Archive for the 'Writing Superhero Stories' 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.


4 responses so far

Apr 28 2013

How Power Levels Affect Your Story

Published by under Superpowers

When mapping out any kind of superheroic narrative, a consideration has to be made that is not often an aspect of other types of stories, and by that I mean you have to determine power level, or maybe we should say Power Level, since so many superheroic concepts work better with capitals.


This is not just a concern of traditional “long underwear” types of superhero stories either. Really, any story in which characters are differentiated from the usual run of people in their setting by powers above and beyond the norm can be termed a superhero story. This can be a movie script, a story or novel, a comic, or even a roleplaying game. Before you ever start plotting, you should decide on what kinds of power level your characters will transact, and that starts with the setting itself.


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42 responses so far

Nov 10 2012

Tips for Writing Superhero Ensembles and Superhero Teams

1. I think the most important aspect is to develop your characters beyond one-dimensional cliches. Generally speaking, a few interesting characters will excite readers much more than many not-so-interesting characters would. Unless you’re doing children’s television, I’d recommend against a Power-Rangers-style setup where the members on a team have a single trait. For example, if your team consists of characters who have nothing going on besides a single trait/archetype (e.g. a hothead, a curious scientist, and an immature joker in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), it’s probably less promising than it could be. In contrast, Tony Stark had all of those traits and I think it both made him a deeper and more interesting character while enhancing his dramatic possibilities with other characters (especially in Avengers). For example, Tony Stark’s curiosity combines with his lack of restraint when he decides to cattle-prod Bruce Banner to see if Banner has the Hulk situation under control. Batman’s preparation and paranoia come together in Justice League when he pulls out Kryptonite against a enemy and cryptically says he had it on hand as an “insurance policy.” In contrast, I think there are only two types of scenes between Raphael the hothead and Leonardo the hardass leader (scenes where they hate each other and scenes where they don’t). There’s only so many ways you can have characters act out a single trait with each other.



2. Another problem I’ve seen occasionally is where large superhero teams cut the roles too fine. I’ve seen 3-page synopses for stories which have (say) 8+ characters and half of the characters only get a line of description along the lines of “Avatar has fire powers and defends the base” or “Gridley is incredibly intelligent and is the team’s hacker” or whatever. I would recommend making your characters more versatile than that. For example, pretty much any superhero can defend the base–if base-defense is plot-relevant, just rotate that task among the notable characters or delegate it to a faceless extra that won’t take much space, but please don’t just randomly insert a character that will take space without actually getting to be interesting (or at least develop more interesting characters).

For example, let’s say a team has a scientist, a hacker, a soldier, an explosives expert, an outdoorsman/hunter, a negotiator, and a criminal. I think the most intuitive (though not necessarily best) approach would be to merge some of the characters (e.g. a scientist/hacker, a soldier with a background in wilderness recon and explosives, and a silver-tongued criminal). However, you can mix and match pretty much any of these archetypes into more promising combinations. For example, you could have a criminal scientist, a USAF hacker, a survivalist that knows far more about bombs than he can admit to, and a negotiator that enjoys coercion and/or blackmail far too much. Or a scientist that’s fascinated by explosions, a military hostage-negotiator (or a special forces operative with really good people skills), and a frightfully competent hunter/poacher who’s been coerced by the authorities into helping them catch the antagonist, etc.  Hell, if you wanted to, you could probably combine most of all of those characters into 1-2 characters (e.g. a spy with both electronic and physical skills whose main job is tracking down a target and either convincing him to defect or eliminating him).


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86 responses so far

Aug 09 2012

Character Questionnaire: How Would Your Characters Handle These Situations?

Shannah McGill has a character questionnaire based on character actions rather than character traits.


I would add the following situations:

