Jul 21 2012

Tips on Writing a Superhero Team

1. I’d like to see each of the following from ideally every superhero on a team:

  • A personality, including at least one notable flaw.
  • At least one unusual decision, ideally one which reinforces something unique about the character. For example, Stark is less socially restrained and more curious than anybody else on the Avengers, so it makes sense that he cattle-prods Bruce Banner to test whether Banner will turn into the Hulk. If you’re having trouble giving characters unusual decisions, the characters probably do not have sufficiently distinct personalities yet.  Additionally, each unusual decision should have some consequences for the plot and/or character development. Cattle-prodding Banner creates conflict between Stark and the more polite Captain America and helps develop Banner’s limits.
  • Individual goals and motivations. Hopefully, these contribute to some protagonist-vs-protagonist conflict. For example, see Beast-Mystique and Magneto-Xavier in X-Men: First Class.
  • A notable relationship with at least one other team member and ideally some effect on a relationship between two other team members. (For example, Magneto’s relationship with Mystique drives a wedge between Mystique and Beast and Bruce Banner’s treatment at the hands of Tony Stark builds a conflict between Stark and Captain America in Avengers).
  • Some role in the story besides just 1) superpowers and/or 2) being a love interest. If the only thing the character brings to the story is his superpowers, you’d probably be better off either fleshing out the character’s personality more and/or moving the superpowers to a character that’s actually interesting.

 

2. It’s not necessary to cover individual origin stories or the formation of the team, as long as we see motivations and character development elsewhere. Some common setups here:

  1. The members develop superpowers (usually because of the same cause) and/or form the team (usually because of a common threat/enemy, opportunity or interest)–e.g. most superhero movies.
  2. A single character (usually the main character) joins an already-established team–e.g. Soon I Will Be Invincible.
  3. The team is already established and we instead start with a new mission or problem confronting the team.
  4. The main character interacts with the superhero team, but isn’t actually on it–e.g. Bob Moore: No Hero.

 

3. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a superhero team is space considerations. Here are some ways to save space.  
  • You will probably have less space for side-characters outside the team. In the interest of saving space, I would generally recommend versatile side-characters that can interact with most of the teammates rather than side-characters that are limited to interacting with just one or two of them. For example, how many interesting moments has Alicia Masters had with anybody besides the Thing?
  • Giving antagonists less screen-time and relatively simple schemes will probably help. If you’re deadset on major antagonist-on-antagonist conflict (a la Dark Knight), I’d recommend going with 1-2 superheroes.
  • Splitting a large superhero team into separate squads can make scenes more efficient.
  • Eschewing secret identities. With really large teams, I’d be careful with alternate names altogether (even if the second name is public, like Ben Grimm and The Thing). If you have 10+ names for 5+ characters, it will probably surprise you how many of your readers cannot reliably remember who is who.

 

4. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to quickly develop a large cast, I’d recommend using 2-4 superheroes on the main team. The most common problem I see with superhero team stories is that the characters are too one-dimensional. Eliminating and/or merging characters will help buy you time to develop the remaining characters and make them more interesting. If you are absolutely sure you want more, make sure that each character contributes enough to the plot to warrant his/her space.

47 responses so far

47 Responses to “Tips on Writing a Superhero Team”

  1. Anonymouson 21 Jul 2012 at 11:52 am

    I”m mixed on the cattle-prodding. It was good for character, in some ways, but really established the limits of what was possible in a cartoonish script. Can you imagine if Banner -had- hulked-out out because of the prodding, torn Stark’s head off, then ripped apart the ship?

    No. Neither can I. Because there’s no way that Stark’s lack of restraint will ever do real damage to anyone we care about. But in theory, at least, that was one very likely possibility. So the writer merely nodded toward that without, I think, taking it seriously.

    ‘Okay, the midpoint of Act Two is, Stark cattle-prods Banner on a lark, and he turns into the Hulk and murders Black Widow and crashes the airship, killing all the soldiers on board …’

  2. aharrison 21 Jul 2012 at 1:48 pm

    This helps quite a bit. I’ve been working with an ensemble of four: a cop, a pair of twins and a college student. I’ve been wondering if origins were absolutely necessary or if I could use a brief couple of paragraphs or sentences to address them, especially for the twins who were born that way.

    Is it also legitimate to make the story in a way as much about the formation of the team as it is about the conflict they fight? My plan was to use the conflict to bring the team together and provide the proving ground for one of them.

