Oct 04 2011

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

Published by at 9:36 am under Superpowers,Writing Superhero Stories

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

28 Responses to “How to Distinguish Your Hero’s or Villain’s Superpowers”

  1. the monkon 02 Apr 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Hey bmac. I’ve got this MC that I’m working on how’s power is the ability to control the elements(fire,water,air,lightning,earth).He also has enhanced combat skills,ability,and reflexes. The problem is that I don’t no how to distinguish it from charactera like the Avatar. Please help.

  2. Red Rocketon 20 Jul 2012 at 3:46 pm

    @ the monk

    What if your character turns into the element he is controlling at the time and uses reflexes/techniques similar to that element (like fluid and graceful for water, as opposed to brutish and forceful for rock/earth)?

  3. the monkon 20 Jul 2012 at 4:00 pm

    That’s definitely cool I’ll think about that. Thanx!

  4. B. McKenzieon 20 Jul 2012 at 4:28 pm

    “My main character’s power is the ability to control the elements. He also has enhanced combat skills and reflexes. How can I distinguish it from a character like Avatar?”

    I’d like to preface this by saying that I don’t know anything beyond your character’s superpowers, which makes it difficult for me to offer tips that are actually in line with your story and writing style. One possibility is that the character’s powers come with a terrible cost (e.g. Bitter Seeds’ demonic negotiations), and the character has to weigh his need for his powers against the cost of using his powers.

    Also, regardless of how you differentiate the character’s superpowers, I would definitely differentiating the character in other ways. If I could brazenly self-promote, I think my own Agent Orange is sufficiently different from Leatherhead (a Ninja Turtles character) even though they’re both mutant alligators with very similar combat capabilities. I think their personalities, voices, attributes, flaws, goals, obstacles, backgrounds, etc. are different enough that they will feel different even though their powers and origin stories overlap. I think that a significantly-different character will also find different ways to use his powers. For example, in AO’s first scene, he uses his abilities in a social context (terrifying an accountant, theorizing on the unique properties of the American alligator, and devouring the accountant’s resume because he thinks the accountant is useless). I think the scene feels unique to AO rather than LH because I don’t think LH has the personality to do this scene (although he’s physically capable of doing it).

  5. Glamtronon 05 Dec 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Please i seriously need a feedback here.. I’m having problems distinguishing my superhero from spiderman.. His personality is different, the story is different, the origin is different too but my ish is with the powers… I don’t know.. He is a lizard guy(he doesn’t turn into a lizard monster.he’s human)he’s got agility, reflexes, strength, regeneration, but that kinda looks more like spiderman. Just that he regenerates and can’t spin webs.

  6. Kirsten Songcalon 05 Dec 2013 at 10:33 pm

    @ Glamtron, good morning, a different personality, different story, and a different origin story would definitely differentiate your story and character from Spider-Man’s. However powers that would help distance your character from Spider-Man further could include:

    Super/ modified senses- lizards have senses that operates differently from human beings, maybe your character could have senses that in some ways are superior to a normal human and in other ways less capable. Maybe his eyes could change when he transforms?

    More lizard-y characteristics, you say that your character is a lizard guy and in the same sentence you say he is a normal human and that he doesn’t become a lizard monster. Do you mean that when he transforms he gains slight lizard-like characteristics but does not change drastically in appearance? In that case perhaps he could grow small scales like a gecko’s, maybe this could give your character superhuman durability and might even be used as your character’s disguise if the scales change colors and patterns like a chameleon’s, the scales could also help explain why your character hits harder when he changes.

    Some lizards, such as the Gila Monster, are venomous perhaps your character could be as well? He could even use it as a spitting attack.

    Your character could also have wall climbing powers that allow him access to places most people could not even reach, like a hideout.

    Weird powers could include shooting blood out of his eyes and sticking sharp ribs through his sides to stab enemies.

    Hope this helps or sparks an idea about which direction you want to take your character.
    Have a good day Glamtron.

  7. Glamtronon 06 Dec 2013 at 12:35 am

    @kirsten, sorry for the mixed up info there about him being normal. Well, u got it right. What i meant is that he doesn’t change drastically in appearance. And thanks for the help on his powers.. Helped alot.

