Archive for the 'Writing Superhero Stories' Category

May 28 2010

What Makes a Superhero Story?

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.

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.

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Apr 22 2010

Pet Peeve: Unprepared Characters That Should Know Better

I hate it when characters that are experienced and/or (supposedly) competent fail to plan ahead.

1.  Does the character try to plan for the superpowers and capabilities of their opponents? On Heroes, allegedly competent and well-equipped organizations routinely stumbled into slaughterfests because they used SWAT-style raids to try to overrun targets with crazy powers.  Let me lay this out right now: any plan that involves close-range combat with somebody that can outrun a fighter jet or stop time is idiotic!  As soon as the target sees anything, (s)he turns on his/her superpower and everybody else dies.  A better plan would be something like killing the target by long-range, perhaps by sniper rifle or bombing the house while the target is asleep.   Alternately, you could interfere with the character’s ability to use his powers.  (On Heroes, it is amazing how rarely the Company uses the power-nullifying Haitian).

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11 responses so far

Apr 07 2010

Some Tips on Using Literary Symbols

1. I would recommend using your symbols in unexpected ways. For example, fire is most commonly used to symbolize destruction and/or Hell.  However, there are so many more options that are creative and fresh.  For example, fire represented ignorance (and possibly political correctness) in Fahrenheit 451 and civilization in the story of Prometheus. If the symbolic meaning you’re going for is the first one that comes to mind with that symbol, maybe you could be a bit more creative.

1A.  If you got your symbol from a list somewhere, it’s probably too obvious. For example, tree -> life, fire -> destruction/Hell, spring -> rebirth/life, apple -> loss of innocence, water -> atonement or cycles, etc.  Think on it some more and you’ll probably come up with something that fits your story better than these.  For example, the recurring symbol for destruction/doomsday in Watchmen is a ticking clock.  In The Godfather, death is usually preceded by an orange.  (!)

2. In a comic book script, make sure that you tell your artist how you want the symbol to appear. Otherwise, the artist may inadvertently mangle the meaning of the symbol. For example, if technology is supposed to be a sign of progress and civilization in your story, you’d probably want the cars to look shiny and new rather than grimy and decrepit. Unless you specify otherwise, it’s up to the artist’s judgment.

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7 responses so far

Apr 06 2010

How Heroes Find Crime

Your superheroes will probably stop crimes at some point.  So how do they find it?  Here are a few options.

 

1. The most common option is just going on patrol. Most readers and editors will give you the benefit of the doubt that a modern city has so much crime going on that a hero can stumble upon armed robberies without too much trouble.  (Even though that’s probably not realistic–see #12 here for more details).

 

2. The hero may have access (authorized or otherwise) to what the police know. For example, maybe he has a police scanner, has hacked police radios, has a friend on the police force, or is otherwise contacted by the police on particular cases.

 

3. The hero might be contacted directly by a victim. For example, if a company has some reason to resolve a crime without getting the police involved, maybe it’ll contact a hero instead.  This would make sense particularly if the police in your story aren’t particularly competent or honest.  Or maybe the victim was somehow involved in some illegal activity (like a prostitute, an illegal immigrant, etc).

 

4. The hero may have access to what the criminals know. For example, maybe he has an informant, has bugged an important phone, interrogates a captured criminal, etc.  Any one of these could indicate where and when an impending crime will occur.

 

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14 responses so far

Mar 11 2010

Please Don’t Use Uncontrollable Superpowers to Angst Readers

One of the more frustrating things I see is when an author tries to give a character a guilty backstory but one he is utterly not responsible for.  For example, the character’s powers might manifest by killing the town and/or pretty much everybody she knows.  (Please see the TV Tropes Power Incontinence page for more examples).

If you want this character to feel guilty about her backstory, why not make her actually responsible for the accident?  For example, instead of having uncontrollable poison-massacre powers*, which is merely awful luck, maybe the character has powers that he uses in a reckless or ill-conceived way.  For example, maybe a flame-controller accidentally blows up a neighborhood by lighting up a gas line.  It’s still unintentional, but at least this gives him a choice to regret and atone for. Overcoming that will be more dramatic than “Gee, I’m sorry I was born to be a town-killer.” If the goal of the story is to have the character atone for his sins, it probably won’t be too dramatic if he’s not actually responsible for the sins in question. Or, if the character’s powers are completely uncontrollable, perhaps the character played some role in acquiring them, like participating in some poorly thought-out scientific experiment.

