Aug 15 2011

Selecting Effective Superpowers

First, a caveat.  Generally, good superpowers will not save an otherwise poor story and poorly-chosen superpowers probably won’t doom an otherwise good story.  If the characters are a bore and the conflict fizzles, it doesn’t really matter which superpowers they have.


1. I would recommend going with versatile abilities/powers rather than more particular ones.  It’s a lot more creative, memorable and often visually interesting to see a character use his powers in a way that the user’s manual never intended. In contrast, if Superman tries to fly, it’s generally a perfectly smooth operation and his success is never in doubt because he has a power that is good for nothing else but flying.  In contrast, if Yomiko (from Read or Die) tries to fly by using her paper-control abilities to rig together a giant paper airplane, that takes real daring and cunning.  “Do you know how to fly that thing?”  “Uhh, what about the rain?”  “Can your plane withstand gunfire?”  The uncertainty helps make the improvised solution more interesting.


1.1.  I’d like to see the characters in some situations where their powers are not obviously useful.  I think the biggest reason some writers give their characters huge amounts of superpowers (5 or more, let’s say) is that they’re scared that their characters might be caught in a situation that can’t be immediately solved with a superpower. First, it’s more interesting/creative if a character can’t just solve a problem by turning his powers on.  (See Superman vs. Yomiko above). Second, superpowers are only one part of the characters’ capabilities, right?*  It’s okay if they have some problems/situations that have to be resolved by other means.  (When was the last time you read about a wizard that solved all of his problems with magic?)  If the superpowers are the only capability that the superhero uses, I would recommend reconsidering whether you’re neglecting the person behind the mask.


*For example, your characters hopefully have skills, practical life experience (from a job or elsewhere), talents besides superpowers, education, personal strengths, resources/assets, etc. Characters may also be able to leverage their reputation, authority and/or standing among different groups (like the police, criminal groups, the public, etc) in certain situations. For example, if your hero’s been framed as a criminal and her bank account’s been frozen, maybe she can march up to Fast Eddie on the corner and demand the perpetrator’s name and a flamethrower on credit.  It would take one hell of a personality and/or reputation to convince a hardened criminal to cough up a flamethrower with threats.  And she might also need to convince him that she’s likely enough to defeat the perpetrator that the perpetrator won’t come back and kill Fast Eddie for snitching.


2.  An overly complex superpower may detract from the development of the rest of the story.  My rule of thumb is that if a character’s superpowers take more than 1-2 sentences to explain, there’s probably too much going on.  For the most part, time spent explaining superpowers is usually not spent on characterization, transitions/coherence, conflict development, motivations, major choices and other elements that publishers actually care about.  (For example, I’ve seen quite a few publishers specify that they’re looking for believable, consistent and interesting characters–like Dark Horse Comics–but I’ve never seen anybody mention superpowers in the submission guidelines.  They’re just a means to an end–an interesting story–not the end itself).  Alternately, if you want to really delve into the superpowers and you feel like they’re such an interesting component of the story that they warrant that space, you could at least incorporate it into characterization, major choices and the like.  For example, in Bitter Seeds, one protagonist’s powers are bestowed by malevolent spirits that demand gruesome sacrifices.  Understandably, some characters do not take well to this, so the cost of the powers creates an obstacle to team cohesion and friendships/partnerships.


3.  I’d recommend using capabilities appropriate to the story’s tone, style and target audience.  If you’re doing an upbeat kid’s story, you might want to leave the machine guns at home.  (We weep for you, children’s writers).  Personally, I’m using mostly agility-based powers for The Taxman Must Die, an action-comedy that I’d like to keep a pretty soft PG-13.


4.  Can the character be challenged?  For more details on this, I’d recommend checking out How to Save Insufficiently Challenged Heroes (especially #4).


24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Selecting Effective Superpowers”

  1. Aj of Earthon 16 Aug 2011 at 8:18 pm

    This is excellent.

  2. Snowon 16 Aug 2011 at 10:04 pm

    “For example, if your hero’s been framed as a criminal and her bank account’s been frozen, maybe she can march up to Fast Eddie on the corner and demand the perpetrator’s name and a flamethrower on credit.”

    Maybe she could use the crime she’s been framed for as some leverage, depending on who it is. If she takes the credit for it in the right circles, that might be enough to get her where she wants to be, and with what she wants to have.

