Jan 07 2012

Possible Problems and Obstacles for Superheroes to Face Besides Supervillains

Published by at 2:50 pm under Plotting,Writing Articles

Here are some possibilities.

1. A lack of money.  Superheroics can result in injuries, but anybody with a secret identity probably wouldn’t want to reveal those injuries to an insurance company.  (Otherwise, they’d need to lie to the insurance company or reveal their secret identity).  Second, a lot of superheroes spend what must be substantial amounts of money on their superheroics.  For example, Peter Parker is practically on the verge of starvation (and has been evicted at least once), but he’s still buying high-grade flame-retardant fabric for costumes. Even a wealthier team like the Fantastic Four could have financial difficulties sometimes.  Their headquarter alone would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year (in financing/interest, property taxes, maintenance, insurance to protect nearby buildings from FF science, building upgrades, etc).  Government agencies might face budgetary restrictions, particularly if they’ve antagonized Congress/Parliament.


1.1. Troubles at work and/or school.  Superheroes don’t have very much control over when supervillains attack, so they frequently have trouble maintaining a regular work schedule.  Superheroes can take some steps to minimize the damage to their day jobs, but a worker that’s frequently late and/or absent without leave will probably get in trouble with his/her boss and/or school.


2. Physical stresses of a highly dangerous job.  For example, injuries stemming from fights or overexertion, a lack of sleep and/or time to recuperate, exposure to highly dangerous chemicals or alien symbiotes, mild aging (Batman’s at least in his 40s), etc.

2.1. Mental stress and/or combat fatigue. 


3. Pressure from friends/family/loved ones to give up or minimize superheroic activities.  They may be concerned about the superhero’s well-being because it’s such a dangerous job and/or the superhero might not be well-suited for the job.  Alternately, a spouse or lover may feel that the toll on their relationship is getting too high, particularly if he/she has been kidnapped or nearly killed before.


4. Disagreements with other protagonists (superpowered or otherwise).  For example, Lucius parted ways with Batman over philosophical differences.  Superheroes might privately and/or publicly hold each other accountable if a mission goes awry. Alternately, if there’s a crime or disaster where multiple superhero groups respond, the groups might have trouble cooperating–the teams might be very different philosophically, tactically, demographically, etc.  If a super-SWAT team and a team of superpowered high school students both respond to a hostage crisis, there are a variety of reasons the SWAT commandos would not want to trust the students with any responsibility.  Peter Parker is good at many things, but he’s not extremely methodical and probably doesn’t have much experience with hostage situations.  Alternately, the high school students might have trouble cooperating with the SWAT team, if they’re convinced that the SWAT team is so gung-ho they’re going to get a lot of hostages killed and/or the SWAT commandos don’t have the right superpowers for this situation and/or are using a more standard set of strategies against a completely unpredictable adversary.


5. Impermanent superpowers.  In most superhero stories, superpowers are permanent.  Some stories take away superpowers for short periods (for example, Kryptonite temporarily drains Superman’s powers), but you could make the problem more long-term.  What if the character’s powers are naturally fading away because of aging, overuse or a weakening of the power source? Maybe the price of recharging his powers is so high that the character isn’t willing to go through with it?


6. Superpowers that don’t handle low-level situations well.  For example, some superpowers would be tricky to use in a situation that wasn’t life-or-death.  If the Human Torch tries to stop a minor scuffle like a bar brawl, he’d have to think creatively about how to get involved without torching someone that is probably more of a nuisance than a superpowered threat to humanity.  He’d probably also want to think about any potential harm to bystanders.  It’d be highly risky to break out fire in a crowded building because it could trigger the fire alarm and set off a fatal stampede.


6.1. Imprecise superpowers.  Most people aren’t 100% accurate at anything.  What would make one person less accurate/precise than another?

