Archive for October, 2011

Oct 31 2011

5 Things About Your Superhero Story You Might Be Wasting Time On

Published by under Superpowers

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.

Some authors spend too much time thinking about and writing about story elements that are not particularly important to getting published.  Please don’t get bogged down in any of these time sinks.


1.  Names of characters and teams/organizations.  Character names are pretty easy to change, so publishers probably won’t reject an otherwise publishable manuscript because the names aren’t good enough.  Nor would I expect incredible names to convince a publisher to accept a manuscript that would otherwise have been unpublishable.


If you’re worried about the names in your story, I’d recommend using generic placeholders until something you like better comes to mind.   (Your dissatisfaction will force you to come up with a better name if you have to write John Smith or Super-Lad hundreds of times).


1.1. Copyright considerations, particularly related to names.  If the issue is just that your character has the same name as a fairly obscure Marvel or DC hero, that is probably not a huge problem (especially if you’re submitting a novel manuscript rather than a comic book).  Your eventual publisher might ask you to change the name, but that’s such an easy change that it would not scare away publishers from an otherwise publishable manuscript. However, publishers might pass if the copyright issues are more integral to the plot and cannot be changed as easily, particularly if the concept is very similar to a well-known character.  The easier it would be to change, the less likely it is to scare publishers.


2.  Superpower selection.  If you stay away from superpowers that make it too hard to challenge the characters, pretty much everything else can work.  The story will be a bit easier to write if the superpowers are versatile and it’ll be a bit easier to read if the powers require little explanation.  Besides that, I don’t think superpower selection matters very much.  It probably won’t make the difference between a story that’s worth reading and one that isn’t.


I’d recommend focusing more on how to use the powers to create an interesting story.   For example…

  • What are some ways you could use your story’s powers to create interesting experiences?  (For example, maybe John gets hit in the face by Kansas at a million miles per hour rather than “John teleported to Kansas”). Please see #3 and 3.1 here for more details.
  • How can you use the powers to show us things we haven’t seen before?
  • How do the character’s powers affect his perspective and/or personality?


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39 responses so far

Oct 27 2011

Hero Brainstorming Forum

Do you have any questions about how to write a hero for your story?

37 responses so far

Oct 23 2011

Keeping Your Superpowers From Getting Stale

Published by under Superpowers

Here’s some advice on keeping superpowers novel throughout your story.

1. Have the character(s) put the superpowers to different uses.  If you’ve already had your characters stop a bank robbery, it might be more interesting to have them prevent an assassination or conduct a high-speed chase or solve a difficult crime that has already happened than, say, stop a robbery at a jewelry store.  Varying your scenes gives you a better chance to leave readers guessing about what will happen and how.


2. Please try some different obstacles and hazards, hopefully something the character isn’t used to.  For example, if a character can fly 100+ miles per hour, an ordinary car chase probably won’t be very interesting because there’s so little challenge.  For example, what if there’s a massive windstorm (either natural or controlled by a superpower or magic)?  Chicago had 50+ mph winds a few days ago and it was hard enough to walk without getting knocked over, so I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to chase someone in the air.  If the character is used to using his powers in a very deliberate and methodical way (e.g. like a telepath might benefit from concentration or Batman might benefit from preparation), what will he do in a fast-moving crisis that caught him by surprise?*



2.1. Please keep low-risk uses of superpowers to a minimum.  For example, the scene where a character first tries using his powers is usually pretty low-risk (e.g. Peter Parker testing what his webs can do).  As a brief scene, that’s not a huge liability, but if you have 3+ characters with superpowers, I wouldn’t recommend spending pages putting each character in such a situation.  I feel that one character just testing out his powers tends to come off surprisingly like any other character just testing her powers out, even if the powers are different.  One possibility is that the characters learn and/or test their powers in a risky situation.  For example, maybe the characters are tested for something like admission into a superhero team shortly after developing superpowers.  If the character really wants to make the team, the learning process will probably be higher-stakes and more interesting than just webbing around town.


