Archive for December, 2013

Dec 16 2013

A Criminal Profiler’s Guide to Superheroes

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Email: “One of my protagonists is a detective looking for superheroes/vigilantes. What sort of traits might tip him off?

 

Here are some trends that come to mind for American superheroes.

 

Strong Associations

  • They’ve had a loved one(s) murdered by a stranger. That’s pretty rare in the United States. Only about 2,500 U.S. murders are committed by strangers per year. If we rule out intergang violence and drug deals gone bad (because most people in a Uncle Ben or Martha/Thomas Wayne situation are not gang members), we’re probably looking at about 500 murders per year that might be of interest to police looking for superhero origin stories, and probably less than 10-15 a year in any particular city.
  • They’ve had a loved one(s) kidnapped by a stranger, sometimes repeatedly. (For example, are there any Metropolis supervillains that haven’t kidnapped Lois Lane at some point?) Normally, it’s EXTRAORDINARILY rare for someone to get kidnapped more than once by a stranger. I doubt it’s happened in U.S. history. It should certainly raise a lot of questions about why so many major-league criminals have an interest in kidnapping this particular journalist rather than any of the other major journalists in town.
  • Most superheroes are 1) extremely physically fit but 2) do NOT work out regularly at a gym or at home. If the investigator has access to credit card records, he can look for purchases of gym membership and/or fitness equipment. Most superheroes won’t have any. (If Clark Kent started bench-pressing thousands of pounds at a gym, it would raise a lot of questions, and any fitness equipment specialized enough to help a superhero train is suspicious enough that they probably wouldn’t keep it at their residence).
  • Most superheroes don’t have any kids or pets. First, there’s the time factor. Being a superhero is a major time commitment. There could also be security issues if a kid sees anything interesting or mentions to a stranger that his parent(s) disappear every night.
  • Superheroes will give off lots of signs of combat experience but almost never have any military experience. (Even Captain America had only 1-2 years before getting iced). These signs may include paying a lot more attention to exit routes, habitually glancing at anyone entering the room, and avoiding turning his/her back towards an entryway or window.
  • Adult superheroes are almost always college-educated. In contrast, 70% of U.S. adults don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
  • If you interview the coworkers/boss of a superhero, certain traits will probably crop up. They’re brilliant, but hard to work with. They have major absenteeism issues and frequently come into work tired or with (poorly explained) injuries, and they NEVER follow orders or a chain of command.  Despite their many failings, superheroes’ coworkers will unanimously agree that they are exceptionally competent at their job. (Bruce Wayne is virtually the only exception here — most superheroes are too proud/lazy/careless to pull off a dummy act).
  • In most cases, everyone that knows a superhero well will agree that he’s unusually courageous and altruistic, but has issues with punctuality and reliability. A lot of people that know him will attest that it’s hard to get him on the phone and/or that he sometimes disappears during work.
  • Everyone that has observed this person in a life-or-death emergency will agree that he was unusually collected, even if he’s normally sort of bumbling (e.g. Clark Kent).
  • They won’t own any guns, no matter how bad their neighborhood is.
  • Most superheroes don’t have a criminal record, but will be surprisingly familiar with police capabilities and tactics. For example, in most cases, the police can get a suspect to unwittingly give a DNA and fingerprint sample by offering a soda (or paperwork to fill out). These techniques will certainly not work with a superhero. However, a superhero will never insist on having a lawyer present, which will come across as highly unusual for a suspect that otherwise knows what he’s doing. (In-story, superheroes might not get a lawyer involved because they think it’ll make them look suspicious and/or afraid and/or because they really hate defense attorneys. (Not surprising after how many times Lex Luthor has gone free on a technicality). However, the main reason writers avoid having lawyers present is because they almost always make interview scenes less interesting… it’s basically a lawyer’s job to keep its client from saying anything interesting).
  • Superheroes are generally extremely sensitive about their medical records. Even the identity of their general practitioner will be a closely-guarded secret because the doctor is almost always an active collaborator that knows what’s going on. It would be very hard for a superhero to hide the truth from his doctor because routine x-rays will show an extensive history of broken bones and the superpowers may cause their bloodwork or DNA to be highly unusual.
  • We can rule out virtually everyone who has an unprestigious job. In-story, this might be explained because a vigilante that’s flashy enough to create a gaudy persona is probably an attention-seeker. Also, prestigious jobs tend to be more helpful for a superhero than an unprestigious job would be (in terms of resources, access, training/skills/education, etc).
  • Superheroes tend to value money quite a bit less than the population as a whole. Most superheroes could be wealthy if they wanted to be, but most don’t care that much about it. Even billionaire superheroes tend not to be that personally involved in the day-to-day operations of their company.
  • If a superhero suspect has a personal connection to a supervillain, follow up on that. People that know a superhero are far more likely to become a supervillain. In particular, the easiest way to become one of Spider-Man’s villains is to meet Peter Parker.  (Green Goblin is his best friend’s father, Lizard employed him as a teaching assistant, Venom is a rival at work, Dr. Octopus once taught him at a science camp, Man-Wolf is J.J. Jameson’s son, etc).
  • Most superheroes have exceptionally good reflexes and reaction times. If the investigator has access to insurance or police records, it’s unlikely a superhero has any routine accidents on his record. If there are any accidents, it’s probably because the driver was doing something outlandishly daring/reckless.
  • If a superhero has the ability to fly or teleport or run extremely fast, he probably drives and/or takes public transit much less than normal. “Your credit card records indicate that you haven’t purchased gasoline or refilled a public transit card in the last 3 months. How do you get to work?” If he claims that he made all of his gas station purchases with cash (yeah, right), then the investigator can check the speedometer on his car. If he claims that he pays cash for public transit, the investigator can ask routine questions about public transit (e.g. “which stop do you usually get off at for the Daily Planet?”). In addition, if I were looking for a superhero that could move especially fast, he probably won’t have any records of taxi usage on his credit cards.
  • If a superhero does not have flight/teleportation/super-speed, his credit card records will probably show he travels less often than normal because it’d be logistically difficult for a hero to get back to the city quickly in case of an emergency. Also, the more time Peter Parker spends outside of New York, the more likely that someone will notice that there are no Spider-Man sightings while he’s away.
  • We’re probably looking for someone that isn’t at home most nights. If you check his credit card records, there probably won’t be any purchases over these hours-long absences.
  • We can probably eliminate anyone that can be easily tailed and/or put under surveillance. Most superheroes have situational awareness bordering on the supernatural and are mobile enough to disappear around any corner or through any fence.

