Apr 28 2013

How Power Levels Affect Your Story

Published by at 10:31 am under Superpowers

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

42 responses so far

42 Responses to “How Power Levels Affect Your Story”

  1. NJHeroFanon 30 Apr 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Very well said, Paul; we think alike. I’m 18 chapters into my story so far and doing all of the above before hand has really help me stay grounded. It’s even kind of fun for me to write my own notes about the “mechanics” at work behind the scenes, even if they aren’t fully realized in the story.

  2. Mynaon 30 Apr 2013 at 8:00 pm

    “…or are you positing a world of godlike beings who can all crush through walls and bounce bullets off their cleavage?” I almost died laughing at “bounce bullets off their cleavage” xD

    On a serious note though, this is a very helpful article! The level of powers of the main character and other supers, and especially how governments and other agencies react to the supers (since in my story they’re as public as reality TV stars) are things I didn’t really consider that much before this. I’ll have to dig into that a bit more and see how it works with the story, and make sure everything’s consistent. Thank you : )

  3. xyzon 01 May 2013 at 12:38 am

    “The very worst answer you can have for a question about the narrative is ‘because’.” Not sure I understand.

  4. WinslowMudDon 01 May 2013 at 8:56 am

    What Paul meant by that was that having no answer for a question about your narrative is often sheilded by the statement, “Well, it’s just because.” This is why “Just because” is the worst answer. It offers no explanation whatsoever, and leaves the audience quite annoyed* that you couldnt think of a way to explain something.

    *This can be avoided if you write well enough to suspend the audience’s disbelief above the question, but it would be best to still have an answer in the event that you are asked openly or in some other form.

  5. B. McKenzieon 01 May 2013 at 9:08 am

    I’m positing a world of people who think they can crush through walls and bounce bullets off their cleavage. I call it Washington, DC.

  6. Dr. Vo Spaderon 01 May 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Nice, B. Mac. :)

  7. Mynaon 01 May 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Remember when you were little, and you’d leave your bed all messy in the mornings and your parents would get mad at you? And when you asked why you had to make your bed in the morning when it was just gonna get messy again at night, they’d say, “Because!” It’s like that level of annoyance. (I wasn’t the only kid with this issue, right?)

    And B. Mac xDDDD

  8. WinslowMudDon 01 May 2013 at 6:11 pm

    Hah, I remember those days. Now its obligatory to do the redundant thing, but so be it heh. Also, B. Mac… that sounds like a very realistic place, almost like a place i have heard of before… Could you elaborate?

    ;-)

  9. Weson 01 May 2013 at 7:16 pm

    “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.”

    That’s a very good point. But a question that I think gets asked even less, and might be even more important, is just what limitations/shortcomings/vulnerabilities do these powers have? It’s a very different question, because describing what your powers CAN do is different from describing what they CAN’T do. (For instance, a list of the things Superman CAN do would not include anything having to do with kryptonite.)

    It’s important (to me, at least) because knowing the limits of a character’s power levels is how you find ways to push them or challenge them or force them to think outside the box. If you haven’t defined a character’s limitations, then there’s no way for a reader to know whether some particular villain or problem is actually a threat to them. (I’m pretty sure the fact that this is so important to me is why I’ve always preferred Marvel to DC. It seemed to me that Marvel did a better job of giving their characters limitations. I have a pretty good grasp on what Spider-Man or Wolverine or Iron Man can and can’t do. But for DC–with the exception of non-powered characters like Green Arrow and Batman (my favorite DC characters)–it always seems like they just have whatever amount of power is needed according to the plot at the moment. I mean, seriously, just how strong is Superman? Or Wonder Woman? If Flash can move at over the speed of light, how is it that any person at any time is ever even able to get a punch in on him?)

  10. B. McKenzieon 01 May 2013 at 9:39 pm

    BM: “I’m positing a world of people who think they can crush through walls and bounce bullets off their cleavage. I call it Washington, DC.”
    WMD: “Could you elaborate?”

    In the world I’m positing, telling someone to do something badass counts for as much as (and sometimes more than) actually doing it. I wrote a tentative scene where a government official delivers a speech announcing the death of a major terrorist with 135 words thanking servicemen and the intelligence community and 170 words thanking himself.

  11. Elecon 02 May 2013 at 1:10 am

    So true B. Mac … so true …
    With the “quantitative” measurement of powers, the characters in it undergo a sort of standardise “aptitude” test, which basically uses machines to measure how “powerful” people are. A normal human to the best a human could be would be rated between 5-10 in each area. Beyond that (going into 11+) it sort of doubles, so someone that got a 12 in strength would be twice as strong as someone who got an 11, if that makes sense.

