Nov 28 2011

Writing a Realistic Superhero Story

Published by at 1:22 am under Realism,Writing Articles

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.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Writing a Realistic Superhero Story”

  1. RoLandoon 13 Dec 2011 at 5:31 pm

    This is a great article. I am working on a superhero story and I think this will definitely help when it comes to developing the characters. Also it will help when it comes to creating challenging sequences.

    As of right now, my hero will be like a Daredevil/Punisher style vigilante. But that may change. If its possible i would love to get a review forum and sort of chronicle my development as a progress. But thank you for posting this article.

  2. Anonymouson 04 Feb 2012 at 4:20 am

    I’ve been feeling a bit irritable lately because while I knew I wanted to write a superhero story that sort of deconstructed the genre, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. This article really helped- I’ve got a much more concrete idea of what I’m doing now. Thanks!

  3. Agnion 29 Sep 2012 at 8:17 pm

    @B. Mac.

    I have got a huge problem while developing my novel. I am trying to find an idea about how the hero finds the villain’s hideout. It should be innovative and such that the villain does not expect of. Give me some ideas please.

  4. B. McKenzieon 30 Sep 2012 at 2:44 am

    “It should be innovative and such that the villain does not expect of. Give me some ideas please.” Hmm. I think it depends on the heroes and what they are capable of. For example, in The Taxman Must Die, a villain is caught off-guard by what an IRS agent can do with a grudge, a computer, and a lack of close supervision. This wouldn’t fit for most superheroes, though… I’d recommend coming up with something more specific to your team.

    –Is there anything your characters know more about than most superheroes? Could they use any of that to help them find the villain and/or narrow the areas they have to search?

    –Is there any information the heroes can piece together in interesting ways? For example, someone like Sherlock Holmes might notice super-minor details and use them to limit the areas he needs to search. Things like rare chemical compounds or rare plant matter caught in a footprint might hint at areas around town where the villain might be. If the heroes have figured out that the villain is probably close to a particular resource or tool. For example, if the villain’s doing some large-scale manufacturing (e.g. a robotics operation), they can probably eliminate 90%+ of the area by doing thermal scans and looking for major sources of heat in the area. Or chemical emissions. After they have a list of possible locations, likely they’ll have several legitimate operations and the criminal’s hideout.

    –Do the characters know anything about the villain’s background? That might help him figure out where he’s gone and/or how he’s covering his tracks. For example, if the criminal in question is a Latverian in the United States, it’s a pretty good guess that Dr. Doom is involved somehow. Putting Dr. Doom’s known agents under surveillance might turn up something. Even listening in on a phone call might give the heroes some useful information. (E.g. if they hear a strike of thunder in the background, they’ll know he was in an area that was raining at that moment).

    –Planting a tracking device and/or trailing a henchman or associate or something the villain is trying to steal. Anything that will be taken to the villain could lead the heroes there.

    –Turning an associate/henchman of the villain? Convincing a reluctant witness (maybe someone scared for his life or a family member in denial) to offer useful information? Convincing and/or tricking another villain to either give up the first villain or do something which compromises his position?

    –Has the villain fallen into some sort of pattern? After all these years, I figure that Batman has to have a list of all the abandoned warehouses in Gotham, because pretty much all of them are criminal operations.

    –If the characters are even slightly savvy detectives, I think readers will cut you a lot of slack if they narrow their search by making somewhat-lucky assumptions. For example, in Silence of the Lambs, the main character realizes that the serial killer is a guy that knows how to sew and leaps to the conclusion that he must have learned sewing skills in prison, so she starts crosschecking her previous information against records of prison tailors. As it turns out, the suspect was a prison tailor and not, say, someone who grew up in a tailoring family or someone who learned tailoring because he lived alone in an extremely isolated area. I think readers will give you some leeway to cut some corners if it sounds like the character has a vaguely plausible reason for doing so. In The Taxman Must Die, federal agents instantly assume that an escaped supervillain is making a beeline for New York City, only on account of the fact that he’s a megalomaniac and not bright enough to try something more original. (I’m also sort of assuming that readers will give me some latitude to have federal agents profile supervillains based on comic book cliches).

  5. Agnion 30 Sep 2012 at 4:45 am

    @B. Mac

    my hero does not have any superpower. He uses his high intelligence and knowledge over almost anything along with mastery over different fighting style against crime. So the way of finding the villain’s hideout must involve his intelligence and knowledge. Finding things like rare chemical compounds or rare plant matter caught in a footprint is a great idea for that.

