Oct 31 2011

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

Published by at 7:05 pm under Superpowers

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?

 

3. Costumes (in a novel).  Costumes will almost assuredly not affect the reading experience in a novel in any substantial way.  You could assign colors by throwing darts at a color wheel and pretty much nobody would notice. Unless the costume is extremely bizarre (e.g. it’s made out of human flesh), the costume definitely won’t affect the publishability of a novel manuscript.  It could matter in a comic book submission, though–a really hideous costume might raise questions about your team’s artistic style.

 

4. Minor demographic details, like hair/eye color, weight, race, etc.  Unless these details are significant to the plot or develop the character or otherwise make an impression, they don’t matter much.  I’m a bit alarmed when authors agonize over things like hair color.  Unless the detail actually matters, don’t worry about it.  Just pick something and go with it.

 

5. Arguing with reviewers. There’s nothing productive there–just worry about adding on new readers that are actually receptive to the work and/or make any changes necessary moving forward.

 

A parting thought: If you’ve put more thought into the main character’s costume and/or superpowers than personality and defining traits, I’d recommend going back to the drawing board.  When editors and publisher’s assistants evaluate a novel manuscript, their reader’s reports will usually mention the characterization, the plot and the quality of the writing, etc. Superpowers and costumes, not so much.

39 responses so far

39 Responses to “5 Things About Your Superhero Story You Might Be Wasting Time On”

  1. Scotton 01 Nov 2011 at 6:46 am

    Interesting stuff. Lots of good information covered here that I wouldn’t have even thought about. Now I can create the perfect super being! Watch out Earth…and beyond!

  2. Anonymouson 04 Nov 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Hey! 🙂 Quick question- I know you say not to get hung up on choosing superpowers, but you also say it’ll be easier to write if they’re versatile, and you can still challenge the character. So, what sort of powers would you shy away from?

  3. B. McKenzieon 04 Nov 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Here are some I’d shy away from:
    –Super-strength, because I don’t feel it’s very versatile. If you’re doing a story with a lot of action, I would recommend something else. (If you’re doing a comedy about an ersatz Superman, then I think the less-interesting action would probably not be a huge deal). My personal preference would be agility rather than strength, because I think agility can be used in more ways and entails more risk/danger/drama than just rushing at the enemy.

    –Time-travel, unless there’s a creative limit. Otherwise, if he fails, he can just keep going back until he gets it right–I think that basically gives him no chance of failure). Some examples of creative limits: the character can only go back as far as the last time he/she used the power, so he only gets one chance to redo a particular event. Maybe the character occupies his body of the time he’s traveling back to, so it might be really hard for him to save the day in the body of his high school self. Alternately, there might be an unusual cost to the time-traveling that makes it harder to use the ability whenever he wants to.

    –Immortality and/or resurrection and/or reincarnation and/or invulnerability–if the character can’t die, that pretty much rules out any drama from the action.

    –Easy mind-reading–if a character knows pretty much everything, I think it rules out the potential for surprises and deception.

    –Powers without fairly clear limits. Here are some that I’ve heard on SN that I feel could use clearer limits:
    The final ring of power gives him the abilities of controlling all the energies of the universe; manipulate the energy and bestowing him with the power of the cosmic which he can make himself last long over millenniums, And other abilities he can think of.”
    “…the ability to manipulate reality is basically absolute and ultimate power. Basically a reality warper can do anything or nothing.”
    His ability is Cosmokinesis. Cosmokinesis is the tremendously powerful superhuman ability to mentally manipulate the energy generated by stars… He can generate stellar winds, solar flares, cosmic storms and even invoke meteor showers (and manipulate weather as well). … He uses the cosmic energy to grant himself superhuman attributes.”

    –I would recommend against a grab-bag approach where a character has 5+ mostly unrelated powers. I feel it makes it harder to introduce a new character (whereas Superman is already well-known). One commenter on SN was working with a character that had 13, including “the ability to wish himself anything.” Uhh, yeah, about that…

  4. Anonymouson 05 Nov 2011 at 1:59 am

    Ooh, quick reply, thank you. The reason I asked is because I’m considering electrokinesis for one of my characters, but the more I look into what this would allow her to do, the more I’m concerned it’d be hard to limit her. For example, if she threw an energy bolt: contrary to what some authors believe, electricity doesn’t miss. 🙂
    Thanks muchly for the advice though, it’s a real help.

  5. B. McKenzieon 05 Nov 2011 at 3:38 am

    “contrary to what some authors believe, electricity doesn’t miss.” If reality gets in the way of more interesting fiction, it’s generally acceptable to bend reality, particularly if doing so makes it harder for the protagonists to succeed.