  • The character’s lover or trusted friend does something which raises questions of fidelity. The Incredibles, for example.
  • The character’s main goal is irrevocably lost. See the first ten minutes of Up, for example.
  • The character is badly failed by the legal system and/or is involved in a situation where the legal system badly fails another character. See Gone Baby Gone and The Incredibles, for example.
  • The character is in a situation where his preferred approach is totally unworkable. For example, if someone like The Hulk were facing a hostage situation with multiple gunmen, running in will get a lot of civilians killed.
  • A movie or reality TV series is made about the character.
  • The National Enquirer publishes wild (and perhaps mostly-accurate) stories about the character.
  • A disgruntled ex goes public. Bonus points if the ex was driven away by a major decision of the main character (or vice versa), rather than the ex just being generically crazy and/or vengeful.
  • The character is forced to deal with two extremely urgent problems at the same time.  Bonus points if he deals first with the problem that most readers wouldn’t.
  • A competition begins with a much more competent rival.
  • The character is abducted by Canadians and/or aliens.
  • For social and/or career reasons, the character has to fake enthusiasm and/or knowledge during a high-stakes situation. (For example, the character is excited when ESPN offers him a commentating gig, but it’s an ESPN2 program on melon-tossing, synchronized shuffleboard, or soccer).
  • The character sees three police cruisers parked outside of his house. Or a tank.  Bonus points if his/her response is not to immediately turn around.
  • The character has to offer advice in a field where he/she is extremely unqualified. For example, helping a child with homework in long-forgotten subjects or providing life advice in an area where the character has been unusually unsuccessful. “Don’t get cocky, kid.”  Bonus points if the character does not immediately realize he is in over his head.
  • The character faces opposition from a totally unfamiliar sphere. For example, someone like Spider-Man facing off against a super-commando or someone like Wolverine facing off against a journalist.
  • A parent commits adultery. (Hat tip: CW in the comments).
  • Finding out that the true enemy is someone that has been relatively close. (Hat tip: CW).
  • The character is hunted by a supernatural police group. (Hat tip: CW).  Alternately, perhaps the character gets involved in the supernatural equivalent of a lawsuit, a custody case, marital/family counseling, conscription/drafting, the Inquisition, a court-martial, a divorce, an election or caucus, a citizenship/immigration issue, jury duty, a neighborhood spat that starts with something random like dog droppings and gets really heated, a predatorial lender trying to collect on loans or library late fees, a strike, bounty-hunting/subpoena-serving, or the mother of all speeding tickets. (The space police and/or Bureau of Dragon Licensing can ticket me all they want, but they have to catch me first–giddyup, Smaug).
  • The character needs to remove himself/herself from consideration for a promotion or assignment without damaging his/her position at the company.
  • The character does not know why (and preferably has trouble figuring out why), but a really respected and/or feared person has suddenly turned on him/her in a major way. This is one way of fleshing out unforeseen consequences to the main characters’ decisions–they might antagonize characters for whatever reason (e.g. arresting one minor villain might anger superheroes working a much bigger case against an elite villain). Bonus points if the decision was intelligent when it was made.
  • The character has a burning desire to accomplish a goal tragically and/or hilariously at odds with his background, like a rat dreaming of being a 4-star chef, a deaf-dumb-and-blind kid ravaging the pinball scene, or Dan “Potatoe” Quayle/”Mojo Slow Joe” Biden running for President. Bonus points if the character’s limitations are depicted in at least a semi-realistic way–the character’s triumphs and defeats will be more satisfying the more we see him/her struggle.
  • The character needs to leave a company or organization without nuking bridges there, but the company is very concerned about loose ends. What does the character need to do to reassure them? Does the company put any restrictions in place (e.g. the supernatural equivalent of a non-compete clause)?  Does the organization have methods other than killing and/or threatening to kill anybody that wants to leave?
  • The character used to be great at something, but is declining (preferably in a long-term situation not easily undone). For example, it is exceedingly rare to see superhero stories seriously deal with aging*–For one alternative, I really like Batman Beyond’s take. (Alternately, perhaps the characters aren’t notably old, but their capabilities fade. “House of M,” for example). *99% of superheroes embody youth and stamina–it’s part of the fantasy appeal.

26 responses so far

Jul 24 2012

Common Pitfalls and Cliches for Superhero Teams

1. Superheroines who only serve as a love interest. Do this thought experiment: if you had to cut all of the romances in your book, are there any characters you’d want to remove? If so, I would recommend that you give those characters more to do and flesh out their conflicts, personalities, and goals/motivations. Giving the character some unique purpose independent of romance will make the character a more compelling love interest and, more importantly, a more compelling character. I’d recommend checking out Mystique, Black Widow and Elastigirl here.

  • RED FLAG: The character doesn’t talk about things besides romance and/or have a notable effect on how the main characters approach the central plot. (For example, a three-dimensional character might have conflicts with other characters about a major goal, whereas a trophy love interest usually goes along with other characters on how to deal with the supervillain).


2. Characters with one-dimensional personalities. If 90%+ of a character’s personality can be summarized in a single idea (e.g. “super-soldier” or “nice guy” or “angry/vengeful”), I would really recommend going back to the drawing board and making the character unexpected in some way. For example, Tony Stark isn’t just another super-scientist. Yes, he’s brilliant, but he’s also charming and his main flaw is a lack of restraint. That makes him more memorable than another brilliant-awkward-meek scientist.


3. The tank. If a character’s main role in combat is rushing at the enemy, I would recommend mixing in at least some minor powers so that the character’s fights will be less monotonous.


4. The brat. This character, possibly a child, rarely has much impact on the plot besides complaining, getting kidnapped, and/or drawing the useful characters into trouble. If you have a character who exhibits these negative/annoying tendencies, please balance it with something useful he brings to the table. For example, the Incredibles’ Dash actually helped out in fights, required little hand-holding from adult characters, and made fewer grossly stupid/irresponsible decisions than, say, Hal Jordan in Green Lantern. In contrast, Scrappy Doo was inept comic relief largely unable to contribute to the team accomplishing its goals. In The Taxman Must Die, the intern* is a bit more morally and legally flexible than most of the main characters (federal agents), and a budding Moriarty can find a role in a story about superpowered shenanigans.

*He’s also the nephew of a main character, but the nephew vehemently denies that this is relevant to his landing a federal internship in grade school.


5. I would recommend against individual capabilities which overlap too much. For example, it’d probably be easier to find a distinct role for Robin if he had some capabilities that Batman didn’t.

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43 responses so far

Jul 24 2012

Iron Man Virus Hits Iran?

Hackers with a Stark-like appreciation for AC/DC have apparently let Iran know about their musical tastes. “[Iranian nuclear facilities] have been hit again by a bizarre attack forcing nuclear plant workstations to pump the song Thunderstruck by heavy metal band AC/DC through the speakers at full volume.”  Among other things, this would suggest that the scene in Avengers where Tony Stark hijacks the PA system on a helicopter (to blare AC/DC) is plausible.

