Apr 28 2013
When mapping out any kind of superheroic narrative, a consideration has to be made that is not often an aspect of other types of stories, and by that I mean you have to determine power level, or maybe we should say Power Level, since so many superheroic concepts work better with capitals.
This is not just a concern of traditional “long underwear” types of superhero stories either. Really, any story in which characters are differentiated from the usual run of people in their setting by powers above and beyond the norm can be termed a superhero story. This can be a movie script, a story or novel, a comic, or even a roleplaying game. Before you ever start plotting, you should decide on what kinds of power level your characters will transact, and that starts with the setting itself.
After all, one of the most important things about a superhero setting is the relative prevalence of superhuman powers, right? A story in which there are no superhuman characters besides the one(s) you will be writing about is very different from the world where supers have existed for a long time, and are around in larger numbers. It alters the dynamic of the story and the world that will contain it in fundamental ways.
Because what kind of character are you writing about? Is he a highly-trained combatant with a belt full of gadgets and no real super-powers? Because if a character like that exists in a world of genuine superhumans that means you are telling a very different kind of story. Nolan’s Batman movies, for example, work the way they do because the power level of the world is – relatively speaking – very low. You have no people with real, innate superhuman powers, and so the narrative proceeds on that basis.
A lot of storytellers fall back on a sort of amalgamated view of a superhuman setting, because they are basing it (consciously or not) on the widely-known Marvel and DC comic settings. The problem is that those worlds were not laid out all at once, and in fact theirs are composed of characters who were never conceived of as living in a shared world, but have now all been shoehorned in together. Any comics fan can tell you how many problems this has caused over the years. A character like Daredevil was just never meant to be in a story with Thor, and putting them together causes problems.
So, when you start plotting out your superhero story, you have to answer some basic questions about the world it will take place in. Trust me, answering these beforehand will help you out later in so many ways.
1. Do Other Super-Powered People Exist In This World?
This is the basic question that you should already know the answer to before you even think about writing. If they do not, then you will have to approach with careful thought how people are going to react to superpowered individuals. Will they be afraid of your hero? Will they worship her? Will the government step in with support or try to arrest them? A world without supers may seem easier to begin with, because you can make it closer to our own daily world and just imagine the impact of a new force upon it. However, a realistic reaction by governments and social forces can make the narrative extremely topical and morally complex if you let it. If that’s what you want, go for it. Otherwise, you may have to rethink a bit. If there are superpowered people in this world, that leads us into the next question:
2. How Well-Known Or Public Are The Supers?
In other words, do such people exist only rarely, with most people not knowing or believing, or are they common as reality-show stars? If you are going for a more ‘classic’ superhero world feeling, then you will have to lay out a few well-known heroes and villains. Make up a few hero teams, a few infamous bad guys, and establish some history. Even a few offhand mentions of well-known battles or big events will add verisimilitude and make your world seem deeper.
You will also have to bear in mind the kinds of changes the well-known presence of such people would cause. You have to think about government departments, police and prison developments, new laws and political alliances. Do some people think supers are gods? Do others vilify them and protest their very presence? How to they affect media, international relations, and religion? Real celebrities can have a huge effect on our culture, and Angelina Jolie can’t even fly. A world like this can be rewarding and fun, but it requires a lot more worldbuilding and detail.
3. How Powerful Are These Super People?
This is a question a lot of people don’t think about in concrete terms, but I always do, maybe because I come from a gaming background and I always want things quantified. What kind of super-word do you want to inhabit? Are you going for a Xanth-esque world where people have a single, paranormal ability (like on Heroes), or are you positing a world of godlike beings who can all crush through walls and bounce bullets off their cleavage? You have to know, because the kind of power routinely wielded will determine both how the world reacts to them and how they react to each other. A good question to ask is: who is the most powerful person in this world? Who is fastest, strongest, most indestructible? Even if these things never directly come up in your story, you should know the answers.
4. Where Does All This Come From?
I’m not saying you have to have a rationale for where superpowers come from, but if you have some kind of reason, it can give your world its own flavor and feel separate from other settings. At the very least some kind of explanation for why this is all happening now, as opposed to during the War of 1812, will help add depth to the work. The very worst answer you can have for a question about the narrative is ‘because’. You want there to be reasons for everything that happens, even if it’s not known at the start. Those sorts of things will be the rock you build future stories on.
Paul Batteiger is the author of several superhero works, including The Union of Heroes.