    Especially in this case, I think readers would be inclined to give you a pass on something that wasn’t realistic because 1) I don’t think many readers would actually know whether it’s realistic or not that electricity could or could not miss (or would feel confident enough in their belief to be bothered that you went the other way) and 2) a story with superpowers will be held to a lower standard of realism than most other stories. I’d probably be annoyed if Frederick Forsyth included something blatantly implausible in an otherwise realistic work of fiction, but when I’m reading a book about superheroes, I’m not really expecting a Forsyth-level of verisimilitude. (I don’t think that level of verisimilitude is even possible when characters willingly use names like Spider-Man or Superman).

  6. Anonymouson 05 Nov 2011 at 4:44 am

    xP, fair enough, I see your point. My idea would be fairly light on the capes and wacky catchphrases though, heavier on the science fiction-y side of it. Hm, I might just hope no physics majors read it. After all, Doctor Who gets away with some truly insane breaks from the realms of plausibility and no one ever seems to mind. Thanks!

  7. B. McKenzieon 05 Nov 2011 at 11:41 am

    “Hm, I might just hope no physics majors read it. After all, Doctor Who gets away with some truly insane breaks from the realms of plausibility and no one ever seems to mind.” My philosophy is that if only a science major could reasonably know something is wrong, fewer than 1% of your readers will know. And some of them might not mind much. For example, I think more than a handful of sci fans know that a parsec is a unit of distance (not time), but Star Wars’ misuse of the term didn’t stop the series from really catching on.

    (Also, not very important, but I’d guess Star Wars is probably one of the most popular works among people that might actually need to know what a parsec is, e.g. astronomers).

  8. Anonymouson 05 Nov 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Yeah, sounds pretty reasonable. I’m just extremely fussy about these things. I was thinking of how a lot of sci-fi shows get away with aliens who look suspiciously similiar to Caucasian humans.

  9. B. McKenzieon 05 Nov 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Almost all aliens depicted on TV–especially non-villainous ones–are humanoid. It really helps keep down costs and, I would imagine, they feel more believable than any alternatives available to most TV shows. Movies can sometimes afford to be more daring because the SFX budget is usually less of an issue. With comic books and cartoons, it might be a bit harder on the artists to do non-humanoid aliens (because it involves more concept work and is less familiar to the artists), but the main considerations there are artistic/stylistic rather than labor/cost.

  10. ekimmakon 05 Nov 2011 at 5:28 pm

    About the electricity thing, felt it should be pointed out that electricity can’t miss. It hits what it’s aimed at, so to speak. But people can miss. And they may not neccesarily know how it works. Even challenging someone who does know how they work is pretty easy. How can you save a hostage being manhandled by a villain without hurting the hostage as well? A villain is an easy target, no one cares as much if they’re killed or badly wounded, but if a hostage gets hurt…

    Sorry, I had some real food for thought somewhere in there, but I’m distracted by Batman: Arkham City.

  11. B. McKenzieon 05 Nov 2011 at 6:15 pm

    “electricity can’t miss. It hits what it’s aimed at, so to speak. But people can miss.” Okay, that’s a good point, particularly if it’d be hard for the person to aim properly. For example…
    –The shooter is in a high-stress situation.
    –The shooter doesn’t have much time to aim.
    –The shooter might be firing from an awkward position, one he’s not used to. For example, if somebody has a gun drawn on the character within 20 feet (e.g. in a hostage situation), it might be hard for the lightning controller to get his hands into position, dive for cover, and zap the enemy fast enough to avoid getting shot.
    –The shooter and/or the target is moving. (Even if you’re using an unbelievably fast “projectile” like lightning, it’d still be harder to line up the shot on a moving target).
    –The target has a human shield or cover. If a direct shot isn’t possible on a target behind cover, the character might instead try aiming at close as possible and hoping that it’s enough to shock the target. The lightning controller almost certainly couldn’t be sure about whether that’d work, though–he probably doesn’t have nearly as much experience with an unusual situation like this as he would with a more standard, clean shot.
    –The target has some sort of defensive capability or armor that makes the shot more complicated. For example, if a character has an ability that makes it harder for other people to control their superpowers, the electric character’s accuracy could be seriously compromised. (Maybe he goes from the electric equivalent of a sniper rifle to a sawed off shotgun).
    –Something in the room is acting as a lightning rod.
    –There’s some other environmental complication. For example, if there are bystanders and/or friendlies in the area but it’s raining or the villain has activated the sprinkler or used a few water-based attacks, the hero might have to forgo the shot and be exceedingly patient/cautious to avoid shocking someone else as well.
    –There’s something explosive/volatile in the area and the character has to be very careful to avoid an explosion. For example, many villains (especially scientists and well-equipped villains) have dangerous chemicals and other substances in their bases.
    –The shooter doesn’t have great visibility. (For example, it might be really dark and/or rainy and/or foggy and/or the shooter might be physically off or mentally disoriented for whatever reason).