  3. B. McKenzieon 21 Jul 2012 at 5:44 pm

    “Because there’s no way that Stark’s lack of restraint will ever do real damage to anyone we care about.” I don’t think the plot would necessarily have fallen apart if Banner had Hulked out there. For example, it might have played out differently:
    –The superheroes prevent Hulk from killing anybody, but the helicarrier goes down.

    –We can lose the plot arc where Loki allows himself to be captured.

    –There’s a new conflict between Stark and Fury (and probably a few other characters) about whether Stark’s lack of restraint is going to get them all killed. A few characters might also start to wonder about the wisdom of having the Hulk on the team. Fury’s government handlers might pressure him to rein in the members to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

    –I don’t think Marvel would let the writers kill off an Avenger here, but it’s feasible that a superhero or two endure significant injuries and are either out of commission or at reduced effectiveness in a later fight.



    “There’s no way that Stark’s lack of restraint will ever do real damage to anyone we care about.” In terms of getting anybody killed, that’s probably correct.* However, there are other ways of causing real damage. For example, in X-Men: First Class, Moira MacTaggert and Magneto get in a fight which leaves Xavier crippled. Beast’s personal flaws (gratuitous shame over his mutated feet) turn him into a hideous monster. If Stark’s alcoholism ever becomes a plot point in the movies, it would make sense that he engages in significant destructive behavior.

    *Or, if they do kill off a character, it’d almost certainly be in the final third of the movie and the dead character will probably be relatively minor (e.g. Coulson or Ant-Man rather than a character churning out $500+ million movies). That said, I will note that I *did* care about Coulson, much more than I cared about the death of Darwin in First Class. Coulson was witty and geeky-but-charming, but Darwin got only ~2 lines and didn’t make a lasting impression on me besides “did they REALLY just kill the black guy after giving him two lines?”

  4. JJon 21 Jul 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Great advice. I’ve always wanted to do a team story but I tend to over focus on onf the e character instead of the team as a whole. Anyways I loved your x men:first class(obssessedover that movie for a whole month) and green lantern(meh). Seeing as it is a glorious occasion of batman maybe ude do the first two instalments in the trilogy: batman begins and dak knight. I uenderstand if u don’t have time but I thought it might be cool. Thanks again

  5. B. McKenzieon 21 Jul 2012 at 9:07 pm

    I did Dark Knight here. I’ve done a preliminary take on Dark Knight Rises, but I need to actually have a copy of the movie before I can do anything in-depth there (so I can rewind scenes and turn on subtitles). I’ll do Batman Begins eventually. It’s sort of an unusual case for me: I can see it is a good movie, but personally I didn’t enjoy it much.

  6. B. McKenzieon 21 Jul 2012 at 9:46 pm

    “I’ve been working with an ensemble of four: a cop, a pair of twins and a college student. I’ve been wondering if origins were absolutely necessary or if I could use a brief couple of paragraphs or sentences to address them, especially for the twins who were born that way.” Personally, I handle most of the origin stories for my superhero team really briefly. As long as the characters are developed elsewhere, I don’t think it’s a problem.

    “Is it also legitimate to make the story in a way as much about the formation of the team as it is about the conflict they fight? My plan was to use the conflict to bring the team together and provide the proving ground for one of them.” I’d have to see the execution, but I have not spotted any red flags yet.

  7. JJon 21 Jul 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Its the third act. The first 2 thirds are realistic and wonderfully executed. The end blows up. Literally. But than again considering what came before it…this movie was batmans saving grace. But yeah as a movie it has its issues. Thanks for responding man.

  8. JPon 22 Jul 2012 at 1:58 am

    What if in the superhero group, only a few are the real main protagonists? With my story, I have a superhero group of six, but only 4 are considered the main protagonists. The rest are side characters, and ae utilized the same way Hulk and Black Widow were used in the Avengers. Do you think that could work?

  9. Mynaon 22 Jul 2012 at 10:43 am

    I think it could work, JP. If you have six heroes but only four are really main characters, then you don’t have to worry about trying to develop every single character on the team, which would confuse readers (as there’s too many heroes to keep track of.) My question would be, if only four are really developed, why do you need the other two, but maybe it’s good for the story to have a big team or some minor characters to do things while the main cast is busy.

  10. JPon 22 Jul 2012 at 1:39 pm

    The other two compliments the other 4 main characters. I really think it could work if my plot gave these side characters the chance to shine, and their relationship with the main characters would complete the story.

