Archive for the 'Superhero Weaknesses and Vulnerabilities' Category

May 22 2014

Learning Curves: An Alternative Approach to Superpower Limitation

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.

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.


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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

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

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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348 responses so far