  12. ekimmakon 05 Nov 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Ah. You’ve done a much better job expanding on it than I have. I’ll have to keep these in mind for my own electricity wielding anti-hero/villain

  13. B. McKenzieon 05 Nov 2011 at 6:55 pm

    “You’ve done a much better job expanding on it than I have. ” Only because I haven’t gotten Arkham City yet.

  14. Anonymouson 06 Nov 2011 at 4:28 am

    Wow, I seem to have started something, xD. I really like the idea of having to avoid hitting someone else, I’ll definitely keep that in mind. I think my heroes are going to have a lot of motivation to keep their reputation good, so they’d want to avoid harming any civilians.

  15. S.Allenon 29 Nov 2011 at 5:43 pm

    hey guys i’m new here and i have a question would enhanced durability count as a tension breaking power if it is the hero’s only power because my character relies on his opportunistic way of thinking to combat his opponents.

  16. LA Writeron 29 Nov 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Is it illegal to mention superheroes from other series? I think it’s legal, but I’m not entirely sure. I’m just mentioning them, and that’s really it. They’re not actually in my story. It’s more for like allusion and comparisons.

  17. B. McKenzieon 29 Nov 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Big caveat: I’m not a lawyer, LA Writer. However, it seems to me (i.e. a nonlawyer) that you’d be covered under fair use in the United States. Namely, you wouldn’t be affecting the market for those other series and “the amount of work used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” would probably be pretty small.

    Your publisher might remove the line in question if it gets too nervous (or maybe ask you to make it vaguer, like referring to “that guy with the phonebooth” or “that filthy reality-bending Wisconsin freak” rather than explicitly naming Superman or Aaron Rodgers). If it’s just a few lines, I would recommend pushing ahead and not worrying about the legal issues here because they definitely aren’t major enough to scare away a publisher. Maybe the publisher will take steps after offering you a publishing contract to keep it and you from getting sued, but I wouldn’t worry about that potential issue until you have been published and have an editor to discuss it with.

  18. B. McKenzieon 29 Nov 2011 at 10:48 pm

    “Would enhanced durability count as a tension breaking power if it is the hero’s only power because my character relies on his opportunistic way of thinking to combat his opponents?” I think I’d have to see it in action, S. Allen. My initial impression is that if the character’s fighting style leans towards bum-rushing the nearest enemy, then I would guess it probably isn’t too interesting. (I suspect it’d get tedious to see many fights featuring a hero just rushing head-long at the enemy*).

    *Then again, if you’re writing a comic book, there’s probably some audience there. For example, The Hulk’s comic book series sold something like a million copies last year, although none of them cracked the top 200. I don’t think that modest success would go very far in the novel-publishing industry, though–superhero novels tend to be significantly more literary than superhero comic books.

  19. Indigoon 30 Nov 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I will also have to keep those tips in mind for my electric villain 😉

    And just ordered Arkham City this week…waiting for arrival…

  20. S.Allenon 14 Dec 2011 at 5:55 pm

    B. McKenzie: What i meant was he scopes a situation out and then at the first opening of weakness, he springs into action. also he uses stealth, that’s not a concept that’s been overdone, is it?

  21. B. McKenzieon 14 Dec 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I’m cautiously optimistic, S. Allen. Although there have been more than a few stealthy characters, I think it’s less inherently cliche/tedious than another flying and/or running brick.

  22. Castilleon 14 Dec 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Currently writing a short story involving a superhero myself. Spent about a paragraph on his costume…I believe it was under fifty words in total. Was that concise enough for a story going to be about 3000 words?

  23. B. McKenzieon 26 Jan 2012 at 2:49 am

    “Currently writing a short story involving a superhero myself. Spent about a paragraph on his costume…I believe it was under fifty words in total. Was that concise enough for a story going to be about 3000 words?” I think it depends on how relevant those ~50 words are, Castille. Personally, I feel that ~50 words on a costume would be perfectly fine if those words developed a character and/or advanced the plot in a significant and/or interesting way. However, if it’s just a description of which colors make up the character’s costume, I feel even 15-20 words would be overkill.