  6. The Drifteron 03 Oct 2012 at 3:31 am

    A superhero named Rush who has the power of ability creation due to alien technology he has stolen has been a hero to Fox City (fictional setting) for years, since he was a teen. After years of growing up and maturing, he started to develop hatred towards human. Rush decides to turn on the city after years of protecting it, leaving people helpless while he unleashed chaos. The government decides to take action by locating a primehuman (people who get their powers naturally) named Devin who is an ex-supervillain gone good, he is supposedly the last primehuman on earth. The government comes to Devin to see if he can defeat Rush because Dev is their only hope. Literately. So any thoughts, questions or comments?

  7. The Drifteron 03 Oct 2012 at 4:17 am

    Another thing is that i’m not sure what power to give Devin. My choices were: Elemental Manipulation, Enhanced Artistry or Energy Manipulation, so confused *pulls hair out*

  8. B. McKenzieon 03 Oct 2012 at 4:41 am

    I find Rush interesting, but Devin might be a Chosen One. “The government decides to take action by locating a primehuman (people who get their powers naturally) named Devin who is an ex-supervillain gone good, he is supposedly the last primehuman on earth. The government comes to Devin to see if he can defeat Rush because Dev is their only hope.” I think you could smooth this out, maybe come up with a better reason the government starts working with an ex-criminal. Or maybe do a smoother job explaining why ONLY a prime human would have a chance of defeating Rush (as opposed to, say, calling in another hero with alien technology). My concern here is that the government has apparently decided that there’s only one candidate, but it’d probably be more dramatic if there were more than one. (Maybe the government is trying a few different approaches* and the main character has to prove himself…)
    *Some possibilities which come to mind: alien tech heroes, maybe a cooperative alien, special forces commando(s), a conventional military response, etc.

    “He is supposedly the last primehuman on Earth.” This suggests that most of them have died out? If so, is a primehuman actually the right candidate for this job?

    “My choices were: Elemental Manipulation, Enhanced Artistry or Energy Manipulation, so confused…” I think either elemental manipulation or energy manipulation would work fine (although I think picking a particular element would probably be more promising than a swath of elements). I’m not sure I understand enhanced artistry. Do you mean like painting/drawing or something else (e.g. martial arts?) Calling in an expert painter to defeat a rogue superhero is not intuitive, especially if there are any actual superheroes available (alien tech or not).

  9. Marxon 10 Mar 2013 at 2:48 am

    Can fantasy and science fiction come together? Because me as well as my brother are working on a story together and we want to add science fiction & fantasy elements into it. When I asked my former teacher this question, he said that it would be extremely complicated. Any ideas?

  10. B. McKenzieon 10 Mar 2013 at 8:28 am

    Mixing genres definitely can be complicated, but I think incorporating sci-fi heroes and magical/mythological heroes on the same team is not necessarily a huge problem. (In terms of getting readers and publishers on board, I think it’d make for a more challenging sell than something more genre-coherent, though).

  11. Blackscaron 10 Mar 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Hello again! I’ve spent some time revising my novel, and I believe I’ve come across an issue.

    Would it be plausible to have my sword-wielding character stash his blade in a locker or storage room at school, just as a precaution?
    Or, does that seem too overdone?
    How would I go about getting him out of trouble if, say, a teacher searched his locker and found the weapon, without it seeming like he only escaped punishment because he’s the main character/has plot armor?

  12. Amber D.on 09 May 2013 at 9:25 pm

    If there was an orginization that captured people with powers and as a result of that orginization there had been superhuman kids raised to belive that all (normal) humans should be eliminated, if one of those kids was in trouble and rescued by a teen who although strugeled with the orginization as well had been raised to belive that hurting some humans for what a few did was wrong, what would it take to make the kid stop thinking that way?

  13. Amber D.on 09 May 2013 at 9:27 pm

    the kid is about 6-8 years old and has been raised that way since they can remeber

  14. Amber D.on 09 May 2013 at 11:30 pm

    I ment to say all not some

  15. B. McKenzieon 10 May 2013 at 7:54 am

    The kid is young enough that it probably wouldn’t be that difficult to bring him/her around. E.g. maybe a human is exceptionally friendly to him, and the kid makes a gradual transition from “John/Jane is really nice and obviously shouldn’t be hurt” to “Maybe there are a lot of humans like John/Jane.”

    There may be cognitive dissonance as the kid learns information which contradicts everything his organization/cult had told him about humans.

  16. Amber D.on 23 Oct 2013 at 5:54 pm

    how much of a risk would there be of a wig falling off during a fight and would the wig being really expensive lessen that risk?

  17. Nature Witchon 24 Oct 2013 at 2:56 am

    Better wigs seems to have a adjuster in the wig to make it harder to fall of, but with the wig having to be stuck during fightscenes (I think) I would suggest having pins also in th wig so it has even lesser chance to fall of. Maybe even wig-glue or what it is, but that part of costuming I don’t know were to get or how to use, so you might have to look it up.