    If she’s well-known as a cop-type, she might be able to threaten him with more jail time, especially if he is currently doing something illegal. On the flip side, maybe she’s willing to overlook whatever unsavory act he’s in the midst of committing, but only if he helps her, and right now.

    I really like the paper airplane thing. It’s very clever.

    I’m definitely going to take another look at my characters and see if any of them might be hiding some talents from me. Thanks for this!

  3. B. Macon 16 Aug 2011 at 11:57 pm

    “Maybe she could use the crime she’s been framed for as some leverage, depending on who it is. If she takes the credit for it in the right circles, that might be enough to get her where she wants to be, and with what she wants to have.” I like that! Turning a liability into an asset is very clever. Clearly you would make a good cop-turned-fugitive on a crazy mission to clear your name because There’s Nobody You Can Trust.

    “If she’s well-known as a cop-type, she might be able to threaten him with more jail time…” Yeah, but if she’s been framed of a crime, a threat based on legal authority might not be credible. I think her new criminal reputation, her preexisting relationships and skills might be more useful. For example, if she’s a cop-turned-fugitive, perhaps she can get some help from her ex-partner. (She’d probably have to convince him that she’s innocent, but he’d probably be at least willing to hear her out–maybe she saved his life once?)

  4. Sylaron 17 Aug 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Hiro Nakamura had to learn to rely on his own the hard way, when he tried to confront Usutu and got knocked out… twice.

  5. Aj of Earthon 21 Aug 2011 at 8:38 am

    Likewise, Sylar spent the entire 2nd season without any of his abilities. He had to rely solely upon his cunning and manipulation of others.

  6. goodness graciouson 11 May 2012 at 8:11 am

    The Constantine comics are a good example. Although Constantine is a cool spellcasting demonslayer. He pisses off most bad guys by making deals and double crossesing demons.

  7. Yuuki12on 29 Jun 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Hello everyone. First off, I have a question in regards to creativeness for the following power: sound manipulation. Now, my character, Derek, was originally, going to have the power to transform into an anthropomorphic rabbit, but I chose sound because I think its an interesting power to work with. For anyone’s information here’s the sentence which describes his power:

    “By uttering his catchphrase, Derek takes on a transformed state. In the form, he can modify, create and mimic sound for offensive, defensive and other purposes”.

    Now, for granted I know the generic powers that come with the ability are a sonic wail or enhanced hearing, but I think I’ve come with with a couple of ways to which to use the ability in a fresh way.

    The first one is super speed. Now, before anyone says anything, I know the risks behind giving him such a power. Like super strength, it falls into the pantheon of powers which make it hard to challenge most characters. And being that fiction is all about characters facing hurdles and obstacles, this can stymie the concept to say the least.

    However, after given it a lot of thought and contemplation, I decided to go with. A Basically, being that Derek can conjure sound-waves around his body(much like a tuning fork), he can ride them. While very useful, the power DOES come with several drawbacks.

    The first of which is distance. Despite being able to traverse a couple of blocks, he can’t maintain the power for long. The basis is due to exhaustion, specifically intense lactic acid buildup around his legs.

    Thus, he can’t pull a flash and move around the world. The next side-effect deals with velocity. While able to move close to the speed of sound, he has a hard time controlling the direction to which he travels. So for example, if chasing after someone, he encounters a sharp turn, or banking. In those cases, he MUST physically slow himself down, else he won’t be able to stop.

    And this inability to not stop moving leads into the final weakness. Although protected with the initial forces, while running, Derek’s not protected against exterior obstacles, like cars or buildings. If he were to strike them, the speed at which he’s traveling would be enough to severely maim, if not kill him.

    This weakness if anyone was wondering was inspired by an anime series I watched, where
    one of the characters, despite being so fast, was killed, because he carelessly ran into a series of hail drops.

    All in all, I understand this power might still be complicated to use, but hopefully, it might be more manageable. Alas, the second power, associated with sound, I came up with for Derek, is called audio recall.

    Derek’s brain has an innate understanding of sound. Characteristics, like pitch tone and volume, are all understood by him. With that said, he has the power to recall any sound with the exact, pitch, tone and style conveyed. How it’s explained is that Derek acts like an audio recorder to which he captures sound through his hearing range.

    With that said, there are several drawbacks to this power as well. First his concentration. Derek must actively concentrate on the sound he’s hearing. He compares this to flipping the “record” switch of a recorder.

    The next major drawback deals with duration. Although able to capture a few statement from a conversation or a spurring noise, like a bird’s chirp, he CANNOT capture entire conversations or continuous sounds.

