Archive for the 'Superhero Stories' Category

Aug 06 2021

Suicide Squad sequel: 2.5 stars out of 5, far improved over original

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.

–There’s intense violence but not a lot of feeling here. It’s not a very exciting movie. But it’s functional. It’s frequently tedious but rarely boring. Only the political sermons and Weasel are viciously bad. It’s definitely a huge improvement over the first movie.

–Most of what sucked about Suicide Squad 1 was an overfocus on soulless authority figures. Sidelining Waller and soulless authority types in general was a brilliant move. What I think this movie gets that the first movie completely missed is that Waller is not (and cannot be) a three-dimensional character, she’s JUST a source of insane mission directives and lethal pressure to comply. She’s just a boss out of hell, and asking her to carry the first 45 minutes of the first movie was a mistake. The first we see of authority figures in this movie, they’re betting on which squadmate will be the first to die. It’s a much more Marvel approach to authority figures. Military jargon is completely gone, nobody sounds remotely like an authority figure is supposed to sound, conflicts are played up, and underlings get a lot more freedom to explore the space with Waller’s golf club.

–In the first movie, the second half of the movie is an inordinately long single mission with long rambling intermissions where the characters stop to talk for no readily obvious reason. In this movie, the ENTIRE movie is a long single mission, but much better structured. The transitions between dialogue and combat are smoother.

–Weasel came from the same parent company that brought us Hector Hammond. We’ll later find out that their content-creation algorithms are fueled by human nightmares.

–Things that are more technically sophisticated than Weasel: King Shark, the Geico Gecko, North Korean figure skating, and Rocket Raccoon. Things that are less technically sophisticated than Weasel: Savant’s wig, John Cena’s fights, and Idris Elba’s attempt at a U.S. accent.

–There were a lot of premises dead on arrival. Character concepts and plotting needed work.

  • “What if King Shark was mentally disabled and completely unable to contribute to dialogue in any way?” “Will it be funny?” “Not at all, but Sylvester Stallone really wants an Oscar.”
  • Harlequin gets a wedding proposal from a Che Guevara dictator. “Do we have any plan to go anywhere with this?” “Not at all, do we need one? Nobody said we needed one.” If this seems like it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, you’re right, but she did vote for Bernie.
  • Waller’s afraid she’s going to look a fool with a Senate friend because she can’t golf. Was zombifying Chicago not bad enough? Are we pretending the first movie never happened? I can live with that. Are we going with 100 Senators being dumb enough to not realize what happened in the first movie? Also workable.
  • Every second with Weasel. Polka-Dot Man has a running gag where he sees other people as his abusive mom. I wish I could see Weasel as Rocket Raccoon instead. I suspect the stand-in actor for Weasel (and also Rocket) does too.
  • “Bloodsport, why are you afraid of rats?” 1) Because useless 2) Because oppressive father. The movie tries treating this as a mystery, but it’s okay because we can see #1 and can guess #2.
  • Idris Elba playing a Louisianan child mercenary turned soldier and criminal who has apparently spent 20 years in the British educational system. He actually has sounded American before, I’m not sure what was going on here. He also sounds kinda posh for someone whose father stuck him in a rat-filled crate but I’d rather have that than Vince Vaughn trying to play a ridiculous blue-collar tough guy (also rat-tortured by his father) in True Detective.
  • The team doesn’t have any pre-mission training. Might have been useful to figure out if any of the members had a crushing fear of another teammate’s powers, whoops.
  • The team lead has no control over who goes on the team. This makes sense for Bloodsport (if Waller lets him pick his own people, he might stack the team with people who will betray Waller). But why screw Flagg like this? If Waller doesn’t trust him, either, that probably deserves some explanation which could help develop Flag’s eventual hero moment.

–This is the worst King Shark since Harlequin’s animated series. At least he’s not a social media dork this time. (If anyone had asked Sylvester Stallone to try getting offended by shark stereotypes in like a third of his scenes, Stallone would have shoved a copy of Demolition Man up the director’s tailfin).

–Villain selection is MUCH better. Almost everybody is shootable, which is a great fit for a team that is mostly shooters and sharks.

—-It’s ridiculous that a power-worshipper like _____ (spoiler removed) could have conflicted feelings about murdering a character as weak as _____ (victim removed). None of these blanks are “social media expert King Shark” or “uncredited cowriter Howard Zinn” or “celebrated kabuki choreographer B. McKenzie”, but any combination of these would probably have been more interesting than what we actually saw.

–Communications between Waller and the team are down for most of the movie, so she looks less incompetent that she loses eyes on the team. This is a better execution than in the first movie, where she apparently forgets to keep eyes/ears on her murder-slaves.

–Action choreography not great. Harlequin’s breakout scene is just Harlequin doing her thing with very little interaction or threat from her enemies. Not great. Korean/Japanese/Hong Kong action movies usually get a lot more emotional impact out of melee combat than this.

–Rick Flag, besides *maybe* his hero turn, still does not have any chemistry with anyone. Harlequin is not much better, but spends a considerable amount of time on her own subplot.

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Aug 31 2015

Fearless Deadpool prediction

Published by under Superhero Movies

In the Deadpool trailer, Ryan Reynolds’ character takes a shot at his last superhero movie, Green Lantern. I predict that it’ll actually do even worse critically than GL did (26% on Rotten Tomatoes). His movies (e.g. Green Lantern and RIPD) tend to be fanatically committed to comedy but have an awful record at actually being funny. For example, in the Green Lantern oath scene below, the desperate attempts at humor suck the time/space out of anything else the scene could have contributed (like character development, interesting choices/motivations, conflicts, or side-plots). DP’s trailer looks like it’s headed that way.

