Archive for the 'Superhero Teams' Category

Nov 10 2012

Tips for Writing Superhero Ensembles and Superhero Teams

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.

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



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

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


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Jul 24 2012

Common Pitfalls and Cliches for Superhero Teams

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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Jul 21 2012

Tips on Writing a Superhero Team

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

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


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

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


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


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

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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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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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