  8. Glamtronon 06 Dec 2013 at 4:52 am

    And.. I could take name suggestions for him.. Thanks

  9. nickon 06 Dec 2013 at 7:42 am

    Im trying to figure out how to make a superhero name up for my story

  10. B. McKenzieon 06 Dec 2013 at 4:36 pm

    “He is a lizard guy (he doesn’t turn into a lizard monster. He’s human)” This is not a major issue, but when you’re describing the character, I’d recommend avoiding a phrase like “lizard guy” for a human character rather than, say, Lizard or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever. Your guy is more like Spider-Man, right? So maybe something like “He has lizard-themed powers” or “He gets his powers from a lizard.” Sort of like how Spider-Man has spider-themed powers but does not actually look like a spider.*

    *Except when he has 6 arms. I don’t know, it was the 1990s.

  11. Kirsten Songcalon 06 Dec 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Your welcome Glamtron, ummm, I’m not good with names but I’ll give it a shot: Saurian, Primeval, Draconic, Draconian (I know this has nothing to do with lizards but the Draco- part could possibly bring reptiles to mind while the actual meaning of the word could show your character’s personality during battle, could work for a anti-hero/villain), Rip-tile, ugh that really got away from me there. Sorry.

    It could help if we knew more about your character as so far I don’t even know if he’s a villain or hero, his personality and physical appearance when transformed would provide the basis for his name.

  12. Kirsten Songcalon 06 Dec 2013 at 5:28 pm

    @ nick, I don’t want to sound dumb but I’m unsure as to what you need help with? The title of your story or the name of your superhero? Both?

    Either way more information on the setting, character, and plot of your story would really help.

    Have a nice day.

  13. Glamtronon 07 Dec 2013 at 2:47 pm

    @kirsten. Thanks alot!.. About the character..(most details were posted in “why superheroes and supervillains need each other” well i don’t xpect u going through comments there just to find it.) well he came from a small town that was later oppressed by hired mercenaries. These soldiers later captured teens/youths and took them to their secret lab on an island where they were to b genetically engineered, to strenghten their force.They were also going to implant false memories and use them but before that could happen the lab caught fire. He managed to escape, diving into water.. Evrything else went down in flames. He was found floating by a traveller and his men on a yatch. He’s later taken by the man(traveller) to live with him and his family.. A family of 3, the other two being his wife and daughter. He pretends he doesn’t remember anything about his past and lives with them 4 2yrs (and gradually discovers his abilities). until one evening he went out as usual with the daughter, and coming back to meet the parents murdered(i’m cuttin’ the whole thing short).His 1st conclusion was dat he was being hunted by those in his past(the soldiers) not until someone who claims to be a confidant of his foster father tells him about a secret criminal organisation the man was gathering evidence about. He’s foster dad’s brother who was in the org. Was assasinated and he wanted to avenge his his brother’s death by bringing down the org… The little evidence he had, had been retrieved and he was murdered. The protag decides the only way he could repay the good of the man who saved his life was to help fufil what the man died trying to. Knowing that they were not safe in that city anymore, the daughter leaves. The protag refuses(knowing that she’d be in danger if he goes with her. Sorry 4 the mix-up. this happened b4 he learned of the secret org.).. He finds a job, loading trucks for a warehouse and sleeping there at night. He tries to hunt down the few members he knew about, wearing a green mask. He later realises he needs help and goes to a friend of his, who was pretty good with computers and helped him access informations he got.. Well… I hope these few info helps y,all to have an idea on what the character i’m working on is like.. He’s a quiet type, sorta stubborn, he’s also kinda delusional, from his experience He sees himself as somewhat “cursed”. That tragedy follows him anywhere he goes.. He believes his town was oppressed cause he was there, the lab caught fire cause he was there, a couple lost their lives coz he was adopted by them, and that a wolf-man came to that city coz he was there.(the canine guy/wolfman is another survivor from the lab and his childhood friend.)

  14. Glamtronon 07 Dec 2013 at 4:30 pm

    And coz of that he tries as much as he can to avoid getting too close to anyone believing they might get hurt.

  15. Kirsten Songcalon 07 Dec 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Your welcome Glamtron, while I can’t think of any other possible names for your character right now, I’d sure like to ask some questions about your story.

    Feel free to keep back any information you would rather be a surprise/twist to the reader.

    Why did the mercenaries or their costumer oppress the small town? Has it been going on for some time or is it a relatively new occurrence story wise? How was the town oppressed?

