Archive for the 'Superhero Stories' Category

Aug 22 2010

Superhero anthology looking for submissions

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.

Jay Faulkner is looking for superhero story submissions between 2500-8000 words long.  (For longer submissions, query first).

  • Genre: anything with superheroes.  “This can be pure comic-book style heroes, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc but the central theme / characters in the story MUST involve superheroes.”
  • Deadline: October 31, 2010.
  • Pay: none.

Submission details here.  Thanks for pointing this out, Matt.

23 responses so far

Aug 17 2010

At first glance, this superhero “research” looks shamelessly incompetent

In a ScienceDaily article:

Watching superheroes beat up villains may not be the best image for boys to see if society wants to promote kinder, less stereotypical male behaviors, according to psychologists…

“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” said psychologist Sharon Lamb, PhD, distinguished professor of mental health at University of Massachusetts-Boston. “Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”

The comic book heroes of the past did fight criminals, she said, “but these were heroes boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities,” she said.

My initial impression is that this is so luridly off-base I don’t know where to begin.

Continue Reading »

17 responses so far

Aug 13 2010

Pet Peeve: Queries that Name Superpowers with Obscure Prefixes

When you write a proposal/query (or anything else written purely for editors) for your superhero story, you’ll probably write a bit about the main characters’ superpowers.  (1-2 sentences, please).  I highly recommend against looking up a Latin or Greek prefix to name a superpower.  If you had to look up the prefix, chances are the editor doesn’t know it, either.

 

PLEASE REWRITE: “John is a somnikinetic.”
BETTER:  “John can manipulate dreams” or “John can control dreams.”

 

Descriptions with simple English terms are usually more effective than Greek/Latin names because:

  • English words are easier to understand and remember.
  • Most editors haven’t memorized lists of Greek or Latin prefixes/suffixes.
  • Editors should not have to open a dictionary or do a Google search to understand what you’ve written. You’ve got two minutes. Wasting them does not help you.
  • Names based on prefixes can be easily confused with similar prefixes.  For example, a reader might confuse somni- (dreams) with somn- (sleep) or son- (sound). Also, false cognates like “meteoro” (weather, not meteors).
  • It may not be clear how you expect us to translate the word. For example, I’ve seen “kinesis” used as a suffix for “control,” “influence,” “manipulation,” “generation,” as well as its standard meaning, “movement” (for example, telekinesis means “remote movement”).  Will we know which definition you’re going for?
  • In many cases, it is pretentious. (If you had to look it up and/or expect the editor to look up the prefix, it probably is).

 

Depending on the story and character, using prefixes and other jargon in-story may be helpful (e.g. maybe for a more scientific/realistic feel). But that probably isn’t necessary in the query/submission letter or synopsis.  For one thing, the query/submission letter are an introduction aimed at editors that have absolutely no context for your story.  In contrast, by the time your story uses terms like “terrakinetic” or “ocular death-rays,” we’ve probably already seen the character’s powers in action.

 

What do you think?  Do you share this peeve?

6 responses so far

Aug 11 2010

Captain Freedom: A Writer’s Review

Synopsis: Captain Freedom was rough around the edges, but it was clever and funny.  The plot was pretty much an incoherent wreck.  If you liked Soon I Will Be Invincible, I highly recommend Captain Freedom, which put more thought into character-development and world-building.

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No responses yet

Aug 06 2010

Robert Mason’s Idea Bank

Robert Mason is collecting plot ideas in a publically available Idea Bank.  Here’s my contribution: The hero has to stop a plan set in motion by a villain that has already died. How will a flying brick save the day if it’s not clear who needs to be smashed? What good will a psychic be if the main “henchmen” are actually innocent delivery boys that have no idea what they’re delivering?  How can somebody like Jack Bauer stop a villainous plot if there’s nobody left to torture?