  11. B. McKenzieon 22 Jul 2012 at 2:39 pm

    “My question would be, if only four are really developed, why do you need the other two?” I had the same question. “I really think it could work if my plot gave these side characters the chance to shine, and their relationship with the main characters would complete the story.” Okay, but do you need two more superheroes on the main team to do this?

    Some alternatives:
    –They aren’t superheroes and are mainly used in a developmental role (e.g. Lucius Fox in Dark Knight).
    –The two superheroes aren’t on the same team, but occasionally join in on particular missions.
    –Depending on how large the organization is, perhaps the organization is divided into smaller teams or squads, and these two last characters are on a different squad we don’t see much of. For example, in a police story about two detectives, we’ll see the most of the two detectives, but we might see other police characters in other roles (e.g. backup on particular cases, office politics, conflict from bosses, IA shenanigans, etc).

  12. TKRon 22 Jul 2012 at 3:36 pm

    New Here, and thought I’d drop a few things.

    “Or, if they do kill off a character, it’d almost certainly be in the final third of the movie and the dead character will probably be relatively minor (e.g. Coulson rather than a character churning out $500+ million movies).” While I agree largely with you on the assessment of Marvel, in X3 they did kill off three major characters – Cyclops, Jean Grey/Phoenix and Charles Xavier. Unfortunately for me, that was the last straw for that movie.

  13. B. McKenzieon 22 Jul 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Ah, good point, TKR.

    One minor point: Killing off Xavier, Jean Grey and Cyclops has not prevented Marvel from making X-Men blockbusters–for example, First Class grossed $355 million at the box office against a production budget of $160 million. In contrast, killing off any of the Avengers* would probably kill off a line of blockbusters–for example, killing Tony Stark or Steve Rogers would almost assuredly abort Iron Man 3 or Captain America 2.

    *Besides maybe Black Widow and Hawkeye, but Marvel would probably still be reluctant to kill either. Marvel has a movie for them in the works. If the movie does poorly at the box office, then they might be expendable, but I don’t think Marvel would preempt that possibility.

  14. TKRon 23 Jul 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I was part of the 355 million, believe me.

    But on that same note, First Class, in my opinion, is of a much better writing quality that X3 would ever be. And so far as I know, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Xavier never carried their own independent comic like Iron Man and Captain America.

    In comparing the Avengers to X3, even at their weakest moments it still surpassed the strongest of X3 – even though Hawkeye may not seem to have too much to add to the plot after he was ‘reprogrammed’ he was still made better use of then, say, Kitty Pride. From my POV, he was there as a counter balance to the dominate leadership, someone just as able to take the orders as he was to give them. And sometimes that’s needed on a team.

  15. B. McKenzieon 23 Jul 2012 at 7:19 pm

    “But on that same note, First Class, in my opinion, is of a much better writing quality that X3 would ever be.” Agreed. Focusing less on action and more on character development made First Class a lot more memorable than X3. In particular, I feel like Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast came across as a lot more interesting in First Class than they did in any of the previous movies.

  16. ekimmakon 24 Jul 2012 at 1:01 am

    I have to wonder if I’m any good at writing, or just like coming up with characters and plots. Considering that my first work was a superhero team of 12, and way too many antagonists… yeah. Maybe it could work, but doesn’t look like it.

  17. B. McKenzieon 24 Jul 2012 at 1:06 am

    “I have to wonder if I’m any good at writing, or just like coming up with characters and plots. Considering that my first work was a superhero team of 12, and way too many antagonists.” My first idea for a superhero novel was a (hilariously weak) version of Wild Cards–10 5000-10,000 word chapters, each one about a character that was more or less never mentioned again. ~8 main superheroes and 10 POV characters? Yeah, not a great plan, it turns out.

    Keep practicing–it’ll get better. (Well, it has already, but it’ll keep getting better).

  18. Maxon 24 Jul 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I have a team, but I don’t have a name. It’s five heroes, and they all go to defeat the villain because they all think that they’re the only ones who can do it.

  19. Mynaon 24 Jul 2012 at 4:14 pm

    My first superhero novel involved old versions of Seth and Mina, a psychotic mad scientist who was trying to steal powers to create a super-army, a paranoid little girl who claws her eyes out and an insane asylum.