  • Some characters might not have as much fine control as others do, even though their powers might be similar.  For example, one telekinetic might be able to mentally pluck bullets from the air or turn a screw, whereas another telekinetic might be more powerful but less precise.
  • Some superpowers are naturally harder to aim, especially at a distance.  If a criminal is 50 feet away and running, a superstrong character would probably have a harder time stopping him than a psychic or an elemental controller would.  Even at point-blank range, a superstrong character might have trouble exploiting a tiny vulnerability (like, say, the clasps on Juggernaut’s helmet).
  • Some superpowers have splash damage that is hard to control.  For example, a superstrong attack is likely to cause reverberations that could be dangerous to passersby.  Even if a fire-based attack is aimed perfectly at a hostage-taker, the hostage would probably get burned even if the fire doesn’t touch him.
  • The superpowers may require concentration and/or careful aim.  In a stressful situation, it’s easy to get distracted and/or nervous and/or make unsound split-second decisions.  A character with less training and less experience is more likely to make interesting mistakes here.
  • Other factors that might matter: whether the shooter is moving, whether the target is moving, whether the target has cover and/or a human shield, distance, visibility, weather conditions, whether there are superpowers in play that interrupt or disrupt other superpowers, etc.


7.  Unreasonably high expectations on the part of the hero and/or other protagonists and/or public at large.  Superman or not, Metropolis will have murders.  Even Superman can’t be everywhere.  That said, a hero might have trouble looking at it like that without feeling like he/she was writing people off and/or making excuses for failure.  Members of the public may get bitter if a loved one gets killed because they might (justifiably) feel there’s a double standard at work.  Let’s face it–if murder victim Jane Doe had been dating a superhero, the superhero probably would have prevented the murder.  “Superheroes may say they don’t have time to save everybody, but they always seem to have time to save the people they care about.”  Alternately, a more powerful and/or skilled superhero may expect too much of other characters.  A superhero that has the ability to summon a horde of celestial super-beings might be disappointed if a partner like the BMX Bandit can’t keep up.  Alternately, the BMX Bandit might get annoyed because he feels like he’s getting shown up by his partner and/or isn’t getting enough of an opportunity to put his skills to use.


8. Side-effects of superpowers. Whatever caused the character to get superpowers could also result in obstacles down the road.  For example:

  • Physical–for example, maybe the person’s body can’t handle the superpowers and/or the body changes in some way that causes complications.  Tony Stark has medical issues related to his origin and Slate is far too heavy to use an elevator or chair.
  • Mental–for example, the person’s personality shifts or he has a Hulk-style personality split.  Dr. Manhattan’s interests and perspective change dramatically when he ascends to quasi-godhood.
  • Social–for example, discrimination against mutants.


9. Team-related conflict.  It’d be impossible to design a company where there wasn’t some sort of potential friction (e.g. employee-employee, employee-leader, leader-leader if the organization is big enough to have layers of leadership, etc).   In a highly stressful field like superheroics, the media would create some even if there weren’t much to begin with.


10. Conflict with society at large (the public, the police, the press, government as a whole, etc).  Superheroes tend to commit many felonies, so you have room to run with this if you’d like.

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “Possible Problems and Obstacles for Superheroes to Face Besides Supervillains”

  1. ekimmakon 09 Jan 2012 at 1:20 pm

    I have the mental style shift for my latest novel. But suffering severe writer’s block on it at the moment.

  2. Ava Jaeon 18 Jan 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Really interesting list! I especially like the financial one–it’s something that’s easy to forget when you’re focused on larger problems like antagonists trying to kill your protagonist or crazy superpowers and world-ending plot problems. Even the heroes are normal people that need to occasionally deal with normal situations.

  3. RandomGirlon 18 Jan 2012 at 11:44 pm

    This is really helpful for pointing out the problems my demon-powered hero has. I came up with a couple before, but a couple more came to mind reading this.

  4. R.C.on 27 Jan 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Nice article. Very useful in developing my Krav Maga / Muay Thai superhero. Thanks a lot!

  5. Aj of Earthon 01 Aug 2012 at 7:06 am

    I enjoy this; really important elements to consider! Thanks!