No responses yet

Aug 04 2010

Fake Superhero Stories on the Kindle

When I typed “superhero” in the Kindle searcher, there were a LOT of books masquerading as superhero fiction.  Publishing pro tip: if you’re republishing a book like Aesop’s Fables, The Divine Comedy, The Arabian Nights, Tarzan, Best Russian Short Stories, or Hannibal the Conqueror*,  I would highly recommend against selling such books as something they’re not.  Mismarketed sales are far more likely to result in disgruntled customers and awful reviews.

*Unless the elephants know something we don’t.

4 responses so far

Jul 07 2010

Criminal Interviewing Strategies: Probing for Inconsistencies

While a criminal may have put some thought into creating a coherent story that’s hard to disprove, probing questions can move the conversation into areas where he has to make up a lie as he goes along.  The more you push for details, the harder it is to keep up a lie.  Here’s an excerpt of a fictional interview between an investigator and a criminal suspect.

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Jul 04 2010

This superhero anthology looks interesting…

Published by under Superhero Novel

Simon and Shuster is releasing a superhero anthology later this month.  (Hat-tip: SF Signal).  Some of the stories include:

  • “Head Cases blasts through the blogosphere to expose the secret longings of a Lonely Superhero Wife.”
  • “The Non-Event removes the gag order on a super-thief named Lockjaw and pries out a confession of life-altering events.”
  • “Vacuum Lad unveils the secret origins of the first true child of the space age—and disproves the theory that nothing exists in a vacuum.”
  • “A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too) presents a fully-realized vision of a universe where epic feats and tragic flaws have transformed the human race.”

(By the way, when you write summaries of your stories, don’t use these for inspiration.  Besides Head Cases, they’re pretty awful).

One response so far

Jul 01 2010

13-year-old climbs walls Spiderman-style with vaccuum tubes

Published by under News,Superhero Stories

20% of the way to total awesomeness.

  • Climbing
  • Danger-sense
  • Reflexes
  • Strength
  • Webbing

He’s young, though.  Plenty of time to collect the whole set!

3 responses so far

Jun 06 2010

Superhero types and how to distinguish yours (Part 2)

(Part 1 here).

Jekyll and Hydes

  • Most superheroes have two distinct identities, like Batman vs. Bruce Wayne or Ben Grimm the Thing pining vs. Ben Grimm the human. For a Jekyll and Hyde character, the identities are separated not only by a marked physical transformation but also a multiple personality disorder. Sometimes the character shifts between the two states (such as the original J&H and the Hulk, but it was permanent for Dr. Manhattan).
  • Compared to other archetypes, curiosity and/or naiveté usually play a prominent role in the origin story of a Jekyll/Hyde character. For example, Dr. Suresh injects himself with his superserum rather than conduct tests, Jon Ostermann/Dr. Manhattan and Bruce Banner/The Hulk were involved in highly dangerous experimental research, etc.
  • Generally, the character gains his powers unintentionally (either through an accident or as an unintended consequence of a scientific experiment). What if it were intentional? What kind of character would want to do that to himself, and under what (desperate?) circumstances?
  • What causes the character to have separate personalities in each form? The most cliche (read: usually least interesting) explanation is that the transformed form is monstrous and/or bestial, like Hyde or the Hulk. (One of the many problems that might arise out of that is that the dialogue of the transformed form will be pretty dumb). Fortunately, there are fresher alternatives. For example, Dr. Manhattan’s perspective changed considerably when he essentially ascended to godhood, causing him to lose most of his empathy and estrange himself from humanity. What are some other ways a character’s perspective and/or values might change?
  • In most cases, the character is a scientist researching something that man wasn’t supposed to know. So he’s generally responsible for the transformation. What if he’s not? (Maybe he’s an unwilling or unwitting test subject, or he’s a janitor that accidentally triggers the device after-hours). Maybe the process is purely magical/occult rather than scientific.

Continue Reading »

6 responses so far

May 28 2010

What Makes a Superhero Story?

Here are some common characteristics of superhero stories that come to mind.