*Which are a losing Superpower Lottery ticket if ever there were one.   Pretty much everybody else in Heroes has something cool like superstrength or flight or time-travel.  Poor Maya.  Even the psychopathic serial killer has more control over his face-ripping telekinesis than she does.  (Also, he spent  a lot less time moping about his body count than she did).

8 responses so far

Feb 27 2010

Name That Superhero Funeral!

Superhero funerals are so common that they have their own page on ComicVine and usually so bland that they tend to run together.  Given a transcript for three pages from a superhero funeral, can you name the series? If the writing were actually distinct, that wouldn’t be difficult.

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11 responses so far

Feb 20 2010

How Creative Do Your Superpowers Need to Be?

1.  It doesn’t matter much whether the superpowers you use are unique or not. It is virtually certain that several published superheroes will share the same main powers as yours, and possibly a few of the secondaries as well.   The key to differentiating your characters is giving them distinct personalities, voices, attributes, flaws, goals, obstacles, backgrounds, etc.  If you have those things, you don’t need unique superpowers.  If you don’t have those things, unique superpowers won’t save you.

 

2.  The superpowers are merely a means to an end, an interesting story. But the superpowers themselves are rarely interesting.  When you’re picking powers, please focus more on whether the powers can make interesting scenes than on whether the powers are original.

 

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48 responses so far

Jan 28 2010

Hit and Miss with Dynamo 5: Introducing Characters in Combat

Opening with the characters in combat can be tricky because the characters can’t speak as naturally.  For one thing, if your superheroes have secret identities, they’d be bloody stupid to blab about their day jobs when they’re surrounded by enemies (more on that later).

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8 responses so far

Jan 03 2010

Nine Surprising Facts About Writing Comic Books and Graphic Novels

1. Marvel and DC Comics don’t consider unsolicited submissions. Fortunately, Optimum Wound has a useful list of publishers that do. If you’re dead-set on working with Marvel or DC, I’d recommend taking a job with them in some other capacity (such as editing, sales or marketing) and then moving laterally into writing.

2. Most publishers won’t evaluate a comic book submission unless it has ~5 illustrated sample pages. This means that a writer will usually need a professional-grade artist friend willing to work for speculative pay, a paid freelancer or the skill to illustrate his own work.  If you don’t know any artists and don’t have $500-750 for a freelancer, I’d recommend submitting to Dark Horse or another publisher that doesn’t require art samples.  However, if you can pull off a competent art sample, it will really help your submission.

3. Pretty much no one considers proposals for licensed works. Do you have an awesome idea for a Star Wars or Buffy comic?  Unfortunately, with licensed works, the publisher will almost always contact the writer it wants to work with rather than vice versa.  Additionally, when they need a writer for a major series, they will hire someone experienced and proven rather than an unpublished author.  Sorry. If you want to write for Spiderman or Batman, you need to establish yourself first.

4. Comic book companies usually buy the rights to the series and characters. In contrast, novel series are almost always creator-owned.  If you really care about maintaining ownership over your characters and stories, I’d recommend looking at Image Comics. Almost all of their series are creator-owned.

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7 responses so far

Dec 08 2009

New Category: Origin Stories

Published by under Origin Stories

I realized that I have several articles on origin stories, so I’ve made a new category for them.

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Nov 15 2009

How to Communicate with Agents and Editors

When you’re ready to submit your novel or comic book to an agent or publisher, these tips will help you make the sell.

1.  The only goal of your submission is to convince a publishing professional that your novel or comic book is likely to sell thousands of copies. Nothing else matters.

2.  Follow the instructions on their website. Most agents and publishers will have submissions pages that lay out what they want to see.  In most cases, it’s best to provide just what’s on the list and nothing else.  (Exception: if you’re submitting a comic book script, consider submitting some inked or colored pages even if they aren’t required– these pages will help the editor decide very quickly whether your proposal is serious).

3.  Check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Trying to impress a publishing professional without clean writing is like trying to run a filthy restaurant.  It really doesn’t matter how good the cooking is–customers will run out screaming anyway.  Proofread or perish.  Not many publishing professionals would bet tens of thousands of dollars on an unpolished writer.