46 responses so far

May 22 2014

Learning Curves: An Alternative Approach to Superpower Limitation

Often with works of fiction that involve superpowers, writers look for ways to effectively limit or check those powers. This is done to keep characters vulnerable to challenges while maintaining dramatic effect within the story. After all, if a character can consistently deal with situations by using their unrestricted abilities, how invested will a reader (or publisher) be in the work? Probably not very.


Writers of comic books, superhero novels and other forms of speculative fiction utilize a variety of approaches in addressing this issue. Examples include requiring a specific power source or item to use an ability (e.g. Green Lantern’s ring or Mr. Freeze’s  diamond-powered freeze gun). Another example is requiring the character to be within a specific proximity (e.g. in the film Push, Kira has to be able to see people to tamper with their minds). Sometimes a character is susceptible to a specific substance or external force (e.g. Superman and kryptonite or his vulnerability to red sunlight).


These limitations are mostly environmental or physical contingencies that the character must yield to. One alternative is using a character’s progressive learning curve to limit their capabilities.


If you want to restrict a character who can channel cosmic energy as concussive force blasts, a good place to start might be by asking: What does the actual development of that proficiency look like? (Keep in mind this question can be asked of anyone in any endeavor, not just fictional superheroes. Choosing to spend time with it as a literary theme could be a good way to develop relatability within the work.)


So what does it look like for a character to actually learn about their extraordinary powers over the course of a novel? Is it believable that they would start out fully knowledgeable in their understanding, or would there be gradations of trial and error, of setbacks and success, of growth? A character learning to use concussive force blasts will provide their own limitations in the form of their inexperience. Be encouraged to explore that. It could be a much more resonant and effective restriction than a target that has to be within X amount of feet.  Even as the character grows in the use of their powers, surpassing old limitations, the learning process by nature should continue to supply new thresholds for them to meet and be challenged by.


In the sci-fi novel Psion by Hugo Award-winning author Joan D. Vinge, the main character Cat is recruited into a psychic research program. The technicians are able to determine the vast amount of telepathic power Cat possesses; they can ascertain what he should be able to do… But Cat can’t do those things because doesn’t know how to be psychic. Even as he gains greater understanding and command of his telepathy throughout the course of the novel, his learning curve continues to provide natural limitations and challenges for him in the use of his powers.


Of course, not every story’s main character is a fish out of water. While most superhero stories handle the initial emergence of the primary hero, some characters come to the plate further developed than others. And that’s fine. Even in those instances, I’d encourage writers of superhero fiction (especially novels) to consider the learning curve (specialized here, perhaps) as well as the more concrete and specific limits meant to rein in the chosen superpowers.


Wolverine can be used as an example of an already expertly-skilled character forced to negotiate the learning experience. When he first joined the X-Men, he was leagues beyond his teammates in training, combat experience and the use of his mutant powers. Despite this he still had a significant learning curve dealing with the way the team functioned and occasionally his approach to obstacles was more detrimental than helpful. Additionally, it was because of his experiences with the X-Men that he learned to take more control of his berserker rages, which were a danger to everyone.


Well-rounded characters resonate more with readers. Going through the journey of learning to use superpowers along with those characters – most notably experiencing how that process provides limitations, checks and challenges in organic and relatable ways – can contribute greatly to the development of that relationship, potentially endearing readers even more than originally considered.


To finalize, focusing on the superpower learning curve can be an enormous boon as there are potentially countless ways writers can incorporate it regarding their character’s superpowers, specifically as a means to limit those powers. These elements can be made to manifest as significant and effective by simple virtue of being so unknown, or it can be more a matter of learning to use familiar capabilities in entirely uncharted situations. In either instance, this also demonstrates the flexibility and personalization of the learning curve, in that it can be uniquely shaped to fit each character. This kind of development and attention to theme can greatly increase the depth and resonance of a novel while providing necessary restrictions and challenges for the characters within them.


4 responses so far

Jan 27 2013

The 5 Least Promising Scenes for a Superhero Story

1. Bank robberies with faceless criminals that never had a chance of accomplishing anything. If you’re mainly including this scene to give the superhero(es) a chance to show off their powers, I would recommend reevaluating whether anything is at stake and whether the scene actually contributes anything to the story. For example, Dark Knight’s opening bank robbery does a really good job developing the Joker and the main antagonist-vs.-antagonist conflict, even though the main character is not at stake.


2. Any scene featuring more or less helpless antagonists. If your superhero’s opponents cannot challenge him, there’s probably very little at stake, which means that the fight will create very little suspense. Some possible solutions:

  • Give the hero stronger opposition. For example, if your hero’s superpowers are incredible enough that he can only be challenged by someone with superpowers, it’d be worth considering a plotting element which makes it easier in your universe for low-grade antagonists to get superpowers or some sort of threatening capabilities. (For example, perhaps criminals can buy a temporary super-serum or a Hulk-grade hunting rifle).
  • Change the scene so that it’s harder for the character to use his powers (e.g. characters with fire-based powers should probably be careful if there are innocent bystanders and/or volatile chemicals present).
  • Give the character(s) problems which his/her powers can’t effortlessly solve. For example, it’d probably be more interesting to see The Thing deal with a hurricane than a guy with a gun. The gunman probably isn’t challenging. Alternately, the hero might be in a situation where the character can’t openly use his superpowers because they’d blow his secret identity.
  • Weaken the character’s powers. For example, a faster-than-sound character could probably defeat an average bank robber with little (if any) difficulty or drama. A character that could merely run at ~60 miles per hour would have to put more thought into it, particularly if hostages are involved.
  • Temporarily reduce the character’s capabilities. For example, perhaps the character is injured or temporarily has lost access to his/her superpowers (like during an eclipse in Heroes).
  • Increase the cost of the character’s superpowers. Please see #2 in How to Keep Your Story’s Superpowers Extraordinary.