1.  In most cases, a superhero has an origin story that explains 1) how he goes from ordinary to extraordinary and 2) why he chooses to fight for others. I’ll focus on #1 here.  Most superheroes start in a place where they don’t stick out and only stick out later. For example, Superman and the Martian Manhunter become extraordinary by coming to Earth, where they are aliens.  Peter Parker, Virgil Hawkins and the like are regular people that gain superpowers in various accidents. Superheroes are rarely born extraordinary. In X-Men, most mutations manifest during adolescence rather than at birth. In contrast, Harry Dresden is probably more of an urban fantasy character than a superhero in part because he has always been extraordinary (magical).

 

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30 responses so far

May 20 2010

Superhero types and how to differentiate yours (Part 1)

Students

  • The student/superhero usually goes to A School Just Like Yours for maximum relatability, but sometimes the school is more unusual (for example, superhero academies like the Xavier Institute for mutants or Sky High or the school for supergeniuses that Tony Stark attends in Ultimate Ironman).
  • Whether you go with a typical school or something more extraordinary, I’d definitely recommend differentiating the school if you set any scenes there.  For example, instead of doing just another school, maybe it’s an inner-city school.  Or a school in an area so preposterously wealthy that the kids have plastic surgeons on speed-dial.  Or maybe the petty rivalries between students are notably fierce.  Or maybe the kids are training to lead humanity against the Bug hordes.  Just do SOMETHING with it besides being a default school–otherwise, it probably won’t have very much personality.
  • Similar to the previous point, how do you differentiate your leads from Peter Parker?  What are some conflicts your student characters might have that a character like Peter Parker wouldn’t?
  • In terms of conflicts at school, can you do something fresher than using jocks vs. dorks?  Thanks.  There are so many ways kids split into cliques  and screw each other–surely you can come up with something!  (For example, see Mean Girls or the house system in Harry Potter or mutants vs. humans in X-Men).
  • Student superheroes are probably more prevalent in cartoons (which are usually aimed at something like an 8-13 audience) than superhero comic books (which almost always rely on men aged ~18-30).  If you’re doing a comic book about a student superhero, many (most?) of your prospective readers are probably significantly older than a high school or junior high student.  So just doing a straight-up story about the character getting through high school or maybe even college probably wouldn’t work very effectively for enough people that actually go to comic book stores.  In the world of novels, Ender’s Game and Lord of the Flies successfully retained older readers with stakes that are considerably higher than, say, making the cheerleading squad.

Noble Strangers

  • This is a character whose differentness is a major part of his origin story.  They are often alien or foreign to most of the other characters around them.  For example, Superman and Martian Manhunter are aliens, and Wonder Woman and Black Panther and Aquaman hail from magical Mary Suetopias.
  • The character will usually have either no flaws or subdued flaws.  Are we really supposed to hold it against Superman and Wonder Woman that they are too nonlethal?   Additionally, the character’s native society will usually be utopian.  One alternative would be that he is a refugee (or official/tourist/emissary/field researcher/used ray gun salesman/whatever) from a place that has a lot of shadiness going on, like the imperialist Krypton analogue in Invincible. Adding depth to the society usually makes the stranger more interesting.  Another choice to consider is whether the character is a child or an adult when he leaves his homeland.  I find that it usually says more about the character and his decision to leave if he departs as an adult, but do what fits your story best.  (For example, Superman’s all-American childhood helps give him relatability and ties into his moral decision to become a superhero).
  • Conflict between the noble stranger and the locals (or their values or customs or laws) usually plays a significant part of the plot.  The most cliche way to do this would probably be “KILL THE FOR’NERS!”, but it could be as simple as the locals curtly enforcing a “no shirt, no service” policy.  I’M LOOKING AT YOU, NAMOR.  (AND TRYING NOT TO).
  • On a superhero team, the stranger(s) might conflict with the locals in values or methods.   For example, Superman vs. Batman.
  • Noble strangers don’t usually have much relatability.  One unusual possibility: what if we’re meant to relate more to the stranger than the locals?  Peter Parker is arguably a noble stranger when he’s on the Avengers by virtue of being the only normal guy there.  For more examples of normal characters thrust into strange worlds, please see Avatar, District 9, Dancing with Wolves, Pocahontas, The Taxman Must Die, Escaflowne, Bleach, Inuyasha, etc.