    Using this quantitative measurement enables the readers to clearly see how powerful my main character is in relation to others, without being to blatant. (His friend for instance, gets 30ish overall, but his only power is to shoot C02 from his hands, so that sort of makes sense :))

  12. B. McKenzieon 02 May 2013 at 2:01 am

    Hmm… generally, I think attempts to rank a character’s powers are like using an IQ score to tell us he’s really smart. I think it’d generally be more interesting to see the powers (or intelligence) in action rather than put a number on it. (Unless, perhaps, the testing process is extremely entertaining and/or does a great job advancing the plot somehow — e.g. if characters are praying they come in low because everyone who scores very high is liable to get drafted).

  13. El Jaleoon 07 May 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you for the excellent post. I don’t know how many bad contemporary “teen” books I have read where the author fails to realize the effect their superpowered youths would have, domestically speaking, that is. Heh.

    That being said, I have found myself with a dilemma regarding my own novel. ( I don’t know if there is a topic/post for this yet or not, but it seems to be related to the general subject so…)

    That is: How do you make extraordinary characters relatable?

    How can you create a superpowered character that the reader can identify with, more importantly, how do you, the writer, identify with your character?

    My specific problem is not that my character is superpowered-he gets his powers later on-but the fact that he was extraordinary from the start. His profession, as a talented smuggler and thief, warrants that fact. And I can’t just make him some ordinary dude, his role demands that he be skilled-I would have a very different story without his extra ordinariness. What do I need to do in order to make this guy relatable?

  14. WinslowMudDon 07 May 2013 at 7:53 pm

    I would suggest not necessarily looking at the character or his traits, but more at his inner workings. While everything you stated does make him seem interesting, how he uses his abilities, why he does so, and what effects that (and his past) have on him (both emotionally and physically) hold more weight in relatableness. (<—made up word)

    That's just my 2 cents though, don't take it for "word-of-god" or anything.

  15. B. McKenzieon 07 May 2013 at 9:15 pm

    “His profession, as a talented smuggler and thief, warrants that fact. And I can’t just make him some ordinary dude, his role demands that he be skilled-I would have a very different story without his extra ordinariness. What do I need to do in order to make this guy relatable?” Given his profession, making him relatable would be quite a challenge. This character will probably never be (and probably shouldn’t be) an off-brand Peter Parker. What I would suggest instead would be looking at characters like Tony Stark or perhaps James Bond. Much more so than, say, Superman and Batman, Tony Stark uses his talents in a way most guys would in a similar situation. Even though most guys can’t relate to his skills or position*, I think we can relate to his goals.

    Likability, charm and competence also play a crucial role. If the character is likable enough I think readers will be on board whether they agree with or sympathize with his goals. For example, Dexter Morgan (from Dexter), Hit Girl (from Kick-Ass), and Sylar (from Heroes) have enough style to go over well with their viewers even though they’re all serial killers. In contrast, Green Lantern was something of a loser with relatively little charm and virtually no competence, so I think he fared much worse even though his misdeeds were much less serious than serial killing.

    *And being a genius CEO isn’t that far out there, compared to (say) an Amazon princess or alien refugee.



    I hope this disclaimer isn’t necessary, but this isn’t a word of God either.

  16. Anon.on 08 May 2013 at 8:52 am

    For a likeable smuggler, look to none other than Han Solo.

  17. Anonymouson 08 May 2013 at 10:45 am

    Hah, I was just over-emphasizing that my word wasn’t the only one out there B. Mac. I know I’m not some mysterious omnipotent being.

  18. Dr. Vo Spaderon 08 May 2013 at 11:55 am

    Very few of us are, Anonymous, very few of us are.

  19. WinslowMudDon 08 May 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Hah ha, very true Dr. Vo Spader, very ture. Also, wasnty=wasn’t…

  20. WinslowMudDon 08 May 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Also, B. Mac, I have a question. Just curious about the spam filter, because any time I submit a comment, it tries to block me, and I have to open several tabs before it actually lets me.

  21. B. McKenzieon 08 May 2013 at 5:52 pm

    WMD, if you’re getting a message along the lines of “Slow down! You’re posting comments too quickly,” I think that should go away if you’re signed in (particularly if you haven’t posted any comments recently). Please let me know if you’re having any issues while signed in.

  22. WinslowMudDon 08 May 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Alright, thank you B. Mac.

  23. comicbookguy117on 08 May 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Hey guys, i’ve been on a bit of a hiatus in recent weeks. Went to visit my grandma in Arizona, scouring around for a job and my computer crashed. But all is well and i’m back working on my comic book universe. Which brings me to my question: I’ve got a tech/armored character i’m developing and i need to come up with a cool acronym for the armor. It HAS to contain the word S.H.E.L.L.