  24. Athkoreon 10 Jul 2012 at 10:05 pm

    This website has been extremely helpful thus far, but I had two questions that I decided I might as well ask here.

    Both deal with copyrights of Marvel/DC.

    1) I’ve been trying (and failing) to come up with a good superhero name for one of my characters that -hasn’t- been copyrighted by one company or the other. If I were to use a name that I thought fit, but then later found out it was already taken by Marvel/DC, would that technically be copyright violation even if I had no idea said hero existed?

    2) Hypothetically, let’s say an author created his heroes when he was very young and they had little to no backstory/structure/goals ect. They were mostly fan-characters for the Marvel universe. Now that the Avengers movies have come out, the two heroes have evolved into fan-characters for the Avengers movies. Both were, in the fan fictions he wrote, linked directly to the hunt for the Super Soldier Serum’s recipe. If the author later wants to use his characters in an original story (for sale), is it technically stealing their idea if the two heroes are simply involved in “government testing”, but no other reference to the Marvel universe is made?

  25. B. McKenzieon 11 Jul 2012 at 8:08 am

    First, I made some edits to your post because at least one Marvel employee reads SN and because I think your post was phrased in a way which might theoretically have opened the door to legal issues down the road. I’d recommend being very careful about broadcasting anything which might make it more likely that a legally aggressive company might sue you if you do get the story published.

    1) I think the most important consideration here is that this issue will probably not scare away prospective publishers*. Your publisher might ask you to change the name because Marvel or DC might sue you guys otherwise, but that’s a relatively easy change. You and/or your publisher might be able to win the lawsuit by spending a lot of money on attorneys, but your publisher might not be willing to fight that battle (especially if you aren’t a bestselling author).

    *Unless the novel manuscript appears to be fan-fiction. If so, it’s dead on arrival.

    2) “If the author later wants to use his characters in an original story (for sale), is it technically stealing their idea if the two heroes are simply involved in “government testing”, but no other reference to the Marvel universe is made?” It might make it more likely that Marvel sues the author (and would probably strengthen Marvel’s case). “Is it technically stealing their idea if the two heroes are simply involved in ‘government testing,’ but no other reference to the Marvel universe is made?” Legally speaking, I’m guessing the author would be fine if that were as far as it got, because the story isn’t identifiably linked to Marvel. However, creatively speaking, I would recommend that the author build some distinctions between his version of “government testing” and Marvel’s.

  26. YellowJujuon 15 Dec 2012 at 10:22 am

    @B. Mac
    When you said “that guy in the phone booth” (Sorry I’m late), it made me think Doctor Who, not Superman. haha

  27. B. McKenzieon 15 Dec 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Understandable, YJ. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Superman use a phonebooth–I think they phased it out in the 1990s (~when America phased out phonebooths). However, I suspect that something anachronistic wouldn’t be an issue in a series about time travel.



    I’m guessing that “that filthy reality-bending Wisconsin freak” didn’t bring anyone else to mind. All Rodgers, all the time.

  28. ColdmoonIon 09 Dec 2013 at 3:23 pm

    I have a werewolflike mutant that wears a trench coat and a sombrero. Is there a problem with this?

  29. Kirsten Songcalon 09 Dec 2013 at 11:04 pm

    @ColdmoonI

    Why does he wear a sombrero? Other than that questionable choice of headgear I see no problems with your character.

    Have a nice day ColdmoonI.

  30. edgukatoron 10 Dec 2013 at 3:28 am

    “@ColdmoonI

    Why does he wear a sombrero? Other than that questionable choice of headgear I see no problems with your character.”

    Either that, or the sombrero is totally fine and the trench coat is out of place. The question is how it fits in with your fictional universe…

  31. B. McKenzieon 10 Dec 2013 at 7:13 am

    “I have a werewolflike mutant that wears a trench coat and a sombrero. Is there a problem with this?” Yes, but not the problem you’re thinking of. See #3 above. The outfit doesn’t matter in a novel*, so just pick something and spend your time on elements which actually matter to the story.

    (If you’re writing a comic book, then the visual design does matter).

    *When you’ve finished a draft of the story and are ready to rewrite, I’d recommend evaluating whether the sombrero fits the tone of the work. There may be a discrepancy between the sombrero and the trenchcoat.

  32. NeonPheonixon 28 Sep 2014 at 9:25 am

    Do you think that a power randomization power would work or no?

  33. B. McKenzieon 28 Sep 2014 at 6:54 pm

    “Do you think that a power randomization power would work or no?” I’m not sure on what a power randomization power would entail specifically, but generally I don’t find volatile superpowers (i.e. those with unpredictable/unknown parameters) highly promising. I believe that characters are generally more impressive/interesting to readers if the readers understand the character’s limitations and if the character uses known skills/capabilities in interesting and preferably unpredictable ways within known parameters.