Part 2 here.

10 responses so far

May 15 2010

Heroes and Law & Order cancelled

NBC finally axed two excellent shows that kept going long after the stagecoach reverted into a pumpkin.

From season 2 on, Heroes was a fetid cesspool of contrivances, idiot plots, plot holes, gratuitously bad acting, wildly inconsistent characterization, no compelling villains besides Sylar and a cast that was probably twice as large as it needed to be and definitely twice as large as the writers could handle.  But unquestionably the biggest disappointment was how much the later seasons paled in comparison to season 1. It may be better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, but you have a much better idea of what you’re missing.

Hopefully NBC’s next superhero program, The Cape, will do better.  An honest cop is framed for murder and becomes a superhero to get revenge.  (I suspect that he won’t actually have superpowers, though–among other things, NBC was concerned about Heroes’ large special budget).   The concept sounds forgettable, but I’m (irrationally) hopeful.  I’m excited that the protagonist is trained by a circus gang of bank-robbers.

As for Law and Order, I’m glad it got canceled.  The closest it got to long-term plot development was cast changes.  While that makes it easy to rerun old episodes (because it doesn’t matter whether viewers see the episodes in order), I think that serialized television allows for better character development and the excitement of cliffhangers from one episode to the next.  I think The Wire is an excellent example of that: the show is ridiculously addictive, but you pretty much have to see the episodes in order or you are screwed.

7 responses so far

Sep 07 2009

Kryptonite-style Weaknesses Are Usually a Weak Option

1.  Well-constructed characters generally do not need weaknesses. If you have to resort to something like a vulnerability to Kryptonite or the color yellow or whatever, it’s probably because the character is too powerful to begin with.  Something like Kryptonite is not a satisfying or particularly effective way to resolve that.  For one thing, going from “largely unchallengeable” to “helpless rag-doll” does not make for great fight scenes.  Also, relying on Kryptonite may force writers to pull goofy Kryptonite Ex Machinas where minor criminals somehow acquire rare and random substances.*

*Some Superman stories explain this by having Lex Luthor give Kryptonite out to criminal groups, but it’s incredibly rare.  Why would a random gang have a better chance of killing Superman than his own assassins?

 

2.  Kryptonite-style weaknesses are a bit outdated. In the past twenty or thirty years, there haven’t been many major superheroes that have been successfully introduced with a serious vulnerability to something that’s usually harmless.

 

3.  Rather than using something like Kryptonite to limit your protagonist, I’d recommend limiting his capabilities instead. If the character is practically indestructible and can move as fast as a space shuttle, then you practically have to pull something like Kryptonite out of a hat whenever you want to challenge him.  But the fight scenes are generally more interesting and the character will probably be more relatable if his powers are less impressive to begin with. Over the past thirty years, heroes that are merely somewhat better-than-human (like Wolverine, Batman and Spiderman) have been dominant. Heroes that are so impervious that they need a gimmick weakness have generally not fared as well.

3.1. Another approach would be making the character’s opposition more powerful. As long as the character can be challenged, it’s not a cosmic disaster if he’s essentially a demigod. (That said, unusually powerful characters do raise some obstacles for writers — for example, if you’re writing a character like Batman, you can write interesting scenes with unpowered criminals, but a character like Superman basically forces you to pull out supervillains if you want to do anything. Supervillains usually require more thought/preparation/attention than an unpowered mook would).