    I’ve been working on my own on this problem of course and have come very close but can’t seem to find the right word to finish it. So far i’ve got,

    Synthetic
    Hull
    Encasement &
    L
    Life-support

    Any advice or suggestions from anyone would be greatly appreciated. Thanks guys.

  24. comicbookguy117on 09 May 2013 at 1:29 am

    After talking to one of my friends I have chosen the acronym i’m going to use. Apologies to anyone’s time i may have wasted. Thank you.

  25. B. McKenzieon 09 May 2013 at 2:17 am

    It’s okay if some of the acronym’s letters don’t have corresponding words. For example, if you wanted to do Synthetic Hull Encasement & Life-Support and abbreviate that as SHELL, that’d be perfectly okay even though one of the L’s doesn’t actually stand for anything.

  26. El_Jaleoon 09 May 2013 at 7:44 am

    Thanks for the replies guys!
    (I don’t know how helpful Tony Stark would be to my case in particular… then again, when is he ever helpful in particular? ;) )

    As for relateability, (<<<Also a made up word) what I have so far: He's observant and intelligent (so, not incompetent, don't know if that applies though…) Witty, and won't hurt women and kids. Besides that he's trying to desperately bury a past secret that he carries with him, even though he can't escape the criminal world. *

    I don't know, I suppose it's hard for me to write him because I'm having trouble relating to his goal, which would be: Above all, remain normal.

    (The Han Solo reference doesn't help me much, as he is a supporting character and not the protagonist… would have been interesting if he was, though. Hmm… )

    QUESTION: Is that goal compelling enough? I'm worried that the events of the plot are going to get in the way of character development (a problem with all action/thrillers, I've been told) but still… this guy has to be believable.

    The thing is, he’s an anti-hero. It’s a sort of “one-apart” plot… he has no friends, and doesn’t trust anyone. He’s also generally depressed and usually only concerned about himself and self-preservation. (Originally he was also claustrophobic, but that added nothing as was too over-the-top, so I cut it)

    I’m hoping his negative side isn’t going to cancel out his likeability. Currently, I’m trying to portray him as more mysterious and reserved… which also might be part of my problem when it comes to identifying with him.

    I’ve even thought about making him the “non” main character. (He’d still be the protagonist, just not the viewpoint dude) But no matter what angle I look at it, I won’t have the same story if I don’t tell it through his eyes. (And I want to tell it through his eyes… I just can’t identify with my own character!)

    Maybe I’m not supposed to know everything there is to know about this guy? Argh… I’m dissatisfied with the plot though, and figured if I could get inside the protagonist’s head, the story could evolve more naturally and I wouldn’t be forced into formula. (Maybe it’s the “working-on-this-for-two-years-jaded-love-syndrome. Heh.)

    —————–

    *An off-topic, have you heard that, when creating conflict and suspense, you MUST give your character a "terrible secret"—something they must, above all costs, keep hidden from the rest of the world. It may seem like an easy cop-out for character motivation, but provides for some interesting character actions and compulsions.

  27. Only Under The Rafterson 09 May 2013 at 8:23 am

    lovely life support?

  28. B. McKenzieon 09 May 2013 at 7:07 pm

    “An off-topic, have you heard that, when creating conflict and suspense, you MUST give your character a “terrible secret”—something they must, above all costs, keep hidden from the rest of the world.” I’m not averse to using it as appropriate, but it’s definitely not a requirement, not even in superhero stories — e.g. the only two things that Tony Stark might conceivably feel embarrassed about (arms dealing and jackassery) are, in-story, common knowledge on the order of “what’s that restaurant with the Big Macs and the giant yellow M’s?” Likewise, X-Men: First Class (and to some extent all of the X-Men movies), Captain America, the protagonists of Thor, and The Avengers generally did very little with secrets. If the secret needs to be something that might actually be terribly embarrassing (rather than just hiding a secret identity for safety reasons), we can also rule out Spider-Man, Superman and maybe Batman.

    The only terrible secrets that I came up with in great superhero movies:
    –In The Incredibles, being a superhero (and being exceptional generally) is frequently a point of embarrassment rather than pride. Also, superheroics-as-adultery.
    –In Kick-Ass, the main character would rather let his father think he’s been sexually assaulted than admit he’s a superhero.

  29. Anonymouson 02 Jun 2013 at 6:16 am

    My latest story (I always switch stories for new ones) is more along the lines of angel-demon supers and the main character’s powers are only activated by the halfling character (angel & demon). This is because she is one of the descendants of the angels that had “mated” with human women and so her abilities need a natural, stronger influence of the same power. Anyway, the issue is the weaknesses of the powers are still a big question mark. The guy, the halfling, can heal and wither but has no control over which he will do, it’s his secondary power. His main power is up-in-the-air because there’re so many options! The girl is just the same. But the few other supers have already mostly been shapen. The villan is not even in the picture yet. I know it sounds unprepared but that’s why I could use lots of opinions and P.O.Vs (point of views). So. Any thoughts?