    This is explained that much like a recorder, there’s a limit to how much noise he can store and if he were to overexert himself, this would lead to a major headache.

    I’m curious to see everyone’s view on the matter. While I’ll admit these powers might be a stretch, I am trying my best and such I am open to any suggestions. That said, I’m also aware that powers are only part of what makes a good superhero story; rather it’s characterization, personality and other traits.

  8. YoungAuthoron 30 Jun 2012 at 3:42 am

    1.) i personally think it was a great idea for you not to go with the rabbit power because it might be hard to get the reader interested in Derek.

  9. Fisticuff Joneson 04 Jan 2013 at 8:34 pm

    My story is about wizards and such, but I figure that my question will fit here anyway. I have five characters, each one a young mage, and I need a power class for one last (but main) character. The other four are a psychic, a rune master (magical symbols), a hellraiser (demonic powers), and a geologer (I could use help with this title; they use magic gems and crystals and such). I figure the main character’s powers should be something vague at first, so conflict will arise about him not knowing who he is among his mage peers and being weaker even though he got them all together, but the powers should be pretty powerful. Thoughts?

  10. B. McKenzieon 04 Jan 2013 at 10:38 pm

    “…conflict will arise about him not knowing who he is among his mage peers and being weaker even though he got them all together, but the powers should be pretty powerful…” It appears that he’s an extraordinary exception for some reason out of his control. I think he’d be more interesting if he had a more proactive role. For example, maybe he’s really bothered by something about his magical power (e.g. he wants to be accepted by a particular class of wizards, but does not currently have the powers to convince them to let him in), and him taking some sort of extraordinary and/or high-stakes action to deal with this problem (e.g. getting involved with shady forces he doesn’t fully understand and/or getting much more than he bargained for from a magic-enhancing plot device).

  11. Yuuki12on 06 Feb 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Greetings, everyone. The good news is that I’m quite far in my current work. Despite having some way to go, I do have a new character I am working for another story I wish to tackle in the future. That said, forgive my rambling, and I shall proceed.

    The power I’m giving this individual is forcefield manipulation. Now, for granted, before anyone asks, I did read this site’s article on the matter. It was quite helpful in that regards. With that said, I had some other ideas with it.

    For example, maybe he can encase his fists in forcefields, making makeshift boxing gloves to augment his physical attacks, and shelter them. One other idea is that he can affect the surface tension of them, altering the overall density.

    An example would be maybe he could create a barrier that could reflect energy-based attacks, much like a mirror. Another idea is that maybe can shape his forcefield into sphere, which he calls “force orbs”, to which he can launch to knock back enemies.

    In regards to large constructs, I don’t they suit him, due to his direct personality. It is very much similar to John Stewart as the Green Lantern in Justice League tv show, where he’d favored more direct usage; rather than construct based.

    Maybe, he should shape his forcefield into a thin rope like construct? However, the biggest challenge I am having his coming up with weaknesses. One notable shortcoming I have is concentration-based.

    The density ability I mentioned. What if it takes more out of him to make a denser barrier to protect against an attack; rather, than a softer one. Another idea I have actually comes where somewhere I read.

    Supposedly, the Invisibile Woman’s power to create forcefields is limited to what she can visualize(kind of funny how forcefield-based powers are always skewed towards female superheroes).

    What if he needs to visualize certain properties, associated with his barrier. For example, he projects a rectangular barrier that’s quite dense, but maybe he needs to hold the image in his mind, otherwise, just one small slip in concentration, might cause it to break.

    Any suggestions would be helpful? I apologize how long the message is, it is just I’ve been struggling with defining this power.

  12. Trinityon 28 Mar 2013 at 3:50 pm

    The protagonist that i created has the ability to create & manipulate soundwaves. How versatile can this power be?

  13. B. McKenzieon 30 Mar 2013 at 10:30 am

    “The protagonist that I created has the ability to create and manipulate soundwaves. How versatile can this power be?” It strikes me as somewhat hard to use out of combat.

    1. I suppose it could be used in stealth situations (e.g. masking the sound he/she makes as he/she sneaks around).
    2. The protagonist might be able to impersonate someone over a telephone (or in really low-visibility conditions).
    3. The power strikes me as generally hard-to-use for saving civilians out of combat.
    4. I’d have to see the fight scenes, but I feel the risk of monotonousness is relatively high. It may help to work in a side-power or another capability as a change of pace. For example, Black Canary mixes in melee and driving skills with her sonic superpowers.