    Don’t worry ekimmak. It always gets better. : )

  20. ChickenNoodleson 24 Jul 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Hey bmac, I’m thinking you should make an article about superhero team chliches and tropes. It would help lots for peopple seeking advice on what to avoid or try to avoid when developing a team of superheroes.
    -ChickenNoodles 🙂

  21. Janon 24 Jul 2012 at 7:57 pm

    ekimmak: Oh, gosh. My team of protagonists had five ridiculously underdeveloped men, six Mary Sue women, and one outsider-looking in, with an antagonist team of NINETEEN.

    Gosh oh Lord.

  22. B. McKenzieon 24 Jul 2012 at 10:24 pm

    “B. Mac, I’m thinking you should make an article about superhero team cliches and tropes. It would help people seeking advice on what to avoid or try to avoid when developing a team of superheroes.” Thanks for your help. Please see Common Pitfalls and Cliches for Superhero Teams here.

  23. H. Lawsonon 31 Jan 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Someone forward this to Warner Bros. lol xD

  24. B. McKenzieon 31 Jan 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks, H. Lawson, but if I had to pick one person to give them advice, it’d probably be Nolan or Brad Bird (Incredibles/Ratatouille/Ghost Protocol). They both have experience wringing good movies out of WB… no small feat.

  25. Nayanon 31 Jan 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Nolan is the producer of ‘Man of Steel’. Maybe he has given some inputs to the film.

  26. Delphineon 30 May 2014 at 2:41 am

    How do you write a story when everyone is the main character? Including villains? Is it even possible to write a marketable one?

  27. B. McKenzieon 30 May 2014 at 4:22 pm

    “How do you write a story when everyone is the main character? Including villains?” I don’t think it’d be exceptionally difficult to make an ensemble story work around a cast of 3-5 co-leads, but as the cast of co-leads grows, you have to be REALLY judicious about which side characters you bring in. If you’re thinking something like 6+ co-leads, I think that would take extraordinary skills.

    Also, if you have more heroes than usual, I’d recommend limiting yourself to 1-2 villains if possible, because you will need more space to develop your heroes than you would if you had only 1-2 main characters.

  28. Jed/Elecon 31 May 2014 at 2:07 am

    In terms of multiple narrators, I feel that the Skulduggery Pleasant series does reasonable well, considering that it would easily have more than 6 narrators in some books. I wouldn’t exactly said that they’re all the main characters, though, so my example might not help your story much :(.

  29. Andrewon 22 Jan 2016 at 3:26 pm

    My team has 19 members. Would the best option for that be start with a small amount like 3-5 and add them in as time goes on?

  30. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 22 Jan 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Would you say that having three main protagonists, one main antagonist, and two feuding antagonists would be too bloated?

    For some context, one character is dealing with the main secondary antagonist and discovering that there is another antagonist feuding with him. He attempts to learn more and capitalize on the third party and get rid of both.

    The other two characters focus their efforts on the main antagonist, attempting to discover his plot and stop him.

    Eventually, the third character is brought into the mix of the two main characters, and the main antagonist attempts to get rid of both the protagonists and the secondary antagonists.

  31. catswoodsriveron 22 Jan 2016 at 6:10 pm

    I’m trying to do the most cliched and stupid team of superheros for an arc in my story. They mainly face equally cliched and stupid villains until the main character comes along. The team will originally have five members. Any ideas for names/powers/personality? Any suggestions will be appreciated and given due credit. If you would like, anybody with a suggestion can be in the story as one of the team’s handlers. Also, what would be a good team name? Really stumped.

  32. B. McKenzieon 22 Jan 2016 at 7:23 pm

    “Would you say that having three main protagonists, one main antagonist, and two feuding antagonists would be too bloated?” This should be pretty manageable, unless maybe the feuding antagonists (and/or their conflict) need thousands of words of development. It probably shouldn’t be an issue.

  33. B. McKenzieon 22 Jan 2016 at 7:36 pm

    “I’m trying to do the most cliched and stupid team of superheros for an arc in my story. They mainly face equally cliched and stupid villains until the main character comes along. The team will originally have five members.” Inserting ~10 deliberately cliche and stupid characters into a story… what’s the intended effect here? It could be a lot of time/space to spend on characters that don’t sound like they’re meant to be incredibly interesting.

  34. B. McKenzieon 22 Jan 2016 at 7:59 pm

    “My team has 19 members. Would the best option for that be start with a small amount like 3-5 and add them in as time goes on?” If you’re doing novels, maybe introducing 4-6 in a novel and then adding 4-6 in each subsequent novel, so probably about 4 novels. If you’re doing comics… I’d say 4-5 teammates in the first 3 issues and then averaging 1-2 new teammates per 3 additional issues. I’d recommend budgeting something like 50-75 issues to introduce all 19.