 

4.  If you’re deadset on using a vulnerability, I’d recommend using something that is usually dangerous. For example, the Martian Manhunter has sometimes been vulnerable to fire.  That is a lot less goofy than the Green Lantern’s one-time vulnerability to the color yellow or wood. Alternately, if you’d like to try something creative, I’d recommend looking at things that are plausibly dangerous for someone with his powers.  For example, someone with particularly good hearing might be sensitive to loud sounds.  Someone with psychic abilities might be vulnerable to anything that disrupts his concentration.

 

5. If you’re deadset on using a Kryptonite-style weakness, I’d recommend having it be merely damaging rather than incapacitating. As noted above, if the protagonist is limping around like a rag doll after getting poisoned by Kryptonite, that really limits your opportunities for fight scenes and other interesting sequences. One alternative would be having the weakness temporarily disable the character’s powers. The character would still be very vulnerable without his powers, but at least he’d be able to try to do something. (For example, you might have him fight an unpowered battle against low-level mooks or do an escape scene where he tries to get away from a superpowered villain that is far too tough for him at the moment).

57 responses so far

May 14 2009

Do superheroes sell better in recessions?

CNN published an article titled “Superheroes rise in tough times,” which claims that superhero stories are most popular during rough economic times.  It’s a plausible theory, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

May 04 2009

How to Handle Politics & Messages Without Infuriating Readers

Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine did an article on the role of politics in superhero stories.

 

It describes an interesting phenomenon: how superhero stories can brazenly delve into political issues without turning off at least half of the audience.   For example, The Dark Knight and Ironman and Team America all brought up political issues without infuriating either conservatives or liberals.  In contrast, political polemicists like Michael Moore and Ann Coulter can’t even blink without angering the other side.

 

How is it that superhero stories can do what political writers can’t?  Here are some explanations.

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10 responses so far

Apr 18 2009

How would you fix this book?

Today, I came across a self-published book called Superhumans.

Here’s what it says on the back-cover:

Seth, a college student, is accidentally exposed to an experiment that gives him incredible powers. When he and his friend, Chip, try to unravel its secrets, they discover a threat to the world unlike any other. And soon, Seth will find himself faced with one obstacle after another as he tries to live a normal life with the woman he lives and their daughter.

I’ve posted the first page below the jump.  If you’d like a writing exercise today, please rewrite the first two paragraphs of the chapter so that they’re interesting.

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20 responses so far

Apr 10 2009

An interesting twist on a stale character concept?

Many (if not most) magical superheroes have day jobs as stage magicians.  (Zatara, Mandrake the Magician, Mr. Mystic, etc).  It’s a stale and completely obvious choice for a day job.  So I decided to do a fresh concept for a magical superhero.  By night, he’s a genuine sorcerer.  By day, he works to disprove supernatural claims, like James Randi.  I think it would be fairly amusing for a sorcerer to resort to nonmagical parlor tricks to convince the masses that what they saw was not, in fact, a magical fireball.  (Umm… perhaps it was a steam pipe malfunction?)

2 responses so far

Apr 09 2009

How to Challenge Superhero Teams with Lone Villains

Superhero teams quite often go up against a lone villain.  Realistically, the Fantastic Four (or your version thereof) should easily be able to squish Doctor Doom (or the lone villain of your choice).

But that would be boring. Here are several ways to make it seem like a lone villain actually has a chance of winning.

1. Use minions.  Technically, this is cheating, but I won’t tell if you don’t.  You can always have your heroes fight your villain, and in between hundreds of nameless, faceless villains get in the way.  The best example of this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Whilst they battle Shredder about 100 Foot Clan warriors usually jump in.

2. Give your heroes something else to do.  Defuse a bomb, free the hostages, stop the plane from crashing… if there is something else needing done, you can safely split your hero team, making it more plausible for your villain to win.  This also raises the excitement level by bringing in time limits.

3. Make your villain AWESOME.  What do I mean by awesome?  Simple.  Make your villain Neo from the third Matrix film, so ridiculously powerful that hundreds of Agent Smiths are required to do battle with him.  The downside to this is that when your heroes do win, it may look contrived.

