Archive for December 18th, 2011

Dec 18 2011

List of Superhero Cliches, Tropes, and Conventions

Published by under Writing Articles

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.


1. The story’s inciting event is most often the murder of a loved one(s).  For example, in Spider-Man, Peter’s uncle gets killed because he wasn’t brave enough to take action.  One possible subversion is that the uncle got killed because Peter (or the uncle) did try to take action.  Another popular inciting event is something which suddenly gives the characters superpowers–common examples include scientific accidents, alien landings, living in New York City, and miracle operations.


2. The superhero usually gets his superpowers before the villain does.  Or, at least, we learn about the superhero getting his superpowers first.  It’s pretty rare for a supervillain to start his reign of terror before the hero has superpowers.


2.1. The superhero and main villain frequently gets their superpowers either from the same source or similar sources.  For example, Green Lantern and Sinestro both use power rings.  Spider-Man and the Green Goblin are both biochemically enhanced.  Batman and the Joker are both fueled by insanity.


3. Many villains and heroes share some sort of personal connection outside of work.  The easiest way to become one of Spider-Man’s villains is to meet Peter Parker.  (Green Goblin is his best friend’s father, Lizard employed him as a teaching assistant, Venom is a rival at work, Dr. Octopus once taught him at a science camp, Man-Wolf is J.J. Jameson’s son, etc).  This may be explainable if superpowers are mostly hereditary and/or highly visible in your story.  For example, mutants are a pretty small group of mostly outcasts in X-Men, so it makes sense that mutants have a better chance of knowing each other and/or being related to each other than random humans would.  Alternately, the hero might interact with a lot of people that are relatively likely to develop superpowers.  For example, Peter Parker knows a lot of leading scientists and New York City scientists are more or less certain to develop superpowers.


4. Nuclear weapons cannot destroy anything, but hand-to-hand combatants are largely unstoppable.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from fiction, it’s that a single ninja is the deadliest force in the galaxy.  In contrast, nuclear weapons are hilariously unable to kill anything. Even in Watchmen, where nuclear weapons are the grim doom hanging over everybody’s heads, it’s a giant psychic squid that actually destroys a city. In Heroes, Peter’s healing power can be stopped by a bullet to the back of the head but not a point-blank nuclear detonation. Also in Heroes, a nuclear detonation happens within 10-20 miles of New York City and nobody even notices. In these stories, nuclear romance killed more people (one of Dr. Manhattan’s lovers) than nuclear weapons did.

5. Nobody stays dead (comic book deaths never last).  Almost no superheroes die or lose their superpowers for an extended period in comic books.  It will never happen to bestselling characters, unless a reboot is already planned.  Novels don’t fall into this cliche as often. A novelist doesn’t need to do decades worth of stories for the same character, so it’s easier for a novelist to alter the status quo.

5.1. Primary superhero protagonists almost always survive and win, especially in comic books. In a superhero story, there is a 99%+ chance that the main characters accomplish their goal and survive. In contrast, in other action stories, it’s not unheard of that the heroes either fail to accomplish their goals or die accomplishing them.

5.2 Women are disproportionately likely to get, ahem, stuffed in a fridge or otherwise brutally slain.  Publishers usually treat highly popular characters much more carefully and the characters that drive sales the most are (besides Buffy) almost exclusively male.  However, being a male superhero doesn’t help you much if you aren’t very popular–just ask Jason Todd!


6. New York City (or an obvious stand-in like Gotham) is the default setting for most superhero stories. I think it’s because the U.S. comic book and novel publishing industries are centered there and that’s what their editors are most comfortable with.  Also, they’d probably reason that it’s got a recognizable skyline, a large built-in audience, the brightest lights/biggest stage for a superhero, etc.  This isn’t necessarily a wrong choice, but I would be concerned if you chose NYC just because it’s the generic setting and you couldn’t come up with anything else. New York itself isn’t a problem, but generic settings are. In contrast, Gotham is obviously based on New York City, but definitely has a mood/character to it.

6.1.  95%+ of the world’s superpowered activity will usually happen in and around a single city.  Apparently, New York City has a global monopoly on cutting-edge science–either that, or scientists everywhere else have figured out how not to turn themselves into supervillains.  PS: If your superhero activity is overwhelmingly centered in a particular city, I’d recommend having an in-story reason why.  “That’s where the chemical spill/alien landing/origin story/whatever happened” is usually sufficient.


7. Most superheroes almost never interact with their parents, besides possibly a stirring death scene.  This is true of many non-superhero stories as well. Hollywood kills off or skips over the parents of protagonists (especially adult protagonists) so consistently that I was shocked in grade school to learn that my 40-something teacher’s parents were still alive. Disney had distorted my perspective so much that I had assumed that parents usually died by the time their kids became adults.

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