3. Confrontations between protagonists which hinge on a protagonist(s) being irredeemably stupid. Particularly with protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts, I’d recommend making both characters at least somewhat sympathetic. For example, in The Dark Knight, both Lucius and Batman have a likable reason to oppose each other on the use of a cutting-edge tracking system. In contrast, if one (or worse, both) sides are wildly dumb and/or childish (e.g. see Batman & Robin), the conflict is more likely to make readers want to brain everybody involved and throw the story in a fire.

3.1. “I hate you because I’m one-dimensionally evil and/or stupid.” Common offenders: abusive parents, bullies, and Jim Crow stand-ins (e.g. more or less every non-mutant in X-Men). If you have to demote characters to mind-numbing unlikability, I’d recommend doing so sparingly. For a potential solution here, I’d recommend checking out how Homeland and The Wire treated mostly unsympathetic antagonists (terrorists and drug dealers, respectively) with some degree of human empathy. It made them feel more believable and the conflicts against them more satisfying.


4. Any scene where the main character does the same thing(s) 95%+ of other superheroes would have done. Give your characters more chances to be original. For example, in a particular scene, is there anything the superhero does or says which is really unique? If not, I’d recommend reevaluating the character development (so that the characters have more unusual traits to act on) and/or reworking the plot so that the characters have more chances to demonstrate these traits.  For example, if you have a superhero who is uncommonly loyal to his friends, you could make his/her loyalty more memorable by developing friends that many superheroes would not be loyal to. In Point of Impact, the main character is a fugitive that risks his life breaking his dog’s corpse out of an FBI-guarded morgue. The scene develops the character very effectively–he risks himself for honor in a way that almost no protagonist would have and it establishes how isolated he is (the dog is the closest thing the protagonist had to friends or family).  


5. Any funeral scene so generic that 95% of the words could apply to 95% of superheroes. E.g. “Captain Awesome was a great hero who risked himself for us on so many occasions” while teammates sob about how hard it is that he’s gone. Boohoohoo, nobody cares. I’d strongly recommend moving towards more distinctive scenes–e.g. you can focus instead on teammates/friends/family sharing memorable stories showing us what kind of person the fallen superhero was, and that would help readers genuinely care on their own that he’s gone. I’d recommend staying away from eulogies, especially by faceless extras–it’s generally not the best approach to making your funeral scene memorable.

5.1. Any funeral scene where the character isn’t actually dead*. Personally, I’d probably lean towards a quick rejection on an unsolicited manuscript here–the scene (and the death arc in general) is probably a waste of time. Also, this is very cliche–see pretty much every comic book funeral. For best-selling superheroes, it’s sort of justifiable because actually killing the character would leave millions of dollars on the table. Most unsolicited manuscripts don’t have that excuse.

5.2. Undoing death. Unkilling a hero means that death doesn’t actually matter, which tends to ruin action scenes. If death is temporary, there are no stakes to losing — it doesn’t matter whether your characters win or lose a fight. That’s much less interesting than characters that actually have something to worry about. If you want to kill a character, please be brave enough to make it stick. Alternately, just take it out. As a last resort, if you’re absolutely committed to resurrecting a character, I’d recommend setting some hard limit (e.g. the destruction of the time machine or whatever was used to unkill the character) so that readers know that this cop-out was absolutely just a one-time thing and will not happen again.

Exception: The readers know the funeral’s not real. E.g. characters holding a fake funeral to convince an enemy that the hero is no longer a threat. This is more promising because you’re not asking readers to be emotionally invested in a supposed death which won’t actually go anywhere.

20 responses so far

Oct 23 2012

Iron Man 3’s Trailer Is Out

Published by under Superhero Movies

I think it looks okay, but I’m a bit alarmed by how unmemorable Stark sounded. The romance sounded corny. The villain/main conflict was probably the most promising angle.

In terms of developing a character in a darker direction, I would recommend checking out this trailer from Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

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20 responses so far

Aug 09 2012

Ben Affleck May Direct and Star in Justice League

Published by under Superhero Movies

Examiner: “Currently no deal is in place and it is far from being a sure thing. Warner Bros. and DC have a “Justice League” script by William Beall they have sent Affleck to gauge his interest as both a director and potential star. Affleck has had a spotty acting career, including playing the Marvel hero, ‘Daredevil,’ but he has excelled as a director.”


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22 responses so far

Aug 08 2012

Joss Whedon Will Write and Direct Avengers 2

Published by under Superhero Movies

Marvel: “Whedon will write and direct Marvel’s The Avengers 2 as well as help develop a new live action series for Marvel Television at ABC.”

10 responses so far

Aug 01 2012

Learning Writing Skills from Hancock

1. Hancock’s personality and interaction with other people made for some interesting conflict. The train scene with Hancock, Ray, and the other people at the intersection is a great example of Hancock’s alienation and anti-social nature. He’s one of the few superheroes that people generally hate, as opposed to, say, Superman.



2. The mechanics of Hancock’s superpowers were very fascinating. When he kicks off the ground to propel into flight, it yanks stuff up out of the ground. His invincibility could be cliche, but was used creatively (the shaving scene was a kickass example of that). The physics behind the powers was believable. In contrast, Superman has to use special Kryptonian razor blades when he has to shave (ugh!).


3. Superheroes can commit crimes, and they can get in trouble for it. Hancock went to prison because of the way he used his powers. He had several crimes hanging over his head: aggravated assault and battery, destruction of property, reckless endangerment, and even endangering the safety of a minor (the French bully he launched into the sky). This is very refreshing—in most superhero stories where the police are antagonists, they don’t actually add significant consequences to the characters’ actions. (For example, Batman might have a chase scene or two with the police, but it rarely actually costs Batman anything).


