Archive for September, 2011

Sep 29 2011

Elements of Superhero Stories That Might Be Surprisingly Plausible

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.



1. Invisible jets will probably be feasible within 50 years.  We already have rudimentary cloaking devices and one researcher suggests that it could eventually be used on submarines.  (I wonder if anyone would bother applying this technology to a jet, though.  Isn’t the ability to see jets irrelevant if the battle is resolved from miles away?)


2. An Iron Man-style powersuit might be viable someday.  We already have rudimentary jet packs, military grade lasers, exoskeletons and a five-pound rocket launcher.  I’m not a scientist, but it strikes me as fairly likely that engineers could figure out how to refine and combine those elements.  Then a few questions remain (how to power it, how to stop concussive forces from killing the pilot, and why you’d bother spending all that money on a shell for a human when you could do more with a remotely-operated suit or a robot).


3. Technopathy might be theoretically possible.  According to Scientific American, “Signals channeled directly from the brain can already control computers and other machines.”  From there, I think it’s relatively easy to suspend disbelief that someone might be so capable at doing it that he can hack into machines with his mind.

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19 responses so far

Sep 22 2011

Superpowers Will Not Make a Boring Character Interesting

Here are two common problems I’ve seen with submissions:

  • Characters are developed mainly in terms of their superpowers (e.g. listing out the characters and their superpowers).
  • The novel starts with a superhero-to-be that is not interesting before getting superpowers. (If a character is not interesting before getting superpowers, he/she probably won’t be interesting afterwards, either).


If you’ve encountered either of the above issues, these questions should help.

1. What is the character’s personality like? What are his key traits?


2. What are the character’s goals/motivations like?  How do those tie into the character’s personality and background?  (I guess it’s possible that there’s a not-particularly-bright athlete out there whose burning life goal is to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but trying to make the varsity squad would probably be more intuitive).


3. What sort of unusual decisions does the character make that other superheroes (or superheroes-to-be) wouldn’t?  In particular, why does the character choose to become a superhero?  Is there anything in the character’s personality or background that influences this decision?  (I’d look at that especially hard if the character wasn’t notably brave or violent before getting superpowers).


4.  How is the character different from other superheroes-to-be?  


5.  How is the character different from other characters in the story, particularly other superheroes (if applicable).  


6.  Are there any ways this character’s background, personality and/or skills make him a good (and/or bad) fit for the plot?  Either could create drama.

  • Sherlock Holmes is a good fit against a villain like Professor Moriarty because Moriarty is so dangerous that only someone as competent as Holmes could stop him.  That raises the stakes and makes it easier to challenge Holmes.  (Challenging protagonists is key to generating drama–if the protagonist easily outmatches his obstacles, it probably won’t be as interesting as it could be).
  • If a character is a bad fit, he’d have to work harder to overcome obstacles.  For example, Chuck, Bad Company and The Taxman Must Die are about relatively normal people thrust into super-dangerous spy jobs.  The characters’ lack of preparation and personalities help create tension/conflict with teammates and helps writers wring drama out of obstacles that might have been mundane/forgettable for a spy with years of experience.
  • It’s possible to do both.  For example, Dexter is a serial killer that works as a police crime scene analyst.  On one hand, he’s less likely to get caught because he knows what they’re looking for and can sabotage the investigation.  On the other hand, they’re unusually close to him and have started to ask questions about why he misses so much work.

11 responses so far

Sep 19 2011

Problems Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 2

1. Most superheroes commit crimes fairly frequently.  In real life, some crimes that superheroes would probably be charged with include:

  • assault and battery (preemptively attacking criminals in cases where an immediate threat to the public did not exist).
  • reckless endangerment (using superpowers in a way that unintentionally injured bystanders–it’s implausible that most superheroes would be close to 100% accurate with superpowers, particularly if they’ve only recently developed them).
  • child endangerment (using children as sidekicks).
  • evidence tampering (altering/destroying evidence or convincing witnesses to protect the hero’s secret identity).
  • plotting to make and/or possession of weapons of mass destruction (such as a space station with a death ray and probably adamantium claws).


2. A superhero’s ability to collect human intelligence would probably be somewhat limited.  Solving cases more complex than a crime-in-open-view usually requires a lot of time tracking down leads, talking to people and evaluating evidence. In particular, superheroes would probably be at a major disadvantage in convincing reluctant witnesses to come forward because they can’t offer as many incentives for cooperation (like witness protection or legal cooperation in other matters) as the police can.  Also, wearing brightly-colored spandex can make it harder to earn the trust of strangers facing life-or-death situations.  (Fact!)