4 responses so far

Jul 21 2012

Tips on Writing a Superhero Team

1. I’d like to see each of the following from ideally every superhero on a team:

  • A personality, including at least one notable flaw.
  • At least one unusual decision, ideally one which reinforces something unique about the character. For example, Stark is less socially restrained and more curious than anybody else on the Avengers, so it makes sense that he cattle-prods Bruce Banner to test whether Banner will turn into the Hulk. If you’re having trouble giving characters unusual decisions, the characters probably do not have sufficiently distinct personalities yet.  Additionally, each unusual decision should have some consequences for the plot and/or character development. Cattle-prodding Banner creates conflict between Stark and the more polite Captain America and helps develop Banner’s limits.
  • Individual goals and motivations. Hopefully, these contribute to some protagonist-vs-protagonist conflict. For example, see Beast-Mystique and Magneto-Xavier in X-Men: First Class.
  • A notable relationship with at least one other team member and ideally some effect on a relationship between two other team members. (For example, Magneto’s relationship with Mystique drives a wedge between Mystique and Beast and Bruce Banner’s treatment at the hands of Tony Stark builds a conflict between Stark and Captain America in Avengers).
  • Some role in the story besides just 1) superpowers and/or 2) being a love interest. If the only thing the character brings to the story is his superpowers, you’d probably be better off either fleshing out the character’s personality more and/or moving the superpowers to a character that’s actually interesting.


2. It’s not necessary to cover individual origin stories or the formation of the team, as long as we see motivations and character development elsewhere. Some common setups here:

  1. The members develop superpowers (usually because of the same cause) and/or form the team (usually because of a common threat/enemy, opportunity or interest)–e.g. most superhero movies.
  2. A single character (usually the main character) joins an already-established team–e.g. Soon I Will Be Invincible.
  3. The team is already established and we instead start with a new mission or problem confronting the team.
  4. The main character interacts with the superhero team, but isn’t actually on it–e.g. Bob Moore: No Hero.


3. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a superhero team is space considerations. Here are some ways to save space.  
  • You will probably have less space for side-characters outside the team. In the interest of saving space, I would generally recommend versatile side-characters that can interact with most of the teammates rather than side-characters that are limited to interacting with just one or two of them. For example, how many interesting moments has Alicia Masters had with anybody besides the Thing?
  • Giving antagonists less screen-time and relatively simple schemes will probably help. If you’re deadset on major antagonist-on-antagonist conflict (a la Dark Knight), I’d recommend going with 1-2 superheroes.
  • Splitting a large superhero team into separate squads can make scenes more efficient.
  • Eschewing secret identities. With really large teams, I’d be careful with alternate names altogether (even if the second name is public, like Ben Grimm and The Thing). If you have 10+ names for 5+ characters, it will probably surprise you how many of your readers cannot reliably remember who is who.


4. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to quickly develop a large cast, I’d recommend using 2-4 superheroes on the main team. The most common problem I see with superhero team stories is that the characters are too one-dimensional. Eliminating and/or merging characters will help buy you time to develop the remaining characters and make them more interesting. If you are absolutely sure you want more, make sure that each character contributes enough to the plot to warrant his/her space.

47 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Learning Writing Skills from X-Men: First Class

(Please see the movie before reading this review).


1. A lot of the relationships really work, but the characterization would likely have been stronger if several characters had been removed. In particular, I think Xavier-Magneto and Hank-Mystique-Magneto alone were worth the price of admission. In the ten-minute training sequence, we see some really interesting threads, but they aren’t explored as fully as they could have been–for example, there’s a hilarious bit where Xavier and Hank only barely trust Havoc’s accuracy, but nobody ever mentions his accuracy again after that. Instead of having him prove his accuracy by shooting down Angel later on, it might have helped to force him to try a highly-dangerous trick shot to save an ally. Havoc gets a few lines being an ass to Beast, but again it didn’t really go anywhere. Cutting some of the minor characters might have helped buy more time for these plot threads to develop. Between Darwin, Angel, Havok, Banshee, Riptide (the unnamed tornado villain), Azazel (the demonic villain) and maybe Moira, 4-6 could have been easily removed.  In particular, introducing Darwin just to kill him immediately strikes me as a waste–he didn’t make enough of an impression for people to care about his death.


2. Notably, action plays a secondary role to character development. If you’re writing a superhero story which isn’t mainly about combat, I think First Class is probably the most helpful example from Hollywood so far.  I would definitely look at how the characters interact, how character traits are developed, and whether you would have subtracted and/or added characters.


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20 responses so far

Jul 12 2012

Great Reasons to Consider Skipping Over a Superhero Origin Story

Here are some signs it might be best to spend 0-2 sentences covering an origin story (how a character becomes superpowered and/or why he becomes a superhero).


1. The origin story doesn’t do much to develop characters, conflicts or the setting. For example, Superman’s origin story doesn’t do much to build up his distinguishing traits. Additionally, in most cases his backstory doesn’t do a great job setting up the conflict. In contrast, it’d be relatively difficult to tell a story like X-Men unless we had some idea what mutants were.


2. There are many superpowered characters and developing each individual origin would be too inefficient and/or incoherent. If you were inclined to, you could do a mass origin (e.g. X-Men or Wild Cards) and/or describe how the team forms rather than how the characters developed their superpowers. Neither of these alternatives is necessary, though—if the teammates’ interactions in the present develop the characters and establish their motivations, we don’t need to know the events leading up to them becoming a team.  (Similarly, in most stories about police departments and military units, most of the teammates have been teammates for some time).