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31 responses so far

Oct 21 2011

P. Mac really liked Wearing the Cape

Published by under Book Review

PM thought Wearing the Cape had convincing characterization, a superpowered world that still felt believable and even one realistic-sounding Supreme Court controversy.  He was impressed that the main character sounded very much like a female even though the author is a male.  I’ll read it and let you know.

UPDATE: He’s having second thoughts about the romance.  He thought that the two characters had about as much reason to fall in love as an abusive ~100-year old vampire and a vapid teenager without any redeeming qualities.

8 responses so far

Oct 21 2011

An unusually amusing bit of college fundraising writing

Published by under Comedy

I have one minor suggestion. Most major donors tend to be older and deeply wealthy businessmen, whereas this video is clearly aimed at a younger, less affluent audience. It might have helped to randomly feature one small donor (maybe by selling $25 or $50 raffle tickets to be featured).

No responses yet

Oct 18 2011

Villainous Brainstorming Forum

If you have any questions about developing your antagonists, ask here.  For example, if you wanted advice about how to have a smart villain take down your hero, you could give some description of your hero and your villain and then evil geniuses like me can help you plot.

38 responses so far

Oct 17 2011

Derp Writer’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.

9 responses so far

Oct 10 2011

More Random Questions About Superhero Stories

Published by under Reader Questions

From Google queries:


What does a good superhero story include?  

  • Interesting characters.  I’d like to see some personality traits (or combinations of traits) I haven’t seen before and some unusual decisions that most other superheroes wouldn’t make.  In particular, when the character gets superpowers, I think that a character’s decision to become a superhero will be more interesting if it doesn’t come right after the character gets superpowers.
  • Particularly if your target audience is older than 13, I think it would really help to give the characters something exciting to do outside of combat.  Depending on your genre and personal preferences, that could include investigation/crime-solving, relation-building , scenes from the superheroes’ regular lives that develop them, etc.
  • A hard-to-predict plot.


Interesting story blurbs.  I saw this synopsis on “…aboard a late night flight from Tokyo to Portland, a disabled war veteran transforms into a werewolf. Now it’s up to a Japanese punk band, a Muslim terrorist, two stoner pilots, and a limbless superhero to subdue the hellhound.”  Hmm.  I like the wacky mix of “protagonists” (although I’m more likely to root for the werewolf over the terrorist–at least the werewolf gets better 29 days out of 30).




Are there any implants that give superpowers?  The most common superpower, definitely.  I’m not aware of any other surgically viable superpowers now, but I think some will be within 20-30 years.  One surgical implant I use in my own writing is recoil suppressors in the wrist and sound mufflers in the ears that dampen the sound of gunfire.  In terms of mental abilities, some sort of implant for technopathy might be viable within 30 years.


If you’re rejected by one agent.  Umm, keep trying.  I’d recommend revising your query if you’ve submitted to 10 agents and haven’t heard back from any within a month.


Most evil animals?  My picks would be platypi, moose, Norwegians, jellyfish and squirrels.

7 responses so far

Oct 09 2011

Reasons Your Characters Might Not Use Secret Identities

A few days ago, I covered some of the pros and cons of writing secret identities.  But that covers why YOU the author would want to use them or not.  Why might a character decide not to use them?  Here are some possibilities.


1. The character’s loved ones are mostly superpowered and/or not in harm’s way. For example, if the character is a superpowered alien, chances are his family members are, too, so protecting them from danger is a bit less essential. Alternately, in Booster Gold’s case, his family is hundreds of years in the future, so he doesn’t have to worry about them getting hurt.


2. The character has family/friends to worry about, but a secret identity is not an option. For example, Alicia Masters might be safer if Ben Grimm had a secret identity, but there’s no way for someone that looks as unusual as The Thing to pull off a secret identity. In The Taxman Must Die, one of the main characters is a mutant alligator that wants a secret identity (because anyone badass has enough enemies to need a secret identity, he reasons), but he surlily discovers that Clark Kent-style glasses don’t give a mutant alligator much of a disguise. (He attributes it to his poor acting skills).