4. Hancock’s significant other was an interesting twist, but could be confusing and contradictory. During the major fight scene with Hancock and his “wife,” she keeps screaming that she hates him, and that she’d never forgive him for what he did. What did he do? They never explain what he did, and they gave no reason for why she’d hate him. Then, in the hospital scene towards the end, she explains how he always saved her over the centuries, and how he was meant to be humanity’s hero. But didn’t you say earlier that you were faster, stronger, and smarter than him? Lady, you’re confusing me!


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10 responses so far

Jul 21 2012

Superhero Demotivationals

Iron Man Demotivational Poster


Batman Riddler Demotivational Poster

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Jul 20 2012

Dark Knight Rises Was Really Strong

Published by under Superhero Movies


Some initial thoughts (with some spoilers):

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54 responses so far

Jul 02 2012

Signs of a Promising Superhero Origin Story

1. The main character makes a notable decision, ideally one that most other main characters in the genre wouldn’t make in the same position. Ideally, this develops something unusual about your character compared to other protagonists in the submissions pile. For example, one thing that distinguishes Peter Parker from most superheroes is that he’s unusually human, so it’s fitting and memorable that he lets the robber go (which ends up getting his uncle killed).


2. The origin story reinforces a key character trait or mood. For example, Parker’s decision helps reinforce that he’s not purely heroic and experiences regular human problems like pettiness. Batman’s origin story helps establish his loneliness and isolation.


3. Ideally, the origin is driven by the main character’s actions rather than the character getting passively chosen. Individual effort is usually more memorable than, say, good luck or high birth. For example, Steve Rogers became a candidate for Captain America because he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he won the competitive process by demonstrating cunning and bravery. The plot (and Steve Rogers) would have been MUCH less interesting if the Army had randomly picked his name of a hat.


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18 responses so far

Feb 25 2012

“In a Superhero Story, How Could I Keep the Police From Getting Involved?”

If you’re looking to write superhero stories that are more about superheroes than about the police, here are some possible explanations.


1.  The police mistakenly conclude that no crime took place.  For example, if a supervillain murders someone, maybe he planted evidence that makes it look like a suicide, faked an accident (e.g. pushed the victim down the stairs) or used a poison that induced a heart attack. In a theft case, the villain might have replaced the stolen goods with a convincing forgery.  In an assault case, the victim might have been intimidated into silence.


2. The police didn’t realize that this was an extraordinary case and gave up when ordinary police-work didn’t pan out.  If Mary Jane gets killed and the police can’t find any helpful forensic data at the crime scene or any witnesses or even anybody with a discernible motive to kill MJ, the police are screwed.  Half of U.S. murders go unsolved and the police will declare it a cold case and move on if they’re not getting anywhere.  In a lot of cases, the police don’t have the necessary background information to figure out what’s going on–for example, knowing that MJ was dating a superhero would have been really helpful.


3. The case is unusual enough that the police wouldn’t know where to start. For example, let’s say a ghost kills somebody.  The police will probably get lost running down more mundane angles if they don’t know that ghosts are an actual possibility.  (They may even unknowingly railroad an innocent guy if he looks like the only plausible suspect).  Even if detectives are willing to risk their careers by telling their superiors they think it’s a ghost, what are the police going to do? Arrest a ghost?


3.1. If the police know how unusual the case is, they may delegate it to an expert. In the Dresden Files, the Chicago police use Harry Dresden on supernatural cases.  They know he’s more experienced with that sort of thing (being a wizard and all) and using a freelancer gives the police some degree of plausible deniability if the case goes horribly wrong.


4. The case is hard enough that the police wouldn’t know where to start.  If you need Batman-grade detective and/or scientific skills to realize the first thing about who committed a crime or how to find him, it’s plausible that the police will give up after regular police-work doesn’t bear any fruit.  For example, many Sherlock Holmes cases are first reported to the police, but then Holmes is brought in (either by the victims or by the police) after the police have failed to get anywhere.


5. The police may suffer from corruption, political interference and/or gross incompetence.  For example, the Penguin is politically connected in Gotham (e.g. he’s a viable candidate for mayor), and it’s plausible that police brass would be more careful about investigating somebody that might be their next boss.  (Political considerations may also be a factor for prosecutors and judges). Police officers and lab technicians that have been bribed might “lose” evidence or make “mistakes” that cause crucial evidence to be thrown out of court.  Forensics analysts might be paid to implicate the supervillain’s rivals (maybe even a superhero).  Corrupt supervisors might reassign honest police officers and technicians that won’t take a hint.


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12 responses so far

Feb 17 2012

2000s Superheroes

Published by under Superhero Stories

If you were reading or watching a superhero story twenty or thirty years from now, what would be a giveaway that the story’s from 2000-10?  (What about contemporary superhero stories do you think is most likely to go badly out of style?)


For example, if you were reading a 1990s story, one of the giveaways would be if the guys have long, unkempt hair and that characters are introduced with names like Harvest or Lady Deathstrike.  More 1990s superhero trends here.

8 responses so far

Feb 16 2012

List of Superhero Origin Stories

If you’re not sure where your superhero’s superpowers might come from, here are some potential superhero origins.

Science and Science Fiction


1. Cybernetics–replacing human limbs or organs (usually crippled/injured ones) with superior mechanical substitutes.  See Cyborg, the Bionic Woman, etc.


2. Genetic engineering–e.g. replacing genes with sequences from other sources can create interesting results, such as pigs that glow like jellyfish.  See Spider-Man, etc.


3. Powersuits, exoskeletons and/or giant death machines (Iron Man, Steel, the M-1 Abrams, etc).  We already have jet packsmilitary-grade lasers, and a five-pound rocket launcher, so within (say) 30 years, origins like the Iron Man suit might not actually be science fiction.