  30. Anonymouson 02 Jun 2013 at 10:49 am

    Oh and the girl’s power is psychic-based but its hard to come up with fresh spins/weaknesses for such a strong ability set so I was wondering how to make my characters more like-able

  31. Isabellaon 16 Jul 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Hey, Anonymous!

    First of all, I would try and avoid POV changes, especially if you’re writing a novel. It can get confusing if you change constantly, and not a lot of professional writers do it and can pull it off well.

    And if you want a weakness for a psychic, I have some ideas taken from another article on here.

    1.) Maybe the girl can’t use her powers without alerting someone else (like in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo can’t use the Ring without alerting bigger fish).

    2.) If she has psychic powers along the lines of mind-reading and telepathy, maybe she can only use those powers if the other person knows she’s entering their thoughts.

    3.) Using her powers can take a lot of concentration, so the villain can create loud noises or fill the room with tranquilizer gas to distract her and make it harder for her to focus.

    As for fresh spins, it’s going to be harder, because psychic powers are pretty straightforward, and I’ve seen people who’ve tried putting a spin on it, but the hero ends up accidentally looking incredibly stupid (“I can read minds, but only the minds of gay men.”)

    I hope I helped, and if you still need help, let me know!

  32. don 24 Sep 2013 at 2:05 pm

    okay, im trying to write a novel my self (duh, why elese would i be reading this) my main protagonist is a son of the titan Konos, i have desided that his main power is limited time control Ie frezzeing time, i want to give him a secondary power that reflects him being a demi- TITAN(demi-god would imply the he is weaker that he realy is) im leaning torwads peraktaly indstrutable skin. how do i do this with out, “god modeing” him?

  33. don 24 Sep 2013 at 2:11 pm

    *kronos typo.. he ^^!

  34. Elecon 25 Sep 2013 at 4:59 am

    Adding to Isabella’s points:

    4) Maybe it’s really hard to accurately read other peoples thoughts? This could create interesting plot complications – the hero/audience won’t know if the information they got was 100% true.

  35. Elecon 25 Sep 2013 at 5:06 am

    “how do i do this with out, “god modeing” him?”

    Probably the easiest way to do this would be to simply reduce the strength of these powers. For example, maybe his indestructible skin can only stop things like a small arms round, but wouldn’t work against a missile or the like. As for ‘time freezing,’ you could possibly change it so that it’s just ‘time slowing’ – say, for example, he can slow time down to 1/100th of reality, rather than stopping it completely. Another thing you could do is say that he can only slow/stop time when he is calm (i.e. a low heart rate). With this, this would make him far more personable than, as you said, a ‘god-moded’ character. Hope my ideas have helped?

  36. don 25 Sep 2013 at 11:44 am

    yes. it does very much, thank you for the advice.

  37. Malcolm Bansaon 26 Oct 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Is the moon a possible explenation for superpowers ?

  38. B. McKenzieon 26 Oct 2013 at 11:02 pm

    “Is the moon a possible explanation for superpowers?” If you wanted to use the moon as part of a more mystical origin (e.g. something like werewolves or moon gods or whatever), that sounds intuitive. If you’re thinking something more along the lines of a nonmystical origin story involving the moon, I’m drawing more of a blank there. Maybe something with aliens and/or astronauts.

  39. Glamtronon 27 Oct 2013 at 6:05 am

    I have a character.. Powers: Incredible leaping, agility, and regeneration…and he’s good in hand-to-hand combat.. I don’t want to give him any weapons.. But is he okay like this?.. Coz some of the villains he faces uses weapons..

  40. B. McKenzieon 27 Oct 2013 at 8:08 am

    Glamtron, his powers are well-suited for someone fighting unarmed against an armed opponent. I think you’re okay here.

  41. Jed/Elecon 28 Oct 2013 at 2:22 am

    Agree with B. Mac. Not giving him a weapon will also help to raise the stakes in fights, and also make them more intuitive (think Jackie Chan style, using a whole bunch of random objects against people with knives and the like).

    PS: I’m starting to phase out the name ‘Elec’ as this is practically the only site I use it on. It will stay behind the slash for the next few months, and will eventually disappear. I just wanted to say this to clear any confusion; I’m still the same person :D.

  42. Malcolm Bansaon 15 Dec 2013 at 6:12 pm

    For my source of superpowers, the moon is going emit radioactive radiation that affects the earth, turning a part of the population of the earth in two super powered beings.

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