  • What, if anything, makes your superheroes more effective at solving crimes than the police?  Do they have anything going on besides just getting lucky with stumbling onto crimes in progress?
  • If your criminals are geniuses, do they actually act like geniuses?  (Hint: if they’re committing crimes in open view, probably not).  Does it take any skill to find them?
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17 responses so far

Sep 18 2011

Which Crimes Do Most Superheroes Commit?

Assuming that the hero is a vigilante and the district attorney is furious, which felony charges might apply under U.S. law?


1. Assault and battery, probably aggravated if superpowers are involved.  The superhero will claim that he was acting in self-defense or the defense of others.  That’s fine if he was just responding to a crime in progress.  However, if he initiated the action (like attacking a gang stronghold or hunting down a supervillain), self-defense is probably off the table because the only imminent danger was created by the hero’s actions.  In particular, a self-defense claim is awfully tenuous if the hero was breaking-and-entering.


2. Felony murder, if anybody dies (criminal or bystander).  Assault is a violent felony, and any deaths caused even indirectly by a violent felony are deemed murders even if the superhero didn’t intend to kill anybody.  If a superhero breaks into a hostage situation and a criminal kills a bystander in the crossfire, the superhero can be charged with murder unless he was authorized to be there. As far as the law is concerned here, it doesn’t matter that the superhero was fighting against the shooter and that the superhero did not intend for a civilian to get hurt. Also, if a vigilante causes a criminal to die (either intentionally or not), that would also be felony murder.


3. Reckless endangerment, if any bystanders get hurt.  In severe cases, this could be a felony. (E.g. vehicular manslaughter if Batman happens to hit anyone while driving several hundred miles per hour through Gotham traffic).


4. Obstruction of justice.  For example, breaking into a hostage situation while the police are still trying to negotiate with the hostage-taker would be a felony in some states.  (Note: if nobody gets hurt, the DA might knock this down to a slap on the wrist, particularly if the superhero is extremely popular).

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36 responses so far

Sep 12 2011

How to Limit Your Superpowers for Dramatic Effect

Generally, the drama in most stories comes from characters struggling to accomplish goals.  If the characters accomplish their goals more or less effortlessly, the story probably isn’t very interesting.  If so, there are three main solutions (limit the protagonists’ powers/capabilities, make their external and/or internal obstacles tougher, and/or shift to goals where their capabilities are not as useful).  If you’re looking to limit their capabilities, here are some possibilities that may fit your story.


1.  The superpowers are not always available.  For example, they might get tired/fatigued if they use the powers too much, they can’t wear the power-suit all the time, they may run out of fuel or magical energy, there may be a time limit to how long the powers last (like Hour Man), the powers may only work at certain times or under certain conditions, etc.


2.  The character doesn’t have much control/precision.  This could limit a hero in a situation where there are civilians or valuable property.  This is a problem because most things that interest supervillains are in densely populated urban areas.


3. The character isn’t as skilled or tactically savvy as he could be.  He might get beaten by a better-trained opponent or one that cleverly uses terrain, civilians, distraction(s), the elements, preparation, the hero’s limitations, etc.


4. At certain points, the character may lack the materials/expertise/time to reload or repair.  Especially if a character like Iron Man is on the run and can’t restock, what does he do when his suit runs out of chaingun ammunition? Alternately, perhaps a wizard has some sort of periodic recharging ritual that involves a rare reagent or a location that might not always be accessible.  How can Jim get to Vampire Cove if his enemies know that he needs to go there to recharge?  (By taking refuge in insanity, of course.  Go at night and hope you don’t run out of garlic).


5. There are social limitations to the character’s powers.  For example, if a character’s power-armor is tied to his job, the threat of getting court-martialed might limit what he can do and/or force him to come up with jury-rigged solutions if he gets cut off from his regular resources.  Alternately, a rogue Green Lantern might have his ring confiscated if he does a good movie and magicians or mad scientists might be punished severely if they conduct too many demonic biological experiments.


Platypi are not of this Earth!

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34 responses so far

Sep 09 2011

Improving Your Writing With Cowboys and Aliens

Published by under Movie Review

I’d highly recommend this writer’s review by Janice Hardy, particularly if you have a kickass premise but it just isn’t coming together.  Hat-tip: Marilynn Byerly.


Speaking of Cowboys and Aliens, I found this highly amusing but not safe for work (unless your job is awesome).

One response so far

Sep 08 2011

Entertaining Survey Responses

Published by under Reader Questions

The last question on the SN survey is whether the reader has any questions or comments.  Here are some of the more notable (and notably wacky) responses I’ve received so far.

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13 responses so far

Sep 06 2011

Erik Larsen’s Comic Book Submission Answers

If you’re interested in submitting a comic book, particularly to Image, I would really recommend checking out these answers from Erik Larsen.