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13 responses so far

Nov 09 2009

Making the Sell: A Few Tips on Submitting a Comic Book Script

1.  READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. The instructions take precedence over everything else. If you fail to meet the guidelines provided by the comic book publisher on its submissions page, you are dead on arrival.  For example, you can see Dark Horse’s submissions guidelines here and Image’s here.  (By the way, Marvel and DC don’t accept unsolicited submissions– either they call you because they’re impressed by what you have already published, or you start working for them in some other capacity and move laterally)

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7 responses so far

Oct 31 2009

Novel-Writing Tips of the Day: How to Deal With Supernatural Elements

1.  Foreshadow the supernatural.  Introducing magic or vampires or over-the-top superpowers into a story that previously had seemed constrained to reality will probably disorient readers unless you have taken steps to prepare them.  In some cases, your title, backcover blurb and/or cover will do so.  Otherwise, you should probably suggest that something is not quite normal in this world you are showing us.  For example, before the protagonist discovers that there’s a dragon or a vampire in the basement, perhaps he could find  strange claw marks or woodsland animals that have been de-blooded. 

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Oct 27 2009

Sketch your pages to make sure you’re not screwing your artist

After you’ve written the script for a comic book page, I would recommend doing a rough sketch of the page before you give the script to your artist for pencils.  That will help you identify staging problems early.  Here are a few examples.

1.  Will the panels have enough space to comfortably fit the content? As a rule of thumb, I think it’s especially important to check this if if the page has 7+ low-action panels or 4+ action panels.  (Low-action panels, like most dialogue, usually require less space because they don’t need to show as many things happening.  For example, a dialogue panel might just have a person’s head, whereas an action shot of two boxers going at it will probably include at least the upper bodies of two men).

2.  Will the panel’s perspective portray everything you want to show? For example, if two characters are facing each other, it can be quite tricky to show their expressions, particularly if you’re trying to focus on one.  90 degree side-shots get boring fast and have trouble emphasizing either subject.

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Oct 13 2009

Can You Describe Your Protagonist’s Superpowers in 1-2 Sentences?

When you’re pitching your story to publishers, please don’t waste paragraphs describing each character’s powers.  That’s space you could be using to develop personalities, character traits, the plot, relationships, etc.  As a rule of thumb, I would recommend keeping it simple–generally, if you need more than 20 words to describe a character’s powers, there’s probably too much going on.  (Main exception: if that extra space is crucial to understanding the plot).*

 

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98 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

Aug 10 2009

How to Handle Competence on a Superhero Team

It’s usually a problem when some of the characters on a team of superheroes are substantially weaker or less useful than others.  Here are some tips to avoid those problems.

1.  I recommend giving all of the teammates skills and/or powers that can be useful in a variety of situations. If a character’s skills are so limited that he doesn’t have the ability to participate, he will probably come across as useless and may attract the scorn of readers.  (I’m looking at you, Aquaman).  Additionally, if your characters have versatile skills, you won’t have to come up with goofy contrivances so that each teammate can contribute.

2.  In most cases, I would recommend keeping the characters roughly as powerful as each other. Otherwise it will be hard to come up with challenges that match one hero without being effortlessly easy or absolutely impossible for the rest of the cast.  For example, any hit hard enough to hurt Superman should kill Batman, right?  If teammates one teammate is that much more powerful than another, the writer will probably have to just pretend that Batman is actually strong enough to shrug off a punch that can break a skyscraper. That is a goofy and contrived way to try to work Batman-like characters into a Superman fight.  If you’re dead-set on a significant superpower disparity, the best solution is probably having them split up as much as possible.  Alternately, you could do fights with some weaker antagonists and some tougher ones.  The problem is that this usually relegates the weaker heroes to cleanup duty, because the most plot-central villains are usually the most dangerous and get the most face-time in battle.   (If the weaker heroes are minor characters, that might not be a problem).

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5 responses so far

Jul 24 2009

How to Do Training Scenes

Training sequences are really useful because they help introduce a new member (often the main character) to a team of superheroes or another group of exotic and powerful protagonists (a SWAT team, an Army unit, etc).  Training scenes are especially important if your superhero team is unusual and needs to be introduced gradually to readers.

Here are some suggestions.

1.  Don’t make it a cakewalk– give the hero opportunities to prove himself to readers. If the team is meant to feel impressive, the training should be hard.  Here’s an article about Secret Service training, for example.

Overseeing them are instructors like Mixon, who wears a size 52 suit jacket, whose T-shirt says “Fighting Solves Everything,” and whose 2-year-old son knows how to do a one-man takedown. This morning Mixon, 40, is testing control tactics, or ground-fighting.