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28 responses so far

Jan 29 2009

The Cardinals will win the Super Bowl because Kurt Warner is a superpowered killing machine

Published by under Comedy,Football,Heroes,Sports

I’ve noticed some uncanny similarities between Kurt Warner (Arizona’s quarterback) and Sylar from Heroes.

  1. One has spent the better part of a season mangling his enemies in spectacularly gruesome fashions.  The other is a serial killer.
  2. One wears white and red.  The other is white and usually spattered in red.
  3. Sylar has superpowers that allow him to avoid any lasting injuries. Warner doesn’t need superpowers.

How does Larry Fitzgerald make all those crazy catches? Because he knows that if he drops a pass, his head is gone.

One response so far

Jan 26 2009

“Ma’am, your son’s been murdered.”

CNN just did a piece on how cops break the news that someone’s loved one has been murdered.  I think the article is an especially useful resource for the authors of superhero stories because a lot of superheroes get so caught up in their superhero identities that regular people are essentially cut from the story.  For example, on Heroes normal people are sometimes used as props or plot devices, but they never get any important lines.   (Also, the characters haven’t had real jobs since season 1, and all of the recurring characters have superpowers now. Even Suresh and Ando!)

Although breaking tragic news to a spouse might get too angsty, I suspect that an author could play it quietly to add emotional depth to the superhero.  One of the things that annoyed me about Bruce Wayne/Batman is that he’s so socially retarded that it seems like he doesn’t care about anyone else.  Beating the hell out of bad guys is fine, but that’s just revenge for Batman.  If your hero is supposed to be likable, you might want to show that he’s at least trying to empathize with regular people.  I’d recommend having him stumble awkwardly in the conversation, though.  I think the scene depends on the awkwardness of the hero being thrust into a new role that’s hard even for professional chaplains.

What do you think?

2 responses so far

Jan 05 2009

What are some common mistakes of comic book and graphic novel teams?

We’re compiling a list of common mistakes of first-time comic book teams. I’ve got 40 so far, but I’d love to know what you would come up with.

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32 responses so far

Jan 01 2009

Some of the Differences Between Writing Comic Books and Novels

  1. Novels are overwhelmingly word-driven.  In contrast, the primary tool of a comic book writer is visual imagery.  Words are a secondary tool to express what can’t be shown visually.  Comic book readers are annoyed by long blocks of text.  As a rule, I’d recommend limiting a page to 175 words of text for an adult audience.
  2. Novels will usually describe the settings and what’s going on in the background at some length.  In comic books, those worldbuilding details are almost purely visual.
  3. Every novel relies on a narrator.  In contrast, virtually every comic book avoids narration and instead tells the story with a combination of action, visual scenery, and dialogue (in roughly that order).   A comic book narrator may offer us little snippets of information like “FIVE MINUTES LATER…” but it’s not very interesting or smooth for him to drop paragraphs of information on us.
  4. Novels are much longer (60,000-80,000 words vs. 2500-5000 and ~300 pages vs. ~24).  As a result, novels tend to focus more on dialogue and low-intensity scenes than action sequences, particularly combat.  A 24 page comic book might spend 10 pages on 2 fights, but a 300 page novel probably wouldn’t come close to 120 pages of fighting or 25 fights.   Having that many fights would get tedious.  Also, novel fight scenes tend to suck.  If readers wanted to see a rolling fight scene, they would go for a comic book or, more likely, an action movie.
  5. Novel readers (particularly adults) tend to expect deeper characterization, fresher characters and more interesting relationships.  Character growth is far more important in a novel than a comic book.  If the main character has not changed or grown in some way over the course of the novel, readers are likely to feel dissatisfied.  In contrast, a character like Superman tends to change very little over the course of a comic book series.

One response so far

Dec 16 2008

Our visual approach to dialogue is getting more stylish

Let’s see if this works…
Continue Reading »

One response so far

Oct 12 2008

Alaska Ethics Commission Reports: Palin Fired Matt Parkman!