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6 responses so far

Sep 06 2011

Google Queries (Superhero Teams, “Danger Nut” and Noncombat Options for Superheroes)

Should superhero teams include a flyer?  If you want to, that’s fine.  But flyers aren’t necessary.  I don’t think superhero teams need any particular kind of superhero (although comic book teams might have more visually interesting fights if they have at least one character that can do melee combat–purely ranged combat can get tedious).


What do superheroes need in their lives? Anything interesting.  Here are some possibilities that come to mind:

  • Action that is driven by interesting goals and personality traits.
  • Interesting conflicts, preferably some with characters that aren’t purely unsympathetic.  (For example, in X-Men: First Class, Mystique argues with Beast over Beast’s attempts to cure his mutation, and I don’t think that the writers pushed either position over the other).
  • Unusual decisions.
  • Relationships that influence the plot.
  • Maybe some goals and problems that don’t have much/anything to do with being a superhero—romance is one possibility, but you have a lot of options here.  (For example, in The Incredibles, one of the main problems for Dash was fitting in despite being supernaturally gifted).


How many characters can you introduce in a first chapter?  However many you can develop effectively.  Generally, I wouldn’t recommend introducing  more than 10 named characters or more than 5 major characters in the first 30 pages unless you are confident in your ability to develop interesting characters with relatively few lines.  Gradually introducing characters will generally give you a better chance to develop characters without overwhelming readers.


What games do sailors play?  Danger Nut. In terms of raw peril, it makes Navy football look like a ballet recital.


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8 responses so far

Sep 04 2011

Patrick Harris’ Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Faster than a bottlenose dolphin. More powerful than a raging typhoon. Able to save the day even when the day is already long and dark — a blue blur arcing through the sky, it’s WATERMAN!

Waterman, a superhero aided by water powers and dependable allies, and dedicated to preserving the peace and prosperity of mankind. Waterman, the scourge of every criminal and supervillain alike. Waterman, protector of the northern metropolitan, Elko, Nevada.
But soon, his beloved hometown will need all the help it can get. Little does Waterman know, the city of Elko has been infiltrated by an evil that seeps seamlessly into schools, government, and homes. They are cold, calculating, and flawless in their execution; their agents are everywhere, bloodthirsty and cunning. They are THE LISTERNERS, a timeless cult that must be stopped before their ultimate dastardly plans cast a city into a darkness from which it cannot return.
Who better to save the day than Elko’s most beloved, and only, superhero! It is Waterman who must fight the Listeners craftiest agents, ARNOLD HUNTFURT and GARGOYLE. Waterman, the protector of Elko, who must discover what they are up to before they bring the city to its knees. Yet the more he works against the sinister villains, the more their paths seem to be centered on the same origin. The Listeners seek what he has already found: the source of his power, an artifact that transformed a normal young man into a high-flying hero. The object that forever changed the life of Eric Atl.
Eric Atl was exceptional before providence found him. He was the fastest swimmer in his school, surrounded by loving family and faithful friends, and madly in love with Water. Not necessarily the water he would one day control, but the girl just out of his reach: MELISSA WATER. They were best friends, even if he hoped for more.
Eric was also a young man without direction. With high school winding down to a close, he yearned to know what life had in store for him and what he was meant to do. He wanted purpose.
His wishes were granted in a seemingly superfluous event: the Red Springs field trip.
On an auspicious day in February, Eric, Melissa, and twenty other classmates go on an Archaeology field trip chaperoned by Mr. Arnold Huntfurt. The destination is Red Springs, site of the ancient Siouwatchican tribe. The Siouwatchicans were Aztecs who had fled to present-day Nevada when the Spanish Conquest threatened their empire. Before being found and killed by a reconnaissance group of conquistadors, the Siouwatchicans buried seven of their most prized artifacts in the sands. Rumors surround the site, whispers of magic relics that turn men into gods.
While digging for relics to study in class, Eric and Melissa uncover a peculiar silver disk. Within seconds of either touching the artifact, they are cut by it and their blood trickles across its surface. Two of Eric’s friends, JOSEPH HARIT and JACK NOLAN, and the Archaeology teacher, Mr. Huntfurt, arrive and are in turn cut by the disk. There is a flash of light, Eric thinks inexplicably of how great it is to be normal, and they all fall into unconsciousness. Eric Atl and his friends would never be normal again.
When Eric next awakens, he has no memory of the event. Within days, Jack and Joseph have gone missing. Random citizens in Elko begin to disappear with no trace. Siouwatchican artifacts begin to unearth themselves. Eric begins to develop the ability to control water and . . . fly? Melissa grows closer to him, encouraging him to take flight as a superhero, perhaps sporting a classy W and swooping in to save the day. All the while, the Listeners gather their strength, finalizing their preparations to finally lunge and sink their teeth into the world.
In the end, of course, Waterman and his friends will stand triumphant — but at what cost? Is success worth the casualties of war? Is Eric prepared for encounters ending in heart-wrenching tragedy? Dangerous expeditions to find mind-bending relics? What madness will be unleashed along the way? Eric soon learns the feud between Waterman and the Listeners is an event that has been destined to occur since the birth of the Aztecs.