2.1. The character’s origin story was caught on tape or otherwise too public to try a secret identity.  Perhaps the New York Times or Daily Bugle had someone covering that new exhibit of genetically modified spiders and happened to notice that one went missing–it’s not TOTALLY implausible that journalists might do something competent, right?*

*Despite CNN’s best efforts to suggest otherwise.  More on Casey Anthony at 9.


3. The character has loved ones, but is so scary that nobody’s brave enough to mess with them.  For example, if a criminal happened to find out the connection between Alfred and Batman, he’d have to be pretty damn nuts to take a shot at Alfred unless he was really looking forward to pain. Bad career move.  If you have a problem with Batman, it’d probably be less suicidal to gun directly for him (so that at least you’re not distracted when he comes for you).


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24 responses so far

Oct 04 2011

How to Distinguish Your Hero’s or Villain’s Superpowers

1. Maybe the superpowers have some cost to the user.

  • Fatigue. The superhero’s powers exhaust him.
  • Equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps your supergenius’s brain will overheat unless he lets his mind cool down after a mental stunt.
  • Energy. Your hero has a drainable and finite source of power.
  • Risk to self (or others). Your hero’s powers, once activated, are hard to control and dangerous.
  • Personality shift. Activating your hero’s powers transforms his personality or mindset, like the Hulk or Catastrophe.
  • Loss of sanity. Your hero’s transformation makes him considerably less stable, like The Hulk or Niki.


2. Your story’s superpowers have a limited duration or accessibility.

  • His superpowers only last a certain duration and have to be recharged.
  • His superpowers can only be accessed after a certain condition is met or at a certain time of day. For example, Captain Marvel has to say Shazaam first.
  • His superpowers are only accessible after he transforms.  May be voluntary (Captain Marvel), involuntary (a werewolf) or both (the Hulk).
  • Superpowers are accessible only through a particular item, usually a magical or technological item (Sailor Moon, power armor).
  • Achieving a particular power or effect requires the cooperation of unsavory characters.  For example, maybe the superhero needs to convince a brilliant supervillain to help him build a particular feature into his powersuit.  Alternately, in Bitter Seeds, every spell is fueled by negotiations with nefarious spirits, and each spell requires various unsavory deeds.


3. Your superpowers have an unusual origin or source.
  • Because the hero’s alien or otherwise unhuman (Superman, TMNT)
  • Because he’s a modified human (Spiderman, cyborgs)
  • Because he has some artifact (power armor or something magical)


4. Your superpowers have unusual limits.

  • Physical. Maybe his electricity shorts out in water or he gets really weak when exposed to Kryptonite.
  • Time. Hourman’s powers only last (you guessed it) an hour.

28 responses so far

Oct 03 2011

Pros and Cons of Using Secret Identities in Your Story

+: Secret identities provide another avenue of conflict/danger that helps develop the characters outside of combat.


-: Your readers have probably seen secret identities used quite a bit before.  It’s arguably the most cliche, conventional aspect of superhero stories.  If you go down this path, I’d recommend having it play out in unusual ways.  For example, in Kick-Ass, the protagonist’s attempt to protect his superhero identity from his father leads to a touching and darkly comical scene where the father mistakenly infers that the son was a victim of a sexual crime.


+: It’s a fairly easy way to build coherence between the superpowered side of the story (e.g. what Spider-Man is doing) and the non-powered side of the story (what Peter Parker is doing).  Another possibility that’s pretty well-worn is showing how his superpowered side affects his non-powered life.  For example, Spider-Man 2 covered how hard it was to come up with time for both.  Another possibility would be showing how the strains (injuries, stress, other damages) of one affect the other.


-: Especially in stories where only a villain or two uncover the secret identity, secret identities tend to cause side-characters to act atypically dumb.  Many investigative journalists interact with Clark Kent or Peter Parker every day but don’t ask any awkward questions about how Peter Parker comes up with so many more phenomenal Spidey shots than anyone else or wonder how Superman’s face looks awfully familiar.  If you do go with a secret identity, I’d recommend having the secret identity depend on whether the main character can successfully thwart the side-characters’ suspicions, rather than just making the side-characters too dumb/incompetent to get suspicious in the first place.


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22 responses so far