  6. aharrison 01 Aug 2012 at 7:49 am

    You should make #2 Physical and Mental Stresses. It’s not unreasonable to assume that some heroes get haunted by PTSD and similar issues on occasion. Being wracked by guilt over having failed on occasion, etc. Police depts. have on-staff psychologists for a reason.

  7. Anonon 30 Aug 2012 at 3:13 am

    This is so true! Peter Parker is the only Superhero who actually faces any of these things. The rest of them completely ignore reality.
    Poor Peter has had to rob stores to have costumes to fight crime in. Anyone remember the Bombastic Bagman?

  8. Sam Hon 14 Dec 2012 at 1:39 am

    I have a nuclear meltdown as my main conflict. Sure, there are also dinosaurs and robots in the way, but how do I make it interesting? Rather, I feel as if having no villain with any depth for a foil, the heroin and overall story is less interesting.

  9. B. McKenzieon 14 Dec 2012 at 7:56 am

    Perhaps the nuclear meltdown has some element of human conflict to it? (E.g. sabotage? Corporate cost-cutting measures leading into a coverup?) For example, the Jurassic Park novel obviously has a lot of conflict with dinosaurs, but there is human-vs-human conflict (e.g. industrial espionage/sabotage, lawyers being lawyers, Costa Rica vs. humanity, scientific dilemmas, etc).

    PS: “Heroin” or “heroine”?

  10. Sam Hon 15 Dec 2012 at 12:16 am

    Heroine. Right. Homophones. The idea is that it’s been caused by a solar flare EMP-ing everything, but that this could have been avoided if it weren’t for neglect. The plant is run by robots, but they no longer function either. The catastrophe is caused by a distinct lack of human responsibility. I think I’ll have to explore this clearly. The thing is, Marie won’t get superpowers except for as an indirect result of shutting down the meltdown. I’d like to establish what makes her qualified to be a heroine over the course of this first adventure. Marie Curie was a badass, but I need to show the audience this, and I think the parallel with the future’s science will provide nicely. Particularly if I explore what brought this lack of human input about, and how it will be responded to once brought to light. Afterwards, I think some team related conflict would be good to keep things moving. I mean, Sir Isaac Newton was brilliant, but also a controlling prick.

  11. lcslimon 03 Feb 2014 at 2:58 am

    Hi guys 🙂

    Need some advice, for my story.

    My main character, Yi, is a ninja vigilante and has already sustained a lot of damage for the night. If he is encountered by multiple police officers in his dojo after his Sensei is kidnapped would it be wise for him to let the police capture him, otherwise, they would fire at him. They would capture him to interrogate him. I plan for him to try and convince them that he didn’t do it and that the mutants did it but they won’t believe him. Would they have to unmask him before interrogation or could they be frightened that he wouldn’t tell them anything if they unmasked him?

    And, would another cop helping him escape be a bad idea? This cop thinks he is the good guy and is one of the only non corrupt cops.

    So, sorry I haven’t worded this well, my questions are:

    Would running away be a better option than being captured if he has sustained many injuries during the night?

    Would the police unmask him?

    The police know about the mutants but would they let off any signs that they know or would they say his crazy not to bring suspicion?

    Would another police officer help Yi or would it be too big a risk for him?

  12. BMon 03 Feb 2014 at 6:39 pm

    “Would they have to unmask him before interrogation or could they be frightened that he wouldn’t tell them anything if they unmasked him?” I believe this would either take a police officer breaking with protocol, probably out of respect/thanks to the ninja for something he’s done or as a minor concession. (The police will frequently allow minor concessions to armed suspects in exchange for a peaceful surrender — police negotiators sometimes call this a “surrender ritual”). “No public unmasking” sounds like a pretty minor concession, as long as the police think they will be able to unmask him in private at the station. Alternately, perhaps the ninja can convince them to delay on removing his mask because it would be very culturally disrespectful or something).