Even his toddler knows how to do a takedown!  That is hardcore.

2.  If possible, I recommend staying away from trainers that disappear as soon as the training is complete. In a realistic Army story, the drill sergeants are gone as soon as the recruits complete basic training.  The recruits will go onto Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever and the drillers stay behind.  If possible, try to develop characters that will be present after the training ends.  For example, use series regulars as part-time instructors (X-Men) or use the instructors as minor characters, a la Ender’s Game.

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17 responses so far

Jul 23 2009

How I Would Reboot Superman

Superman is a waning superhero.

In the past year, his comics have consistently been outsold by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Flash, Green Lantern, Deadpool, and every A-list franchise.   (For example, his top-performing comic book in June 2009 placed #43 on the bestsellers list).

According to io9, even DC Comics acknowledged that the Superman movie franchise is struggling.  Superman’s latest film-outing grossed about $390 million on a production budget of $270 million.  That’s notably worse than 1996’s Batman Forever, let alone either of the two most recent Batman films.  Yes… even Joel Schumacher, the “director” that put nipples on the Batsuit, beat Superman.

Here’s how I would reboot Superman.

1.  Give him a real personality with some actual flaws. This does not mean that he has to be brooding.  (Please see Spiderman or Ironman– characters can be three-dimensional and fun!) For example, maybe he’s a bit overconfident or careless.  Even a small flaw would make him more likable and believable.

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65 responses so far

Jul 22 2009

Problematic Superpowers and How to Make Them Work

B. Mac touched on this with a couple of powers, such as super strength, telepathy/mind reading, and to a lesser degree, power suits, plus he mentioned a few others at the bottom of his article on common superhero problems. However, this is going to be a more all-around list, touching on a number of different powers.

All superpowers could be potentially problematic. However, these powers make it unusually difficult to write an interesting story.

1. SUPERSTRENGTH. Superstrength is generic and cliched. It’s very difficult to intrigue a reader with a character whose main power is superstrength. Fight scenes will either be no challenge (since he busts through absolutely everything) or no fun to read (since all he does is bust through everything).  Probably both. Hardly anything will challenge him. Locked in a cell? Bust out. Locked out of a building? Bust in. Girlfriend’s in trouble? Bust up the villain.

Mix it up: Limit his powers. Maybe he only has super strength when his adrenaline hits a certain level, so he has to stay hyped if he wants his powers. Or maybe his super strength only works against certain materials. (Though that would be difficult to logically explain, it would at least be a handy limit.)

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146 responses so far

Jul 17 2009

Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes

1. Villains can be overpowered. In fact, they should be more powerful than the hero. The more a hero is challenged, the more impressive it is when he eventually succeeds.

2.  Likability and relatability are much less important for villains than heroes. The quality of a villain usually depends on his style, competence and scariness. If your audience isn’t enthusiastically urging on the hero to beat the villain, they probably aren’t thrilled about the story.

3. The villain’s powers should usually be easier to explain and more generic than the hero’s are. Working in a really complex power for a character that will probably only fight a few times is usually a waste of time.  Additionally, most villains have fewer powers than the heroes do.  For example, Luke Skywalker has a variety of force powers, but the only power we see the Emperor use is lightning.  Batman has a variety of gadgets, but the Joker has just a pencil.

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36 responses so far

Jun 25 2009

Don’t Bury Your Story in Science and Realism

I’d only delve as deeply into science as much as the story and audience warrant. For example, if a villain shrinks the hero, 99% of readers don’t care that a shrunken human body couldn’t function because human cells are designed to function at a particular size. Unless you’re deliberately targeting a technically savvy audience (such as in hard sci-fi), your readers probably don’t care much about surface-to-volume ratios and the like.  Similarly, most readers don’t need elaborate explanations for superpowers. You don’t need to explain where Spiderman keeps all that webbing.

However, if you’d like go off on a tangent to satisfy the few readers that do care about these elements, I’d recommend trying to make it interest readers that don’t care so much. For example, one recurring implausibility with the Hulk is that the character’s pants stay on even though his size fluctuates so much. Real pants would burst off if you got twice as big, right? The latest Hulk movie addressed that rather hilariously by showing the character buying elastic maternity pants in Guatemala. (“¿Tienes más stretchy?”) That’s intuitive, simple and clever. In contrast, if the movie had made up scientific mumbo-jumbo like Pym particles or whatever, it probably would have confused or annoyed many viewers.