  18. Amber Don 01 Nov 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks but just to be more clear I was thinking more along the lines of wether or not it would be reasonable for a superhero to use a wig as part of her costume or if the risk of it falling off or being yanked off would be to great

  19. B. McKenzieon 02 Nov 2013 at 1:37 am

    “how much of a risk would there be of a wig falling off during a fight and would the wig being really expensive lessen that risk?” Completely up to the author’s discretion. If you want to have the character dealing with the risk of a wig coming off, you can do that. Or you could have there be 0% chance of it ever coming off accidentally. She’s a superhero, so it’s pretty intuitive that she would have access to a costume which holds up well during combat.

    If you want to, you could spend a sentence mentioning that the wig is specifically designed to stay on during extreme activity, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

  20. D. Mannyon 23 Oct 2014 at 7:28 am

    Hey! Would you consider Chronicle gritty? I’m writing a novel semi like Chronicle (whereas teens discover they have powers from a geoelectric alien source.) But instead of telekineses powers I’d prefer creating characters with genetically mutated powers i.e ability to regenerate cells after being destroyed, powers to shoot laser-like beams out of hands , etc. Would these examples of abilities be WAY to far fetched to play off in a gritty, realistic world? Granted my story is different to Chronicle so story-wise it’s not similar. My story has to deal with my Hero going on the run with his friend after this wack goverment agency wants to put “Specials”, another name for people with superpowers, under their control. Kinda like Civil War and what Bolliver Trak was wanting to achieve in DoFP. I want my villain to be this agency BUT I am trying to have my Hero face off with this crazy Special he meets on the run. Their ideals are completely different thus causing trouble. Would you discourage two villains in a story?

  21. B. McKenzieon 26 Oct 2014 at 6:09 pm

    “Hey! Would you consider Chronicle gritty?” Not very. I believe the main component to grittiness is main protagonist(s) affected by terrible things. I’d recommend checking out hardboiled stories like Bob Moore: No Hero and Powers, and non-superhero classics like Double Indemnity, DOA, possibly Dirty Harry, and The Wire.

    I believe some of the distinguishing characteristics are:
    –The main character is burned out and/or extremely jaded/cynical by an extremely difficult life. Besides Batman (sometimes) and maybe Wolverine, this is very rare in superhero stories — usually trauma is a one-time incident that motivates the character to become a superhero, but in a hardboiled story, it’s an ongoing environmental condition. In Chronicle, neither of the 2 main protagonists had an exceptionally hard life or was otherwise cynical/jaded/burnt out.
    –The protagonist(s) suffers from major setbacks that are highly unglamorous and often reflect poorly on the character (e.g. something many other stories’ protagonists, especially the idealized ones, would have avoided). Less like “I didn’t make it onto my favorite superhero team” or “Elite government assassins are trying to kill me” and more like “My wife left me and took the dog” or “I’m far behind on bills and need a big case right now.”
    –An unusual degree of morally gray protagonists, but NOT just the main character emotionlessly killing a lot of bad guys. E.g. a police officer using shady tactics and/or tolerating fairly serious crimes to put together a case against a major criminal. In contrast, I’d consider the main character of Chronicle to be ethically pure. I think the closest he gets to shady is telekinetically trolling a kid at a store (i.e. more playful than serious).
    –The protagonists are occasionally overwhelmed by the scope of the problems surrounding them. I don’t believe this happened in Chronicle.
    –The main character is not in control (e.g. alcoholism, unusual emotional volatility, unusually messy decision-making). For example, in DOA, the main character is so lovelorn that he is seduced into helping a lady murder her husband after knowing her for ~10 minutes. I don’t believe Chronicle went down this road.
    –Authority figures are highly incompetent and/or antagonistic and/or unreliable. I don’t believe that this was the case in Chronicle?
    –The main character is not generally recognized as a hero. This did happen in Chronicle, I think (e.g. the main character fleeing Seattle).

  22. B. McKenzieon 28 Oct 2014 at 8:51 pm

    “But instead of telekineses powers I’d prefer creating characters with genetically mutated powers i.e ability to regenerate cells after being destroyed, powers to shoot laser-like beams out of hands , etc. Would these examples of abilities be WAY to far fetched to play off in a gritty, realistic world?” I don’t think the lasers would be a problem. Depending on execution, the ability to regenerate could be a problem (if the character’s powers essentially render him/her immune to death, I feel that would take away a lot of the grit and drama).

    “Would you discourage two villains in a story?” If they’re both interesting, it wouldn’t be a problem. Exception: If an author were thinking about a large group of 5+ superheroes, coming up with the space to develop multiple supervillains (especially multiple villains with independent goals) may be more challenging than a single villain. Personally, I’m using multiple villains in The Taxman Must Die because I wanted an intermediate villain to drive the plot until the main villain emerges.

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