    “Would the police unmask him?” Yes, I believe they would attempt to eventually, but I think it would be believable if a master of subterfuge were able to delay that moment long enough to escape.

    “Would running away be a better option than being captured if he has sustained many injuries during the night?” One advantage of allowing himself to be captured (besides that it would be more interesting than him successfully running away) would be that escaping from police custody (after he’s had a chance to rest his injuries a bit and, presumably, their guard is down) may be more successful than attempting to flee from 100% alert police when he’s been seriously injured.

    “And, would another cop helping him escape be a bad idea?” It wouldn’t be my first plan, because it demotes the main character to a bit player. At most, I would have the friendly cop offer some REALLY minor bit of assistance (like sneaking the ninja a tool or a piece of information he might be able to use to escape), but I’d recommend having the main character do pretty much all of the work.

    “Would another police officer help Yi or would it be too big a risk for him?” Overtly helping him would be very risky, I think. He might be able to give Yi some covert help, though. E.g. leaving a piece of wire in his cell might be enough (a ninja could use the wire to unlock the cell door and use porcelain pieces broken off of his cell’s sink as projectiles to disable lights).

  13. Mattcuson 04 Feb 2014 at 3:59 am

    I wasn’t sure where to put this but I need help with something for my story. What do you think Australian police would do if a superhero with fire powers is hovering above the town square dancing to Gangnum style and the whole of the town square below are dancing along with him. I want to have some sort of complication happen but can’t think of anything that would fit and still be realistic.

  14. B. McKenzieon 04 Feb 2014 at 6:12 am

    “What do you think Australian police would do if a superhero with fire powers is hovering above the town square dancing to Gangnum style and the whole of the town square below are dancing along with him.” I think getting the rights to use Gangnam Style would be prohibitively expensive. (Assuming this work is for publication — if it’s just a school paper, please disregard).

  15. Matcuson 04 Feb 2014 at 2:19 pm

    “I think getting the rights to use Gangnam Style would be prohibitively expensive”

    It’s not that crucial that it is Gangnam style, I could easily change it to ‘Popular K-pop Song’ or, ‘Catchy Music’ or even make it a parody or something like ‘Superhero Style, to the music of a popular K-Pop song’ so that’s not really an issue. I’m still working on what would happen in this situation though, would the police try to stop it? Would they call an army or something?

  16. B. McKenzieon 04 Feb 2014 at 11:31 pm

    “Would the police try to stop it?” If it appears to be only a case of disorderly conduct and/or a noise violation and/or a flash mob, it’s intuitive that the police would opt not to get in a superhero’s face over a minor nuisance. (Alternately, if you wanted the police to get in the superhero’s face over a noise disturbance, I think that’d be doable if the superhero had an uneasy relationship with the law). If it appears to be a really bizarre case of mind control, then getting another superhero involved (or perhaps federal law enforcement if no other superheroes are available) would probably be the most intuitive approach.

    Either way, I doubt there’s a standard operating procedure for a case this wacky. I think readers would forgive you if the police reacted unusually to a case this unusual.

  17. Matcuson 05 Feb 2014 at 12:13 am

    “Either way, I doubt there’s a standard operating procedure for a case this wacky. I think readers would forgive you if the police reacted unusually to a case this unusual.”

    That’s what I figured, thanks for the advice, I think I have a pretty solid idea now. Thanks!

  18. Amber D.on 05 Feb 2014 at 7:02 pm

    When I was reading the article the part about the human torch got me thinking about something I was wondering if anyone had any advice for one of my characters. Her powers are fire and super strength. Any way even though she has super strength which is probably more safe and practical for her to use I wanted her to use her fire sometimes too. Since she is not a villain I am wondering what are some ways for her to do this that wouldn’t be totally immoral ( I don’t know if that it is exactly how I want to phrase that but I don’t really know the right way to phrase it) The story that she is in is about people with powers being hunted down.