3.1. Robotics.  Domo arigato, human-sized death machine.  (Robots don’t have to be androids, but usually are in fiction).


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272 responses so far

Dec 17 2011

How to Write a Good Sidekick

A bad sidekick aggravates readers and weakens the story.  Over the past 25 years, the two live-action Batman movies with Robin have averaged 29% on Rotten Tomatoes.  The four without Robin have averaged 82%.  Here are some tips that will help you write a sidekick that will excite readers rather than make them want to stick their brains in a blender.


(Amazingly, the nipples on Robin's suit weren't the worst thing Batman & Robin did to the character).


1. If a character is actually interesting enough to belong as a sidekick, promote him to partner or superhero.  Calling him a “sidekick” cues readers that he’s probably a distraction from the character that actually matters.  If he’s not interesting enough to be a partner, you’d probably be better off without him altogether.  Alternately, you can have a character play an interesting role far from the spotlight.  For example, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) adds an interesting ideological dispute with Batman in The Dark Knight but he gets extremely little screen-time and never participates in any fights.


2. Give yourself a reason for writing in a partner/sidekick besides adding “relatability” for younger readers.  If you’re mainly including a sidekick for relatability, I think you’ll probably aggravate older readers more than you’ll please younger ones.  For example, watch Robin in Batman and Robin, Scrappy Doo in too many Scooby Doo episodes, or Jar-Jar Binks in Phantom Menace.  Did these characters at any point take the story in a direction that you wanted to go?  Or were they exceedingly unlikable and a distraction from more interesting characters?


3. Here are some better reasons for having a partner than relatability.  

  • In Kick-Ass, the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy (her father) was probably the most interesting character dynamic.  It was somehow simultaneously abusive and touching, both of which helped flesh him out as a three-dimensional character rather than just another ersatz Punisher.  Also, having Hit Girl be insanely effective in battle was a delightful subversion that raised the stakes for Kick-Ass.  (If you’re a superhero getting schooled in battle by a 11 year old girl, maybe it’s time to think about hanging up the tights).
  • The character is a loner, but his thought processes are interesting enough that his interactions would develop him and/or the story.  For example, one of Watson’s main roles is giving Holmes a way to narrate the mental leaps he’s making to solve the case.  As the “straight man,” he’s also the audience stand-in, which helps create a contrast with the eccentric and unorthodox Holmes.
  • You absolutely need someone with a particular skill to make a plot arc work, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t make sense to give that skill to the main character.


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27 responses so far

Dec 13 2011

How Can Superheroes Maintain a Day Job?

Here are some ideas–feel free to mix and match as you see fit.

1. The superhero’s job gives him a very good reason to take up and leave at crucial moments.  For example, Clark Kent has a great reason to run towards disasters–he’s a journalist looking for the biggest story in town.  Matt Murdoch (Daredevil) or another lawyer might have some good reasons to do so–some supervillains have deep pockets and any disaster scene is liable to have tons of victims that will need a great lawyer.  Successfully suing a billionaire villain (or, umm, the police for failing to take reasonable precautions to keep him in jail) could be a huge payday.


2. The superhero secretly prepares some exciting projects for work that he can unveil whenever he needs to get his boss off his back.  For example, it might be a problem that Clark Kent missed a deadline on mortgages in Metropolis, but his editor would probably look past that if Clark Kent pulled a Pulitzer-grade story out of his brief.  “Sorry, chief, I was busy triple-checking the sourcing on this Luthor confession.  We got him on tape!”  A superhero might be able to sit on a huge breakthrough in his work for a long time–for example, a journalist might spend months checking a story because rushing to print with a libelous claim against an extremely wealthy businessman could be disastrous for the company.


2.1. The superhero is valuable enough at work that his bosses and coworkers look past his tendency to miss work and/or come in late and/or incur mysterious injuries/illnesses.  For example, he might be in a white collar job where uncommon bravery is a major advantage but not many people have it.  (I mean, really, how many journalists are there that would be excited to rush to the scene of a superpowered brawl in progress?  How many lawyers would be excited to interview murder suspects in extremely shady parts of town?)  His skills as a superhero might be really useful–for example, he probably has some degree of investigatory prowess, fast reflexes, familiarity with crime/criminals, toughness, an attention to detail, unusual confidence, determination and/or well-placed contacts in various industries and positions. For example, someone like Clark Kent is probably careful enough to make a good forensic accountant (although most taxmen would obviously not make very good superheroes).


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6 responses so far

Oct 09 2011

Reasons Your Characters Might Not Use Secret Identities

A few days ago, I covered some of the pros and cons of writing secret identities.  But that covers why YOU the author would want to use them or not.  Why might a character decide not to use them?  Here are some possibilities.


1. The character’s loved ones are mostly superpowered and/or not in harm’s way. For example, if the character is a superpowered alien, chances are his family members are, too, so protecting them from danger is a bit less essential. Alternately, in Booster Gold’s case, his family is hundreds of years in the future, so he doesn’t have to worry about them getting hurt.


2. The character has family/friends to worry about, but a secret identity is not an option. For example, Alicia Masters might be safer if Ben Grimm had a secret identity, but there’s no way for someone that looks as unusual as The Thing to pull off a secret identity. In The Taxman Must Die, one of the main characters is a mutant alligator that wants a secret identity (because anyone badass has enough enemies to need a secret identity, he reasons), but he surlily discovers that Clark Kent-style glasses don’t give a mutant alligator much of a disguise. (He attributes it to his poor acting skills).

