s like. When John teleports, Kansas hits him at millions of miles per hour and he’s plastered in place like an astronaut strapped in during takeoff. The heat makes it feel like his eyes are going to melt and he can’t walk straight for ten minutes after he gets there. Details like these are a lot more lively than “He teleported to Kansas.”
3.1: Use as many senses as necessary.
- What would the point of view (POV) character observe with sight/sound/touch/taste/smell? For example, if the Human Torch goes nuts on someone, maybe he can’t shake the taste of smoke for the rest of the day.
- Do the powers affect the POV’s state of mind? For example, if the POV gets thrashed by the Hulk, he might get shell-shocked and disoriented. Alternately, most psychic powers could easily mess someone up (the victim and/or the user).
- Is the POV’s perception of time affected? (For example, if he’s using incredible reflexes, or slowing down time, or moving incredibly fast, etc).
- How intense is the situation? A genius figuring out which bomb wire to cut should sound different than one deciding which Uno card to play.
4. Try a variety of uses. For example, instead of more or less interchangeable fight scenes, you can use different settings and circumstances. Instead of doing one battle royale after another, perhaps you mix in a scene where the characters are escaping or chasing another group. Or perhaps they’re facing a different set of antagonists that has to be fought differently. (For example, if Spiderman had to break Aunt May out of prison, he’d probably have to do it without getting any cops hurt because that’s how he rolls).
5. It may help to talk about the process. Unless you’re doing hard science fiction/fantasy, you don’t need to write pages describing how the ionic thrusters or magical channeling work, but I thought the scenes featuring negotiations between the protagonist warlocks and villainous spirits were the most interesting part of Bitter Seeds. Here are some examples that may be applicable to your story.
- How the character’s gadgets or powersuit work
- Describing how a supersmart character notices and processes minor details
What do you think? Am I missing anything?