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7 responses so far

Jul 10 2012

Real-Life Superpowers: Immunity to Poisons

The Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins (a delightful concept for a scholarly publication, by the way) reported that American opossums produce a protein which leaves them immune to normally-lethal venoms, from sources such as:

  • Cobras, taipans and rattlesnakes, including species they have not encountered in the wild.
  • Ricin
  • Congress
  • Botulinum toxin

Since protein production is directed by genes, a capability like this might be interesting if you’re writing a genetically-engineered superhero or villain.

12 responses so far

Jan 31 2012

Creative Ways to Use Supersenses

Published by under Superpowers,Supersenses

I wouldn’t recommend giving your characters supersenses unless they develop a character and/or serve an important plot purpose.  Otherwise, they’re probably wasted space.


1. You can use supersenses to develop an unusual point of view.  For example, maybe a nonhuman is supernaturally talented at perceiving something highly relevant to his species and/or culture.  (E.g. if an alien comes from a desert world, maybe he’s supernaturally aware of temperature and moisture and can apply those to social interactions—a human’s body temperature increases in stressful situations, for example).   Alternately, perhaps the character is a skilled hunter (e.g. Wolverine).  A musically-inclined characters might be able to hear emotions in a character’s voice that most people couldn’t, which may be useful in high-stakes social situations.


1.1. If the character has developed superpowers fairly recently, he/she may be blown away by extremely strong sensory experiences.  That is one possible way to show how a character’s superpowers affect his/her perspective.  Hat-tip to R.G. in the comments below.


2. You can do a scene or plot arc that hinges on only one character perceiving something.  For example, Daredevil’s senses allow him to figure out who’s lying pretty quickly, but he still has to prove it to actually break the case.  Alternately, you could do a plot where only one character can perceive a particular threat and needs to either deal with it himself or convince others that he’s not crazy.


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5 responses so far

Jan 02 2012

Please Don’t Write a Story *About* Superpowers

Published by under Superpowers

Instead of a story about superpowers, please write a story about characters who have them. The superpowers are just a means to an end (a dramatic plot and interesting characters).  Rather than worrying too much about the superpowers themselves, which I think is usually a waste of time, please worry more about the characters and the plotting, which ultimately matter a lot more.  Specifically:

  • The characters’ personalities and key traits.  (Red flag: the synopsis for the book spends more time covering the character’s superpowers than their personalities).
  • Their goals.
  • Their unusual decisions.  What are some things the protagonists do that most other protagonists wouldn’t do in the same situation?
  • Their voices.
  • The scenes the characters use the superpowers in.
  • Secondarily, any unique touches on your superpowers and how you portray them.

One response so far

Oct 31 2011

5 Things About Your Superhero Story You Might Be Wasting Time On

Published by under Superpowers

Some authors spend too much time thinking about and writing about story elements that are not particularly important to getting published.  Please don’t get bogged down in any of these time sinks.


1.  Names of characters and teams/organizations.  Character names are pretty easy to change, so publishers probably won’t reject an otherwise publishable manuscript because the names aren’t good enough.  Nor would I expect incredible names to convince a publisher to accept a manuscript that would otherwise have been unpublishable.


If you’re worried about the names in your story, I’d recommend using generic placeholders until something you like better comes to mind.   (Your dissatisfaction will force you to come up with a better name if you have to write John Smith or Super-Lad hundreds of times).


1.1. Copyright considerations, particularly related to names.  If the issue is just that your character has the same name as a fairly obscure Marvel or DC hero, that is probably not a huge problem (especially if you’re submitting a novel manuscript rather than a comic book).  Your eventual publisher might ask you to change the name, but that’s such an easy change that it would not scare away publishers from an otherwise publishable manuscript. However, publishers might pass if the copyright issues are more integral to the plot and cannot be changed as easily, particularly if the concept is very similar to a well-known character.  The easier it would be to change, the less likely it is to scare publishers.


2.  Superpower selection.  If you stay away from superpowers that make it too hard to challenge the characters, pretty much everything else can work.  The story will be a bit easier to write if the superpowers are versatile and it’ll be a bit easier to read if the powers require little explanation.  Besides that, I don’t think superpower selection matters very much.  It probably won’t make the difference between a story that’s worth reading and one that isn’t.


I’d recommend focusing more on how to use the powers to create an interesting story.   For example…

  • What are some ways you could use your story’s powers to create interesting experiences?  (For example, maybe John gets hit in the face by Kansas at a million miles per hour rather than “John teleported to Kansas”). Please see #3 and 3.1 here for more details.
  • How can you use the powers to show us things we haven’t seen before?
  • How do the character’s powers affect his perspective and/or personality?


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39 responses so far

Oct 23 2011

Keeping Your Superpowers From Getting Stale

Published by under Superpowers

Here’s some advice on keeping superpowers novel throughout your story.

1. Have the character(s) put the superpowers to different uses.  If you’ve already had your characters stop a bank robbery, it might be more interesting to have them prevent an assassination or conduct a high-speed chase or solve a difficult crime that has already happened than, say, stop a robbery at a jewelry store.  Varying your scenes gives you a better chance to leave readers guessing about what will happen and how.