  19. B. McKenzieon 05 Feb 2014 at 10:34 pm

    “Any way even though she has super strength which is probably more safe and practical for her to use I wanted her to use her fire sometimes too.” Especially in an urban environment, it might be safer/easier for the character to melt things rather than set them on fire. E.g. in a stealth situation, she might be able to melt her way into a particular building (although a guard that comes by later will be able to figure out roughly what happened). In contrast, setting the building on fire would immediately alert all of the guards.

    In a chase scene, the character may be able to melt/weaken metal to create obstructions. E.g. billboard supports come to mind — while destroying a billboard is technically property damage, it probably wouldn’t affect likability much, might even increase it 😉 .

  20. Amber D.on 14 Feb 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Thanks, I am not concerned with her causing property damage or anything like that. I just didn’t want her burning people to death or causing huge fires which would effect lots of people. In addition to making she can manipulate or extinguish small amounts of fire, but the bigger the fire the harder it is for her to control. With training she can learn to control bigger amounts of fire over time.

  21. Alexison 02 Feb 2015 at 5:56 pm

    I like the idea of allies or other protagonists working with the hero becoming paranoid about their work together.

    The ally may become fearful of being arrested after going on a mission with the hero that involved breaking the law. The ally is also then accountable in some, turning a blind eye to the hero’s crimes and even assisting in the crime.

    Imagine a much more fearful, naive Robin going on his first mission with Batman who breaks and enters, tampers with evidence, hacks a computer then assaults and interrogates a criminal. A young teenager could easily begin to panic if the cops show up.

  22. Aaronon 10 Nov 2015 at 8:10 pm

    I have one from a story I am working on that nobody seems to ever consider: Weather. For instance, fighting in slippery sidewalks when it is raining, or being cold in the middle of winter.

  23. Halbruston 29 Jan 2016 at 9:56 am

    I’m working on a superhero novel. I do not yet have a super villain, and not sure I want one. They exist in my universe, superheroes and super villains both exist, but my MC is still learning to deal with his powers and there limitations.

    Do you need a super villain at all?

  24. B. McKenzieon 30 Jan 2016 at 10:51 am

    “Do you need a super villain at all?” If you’re able to write 300 interesting pages without one, no. Some scenarios that come to mind:

    –The character’s capabilities are fairly limited, and nonpowered humans can pose an interesting challenge in combat for him. E.g. you could do a Batman story without any supervillains.

    –The central plot hinges on something besides defeating a nefarious person/group in combat. Most obviously, a romance, a mystery (e.g. Bob Moore, No Hero probably counts), a drama (e.g. Birdman), or maybe a comedy (e.g. Space Ghost). Less obviously, a virus outbreak, an asteroid, wilderness survival, political intrigue, ecological catastrophe, whatever.

    —-Supernatural horror (e.g. Stranger Things has superpowers but main antagonists are shady government groups and the Cthulhu-esque monsters they are researching). Hellboy is another example which is slightly closer to superheroes.

    In your case, I don’t think there are a ton of options if the character learning his powers are an important part of the plot but superpowered combat were not. The most obvious one would be a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario, where a mutant dating a regular human tries to overcome societal prejudice, which I think would have been really original in 1967, but probably sort of tedious now.

    A mystery would probably be viable (e.g. the character investigates the suspicious death of a superhero and finds that it was a murder, but no supervillains are involved). The character’s powers might be somewhat helpful on the case (e.g. Chew is about a FDA agent that has psychic powers allowing him to learn things by tasting food, which would be useful in a mystery but not in combat).

  25. Halbruston 02 Feb 2016 at 9:32 am


    My hero is sort of a fragile hulk. He has super strength, and rapid healing. But is susceptible to injury. In the first chapter he wakes up in the hospital after being shot, and recounts another time he separated his shoulder trying to break through a steel door.

    There are super villains around, I’m just not sure I want to assign a villain to my hero.

  26. Wykeeon 25 Oct 2021 at 1:22 pm

    Popo, Government

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