Archive for the 'Realism' Category

Dec 16 2013

A Criminal Profiler’s Guide to Superheroes

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.

Email: “One of my protagonists is a detective looking for superheroes/vigilantes. What sort of traits might tip him off?

 

Here are some trends that come to mind for American superheroes.

 

Strong Associations

  • They’ve had a loved one(s) murdered by a stranger. That’s pretty rare in the United States. Only about 2,500 U.S. murders are committed by strangers per year. If we rule out intergang violence and drug deals gone bad (because most people in a Uncle Ben or Martha/Thomas Wayne situation are not gang members), we’re probably looking at about 500 murders per year that might be of interest to police looking for superhero origin stories, and probably less than 10-15 a year in any particular city.
  • They’ve had a loved one(s) kidnapped by a stranger, sometimes repeatedly. (For example, are there any Metropolis supervillains that haven’t kidnapped Lois Lane at some point?) Normally, it’s EXTRAORDINARILY rare for someone to get kidnapped more than once by a stranger. I doubt it’s happened in U.S. history. It should certainly raise a lot of questions about why so many major-league criminals have an interest in kidnapping this particular journalist rather than any of the other major journalists in town.
  • