Jan 31 2012

Creative Ways to Use Supersenses

Published by at 12:38 am under Superpowers,Supersenses

I wouldn’t recommend giving your characters supersenses unless they develop a character and/or serve an important plot purpose.  Otherwise, they’re probably wasted space.


1. You can use supersenses to develop an unusual point of view.  For example, maybe a nonhuman is supernaturally talented at perceiving something highly relevant to his species and/or culture.  (E.g. if an alien comes from a desert world, maybe he’s supernaturally aware of temperature and moisture and can apply those to social interactions—a human’s body temperature increases in stressful situations, for example).   Alternately, perhaps the character is a skilled hunter (e.g. Wolverine).  A musically-inclined characters might be able to hear emotions in a character’s voice that most people couldn’t, which may be useful in high-stakes social situations.


1.1. If the character has developed superpowers fairly recently, he/she may be blown away by extremely strong sensory experiences.  That is one possible way to show how a character’s superpowers affect his/her perspective.  Hat-tip to R.G. in the comments below.


2. You can do a scene or plot arc that hinges on only one character perceiving something.  For example, Daredevil’s senses allow him to figure out who’s lying pretty quickly, but he still has to prove it to actually break the case.  Alternately, you could do a plot where only one character can perceive a particular threat and needs to either deal with it himself or convince others that he’s not crazy.


3. Superpowers can cover a few inconvenient plot holes, especially for superhero stories.  

  • How did Superman know that the bank was being robbed just then? (He heard the alarm from across town). 
  • How does the superhero beat the police to finding the supervillain?  Supersenses may play a role here—a hero might glean information from a crime scene that they missed, or pick up a trail that they missed.  Note that this doesn’t actually have to be a superpower.  For example, Sherlock Holmes and Bruce Wayne are both attentive but it’s not supernatural, unlike (say) x-ray vision.  Alternately, maybe the hero’s senses aren’t that much better, but the hero has resources and/or tactics and/or contacts the police don’t have and/or won’t consider.  
  • A highly perceptive character might be more aware to characters surreptitiously trying to communicate something while being observed by hostiles.  For example, if Clark Kent calls Lois Lane and she says she’s okay but sounds subtly distressed, that might tip him off that she’s actually being held at gunpoint by a kidnapper or burglar.   Another possibility is that heightened senses can help partners/teammates coordinate while being observed.  For example, in a superhero story, if a supervillain and his goons meet the superheroes in an attempt to blackmail the heroes, one hero might cue another that he’s about to attack.  It could be useful in maintaining the element of surprise.   


4. Heightened senses (superhuman or otherwise) can play a variety of roles in a story, particularly a detective story. 

  • Senses can tip off a character to another character’s intentions and/or a dangerous situation.  For example, if a mysterious person approaches the protagonist, the ability to perceive a concealed weapon could really help the hero understand what’s going on.
  • Heightened senses can really help in studying a crime scene and figuring out what happened.   For example, if the police are stumped about how a victim was murdered in his house without any sign of forced entry, a lingering waft of perfume at the crime scene might indicate to a highly perceptive protagonist that the murderer was probably romantically involved with the victim.


5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Creative Ways to Use Supersenses”

  1. Chihuahua0on 31 Jan 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Hmm…my narrator has the power to turn on and off his enhanced senses.

  2. RandomGirlon 31 Jan 2012 at 8:39 pm

    It shouldn’t be forgotten that for a human-turned-super, heightened sense would become very disorienting, even after using them a few months. You;ve been use to smelling food from across the room or hearing someone call for you about a floor up. Imagine how bad it would be to suddenly hear that person upstair’s every breath or smell food, and everything, else a couple blocks away.

    Yes, years of use would mean you are more use to things. I’ve always been able to feel things, but there are times that just paying an ounce more attention to something shocks me at how something feels.

    Just saying that it could also be creative to show the character to be more human in some aspects as well when using supersenses.

  3. CCOlsonon 01 Feb 2012 at 11:32 am

    We humans actually sense from moment to moment a great deal more than we consciously perceive. For most people there is a large amount of subconscious filtering that goes on to determine what’s actually important, and the rest doesn’t make it in front of your awareness. This is one of the difficulties that people with Attention Deficit Disorder have. Our brains have trouble sorting which pieces of sensory data are most important at a given moment, and so our consciousness gets bombarded with things that most people filter out effectively.

    I imagine that someone with an average-functioning brain who suddenly got amped senses would learn to filter the extra data fairly quickly. For a sense of how this works, talk to someone who has gotten glasses after spending most of their life seeing fine without. For the first few weeks the frames are annoying, and the distortion when looking through the edges of the lenses is a headache, but soon the brain starts filtering out the frames and even somewhat corrects for the distortion at the edges. I’ve had glasses for a year now and I sometimes forget I’m even wearing them. I can feel them if I think about it, but the data flow is now so commonplace that it gets filtered out unless I go looking for it.

  4. Maxon 03 Aug 2012 at 5:17 pm

    shouldn’t daredevil because he has super sensitive touch, be really sensitive to pain?

  5. Yuuki12on 09 Aug 2013 at 2:08 pm

    This has been quite an informative article, however, I do need some help. By far, the single hardest sense for me to describe is sound. Unlike sight, smell and the others, to go into detail with it. Given I read an article about describing sound, about how a majority of writers have gotten, quote “lazy” when describing sound; it makes you stop and think.

    Alas, I digress. The reason why sound is so important is that it revolves around my character, Derek masters. Given his sound-based powers(notably enhanced hearing), I wished to convey this aspect, as it is a core of his character. For example, because of his enhanced hearing, he’s not fond of loud places in downtown Seattle; rather, he prefers quiet, less noisy areas.

    Some ways I have conveyed the use of sound is through the use of onomatopoeias. While successful, I try to to always use them, lest my work sounds like something from Adam West’s Batman.

    Other methods have included showing more of the sounds, not outright telling what they are, so as the audience can imply what they are. But I am afraid this might go over reader’s heads. To that, do you have any advice on how to describe sound?

    One of the reasons why I ask about this is because this plays a huge role in the story. For example, one of things I am trying to emphasize is how much more active Derek becomes. Given one of his biggest flaws is how absent-minded he was(spacing out during conversations, not paying attention), his hearing hadn’t made it easier to not. But over time, he becomes a more active listener, figuratively, and literarily, to his world.

    And this is big. Aside from his organization forcing him into heroics, his active listening helps realize how many problems they are in the world, and that he understands that many of those who cry out, aren’t heard. He wishes to correct this, not for justice or fame; rather, because he wishes to replace those cries and screams, with joy and happiness.

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