2.1. The character’s origin story was caught on tape or otherwise too public to try a secret identity.  Perhaps the New York Times or Daily Bugle had someone covering that new exhibit of genetically modified spiders and happened to notice that one went missing–it’s not TOTALLY implausible that journalists might do something competent, right?*

*Despite CNN’s best efforts to suggest otherwise.  More on Casey Anthony at 9.


3. The character has loved ones, but is so scary that nobody’s brave enough to mess with them.  For example, if a criminal happened to find out the connection between Alfred and Batman, he’d have to be pretty damn nuts to take a shot at Alfred unless he was really looking forward to pain. Bad career move.  If you have a problem with Batman, it’d probably be less suicidal to gun directly for him (so that at least you’re not distracted when he comes for you).


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24 responses so far

Oct 03 2011

Pros and Cons of Using Secret Identities in Your Story

+: Secret identities provide another avenue of conflict/danger that helps develop the characters outside of combat.


-: Your readers have probably seen secret identities used quite a bit before.  It’s arguably the most cliche, conventional aspect of superhero stories.  If you go down this path, I’d recommend having it play out in unusual ways.  For example, in Kick-Ass, the protagonist’s attempt to protect his superhero identity from his father leads to a touching and darkly comical scene where the father mistakenly infers that the son was a victim of a sexual crime.


+: It’s a fairly easy way to build coherence between the superpowered side of the story (e.g. what Spider-Man is doing) and the non-powered side of the story (what Peter Parker is doing).  Another possibility that’s pretty well-worn is showing how his superpowered side affects his non-powered life.  For example, Spider-Man 2 covered how hard it was to come up with time for both.  Another possibility would be showing how the strains (injuries, stress, other damages) of one affect the other.


-: Especially in stories where only a villain or two uncover the secret identity, secret identities tend to cause side-characters to act atypically dumb.  Many investigative journalists interact with Clark Kent or Peter Parker every day but don’t ask any awkward questions about how Peter Parker comes up with so many more phenomenal Spidey shots than anyone else or wonder how Superman’s face looks awfully familiar.  If you do go with a secret identity, I’d recommend having the secret identity depend on whether the main character can successfully thwart the side-characters’ suspicions, rather than just making the side-characters too dumb/incompetent to get suspicious in the first place.


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22 responses so far

Sep 29 2011

Elements of Superhero Stories That Might Be Surprisingly Plausible



1. Invisible jets will probably be feasible within 50 years.  We already have rudimentary cloaking devices and one researcher suggests that it could eventually be used on submarines.  (I wonder if anyone would bother applying this technology to a jet, though.  Isn’t the ability to see jets irrelevant if the battle is resolved from miles away?)


2. An Iron Man-style powersuit might be viable someday.  We already have rudimentary jet packs, military grade lasers, exoskeletons and a five-pound rocket launcher.  I’m not a scientist, but it strikes me as fairly likely that engineers could figure out how to refine and combine those elements.  Then a few questions remain (how to power it, how to stop concussive forces from killing the pilot, and why you’d bother spending all that money on a shell for a human when you could do more with a remotely-operated suit or a robot).


3. Technopathy might be theoretically possible.  According to Scientific American, “Signals channeled directly from the brain can already control computers and other machines.”  From there, I think it’s relatively easy to suspend disbelief that someone might be so capable at doing it that he can hack into machines with his mind.

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19 responses so far

Sep 22 2011

Superpowers Will Not Make a Boring Character Interesting

Here are two common problems I’ve seen with submissions:

  • Characters are developed mainly in terms of their superpowers (e.g. listing out the characters and their superpowers).
  • The novel starts with a superhero-to-be that is not interesting before getting superpowers. (If a character is not interesting before getting superpowers, he/she probably won’t be interesting afterwards, either).


If you’ve encountered either of the above issues, these questions should help.

1. What is the character’s personality like? What are his key traits?


2. What are the character’s goals/motivations like?  How do those tie into the character’s personality and background?  (I guess it’s possible that there’s a not-particularly-bright athlete out there whose burning life goal is to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but trying to make the varsity squad would probably be more intuitive).


3. What sort of unusual decisions does the character make that other superheroes (or superheroes-to-be) wouldn’t?  In particular, why does the character choose to become a superhero?  Is there anything in the character’s personality or background that influences this decision?  (I’d look at that especially hard if the character wasn’t notably brave or violent before getting superpowers).


4.  How is the character different from other superheroes-to-be?  


5.  How is the character different from other characters in the story, particularly other superheroes (if applicable).  


6.  Are there any ways this character’s background, personality and/or skills make him a good (and/or bad) fit for the plot?  Either could create drama.

  • Sherlock Holmes is a good fit against a villain like Professor Moriarty because Moriarty is so dangerous that only someone as competent as Holmes could stop him.  That raises the stakes and makes it easier to challenge Holmes.  (Challenging protagonists is key to generating drama–if the protagonist easily outmatches his obstacles, it probably won’t be as interesting as it could be).
  • If a character is a bad fit, he’d have to work harder to overcome obstacles.  For example, Chuck, Bad Company and The Taxman Must Die are about relatively normal people thrust into super-dangerous spy jobs.  The characters’ lack of preparation and personalities help create tension/conflict with teammates and helps writers wring drama out of obstacles that might have been mundane/forgettable for a spy with years of experience.
  • It’s possible to do both.  For example, Dexter is a serial killer that works as a police crime scene analyst.  On one hand, he’s less likely to get caught because he knows what they’re looking for and can sabotage the investigation.  On the other hand, they’re unusually close to him and have started to ask questions about why he misses so much work.