  14. Peter Ron 12 Jul 2013 at 2:24 pm

    What you wrote above made me realize something–what audience am I writing for? that’s not something I would normally consider until I started hammering out the finer details. I can only assume people my age because anything else is either ways away or forgotten for me.

  15. Clip-Clopon 09 Nov 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Could someone please explain who Sylar is? I’ve heard of but never seen Heroes. Also, from what I hear, he is the villain, so why is he the only Heroes character I hear about?

  16. B. McKenzieon 09 Nov 2013 at 9:24 pm

    “Could someone please explain who Sylar is?” He’s a superpowered serial killer from Heroes with an unusual amount of personality and charm. “Why is he the only Heroes character I hear about?” I can’t speak for the other people you’ve been hearing from, but my take is that Sylar was definitely the most memorable character on the show, and (at least in season 1) he’s one of the best-written characters on any TV show of the last decade. I’d recommend watching the first season of the show. (Just skip every other season… they’re pretty bad).

  17. ANGELLOVERon 21 Oct 2014 at 6:10 pm

    hi, its angellover here. im having a hard time coming up with some weaknesses for my main character. she has the potential to have every superpower, but is that too much? I think it is. like, should she not be able to control these powers, and be overloaded? tell me wat you think.

  18. DancingCaton 03 Mar 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Hi guys, I hath returned.

    Soo… My character’s name is Bellatrix, and she lives in another world (name is still undecided) where she has this weapon thing that she can turn into different things (not whatever she wants, they all sort of stick to the scythe/gun theme) but mainly stays a scythe. And I draw a blank emmediately after super strength in her arms.

    And her mother is a valkyrie, different type than the Norse myth, but sort of similar… anyways they used to live on the moon of this world until the moon was hit by a giant meteor and partially broken up.

    So, do you think super arm strength is a good match, or should I add/remove/change something?

    (And I know this sounds quite similar to a few plots, but I promise I came up with this before I ever heard of them. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than coming up with this great idea and then watching a show or reading a book and thinking, ‘rats, I thought I came up with that.’)

    So, ya. Sorry if I just rambled half the time.

  19. DancingCaton 04 Mar 2016 at 10:54 pm

    I’ve decided to change her name to Alia, and take out the super strength. I suppose it will just end up as her scythe is impossibly weighted- like in some animes, where the girls have really skinny arms and yet are able to effectively use giant weapons.

    I’ve decided to, instead, give her little bursts (about 15 feet) of super speed, but it uses up her energy very quickly and she can kill herself if she runs way too much. It fits better in with her beginning.

  20. B. McKenzieon 04 Mar 2016 at 11:34 pm

    “I know this sounds quite similar to a few plots, but I promise I came up with this before I heard of any of them…” I’d recommend checking out What to Do When Your Story Has Already Been Done.

    For a bladed weapon, I think agility and/or speed would be a more intuitive fit than superstrength.

  21. Greyon 20 Jan 2017 at 10:30 am

    My character, Altair, has two powers, force field manipulation and touch-based healing.
    His force fields are some of the most powerful in the setting. (The only thing seen to break one was a short range rail gun shot.) But creating the force fields causes him a lot of stress, so he keeps his force fields folded into billiard ball-sized orbs and ‘unfurling’ them for use. His healing abilities can heal injuries, cure disease, and remove poison, but he can’t replace lost limbs or organs. He can use his force fields to conduct his healing power, and healing draws from a well tied to his endurance.

    Complex constructs don’t work very well for him, because the force-fields act like paper.

  22. (0_n')on 23 Jan 2017 at 5:28 am

    Grey: The first thought was force=gravitation, but the cliche orb like force fields are boring. They tends to be hard to challenge without a really overpowered antigonists or not useful at all(being able to stop a solar storm, but being challenged by regurlar criminals would leave your hero in situation, there he is just as useful as regurlar person).
    Just saying, cellulose is one of strongest natural fibre known, paper is made out of it, paperlike forcefields would be very strong and flexible. Not bad at all for forcefields being so plastic. In fact orb forcefields are just certain kind of gravitation controlling telekinesis by another name.

    Not sure about healing, it is not very useful when you can make orbs of instant doom.

  23. HIon 28 Aug 2017 at 12:39 pm

    what would you super smart hero against a tank villain

  24. HIon 28 Aug 2017 at 12:40 pm

    some how I deleted the “say to”

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