    Does the costumer own the mercenaries as his own private army or are they just working for him for the time being because he’s paying them?

    Why do the mercenaries collect teens/youths for their genetic engineering? Why don’t they just modify themselves instead? What catalyzed the mercenaries to start genetically engineering teens after oppressing for some time? Are the mercenaries doing this of their own prerogative or is the costumer asking them to?

    Was the secret lab’s destruction a “random” event or a breakout attempt?

    Is lizard-guy’s foster dad a cop or otherwise involved in law enforcement? Also you say that your protag’s foster dad’s brother was in the organization, was he a bad guy then? Were the people who assassinated him “good guys?”

    While I understand how being kidnapped and almost killed would make one quiet and stubborn, I can’t wrap my mind around how he thinks everything is his fault. Weren’t the mercs kidnapping teens/youths in bulk, so why would he believe that they oppressed the town just because he was born there? Also how could he have possibly caused the lab to be destroyed and wouldn’t he be happy that it was destroyed?

    “and that a wolf-man came to that city coz he was there.” If he feels he’s cursed because bad things happen to others when he’s around, would I be correct in assuming that the wolfman is bad?
    I’m also assuming neither the protag or the wolfman know of each others real identities because otherwise lizard guy would understand that it was just his childhood friend going back to his hometown. Is this correct as well?

    Have a good day Glamtron!

  16. Kirsten Songcalon 07 Dec 2013 at 8:34 pm

    @Glamtron Sorry about swamping you there, I guess I don’t really know what “some” means.

  17. Glamtronon 08 Dec 2013 at 10:59 am

    No probs

  18. Glamtronon 08 Dec 2013 at 12:59 pm

    I really appreciate your questions. I must admit i haven’t really asked myself some of these questions(i’m still working on it so i’m open to suggestions). 1st. The mercs were exploiting the town’s in search 4 raw materials needed by the costumer, and they had the inhabitants were tortured and forced to do the works(d mercs made sure the people had the fear of them in heart) He was 16 when the mercs came to the town. 4 d 3rd question, they were a few of them that were his own men and the rest were working for the time being.. 4 d 4th question, the costumer wanted to biuld a little and powerful army that would fully be his. That would be under his control, unlike the other mercs that wer working 4 d time being. And 4 the mercs,modifying themselves would be kinda like making themselves inhuman, they weren’t that stupid to accept such offer. Ofcoz some wouldn’t wanna be doing such fighting work for the rest of their lives, and having less or no clues as to the side effects it could bring. So the only option that sounded good to both the mercs and the costumer was that of using the teens/youths in the town and clearing any memories they had of their past. For the question about the lab destruction, it was a random event(though i’m still thinking of a hidden reason y d lab was burnt.a reason that i could reveal in the later part of the story) and 4 d protag’s dad. Well he wasn’t a cop or any law enforcement agent. He was just trying to gather enough evidence to blow out the org. And.. His brother was involved in the org. There was a dispute between him another member. Thoughts of quitting d org, started creeping in. It was at this point he shared his problems with his brother.But not long enough he was murdered and his position was taken. About ur question of why he thinks those mishaps are his fault. Well that was why i described him as being delusional. Three incidents that strikes him most and gets him thinking that way is.. 1. His real father being killed by the mercs when trying to help him and his friends escape during the time of the capture.
    2. The death of his foster mum and dad.
    3. His friend and sidekick getting attacked by the wolf-villain.. About the wolf villain, he survived the fire(which got him hardly thinking straight.. Combined with the past tortures he had faced) and unlike the protag, he wasn’t found by anyone.. He survived the wild, hunting and killing. Moving from place to place till he got to the protag’s city. His wolf monster-like nature manifested mostly at night and during the day they’d be reports of bodies found mutilated.. I’m still open to suggestions

  19. Glamtronon 08 Dec 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Orrh! Some errors.. “exploiting the town” not town’s.. “build” not biuld.. Sorry 4 some spelling errors there

  20. Kirsten Songcalon 08 Dec 2013 at 9:07 pm

    @ Glamtron thanks for answering my questions, your story is definitely starting to take shape in my mind.

    Still some questions though, lol, there’s that “some” word again so get ready. 🙂

    Was there something special about the town that caused the mercenaries to choose it?