19 responses so far

Sep 04 2011

Difficulties Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 1

1. It’s not that easy to find crime from the street.  Most superheroes look for crime by aimlessly patrolling the streets or otherwise looking for readily visible crimes.  As it turns out, there aren’t that many crimes visible from the street, perhaps because criminals would prefer to avoid witnesses and police involvement.  America’s largest city (New York) has only ~450 bank robberies and ~300 outdoors murders in a typical year, so it’d probably be really hard to find one on a given day unless you were patrolling a massive area or knew where/when to look.  And God help you if other superheroes in town have the same idea.


2. Maintaining a secret identity would be practically impossible, unless you were a real loner or your significant other, friends and family were idiots.  For example, most crimes happen at exceedingly inconvenient times.  The most common hour for a New York City homicide is between 3-4 AM.  If you’re out in the middle of the night (let’s say) 50-100 times per year, it seems implausible to me that you could go more than a year or two without a few people noticing.  I doubt most people could keep that up for even a few months before their friends/families/coworkers noticed something was amiss.

  • If your hero is maintaining a secret identity from his/her loved ones, what does he or she do to keep them from the truth?


2.1. A superhero is probably going to get injured once in a while, probably by gunfire.  If you got shot, how hard do you think it’d be for your friends/family/coworkers to notice?  If you got shot more than once, don’t you think your friends and family would have a lot of awkward questions?  For example, “Why the hell aren’t you going to the police?  You got shot. Were you buying drugs?”  If being a superhero is illegal, going to a hospital would be tough.  Most U.S. states (including New York) require hospitals to report gunshot wounds to the police and getting the police involved would also raise a lot of awkward questions about what the hero was doing when you got shot.

  • How does your superhero deal with injuries? Does he have somebody he can turn to?  Or does he have to treat it himself (and risk infection) or go to a chop-shop doctor whose specialty is treating criminals?
  • Is there any other reason a hero can’t go to a regular hospital?  For example, maybe routine bloodwork would raise too many questions or she’s not a human.

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41 responses so far

Sep 04 2011

Is Your Authorial Photograph Effective?

I was reading through the website of Michael Hyatt, the chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers.  Besides his marketing director’s advice on how to promote fiction, one thing that really thing that caught my eye was a particularly effective photograph of the author.  A lot of authors have a photograph on their website and/or inside their books (sometimes even on the front cover in non-fiction), but a lot of these shots are not terribly effective.  Here are some tips that might help you do it better.

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7 responses so far

Sep 04 2011

M*A*S*H’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.

4 responses so far

Sep 01 2011

“My Publisher Beats Me Because It Loves Me” and Other Fun Links

I don’t agree with everything in this article about the publishing industry, which compares the average professional publisher to an abusive husband, but it might be really interesting, particularly if you were considering self-publishing before.


PS: One of the things the author complains about is awful cover-art. If that’s a problem for you, I’d recommend offering to pay a feelance illustrator (like Emily or Laura Dollie or Aguaplano or anyone that strikes your fancy here) to quickly do another version of the cover. The publisher might not actually end up using it, but I feel like it’d give you a good chance to undo a potentially costly mistake. (The faster the publisher sees the art, the easier it will be to use). Who knows, maybe even the publisher will comp you the $300-500.

The New York Times has a piece on encouraging novel-reading among boys.  As a child, I was really down on fiction because it felt very juvenile to me.  Almost all of the novels I read after turning ~9 were exclusively about adults doing adult things (frequently with firearms and axes).  Admittedly, my sample size of one is extremely small and idiosyncratic, but I just loathed young characters.


Some thoughts for parents trying to encourage their sons to read:

  • When your son(s) pick out video games or movies, how often do they reach for ones starring characters around their age?
  • If they tend to prefer adult protagonists in other media, why wouldn’t they prefer adult protagonists in books as well?
  • If your son is very literate but isn’t enthusiastic about novels with young characters, I’d recommend leaving some adult novels lying around.
  • Nonfiction is totally fine, too!  Some readers (particularly guys, I’ve noticed) are not particularly interested in fiction. That’s not a problem at all.  Extremely few educational and career paths require an enthusiasm for fiction.

9 responses so far