Archive for the 'Superpowers' 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

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 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

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

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

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

May 28 2010

What Makes a Superhero Story?

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

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


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30 responses so far

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

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 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

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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One response so far

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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100 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

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

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.

73 responses so far

Apr 10 2009

“How can I write a character that’s smarter than I am?”

Here are some tips to help you write a super-intelligent character even if you are pretty ordinary yourself.

1.  Try not to focus on him talking intelligently– what can he do that’s intelligent? When you’re thinking about this character’s actions, he should be able to come up with cunning plans and brilliant moves.  Try to keep these as simple as possible.  After the hero carries out his plan, ideally your readers will say “damn, why didn’t I think of that?”

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23 responses so far

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