Nov 28 2011
1. As always, realism is a stylistic preference. Feel free to disregard any/all aspects of realism. Generally, the fans of superhero stories are more likely to cut you slack on realism than, say, the readers of military fiction, so incorporate realism if you want to and not because you feel you need to.
2. Superpower selection. If realism is a major concern, I would recommend shying away from powers that insulate the character from vaguely realistic consequences to actions. For example, an invulnerable superhero can just wade into gunfire, whereas a character like Batman needs to put more thought into it. Batman’s restrictions are more human-like in that regard, so his actions will probably feel more realistic. Alternately, if you have a character like Superman, you can try using a variety of situations where the character has to act very carefully rather than just bumrush an enemy. (For example, rescuing hostages, dealing with an enemy like The Riddler that isn’t actually present, a “scavenger hunt” situation like finding and defusing several bombs, an enemy like Professor Moriarty that works a lot through proxies that don’t know enough to easily incriminate their boss, etc).
- I’d recommend incorporating as many of the superpowers into the premise rather than having characters develop some superpowers later. I think it was fairly effective and acceptable that Heroes had a time-traveling character, but just wildly crazy that Superman went back in time in Superman I by flying around the world counterclockwise. Heroes introduced the time-travel angle fairly quickly, but in the Superman movie, it was a deus ex machina that came out of nowhere. (Likewise, erasing Lois’ memories with a kiss was not only a deus ex machina, but also an act of raw jackassery).
- If uncertainty, doubt and/or paranoia are major elements of the story, I’d recommend cutting or severely limiting mind-reading and lie-detection. For example, if mind-reading is a very intrusive act tantamount to frisking somebody, then it’ll be easier to write a situation where the character is vulnerable to uncertainty than if the character is free to read everybody’s minds without anybody else knowing. Drama comes from vulnerability, so don’t use superpowers that will make it too hard to find vulnerabilities for the character.
- Especially if the story is gritty, I’d recommend reconsidering incredible regeneration powers. The stakes will probably be higher if the character’s actions have consequences, and one very noticeable consequence is the risk of injury. For dramatic reasons, you might want to make the character regenerate faster and/or take less damage than normal*, but I just wouldn’t recommend overdoing it so much that you couldn’t raise the stakes with an injury at a terribly inconvenient time if you wanted to.
*Pretty much every superhero, even ones whose powers are mainly mental, are physically resilient enough to shrug off some hits that would put the average person in a hospital for weeks. Having heroes get hospitalized for weeks after every fight probably wouldn’t be very interesting.
3. Consider the character’s motivations for becoming a superhero. Is there anything about this character’s background or personality that would suggest he’d be receptive to a highly dangerous and messy job? I’d recommend thinking particularly hard about this if the character wasn’t notably brave and/or the sort to get in fights before getting superpowers. One example I like a lot here is Spider-Man–I think the series effectively and clearly established why a very unviolent geek felt morally obligated to get into that line of work.
3.1. If the character’s temperament and/or background isn’t a great fit for superheroics, does it create obstacles for him sometimes? Too often, I think, superpowers serve as a “Get Out of Obstacle Free” card. If I could offer an analogy here, I feel that superpowers would be a bit like a soldier’s rifle. Skilled soldiers can do a lot with rifles. But just giving somebody an assault rifle does not make him a skilled soldier. So, if the character has superpowers but does not have very much experience in fights and/or solving crimes, it’s very likely that the character will be missing some of the skills, practice and training that would really help him succeed as a superhero. (And that’s okay! Remember, obstacles are your friend, and it would be an interesting obstacle if the hero didn’t start out with the ideal skills and/or background).
4. If at all possible, I would recommend writing in realistic consequences to actions even though they may present obstacles for the characters to overcome.
- If a character takes on more than he can handle, it’d make sense if he got injured (as above). When the next emergency rolls around, how does he deal with the injury?
- A lot of superhero stories work in relationship difficulties caused by being a superhero. Depending on the mood, you could also work in a divorce (they’re depressingly common for police officers, soldiers and others that work long hours in stressful positions, and even a police officer wouldn’t get called on-duty during a wedding, whereas superhero weddings and funerals are interrupted with some degree of regularity).
- Is Reed Richards useless? Do other scientists think that your super-scientist is wasting his mental talents brawling with bank robbers and Latverian dictators when he could be saving many more lives in a lab somewhere? (The Fantastic Four series avoids that by having Reed Richards do superheroics and cutting-edge civilian science, but I think it’d be more realistic and dramatic to handle the trade-offs).
5. I would recommend considering at least minor elements of crime-solving rather than responding to crimes in progress. If the villains are pretty smart–and most supervillains supposedly are–presumably they’d have a plan more intelligent and more likely to succeed than just hitting a bank and giving the heroes enough time to respond. (Seriously, not even any diversionary tactics, Dr. Octopus?)
- For example, what does a hero do to thwart a plot that needs to be stopped ahead of time? For example, if the hero merely responds to a terrorist bombing or an assassination after the fact, the damage has already been done–the hero needs to piece together what’s happening before the bomb goes off.
- Alternately, what if the crime isn’t discovered until some time after it happens? For example, if an invaluable metal with incredibly explosive properties or a priceless work of art has been swapped out with a convincing stand-in/forgery, it might take a few days for a researcher to discover that what was thought to be explodinium is actually low-grade cesium* that could barely blow up a small pond. It’ll take the heroes some thought to find out who took the genuine article, more than if they had just responded while the crime was happening. *Cesium is the sickly stepchild of the alkaline earth metals and the butt of many cruel jokes from francium and explodinium. No self-respecting criminal would use it except to mock an exceptionally weak adversary. “Oh, Paste Pot Pete? Let me bring out my cesium.”
- If you’d like to give your heroes more realistic/creative ways to find crimes but don’t want to spend as much time covering the process as a mystery writer would, please see my list of crime-finding suggestions.