11 responses so far

Sep 19 2011

Problems Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 2

1. Most superheroes commit crimes fairly frequently.  In real life, some crimes that superheroes would probably be charged with include:

  • assault and battery (preemptively attacking criminals in cases where an immediate threat to the public did not exist).
  • reckless endangerment (using superpowers in a way that unintentionally injured bystanders–it’s implausible that most superheroes would be close to 100% accurate with superpowers, particularly if they’ve only recently developed them).
  • child endangerment (using children as sidekicks).
  • evidence tampering (altering/destroying evidence or convincing witnesses to protect the hero’s secret identity).
  • plotting to make and/or possession of weapons of mass destruction (such as a space station with a death ray and probably adamantium claws).


2. A superhero’s ability to collect human intelligence would probably be somewhat limited.  Solving cases more complex than a crime-in-open-view usually requires a lot of time tracking down leads, talking to people and evaluating evidence. In particular, superheroes would probably be at a major disadvantage in convincing reluctant witnesses to come forward because they can’t offer as many incentives for cooperation (like witness protection or legal cooperation in other matters) as the police can.  Also, wearing brightly-colored spandex can make it harder to earn the trust of strangers facing life-or-death situations.  (Fact!)

  • What, if anything, makes your superheroes more effective at solving crimes than the police?  Do they have anything going on besides just getting lucky with stumbling onto crimes in progress?
  • If your criminals are geniuses, do they actually act like geniuses?  (Hint: if they’re committing crimes in open view, probably not).  Does it take any skill to find them?
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17 responses so far

Sep 06 2011

Google Queries (Superhero Teams, “Danger Nut” and Noncombat Options for Superheroes)

Should superhero teams include a flyer?  If you want to, that’s fine.  But flyers aren’t necessary.  I don’t think superhero teams need any particular kind of superhero (although comic book teams might have more visually interesting fights if they have at least one character that can do melee combat–purely ranged combat can get tedious).


What do superheroes need in their lives? Anything interesting.  Here are some possibilities that come to mind:

  • Action that is driven by interesting goals and personality traits.
  • Interesting conflicts, preferably some with characters that aren’t purely unsympathetic.  (For example, in X-Men: First Class, Mystique argues with Beast over Beast’s attempts to cure his mutation, and I don’t think that the writers pushed either position over the other).
  • Unusual decisions.
  • Relationships that influence the plot.
  • Maybe some goals and problems that don’t have much/anything to do with being a superhero—romance is one possibility, but you have a lot of options here.  (For example, in The Incredibles, one of the main problems for Dash was fitting in despite being supernaturally gifted).


How many characters can you introduce in a first chapter?  However many you can develop effectively.  Generally, I wouldn’t recommend introducing  more than 10 named characters or more than 5 major characters in the first 30 pages unless you are confident in your ability to develop interesting characters with relatively few lines.  Gradually introducing characters will generally give you a better chance to develop characters without overwhelming readers.


What games do sailors play?  Danger Nut. In terms of raw peril, it makes Navy football look like a ballet recital.


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8 responses so far

Aug 22 2011

List of Superhero Movie Rotten Tomatoes Scores

If you’ve ever wanted to know which is the best superhero movie or the worst superhero movie ever, I’ve compiled Rotten Tomatoes’ ratings below.  If you’re interested in a comparison of how DC’s movies stack up against Marvel’s, please see this article.

Excel file downloadable here with additional data included. Current as of April 2016.

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5 responses so far

Aug 15 2011

Selecting Effective Superpowers

First, a caveat.  Generally, good superpowers will not save an otherwise poor story and poorly-chosen superpowers probably won’t doom an otherwise good story.  If the characters are a bore and the conflict fizzles, it doesn’t really matter which superpowers they have.


1. I would recommend going with versatile abilities/powers rather than more particular ones.  It’s a lot more creative, memorable and often visually interesting to see a character use his powers in a way that the user’s manual never intended. In contrast, if Superman tries to fly, it’s generally a perfectly smooth operation and his success is never in doubt because he has a power that is good for nothing else but flying.  In contrast, if Yomiko (from Read or Die) tries to fly by using her paper-control abilities to rig together a giant paper airplane, that takes real daring and cunning.  “Do you know how to fly that thing?”  “Uhh, what about the rain?”  “Can your plane withstand gunfire?”  The uncertainty helps make the improvised solution more interesting.


1.1.  I’d like to see the characters in some situations where their powers are not obviously useful.  I think the biggest reason some writers give their characters huge amounts of superpowers (5 or more, let’s say) is that they’re scared that their characters might be caught in a situation that can’t be immediately solved with a superpower. First, it’s more interesting/creative if a character can’t just solve a problem by turning his powers on.  (See Superman vs. Yomiko above). Second, superpowers are only one part of the characters’ capabilities, right?*  It’s okay if they have some problems/situations that have to be resolved by other means.  (When was the last time you read about a wizard that solved all of his problems with magic?)  If the superpowers are the only capability that the superhero uses, I would recommend reconsidering whether you’re neglecting the person behind the mask.


*For example, your characters hopefully have skills, practical life experience (from a job or elsewhere), talents besides superpowers, education, personal strengths, resources/assets, etc. Characters may also be able to leverage their reputation, authority and/or standing among different groups (like the police, criminal groups, the public, etc) in certain situations. For example, if your hero’s been framed as a criminal and her bank account’s been frozen, maybe she can march up to Fast Eddie on the corner and demand the perpetrator’s name and a flamethrower on credit.  It would take one hell of a personality and/or reputation to convince a hardened criminal to cough up a flamethrower with threats.  And she might also need to convince him that she’s likely enough to defeat the perpetrator that the perpetrator won’t come back and kill Fast Eddie for snitching.