The New York Times confirms that the Alaskan state trooper in “Troopergate” is actually Matt Parkman, a former police officer best known for his psychic abilities and contributing to the rampant power inflation in the second season of Heroes.  She probably had him fired after he tried to give her some of the African crazy-beans that he’s been gorging on for the last two episodes.  “They’ll let you see the future!”  Riiiiight.

One response so far

Sep 27 2008

Heroes’ season-premiere was worse than season 2

Published by under Heroes,TV Review

Apparently I’m not the only one that thinks it’s past its sell-by date.

Hoping that the show would overcome its second-season slump, I watched the third-season premiere.  It was ridiculously bad… even worse than last season.  Here are some spoiler-heavy observations…

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7 responses so far

Sep 20 2008

Heroes jumps the shark… again

The creator of Heroes said

In the second season I think we had some interesting things happen. You can’t really plan for the audience’s reaction to things and one of the things we found out was that the audience did not want to start slowly and build.

First, the show has been going on for two seasons.  Why does an action show need so much time to develop a plot that is far less complicated than Battlestar Galactica or Eureka?  Second, after introducing 10+ recurring characters in the first season, did Heroes really need to introduce another 5-10 characters?  No.

Finally, it seems that what we’re building up to is what they already did last season: a loosely linked assortment of heroes has to save the world from Something Really Bad.  That’s a premise that doesn’t lend itself well to repeats and tweaks.  The coincidences and contrivances were strained enough the first time, but it only gets worse as more and more characters have to be drawn into a badly uncohesive plot.

What I liked about the first season was the development of Hiro from a scarcely comprehensible desk-jockey into someone that could almost be confused for a badass geek.  Now Hiro has disappeared 500+ years into the past and we’re left with Peter (who makes Keanu Reeves look like a thespian) and a bunch of characters that have added virtually nothing to what the show has already done.   Add the crazy contrivances that Davis listed here and you get a show that’s at least half a season past watchable.  Unfortunately, it looks like the creator doesn’t have a clue what’s wrong.

No responses yet

Sep 19 2008

Creating Weaknesses for Your Superheroes

Writers sometimes add unique weaknesses to challenge their heroes or rein in heroes that have gotten overpowered. For example, Superman has kryptonite and for a while Green Lantern’s powers couldn’t affect anything yellow.  Those two feel gimmicky.  The powers don’t work on yellow? How does that work?   Why would anyone be vulnerable to his own planet?  Etc.

A better example of a unique weakness is the Martian Manhunter’s vulnerability to fire.  It doesn’t feel arbitrary that fire might damage something.  Unlike yellow or kryptonite, fire is dangerous to most living things.  Compared to kryptonite, something generic like fire has the added advantages that it’s easier to acquire and use.

Other authors sometimes use completely innocuous weaknesses, but that’s tricky and usually contrived.  Let’s say your hero is vulnerable to marshmallows.  You’d probably have to come up with a (goofy) explanation for his weakness, then show that he somehow discovers that he’s weak against them, and then show that the supervillain somehow discovers it as well.  Generally, it’s easier to work with weaknesses that are plausible and logical.  That helps you avoid relying on ridiculous contrivances to explain how the villain discovers the weakness.  (You could work something like fire into a fight scene even if the villain doesn’t know it’s his weakness.  I don’t think you could do the same for marshmallows).

I think the best weaknesses are side-effects of the hero’s strengths.  For example, a hero with supersight might be vulnerable to intense light.  Someone with superhearing might be vulnerable to loud sound.  One advantage of these weaknesses are that you can work them into secret-identity stories.  Clark Kent isn’t likely to run into kryptonite when he’s having dinner with Lois, but he might get a migraine when a jet flies overhead.  Here are some other possibilities.