Weak Associations

  • Superheroes are generally romantically dysfunctional. There are a few superheroes that make a long-term relationship work (frequently because they date/marry other superheroes), but more often it’s a Bruce Wayne or Punisher situation where the character is a pathological loner or divorced by murder.
  • We can safely rule out anyone that’s been divorced. In-story, one explanation might be that the significant others of superheroes are in so much danger that they don’t usually make to the 7 year itch, or that they’re so dysfunctional they can’t find anyone to get married to. Alternately, most superheroes are desirable enough (e.g. generally wealthy and intelligent, athletic, altruistic, and interesting) that significant others might not start to wonder if there are better options available.
  • We can safely rule out anyone that’s had an affair. Betraying someone that generally knows life-or-death secrets is a really bad career move.
  • We can safely eliminate anyone that’s poor, and I’d look especially closely at billionaires. In-story, the explanation here is that someone who is ludicrously wealthy probably has more resources (e.g. gear, vehicles, training, healthcare, etc) and probably more ability to spend tens of hours each week on unpaid volunteering.
  • Most superheroes are 15-40, particularly 20-35. In general, most superheroes have had unusual success in their chosen day-job at an early age.
  • I’d take an especially close look at scientists, journalists, and corporate moguls.
  • Generally very talkative/outgoing, but secretive.
  • Some people close to the hero may suspect the person is having an affair or otherwise hiding something because he lies so often (and perhaps so implausibly) about so much (e.g. where he is, why he misses appointments, why he’s been injured, whatever).
  • Most superheroes aren’t noticeably religious, even the ones that personally know gods. In contrast, most Americans attend religious services regularly.
  • Most superheroes aren’t noticeably politically active. In contrast, most American adults are registered to vote with a particular political party.
  • Nobody’s ever seen him sweat or show any signs of fear.
  • Generally has lived in a particular very large city his/her entire life. In particular, most Americans don’t attend college in their hometown, but most superheroes do.
  • Probably attended a very respectable university in a city (e.g. Empire State or Gotham University). In real life, the United States only has a few of them (U-Chicago, Columbia, maybe USC and Rice). There’s going to be so much strangeness surrounding these few elite urban universities that it’d be impossible to miss — e.g. Dr. Connors turning into a lizard monster.
  • Even within the city, most superheroes do not move very often. (If there is a secret compartment in the house, moving would be very inconvenient). If a superhero does move, he does not use a moving company, even though he probably earns enough that it’d be unusual to do it himself.
  • Superheroes tend to be significantly more attractive than the population as a whole. In particular, most superheroines could pass as models.

 

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Version:

Almost every adult superhero will meet at least at least 5 of the following:

  • They’ve had a loved one murdered by a stranger.
  • They’ve had a different loved one kidnapped or seized by a stranger.
  • No divorces or infidelity.
  • They’re exceptionally good at their day job but have trouble following orders.
  • No criminal convictions. In the rare cases there were any convictions, there’s probably a bizarre philanthropic angle to the crime.
  • They’ve graduated from college (usually a prestigious one) and have a prestigious or glamorous career.
  • They will not give police any medical information (e.g. medical records or a saliva swab) because it might be incriminating.
  • They’re exceptionally physically fit, but not a member of a gym.
  • There is evidence they’ve seen a lot of combat, but they don’t have any military experience.

 

41 responses so far