    Were the mercenaries unaware of the real effects of the genetic engineering or were they lied to? Because considering the end result of your protag, whom you specifically said doesn’t become a lizard monster, it sure seems that way.

    Was the protag’s dad the only one who stepped up and tried to bring down the organization? No one else even tried to help or anything? Also considering the mercenaries track record what was stopping them from taking out the dad the moment he started to raise a fuss?

    Awww, I didn’t realize the wolf-villain/ childhood friend got so bad that’s unfortunate.

  21. Glamtronon 09 Dec 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks 4 d questions again @kirsten.. Well… Yes there was something special about the town(sorta like “the expendables” thing)wierd though but i still haven’t dug out what i’d make special about the place.. Could use help there. And 4 ur 2nd question, well the mercs had no idea what the side effects would be.. If the results of their experiment on the teens hadn’t been burnt down in the fire incident, MAYBE some would’ve wanted it. About the foster dad, well he had a few unknown contacts.. And 4 d last question, no answer yet(u’re talking of his biological dad right?)… Wel the man brought down some of them… He was a bit of a tough cookie

  22. JTSon 22 May 2014 at 10:31 pm

    I have two characters in my book that have the ability to create portals (exactly like the Portal Gun from the game, but without the gun). One portal goes one place and when the other is set it open up for passage through. They can hear sound through the portals but they cannot see through them. They have to expose themselves by entering the portal and coming out the other side to see what is on the other side. The people who can create the portals can see the outline of the portals, but they are invisible to everyone else. Closing the portals will also cut whatever is passing through in half.
    Is this can’t-see-through factor limiting enough to make things interesting? If not, what could be added?

  23. young grasshopperon 19 Jun 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Hi!, I’ve recently come up with a character who’s abilities are very similar those a symbiote would have if it didn’t copy any of Spider-Man’s powers, and I want to know how to differentiate him a bit. He can produce a malleable substance around himself that he controls, and it can maintain two consistencies: gooey and stiff (it’s hard and strong enough to cut through steel when stiffened). He uses this ability to form armor and weapons (mostly staffs, swords, shields, etc.). As of right now, the only main difference is that his powers come from genetic enhancements that he inherited from his super-soldier grandfather, rather than from an alien that messes with his brain.

  24. BlackWidowFanon 29 Aug 2017 at 3:39 pm

    What should I do if I plan to publish two different series but they’re both about Superheros? How do I distinguish them? Both have a female protagonist, one a non-powered spy the other a powerful hybrid,( I tried to do a male protagonist twice but it FAILED).
    Please answer:)

  25. B. McKenzieon 30 Aug 2017 at 9:06 pm

    “What should I do if I plan to publish two different series but they’re both about Superheros? How do I distinguish them?” Focus all of your time/energy on the one you think is closer to ready, and get it published. Don’t worry about hypothetical other projects until you’ve either gotten one published/finished (or after exhausting all opportunities).

    After you do get the first one published and are ready to work on the second, there are tons of ways to make the second work feel significantly different than the first – e.g. genre, mood, main character selection/development*, major plot developments, major problems the characters face, (probably secondarily) target audience, writing style, what sort of characters the main characters interact with, maybe a radically different setting, etc.

    Alternately, if the first work is successful and the second one overlaps enough, your publisher might go for a spinoff within the universe of the first, but I wouldn’t recommend mentioning this to a prospective publisher until the first is actually successful (it’s generally easier to explain a smaller/simpler project to prospective publishers and convince them you’re likely to pull it off successfully).

    *Paraphrasing an earlier answer, if you’ve written 2 stories about characters overseeing some sort of super-agency, if one of the characters is more like (say) Nick Fury and the other is more like (bizarre/drug-abusing/gonzo) Spider Jerusalem or (borderline alien/deity) Dr. Manhattan or (hidden villain) Ozymandias, the two works will almost certainly play out in very different directions even though they started from a similar idea.

  26. Anonymouson 06 Mar 2019 at 5:02 pm

    I dont know what the weakness is for this supervillain i made up that has radiation powers

  27. Comic manon 06 Mar 2019 at 5:03 pm

    I dont know what the weakness is for this supervillain i made up that has radiation powers

  28. Comic manon 06 Mar 2019 at 5:05 pm

    I need a weakness for this guy with radiation powers

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