  • Superstrong heroes are probably too dense to have much buoyancy.  That would make it very difficult for them to fight in water– even treading would be a tremendous struggle for someone like the Hulk, let alone Ben Grimm or Slate.  If your villain needed to escape, he could take advantage of this by flooding the room with water, knowing that he will float upwards but that the hero will sink.
  • Super-fast characters would create a lot of friction when they run.  A supervillain might try to take advantage of that by dousing the room with a flammable oil (so that the friction will set him on fire) or anything slippery.  However, the slippery angle has already been used fairly extensively.
  • A psychic’s powers would probably require more concentration than physical powers.  A supervillain might try to take advantage of that by flooding the room with a weak tranquilizer gas to make it harder to concentrate.  Loud noises might also work.  Finally, if the villain sets distractions before his final plot is set to go off, the hero might be completely exhausted and badly in need of sleep when the final battle commences.
  • Someone that wears a powersuit is probably not very dexterous or precise when he has his armor on.  A villain may be able to trick him into taking off his suit (or at least parts of it) by planting a bomb.  I doubt anyone could manually defuse a bomb with metal gloves on.  Alternately, your villain might also try using a powerful magnet to reduce his mobility or an electromagnetic pulse to fry his circuits.
  • Unlike humans, most terrestrial animals cannot metabolize alcohol.  If your character is not human (like Superman), he might not be able to either.  That could easily lead to interesting social situations.  Additionally, you could probably work it in as an ingestible poison.  It would be much less incriminating to have an assassin armed with Bud-Lite than cyanide…
  • Capture the hero’s girlfriend.  Add an explosive booby trap.  Voila!  Instant trap.  Ideally that will kill the hero, but the worst-case scenario is that it kills the girlfriend, leaving the hero in an emo funk for years to come.

Alternately, you can try a quirky vulnerability to Kryptonite or something else that isn’t usually dangerous.  If you’re leaning that way, please see this cautionary article.

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Sep 17 2008

Wired Ranks the 7 Worst Superhero Names

Published by under Superhero Stories

I’m pleased that they didn’t miss She-Hulk.  You can see the follow-up article here.

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Sep 05 2008

John August on Coincidences in Fiction

John August did a post on writing a plot that isn’t contrived.  He focused on the role of coincidence. I found it highly useful…

Given a choice, try to find cause and effect. One event happens because of something else we’ve seen — ideally, something the hero himself has done.

Instead of having the hero accidentally overhear a key conversation, get him actively trying to listen. Or have an interested third party steer him in that direction — perhaps for his own reasons. At every juncture where a reader could ask “Why did that happen?”, try to have an answer that isn’t, “just because.”

CADET DAVIS ADDS: The most contrived plot I can think of is Heroes season 2.  Please consider the following…

  1. In the last two minutes of the first season, Sylar is nearly killed by a crowd of ten heroes but somehow slinks away into a sewer.  No one, including a psychopathic MPD victim or the police officer who was seriously wounded by Sylar, thinks to make sure that he’s dead or otherwise accounted for.
  2. The Company captures Sylar and keeps the formerly-superpowered serial killer in a zero-security facility with a single attendant that is tasked with restoring Sylar’s powers. There’s no reason to suspect that Sylar would have made a good employee under any circumstances, but how were they hoping that this would turn out?
  3. Sylar kills the attendant and walks out of the facility.  He tries to return to the US to find Suresh, but he drops of famine along the side of the road.  The first person to come across him is Maya, another superpowered person that’s looking for Dr. Suresh’s father.  What a lucky break!  Sure, why not come along?
  4. In spite of being wanted for murder and presumably not wanting to attract suspicion, Maya and her brother take Sylar along.  Do not pay attention to the gringo in the back seat!
  5. Peter’s failure to consider the possibility that Adam is evil starts out as implausible and gets so unbelievable that it strains the suspension of disbelief.  Peter knows the following facts:  The Company has held the virus for 30+ years without using it.  Shortly after Adam escapes, the virus is unleashed.  If you’re wondering whether Adam’s escape is related to the release of the virus, you’re already 5 episodes smarter than Peter.

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