    If you’re thinking a lot fewer than 50 issues to introduce all 19, I’d recommend aggressively merging and/or removing and/or holding off on characters as much as possible. If you NEED more than 10 teammates (which is already a massive team) to write 50 issues, I’m guessing they probably aren’t the right 10 and/or they aren’t being used fully. If so, developing already-existing characters would probably be more promising than introducing more characters fighting for desperately limited time/space.

  35. Andrewon 23 Jan 2016 at 4:39 am

    @ B. McKenzie. That advice sounds good to me, take issues the first few issues to allow readers to get to know the core characters a little better then add the others in as issues go on, while giving them some moments. That sound good?

  36. B. McKenzieon 23 Jan 2016 at 10:38 am

    “That advice sounds good to me, take issues the first few issues to allow readers to get to know the core characters a little better then add the others in as issues go on, while giving them some moments. That sound good?” Do you have a series synopsis? That’d probably give me a better idea of whether I can follow the cast and the plot.

  37. Andrewon 23 Jan 2016 at 11:07 am

    I don’t really make synopsises, usually just character bios

  38. B. McKenzieon 23 Jan 2016 at 11:24 am

    For publishers evaluating comic series submissions, plot synopses are generally more helpful than lists of characters (e.g. because they give a better idea of how the story is paced and how the plot develops). So, for example, Dark Horse requires a synopsis for all series submissions, and “the synopsis is often the make-or-break point for a proposal.” Image also requires one.

    (For self-publishing authors, I think it’s still valuable practicing synopses because the promotional copy for prospective readers will probably read more like a very short plot summary than a list of characters).

  39. Andrewon 23 Jan 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Understood

  40. Random Writeron 16 Apr 2016 at 7:40 pm

    I have my plot for my superhero team there powers and personalities but I keep drawing blanks for good names related to there powers and I was hoping you could help me, the leader of the team has the power of absolute law manipulation (so basically he can redefine any and all of laws of physics.) The next member is romantically involved with the leader and her power is antimatter embodiment and can destroy and control matter the final member has an ant-like exoskeleton that makes him bulletproof and thermal resistant and cannot be harmed through most means (so he’s practically invulnerable) any ideas on how I can name them?

  41. Random Writeron 16 Apr 2016 at 7:41 pm

    And I hope that it’s clear I meant superhero names not there secret identities

  42. B. McKenzieon 16 Apr 2016 at 9:38 pm

    “I keep drawing blanks for good names related to their powers…” I generally recommend against naming characters based on superpowers.

  43. Random Writeron 16 Apr 2016 at 10:31 pm

    Well I was thinking of just having them use there given names anyway since there basically powered civilians the one with the ant exoskeleton’s name is Jamie which I find hilarious because he’s a 6’5 invulnerable human ant hybrid and his name is Jamie the most non threatening name in the world

  44. JDon 17 Apr 2016 at 5:45 pm

    What do you recommend calling your superhero team? cause almost all the good names are already taken I was gonna call my team The Outsiders but DC already has (or had) a team by that name

  45. B. McKenzieon 17 Apr 2016 at 7:17 pm

    “What do you recommend calling your superhero team?” It depends on the mood you’re going for and what separates your team from other superhero teams. E.g. in my case I found it pretty easy to come up with a governmental agency that handles cases of a strange variety that I’d feel comfortable using in a submission. Whatever you’re doing, there are probably fewer than 25 similar groups out there, and I guarantee there are names for at least 25+ more.

  46. Roverlordon 02 Sep 2018 at 1:08 am

    My team will have only 3-4 members (because i’m out of good ideas), and there’ll be about 10-12 side characters. Is that too little?

  47. B. McKenzieon 02 Sep 2018 at 7:14 am

    “My team will have only 3-4 members (because I’m out of good ideas), and there’ll be about 10-12 side characters. Is that too [few]?” This sounds more promising than a significantly larger team. It should be a lot easier to handle characterization, plotting and secondarily fight choreography than if you had many more protagonists*.

    In cases where authors are working with significantly larger teams, I think that’s usually a red flag that the characterization and/or plotting are very thin, and that the extra characters have been added to chew up space. This usually isn’t a great reading experience.

    *Although, it would probably be more promising if you had 3-4 members because you were confident that’s where the story was and not because you feel you ran out of good ideas 🙂 .

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