Finally, I would recommend taking with a grain of salt any reviewer concern that you expect would be limited to a tiny, tiny fraction of the potential readership.  In particular, my rule of thumb is that if you need college-level coursework to know that something is implausible, it won’t probably won’t create a major problem for most readers (unless you’re writing something like hard sci-fi). You can still address the concern if you’d like to–maybe you feel that addressing a scientific implausibility will make the story feel more believable–but don’t feel like you have to. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic.

Professional communication tip: When you have a philosophical difference with a review (for example, if the reviewer cares a lot more about scientific plausibility than you do), I think it really helps to be polite. Coldly dismissing someone’s writing style is not a great way to make friends or win new reviewers. One possible approach would be something like “Thanks for your advice. I know this story may not be 100% scientifically plausible, but I think that most of my readers will be okay with that.” For one example of dealing with different artistic styles, I think I responded pretty courteously to a Marvel artist that was concerned the coloring on a mutant alligator protagonist wasn’t realistic enough.

12 responses so far

Jun 03 2009

A Writer’s Review of Gotham Central

Gotham Central was a police procedural series that ran for about 40 issues.  It focused on an ensemble of homicide detectives in Gotham City.

What Worked

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2 responses so far

May 26 2009

How to Sell a Magical Superhero Story

Magical superheroes are rare and haven’t sold very well since the Silver Age of comics (late 1950s and 60s). Here are some tips to help you write a magical superhero story that a publisher might take seriously.

1. Do it as a novel, not a comic book. Comic books depend on male readers aged 13-25. The problem is that the people that are most receptive to magical superheroes (kids and women) generally do not buy comic books.  This is one reason that magical superheroes are very, very hard to publish as a comic book. The magical superhero stories that tend to sell even remotely well tend to be TV shows (Sailor Moon or Jake Long) or novels (Dresden Files).

2. If you are absolutely dead-set on a comic book, I recommend using Japanese-style art. American teens are somewhat more tolerant of magic in anime stories like Sailor Moon than they are of American-style stories like Dr. Strange or Zantanna.

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51 responses so far

May 17 2009

Six Superhero Plots That Need to Die

1. Shrinking. First, this is a horribly cliche type of one-off story.  Second, it is pretty much impossible to do anything fresh with it. The characters get shrunk, deal with some tiny obstacles (usually including a cat or some other suddenly dangerous animal), and then get their size back. What else could you do with it?

How can I do it right? Have the character stays shrunken for longer than just an issue.  It’ll push you to develop the formula in a fresh direction, and hopefully one more fertile than “and then they discover a microscopic civilization!” E.g. it seems to work fairly effectively in Ant-Man, where the character spends most of his time full-sized.

2. Body-swapping. One character switches bodies with another, usually involuntarily.  The drama usually comes from the characters having to survive despite having different powers or different roles than they’re used to.

How can I do it right? This isn’t necessarily bad, but it has been done extensively.  It tends to work best if the characters have to keep their identities secret.  If Jim and Luke can just tell everyone that their bodies have been swapped, it’s not really an interesting obstacle.  But if Jim and Luke can’t talk about magic or the supernatural hijinks they’re involved in, then body-swapping makes it that much harder for them to maintain the masquerade.  Give them difficult situations they can’t duck.  For example, “Luke” suddenly has a piano concert and “Jim” is now the starting defensive tackle.  The only way for them to protect the secret is to learn (or feign competence in) something totally new.  Good luck!

3. Age change. The villain or an accident causes a character to get drastically younger or older (usually younger).  This is even worse than shrinking because a hero turned into a baby is no longer a character so much as a prop.  Also, these episodes/issues tend to be overwhelmingly cute.  Ick.

How can I do it right? I’d recommend trying it like Big or Thirteen Going on Thirty or Seventeen Again. The story follows the character as he enters another stage of life. How does he handle his new predicament?  That’s an interesting situation.  In contrast, babies can’t do anything but cry.

4. World War II time travel. Time travel is not a problem in series that have been built around it, but “let’s do an issue set in World War II!” is shoot-me-in-the-face bad.  The villains are one-dimensional, there’s no chance the writers will let the heroes lose and it’s cliche.