    In contrast, a character who relies more on luck/randomness would probably be less impressive. Exception: If his randomly generated powers tend to be very weak (and/or poorly-trained) compared to what other characters are working with and he’s more reliant on his skills than his powers, then I think he’d come across as more capable and less luck-dependent.

  34. NeonPheonixon 29 Sep 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Yeah, the second one’s mostly it. He gets generally weak powers. Thanks for the feedback, I’m real hopeful about this project

  35. Shubhamon 13 May 2015 at 1:50 am

    Hey,

    I am going to write a novel of a superhero named ‘rollerman’. Is it a perfect name?. I can give you some of its characteristics that his hands can become rolling, please do give suggestions to me for the character name…

    Regards.

  36. JediJaxon 17 Sep 2015 at 9:24 am

    I am making a character called Visionary. To summarize his powers, He can tell the future. He can Dream visions of things that will happen in the distant future, but he can also be aware of what is going to happen to him soon (like spiderman via spider sense), I am wondering if he can control it though. For example I had an idea that before a battle he could take a moment and see exactly what is going to happen in that battle and give him the upper hand (like Sherlock Holmes :P), but the problem i’m faced with is if he can do this at will. If he can, would it make him a little OP’ed to be able to know everything that will ever happen. That being said, would it make a lot of sense if he could only see futures that affect him, or could he only see futures that will affect the place his was currently at. Finally, if this is all a little to over complicated, please let me know if you think precognition might be a bad idea. 🙂

  37. B. McKenzieon 20 Sep 2015 at 3:04 pm

    “To summarize his powers, He can tell the future. He can Dream visions of things that will happen in the distant future, but he can also be aware of what is going to happen to him soon (like spiderman via spider sense), I am wondering if he can control it though. For example I had an idea that before a battle he could take a moment and see exactly what is going to happen in that battle and give him the upper hand (like Sherlock Holmes :P), but the problem i’m faced with is if he can do this at will. If he can, would it make him a little OP’ed to be able to know everything that will ever happen.” I’m not sure about “overpowered,” but definitely less interesting. I’d recommend being more limited in terms of what he can see (e.g. if he’s seeing fragments that may be misinterpreted, that’d probably be more dramatically promising than having a clear-cut understanding of most/all major plot events ahead of time). For some examples there, I’d recommend checking out the first season of Heroes (which showed Isaac a few terrifying snippets of a nuclear attack on New York but not who/what/how/when or any obvious solutions) or the Game of Thrones series (where almost all prophecies are symbolic rather than explicit/literal, and can easily be misinterpreted).



    I think Holmes is not a very close comparison here — a skill-based approach to predicting the future and/or a fight is an entirely different (and considerably more promising, I feel) approach than a supernatural one. (Puzzling out a problem with a skill takes more advanced writing and generally makes it more interactive for readers).



    This isn’t a huge problem, and I wouldn’t recommend addressing this until you have a draft of the manuscript written, but I feel like “Visionary” is a pretty generic name for a prophetic character. My rule of thumb is that generally a character’s name should do something more than just telling us what his superpower(s) is.

  38. catswoodsriveron 06 Nov 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I use prophecy, which is very figurative, and the characters have no control over it. They also don’t remember what they said, so they get really frightened. A different character has dreams that have some reality in them, but they don’t know which part is real. (part of the dream is real, but the dreams are really realistic or strange)

  39. B. McKenzieon 17 Feb 2016 at 6:23 pm

    “A different character has dreams that have some reality in them, but they don’t know which part is real.” This sounds more promising than, say, an 100% reliable system. E.g. if someone prophecizes his significant other having an affair but doesn’t know whether it’s actually real, I think the uncertainty gives the author a lot more opportunities for developing the plot and the characters. E.g. if the main character initially tosses the dream aside, thinking there’s no way that could be accurate, what (if anything) might happen that makes him start to wonder? If/when he starts to wonder, how might he go about confirming his suspicions? If his wife is cheating, how does she react if the husband starts giving signs that he knows what’s going on? If the wife is faithful, what does she think has made him super-cold all of a sudden? (She might reasonably start responding in ways that fuel his concerns — e.g. if he’s sort of nasty to her, she might spend more time with friends and family to get away from it all, but from his perspective it looks like she might be doing something seedy).

    And/or maybe the dream was SYMBOLICALLY but not literally accurate (e.g. if the wife is being disloyal to him in some other way besides romantic infidelity).

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