2. Please try some different obstacles and hazards, hopefully something the character isn’t used to.  For example, if a character can fly 100+ miles per hour, an ordinary car chase probably won’t be very interesting because there’s so little challenge.  For example, what if there’s a massive windstorm (either natural or controlled by a superpower or magic)?  Chicago had 50+ mph winds a few days ago and it was hard enough to walk without getting knocked over, so I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to chase someone in the air.  If the character is used to using his powers in a very deliberate and methodical way (e.g. like a telepath might benefit from concentration or Batman might benefit from preparation), what will he do in a fast-moving crisis that caught him by surprise?*



2.1. Please keep low-risk uses of superpowers to a minimum.  For example, the scene where a character first tries using his powers is usually pretty low-risk (e.g. Peter Parker testing what his webs can do).  As a brief scene, that’s not a huge liability, but if you have 3+ characters with superpowers, I wouldn’t recommend spending pages putting each character in such a situation.  I feel that one character just testing out his powers tends to come off surprisingly like any other character just testing her powers out, even if the powers are different.  One possibility is that the characters learn and/or test their powers in a risky situation.  For example, maybe the characters are tested for something like admission into a superhero team shortly after developing superpowers.  If the character really wants to make the team, the learning process will probably be higher-stakes and more interesting than just webbing around town.


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31 responses so far

Oct 04 2011

How to Distinguish Your Hero’s or Villain’s Superpowers

1. Maybe the superpowers have some cost to the user.

  • Fatigue. The superhero’s powers exhaust him.
  • Equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps your supergenius’s brain will overheat unless he lets his mind cool down after a mental stunt.
  • Energy. Your hero has a drainable and finite source of power.
  • Risk to self (or others). Your hero’s powers, once activated, are hard to control and dangerous.
  • Personality shift. Activating your hero’s powers transforms his personality or mindset, like the Hulk or Catastrophe.
  • Loss of sanity. Your hero’s transformation makes him considerably less stable, like The Hulk or Niki.


2. Your story’s superpowers have a limited duration or accessibility.

  • His superpowers only last a certain duration and have to be recharged.
  • His superpowers can only be accessed after a certain condition is met or at a certain time of day. For example, Captain Marvel has to say Shazaam first.
  • His superpowers are only accessible after he transforms.  May be voluntary (Captain Marvel), involuntary (a werewolf) or both (the Hulk).
  • Superpowers are accessible only through a particular item, usually a magical or technological item (Sailor Moon, power armor).
  • Achieving a particular power or effect requires the cooperation of unsavory characters.  For example, maybe the superhero needs to convince a brilliant supervillain to help him build a particular feature into his powersuit.  Alternately, in Bitter Seeds, every spell is fueled by negotiations with nefarious spirits, and each spell requires various unsavory deeds.


3. Your superpowers have an unusual origin or source.
  • Because the hero’s alien or otherwise unhuman (Superman, TMNT)
  • Because he’s a modified human (Spiderman, cyborgs)
  • Because he has some artifact (power armor or something magical)


4. Your superpowers have unusual limits.

  • Physical. Maybe his electricity shorts out in water or he gets really weak when exposed to Kryptonite.
  • Time. Hourman’s powers only last (you guessed it) an hour.

28 responses so far

Sep 12 2011

How to Limit Your Superpowers for Dramatic Effect

Generally, the drama in most stories comes from characters struggling to accomplish goals.  If the characters accomplish their goals more or less effortlessly, the story probably isn’t very interesting.  If so, there are three main solutions (limit the protagonists’ powers/capabilities, make their external and/or internal obstacles tougher, and/or shift to goals where their capabilities are not as useful).  If you’re looking to limit their capabilities, here are some possibilities that may fit your story.


1.  The superpowers are not always available.  For example, they might get tired/fatigued if they use the powers too much, they can’t wear the power-suit all the time, they may run out of fuel or magical energy, there may be a time limit to how long the powers last (like Hour Man), the powers may only work at certain times or under certain conditions, etc.


2.  The character doesn’t have much control/precision.  This could limit a hero in a situation where there are civilians or valuable property.  This is a problem because most things that interest supervillains are in densely populated urban areas.


3. The character isn’t as skilled or tactically savvy as he could be.  He might get beaten by a better-trained opponent or one that cleverly uses terrain, civilians, distraction(s), the elements, preparation, the hero’s limitations, etc.


4. At certain points, the character may lack the materials/expertise/time to reload or repair.  Especially if a character like Iron Man is on the run and can’t restock, what does he do when his suit runs out of chaingun ammunition? Alternately, perhaps a wizard has some sort of periodic recharging ritual that involves a rare reagent or a location that might not always be accessible.  How can Jim get to Vampire Cove if his enemies know that he needs to go there to recharge?  (By taking refuge in insanity, of course.  Go at night and hope you don’t run out of garlic).


5. There are social limitations to the character’s powers.  For example, if a character’s power-armor is tied to his job, the threat of getting court-martialed might limit what he can do and/or force him to come up with jury-rigged solutions if he gets cut off from his regular resources.  Alternately, a rogue Green Lantern might have his ring confiscated if he does a good movie and magicians or mad scientists might be punished severely if they conduct too many demonic biological experiments.


Platypi are not of this Earth!

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34 responses so far

Sep 04 2011

Difficulties Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 1

1. It’s not that easy to find crime from the street.  Most superheroes look for crime by aimlessly patrolling the streets or otherwise looking for readily visible crimes.  As it turns out, there aren’t that many crimes visible from the street, perhaps because criminals would prefer to avoid witnesses and police involvement.  America’s largest city (New York) has only ~450 bank robberies and ~300 outdoors murders in a typical year, so it’d probably be really hard to find one on a given day unless you were patrolling a massive area or knew where/when to look.  And God help you if other superheroes in town have the same idea.