How can I do it right? Realistically, you can’t and I wouldn’t recommend it.  However, if you’re dead-set on trying anyway, maybe try something more creative than sending the villain back in time to help the Nazis.  One alternative would be having the heroes try to stop a well-intentioned “antagonist”–say, somebody who lost his family in the Nazi death camps–from going back in time to kill Hitler because killing Hitler might lead to Germany winning the war with a competent leader.  This setup is stronger because the villain is more morally complex and because sneaking in to guard a hostile target is inherently more dramatic and challenging than an all-out assault.  Also, the outcome is less guaranteed/predictable, particularly if the story is set towards the end of the war.  Perhaps the story ends with the heroes and assassin agreeing to stage Hitler’s murder as a suicide, but only when the Allies’ victory is guaranteed.

5.  Underwater adventures, particularly with Atlantis. It’s very hard to do an interesting aquatic tangent.  Have you ever heard anyone wish that Aquaman or Namor would show up?  Me neither.

How can I do it right? I think your best bet is to set most of the story in a sealab or a sealed city under the waters.  The less time the characters spend in submarines or swimming, the better.   Also, this kind of story might work better as a series focus than as a tangent.  It’s not that aquatic stories necessarily suck (please see Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid), just that an aquatic setting is usually a waste of time for land-bound heroes. Additionally, few land-bound heroes have powers well-suited to interesting underwater fight scenes, so it might help to have the climactic battle in a sealed environment like a domed city or in a coastal city above the water.

6.  Saving helpless women. (Hat-tip to commenter Heather).

How can I do it right?  At the very least, if she’s going to get herself kidnapped or otherwise endangered, maybe it’s because of something she did besides dating the hero?  For example, in Iron Man, Pepper Potts endangered herself by sneaking into the villain’s office to steal his computer files.  Sometimes Lois Lane is a competent investigative journalist.  Give your characters a chance to be something besides just The Screaming Girlfriend.  Maybe even you have some female characters that aren’t love interests!  (A revolutionary concept, I know).

UPDATE: If you’re interested in plots that don’t need to die, I think this list of stock plots might help.

209 responses so far

May 05 2009

How to Do Superhero Gadgets Well

1. A hero’s gadgets are only interesting when he uses them in an exciting and/or unexpected way. No one will say “Wow, he had shark repellent!” But they will be impressed if your hero comes up with a clever way to apply a general tool. Versatile, general tools tend to be more interesting than gadgets that are only useful in a particular situation.

2. Narrow tools may force you to write an Eigen plot. Eigen plots are contrived set-ups where the superhero gets opportunities to use gadgets and/or superpowers that are typically useless. Eigen plots typically come off as cheesy. When the hero catches a golden opportunity to use his shark repellent, it won’t make him look good… it will probably just make you look bad.

3. Tools tend to be more creative and versatile when they draw on the scenery. For example, a grappling device lets the hero use the setting and scenery in ways he couldn’t before. He can set ambushes, try alternate entrances and exits, etc. A cutting tool can do many things depending on the situation. The hero may be able to cut through doors and other hard obstacles, or fashion bandages out of a shirt, or maybe even knock a streetlamp onto an enemy.

4. I recommend sticking with gadgets that are easy to understand. Gadgets that are really high-tech may require more explanation.

69 responses so far

Apr 27 2009

List of Superhero Novels and Their Publishers

When you write a novel query, publishers may ask you to describe some similar, competing titles. Ideally you can come up with a few similar titles that were successful; that suggests that your title will be successful as well. If you’re pitching a superhero novel, here are a few titles that might be comparable to yours.  NOTE: If you’re looking to get a short story with superheroes published, check out this list of publishers instead.

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15 responses so far

Apr 25 2009

How to Use Backstory Effectively

It’s hard to handle backstory (what has happened in the past of the story). Most authors just use dull exposition. “Twelve years ago, John McGruesome was a mob hitman…” Here are a few common problems with backstory.

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24 responses so far

Apr 19 2009

Five signs that your comic book needs work

1.  Your protagonist is Rick Blurry, a cigar-smoking, eyepatch-wearing superspy.  When Marvel’s lawyers call, perhaps you should have a better defense ready than “but he wears his eyepatch on his right eye!”

2. Your pitch includes the line:  “This is just like your other series, but good.”

3.  You are aroused by any of the characters.  (Yes, we can tell).

4.  It involves time-travel.

5.  You’re not sure whether you want a protagonist to live or not, so you put it to a vote.

31 responses so far

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