2.  An overly complex superpower may detract from the development of the rest of the story.  My rule of thumb is that if a character’s superpowers take more than 1-2 sentences to explain, there’s probably too much going on.  For the most part, time spent explaining superpowers is usually not spent on characterization, transitions/coherence, conflict development, motivations, major choices and other elements that publishers actually care about.  (For example, I’ve seen quite a few publishers specify that they’re looking for believable, consistent and interesting characters–like Dark Horse Comics–but I’ve never seen anybody mention superpowers in the submission guidelines.  They’re just a means to an end–an interesting story–not the end itself).  Alternately, if you want to really delve into the superpowers and you feel like they’re such an interesting component of the story that they warrant that space, you could at least incorporate it into characterization, major choices and the like.  For example, in Bitter Seeds, one protagonist’s powers are bestowed by malevolent spirits that demand gruesome sacrifices.  Understandably, some characters do not take well to this, so the cost of the powers creates an obstacle to team cohesion and friendships/partnerships.


3.  I’d recommend using capabilities appropriate to the story’s tone, style and target audience.  If you’re doing an upbeat kid’s story, you might want to leave the machine guns at home.  (We weep for you, children’s writers).  Personally, I’m using mostly agility-based powers for The Taxman Must Die, an action-comedy that I’d like to keep a pretty soft PG-13.


4.  Can the character be challenged?  For more details on this, I’d recommend checking out How to Save Insufficiently Challenged Heroes (especially #4).


24 responses so far

Jun 28 2011

Good news and bad news for Green Lantern fans

The good news is that Warner Bros. is planning a GL sequel.  The bad news is that the preliminary box-office returns look rough enough (so far) that I do not think the sequel will survive.


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May 22 2011

Some ideas on police standoffs

The New York Times has an article on police standoffs, which I think could be useful if you’re writing a scene where a protagonist deals with something like a hostage situation and/or a barricaded gunman.   For more information on this, I’d recommend checking out Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. For the short version, here are some ideas I’ve gathered along the way:


1.  Even if you want to resolve the hostage situation with protagonists rushing in, negotiation can play a key role.

  • A tactical takedown is more likely to succeed with few casualties if the police have time to prepare.  For example, during the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru, the police prepared by smuggling in communications equipment to hostages (so that they could learn what was going on inside), provided light-colored clothes to the hostages (so they could be easily distinguished), and scheduled their raid at a time when the hostage-takers liked to play soccer and would be away from the hostages.   To practice their strategy, the Peruvian commandos built a scale building of the compound, including the tunnels they had dug to carry out the raid.
  • Often, negotiators can convince the criminals to release some hostages and/or surrender.  (It’s harder for hostage-takers to keep control of large groups of hostages and the police may be willing to offer food and water in exchange for releases, so there is some incentive to release some hostages).  Best case scenario: Armed confrontation isn’t necessary.  Worst case scenario: If the protagonists do need to execute a raid, fewer hostages will be at risk.


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2 responses so far

Apr 13 2011

Superpowers Checklist

1.  Can you explain the character’s powers in 1-2 sentences?

2.  Will you be able to easily challenge this character in a variety of scenes?  (If the character is invulnerable, the answer is probably no, unless you’ve set up challenges besides trying to kill the character.  Source Code was an effective example of that).

3.  Will readers understand what this character can do, or is it just like the author’s making it up as he goes along?  (If the character’s powers have “reality” in the name, it’s probably the latter).

4.  Are the character’s powers versatile?  (If your main character is a superstrong tank or a flying brick, it may help to give him a more exotic side-power to help keep his fights from getting repetitive).

5.  If you’re writing a comic, will this character’s powers give you interesting visuals? (If you’re writing a novel, this isn’t nearly as important).

37 responses so far

Mar 12 2011

Another place to submit your superhero story: Wily Writers

The Wily Writers site is looking for superhero stories between 1000-5000 words. Deadline: April 30, 2011. Thanks, Aponi!

6 responses so far

Jan 25 2011

Two more superhero anthologies are looking for submissions; a third is out!

Writers Wanted

Beta City Anthology is looking for stories of superheroes and/or supervillains staving off an alien invasion.  “The forces attacking from Gehenna are diverse and cosmopolitan, so any alien rabble you can dream up can be used.  Their methods are up to you — classic spacecraft assaults, subtle sorcerous schemes, and unspeakable horrors let loose in dark alleys are all fair game.  Whether your preference leans toward science fiction, fantasy, horror, or something else entirely, your story can find a home here.  Similarly, while we love well-written superpowered action, we don’t want to fill the book entirely with tales of hero vs. alien combat.” Deadline: January 31.

  • I submitted a horror story about the aliens and humans banding together against Canadians, but I haven’t heard back yet.  Too edgy?

Gods of Justice is another superhero anthology looking for submissions.  They’re looking for stories that “can be dramatic, exciting, action-packed, scary, funny, romantic or a combination.”  The protagonists must be superpowered heroes.  Preferred length: ~6500-8000 words.  Deadline: January 2.  [UPDATE: The deadline has passed–I hope you made it!]

If you’re interested in more publishers that print superhero short stories, please see my full list.

Readers Wanted

A Thousand Faces, a quarterly anthology of superhero stories, has its autumn edition out.  Enjoy!

Hat-tip: Matt Adams, whose short story In Memoriam made the Thousand Faces anthology.  Congrats, Matt!

Bartenders Wanted

For every Chicagoan that watched the last Bears game.  Good God, we nearly beat the Packers with a third-string quarterback.  The only person who deserves liquid amnesia more than we do is Brett Favre.  (Too soon?)

10 responses so far

Jan 20 2011

Superheroes and Princesses

Virginia Postrel of the Wall Street Journal offers an interesting comparison: “The princess archetype embodies a feminine version of the appeal… The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ascribes to superheroes. They express the ‘lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves.'”  What do you think? Are the two that comparable? Any other observations, arguments or baseless insults?

20 responses so far

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