2. Maintaining a secret identity would be practically impossible, unless you were a real loner or your significant other, friends and family were idiots.  For example, most crimes happen at exceedingly inconvenient times.  The most common hour for a New York City homicide is between 3-4 AM.  If you’re out in the middle of the night (let’s say) 50-100 times per year, it seems implausible to me that you could go more than a year or two without a few people noticing.  I doubt most people could keep that up for even a few months before their friends/families/coworkers noticed something was amiss.

  • If your hero is maintaining a secret identity from his/her loved ones, what does he or she do to keep them from the truth?


2.1. A superhero is probably going to get injured once in a while, probably by gunfire.  If you got shot, how hard do you think it’d be for your friends/family/coworkers to notice?  If you got shot more than once, don’t you think your friends and family would have a lot of awkward questions?  For example, “Why the hell aren’t you going to the police?  You got shot. Were you buying drugs?”  If being a superhero is illegal, going to a hospital would be tough.  Most U.S. states (including New York) require hospitals to report gunshot wounds to the police and getting the police involved would also raise a lot of awkward questions about what the hero was doing when you got shot.

  • How does your superhero deal with injuries? Does he have somebody he can turn to?  Or does he have to treat it himself (and risk infection) or go to a chop-shop doctor whose specialty is treating criminals?
  • Is there any other reason a hero can’t go to a regular hospital?  For example, maybe routine bloodwork would raise too many questions or she’s not a human.

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41 responses so far

Aug 30 2011

How Do Superpowers Affect Your Characters’ Perspectives?

One aspect about Alphas that seemed really believable and well-written to me was that a villain that could control physical events and influence probabilities became paranoid, reading malevolent intent into the failures of others.  He had trouble understanding that most people don’t have that level of control.


Here are some other possibilities that come to mind.


1. Psychics might be very cynical or very optimistic about human nature depending on whose minds they have read.  In a situation where their ability to read minds does not work (such as using email or talking over a phone), they may or may not be wildly distrustful because they don’t have the ability to know whether they’re being lied to.


1.1. A psychic might have privacy issues.  Courtesies that might seem commonplace to most regular people, like reading a suspect his Miranda rights or not listening in on a private conversation, might not make any sense to a psychic.  If the character grew up with other people that also had psychic powers (like an alien civilization), this would probably have a major impact on how he interacts with other people.  For example, if you grew up among psychics, you’d probably be used to everybody in a conversation knowing everything important already.  In a conversation with normal humans A and B, you might unwisely reveal something to B that A wants to keep secret.


1.2. A psychic might have major identity issues, particularly if he/she doesn’t much control over the psychic powers.  For example, the psychic might have trouble distinguishing between his/her own thoughts and the thoughts of people nearby.  In The Taxman Must Die, one decidedly scrawny psychic can’t quite remember whether that memory about rampaging through a bank vault is his or somebody else’s. This is one of the limitations I use to keep the psychic’s powers from short-circuiting the mystery angle.  He remembers somebody committing a crime, but that memory has given him only a few vague clues to pursue.


2. A character with incredible speed and/or reflexes might perceive time as passing very slowly.  If he does so all the time, he might get impatient with people that move/talk/think much slower (i.e. everybody).  For a character with incredible reflexes, time might only seem to slow down at particular moments, like stressful events or danger.


3. Somebody with the ability to control and/or influence a particular element or phenomenon might be really sensitive to it. 

  • Somebody with the ability to control heat/fire or ice might be more sensitive to temperature changes, like somebody getting chills when they feel scared.
  • Somebody with magnetic abilities might feel metal objects moving and might get bothered by rush hour.  Maybe your Magneto can feel Wolverine approaching because Wolverine’s skeleton is mostly metal.
  • Somebody with the ability to influence/control plants and/or animals might pick up environmental cues other people miss.  For example, maybe your plant-controller is more likely to notice snapped twigs, a slight indentation in a patch of grass and/or leafs knocked from the top of a bush and conclude that somebody came through here in a hurry.  The ability to empathize with plants and/or humans might affect the character’s mindset, as well.  For example, Poison Ivy hates on humans (those plant-killing fiends!) and Beast Boy is a vegetarian.  Incidentally, I think the best reason to be a vegetarian is not because you really like animals, but because you really hate plants.


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39 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

Aug 14 2011

10 Uses for Forcefields

1.  Two forcefields could be smashed together to smash something in-between.  Alternately, you could use one force-field and any hard surface for a similar effect.


2.  Maybe a forcefield could be used as a cushion for safe landings.  Perhaps the character can alter the hardness/springiness of his forcefields so that he can make them into something like a trampoline.  (The more it can stretch, the less the force of impact will be. Like a seat-belt, but one that can also be used to smash something to pieces).


3.  A spherical forcefield could be used to trap in a limited air supply.  That would help a character traveling underwater, through space or through a locker room.

3.1.  A spherical forcefield could also be used to restrict air intake.  For example, a hero might be able to knock someone unconscious by cutting off outside air.  Alternately, if an enemy is using poisonous gas or fire-based attacks (which will readily exhaust available oxygen), the forcefield could lead to the enemy knocking himself unconscious and/or poisoning his air-supply so much that even he can’t handle it.


4.  Forcefields could really wreck a super-fast character’s day.  They could be used to limit space (to take away mobility).  Also, if you’re moving at 500+ miles per hour and suddenly hit a wall that wasn’t there a moment ago, it would really hurt.  Even a regular-speed character that was jumping at an enemy would have a lot of momentum.  As in #1, you might also be able to use forcefields to pin a combatant so that he can’t move as effectively.
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16 responses so far

Aug 05 2011

Writing Psychic Superheroes and Psionics

Problems with Psychic Heroes is an interesting article with a lot of good points, but I think most of these pitfalls can be easily avoided.


1. Mind-reading doesn’t need to be an instant problem-solver. Psionics (specifically telepathy, from which most other non-physical mental capacities stem) probably shouldn’t be as simple as just turning on a power and using it.  It’s not like finding a particular product at a grocery store, is it?  It isn’t very likely at all that what the psychic is looking for will be neatly packaged, labeled and sorted.  Consciousness just shouldn’t work that neatly, at least not for your average (or even slightly above-average) psychic.  The mind is an extremely complex, living network of constantly shifting thoughts and emotions, memories and awareness. It’d probably be dangerously easy to get lost if you didn’t know exactly what you were doing.


2. If the telepath does recover the secret/information/weakness, it doesn’t have to be the ultimate trump card it’s commonly made out to be. For example, maybe the psychic uncovers only a piece of the larger puzzle. It’s pretty uncommon that a hired goon will have a full grasp of his master’s grand scheme. Also, a psychic police officer might learn who the killer is, but that doesn’t count for anything unless he can prove it in court with actual evidence. Having the information is one thing, but applying it is something else altogether.


3. With most superhero-types, the same trick isn’t likely to work as easily a second time.  Perhaps non-psychic characters can learn how to defend themselves against psychic attack.  For example, in “Only a Dream,” Batman mentally overcomes Dr. Destiny.  Also in Justice League, Lex Luthor acquires a power-nullifying device that enables him to overcome Grodd’s mind-control. Alternatively, the X-Men’s Emma Frost has been depicted shifting into diamond form specifically to block an attempted telepathic intrusion, despite being a psychic herself.


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10 responses so far

Jul 06 2011

If you’re into powersuits, check out this military exoskeleton

Published by under Powersuits

The U.S. Army is testing a new exoskeleton that can hopefully increase physical endurance of soldiers so that they can carry an unusually large pack of equipment through wildly rugged terrain for extended distances.  Currently, the exoskeleton allows a soldier to do 12 miles (half a marathon) while lugging 200 lbs.  We’re not quite at the level of Iron-Man (yet!) but this is a promising development.  Off the battlefield, it might also allow the paralyzed to walk again.  Very exciting…

12 responses so far

Jul 03 2011

How to Make Interesting Headquarters and Bases for Superheroes and Villains

1.  Please make the base distinct to your superheroes or supervillains. For example, you can put in unusual touches that help develop the character(s) or team.  For example, one of the secret doors into the Batcave is opened by setting a clock to the minute when Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered.  Superman’s Fortress of Solitude incorporates the hero’s dead parents in a much different way (he keeps his family recordings and other mementos of Krypton there).

2.  Please use the architecture and scenery to set the tone. It’s hard to get grittier and more bleak than a cave built into an almost-unpopulated Gothic mansion.  In contrast, the Fortress of Solitude is much brighter and generally looks more hopeful and futuristic.

3.  I’d generally recommend a headquarters appropriate to the circumstances and needs of the owner. For example, if your team will be arrested on sight, it’d make more sense to do a low-key safehouse or something else discreet rather than a downtown skyscraper.

4.  It might be interesting to describe how the characters came by this particular facility, particularly if they’re not very wealthy. You can use it to establish traits of the characters.  For example, in The Taxman Must Die, one of the supervillains is undercover as a crime scene investigator for a police superagency.  He needs a base he can easily sneak off to without arousing much attention.  Buying a building would leave a paper-trail (paper-trail + taxman = location for airstrike).  This police agency maintains life-size models of several critical buildings on its training grounds.  (Like the Secret Service and FBI do in real life).  So, for example, agents will do a lot of counterterrorist training at models of the White House, the Capitol Building and the Sears Tower in case terrorists ever do attack these buildings.  The only model building that is not used for training anymore is the World Trade Center, since the real building has since been destroyed.  So the villain sets up at the model World Trade Center because it’s unused, large and not linked to him by any documentation.  I think this helps establish that the villain is dangerously clever and disturbingly utilitarian.

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41 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

Jan 24 2011

How to Keep Your Story’s Superpowers and/or Magic Extraordinary

I think it really helps superhero and urban fantasy stories when the supernatural abilities come across as special.  Here are some ideas to help yours stand out.

1. Use them less often. The more scenes there are with superpowers, the more diluted their effect will probably be.  For example, you could use fewer filler fight scenes or resolve more action scenes without superpowers.  Perhaps the powers have limitations, such as their duration.  Or maybe outside circumstances force the hero to resolve his problems in other ways (maybe he can’t use his superpowers without risking his secret identity, or he needs to avoid friendly casualties, etc).

2. Increase the costs of the powers. If the decision to use the powers is notable, the powers will probably be more exceptional and interesting. Here are some examples of costs that might fit your story.

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146 responses so far

Jan 16 2011

Discussion: Which novels have the best supernatural action?

I’m researching an article about how to write superpowered action scenes.  What are some of your favorite books that do supernatural action particularly well? Do any particular scenes stick out to you?  Some supernatural elements include:

  • Superpowers
  • Magic
  • Nonhuman capabilities (for vampires, aliens, dragons, lawyer-eating dinosaurs, etc).
  • Science fiction enhancements (like Starship Troopers’ powersuits)
  • Other paranormal abilities (such as psychic powers)

7 responses so far

Sep 27 2010

A brief note on disabled superheroes…

While planning out a disabled superhero, Liquid Comics asked a group of disabled Syrian and U.S. kids which superpower they would most want to have.

“I’ve asked that question in many different groups before and the typical answers are always the ones you’d expect — flying, reading minds, or being super strong,” [the CEO] said.

“The fascinating thing about this group was that I don’t think I heard any one of those three,” he said….

[The CEO] said it was noteworthy that none of the young people wanted the hero’s power to be something that cured their disability.

Amen to that. If you’re going to have a disabled hero, I think it sort of defeats the purpose (and makes the character more bland) if the superpower essentially removes the disability. For example, Matt Murdoch/Daredevil is technically blind, but pretty much the only indication of that is that he wears sunglasses all the time. His radar senses are so ridiculously fine-tuned that his blindness is rarely, if ever, actually an obstacle.  (Indeed, I think his superpowered senses present more of a challenge for him than his vision.  He sometimes sleeps with the music turned up to drown out the sounds of Hell’s Kitchen).

This reminds me of the song Save the Last Dance for Me. The guy who wrote the song, Doc Pomus, was disabled by polio and could not dance with his wife (a professional dancer) at their wedding. Instead, he had to watch his brother dance on his behalf. He wrote the lyrics to Last Dance on the back of one of his wedding invitations. (Oof).  I think that’s the sort of dramatic opportunity an author forgoes by using superpowers to essentially cure the character. How does a character deal with being unable to participate in a really special moment?  (Or, at least, unable to participate like most other people do).

8 responses so far

Sep 24 2010

Plot discrepancies in comic books

FilmFodder wrote a comic book review, How Not to Write a Comic Book. Most of it is helpful–I agree that having too many team meetings or random fights can drive the plot to a screeching halt, as if the writer is trying to burn up time while he figures out where the plot is headed.

However, I’d like to offer a qualification for the following statement: “Here’s a hint to the writer and artist: if the writer has a person saying one thing, don’t show her doing the exact opposite.” Okay, it could be a problem if readers don’t understand why there would be a discrepancy. (I haven’t read the issue, but based on the review it sounds like there isn’t a good reason for the character to explain why she’s refusing to train as she is training). However, under some circumstances, having a character say one thing while doing another might be dramatically effective.

  • The character is being hypocritical. For example, a character talking about the need for sacrifice at the same time he’s eating a lavish dinner.  In most cases, a hypocritical character won’t be aware of the hypocrisy, but perhaps he does know and just doesn’t care what the other characters in the scene think of him.
  • The character’s perspective of the situation is off. For example, if a really angry guy gets asked to calm down, he might scream something like “I’m being perfectly calm.  Don’t ****ing tell me to calm down!”
  • The character is lying from off-panel. For example, John might give Mark’s widow a sob story about the horrible “accident” that killed Mark, but as he says that the camera flashes back to John shooting Mark in the back.
  • The character is using misleading language or a double-entendre. For example, if Mark’s widow thanked him for being there with him until the very end, he could say something like “I always had his back.”

If readers don’t understand why there is a discrepancy between what a character says and what you’re showing the readers, readers will probably get confused.

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Aug 17 2010

15 Interesting Motivations for Villains and Heroes

1. Romance. Villains frequently have ulterior motives (like marrying Aunt May to steal the nuclear power plant she inherited?) and improper means (such as sabotaging rivals). True romances are rare for villains and can make them deeper and more interesting. Mr. Freeze’s romance with his wife Nora in Heart of Ice turned him from a corny ice-themed punchline into an Emmy winner. (He later devolved into a corny ice-themed punchline after being played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but some things can’t be helped).


2. Revenge. This might be heroic if the crime is particularly heinous and/or the regular authorities are not willing or able to resolve the situation. It might be villainous if the character is overreacting or not being careful enough about hitting only the people responsible.  When working with revenge plots, I think it’s usually more interesting if the revenge develops into something more than just killing/stopping people A, B and C.  For example, in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, the villain is getting back at the love interest that rejected him, which introduces relationship issues that present their own challenges to a protagonist trying to get over a long-dead relationship of his own.


3. To distinguish oneself. It depends on why the character wants to distinguish himself. A hero whose main goal is fame/status will probably gain a more substantial goal over the course of the story. (For example, Booster Gold). I think it’s seen as a superficial, temporary goal. In contrast, “be true to yourself” is more purely heroic… Unless being true to yourself involves psychically decapitating people and sucking out their brains.


4. To fit in/gain acceptance. A lot of heroes seek to gain the respect of their peers (see any story about “the new guy,” particularly students). However, gaining acceptance might be more sinister based on who the protagonist wants to impress and/or what will impress them. For example, 1984 ends with Winston Smith rather unhappily gaining acceptance by betraying his innocent girlfriend: “…he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”


5. Justice. This is like revenge, but usually less lethal and targeted more carefully against the perpetrators. Nonetheless, justice can sometimes be villainous. For example, the main goal of the robot antagonists in the I, Robot movie is to prevent humans from getting hurt, and they think that putting human under house arrest is the most logical way to do so.

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121 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

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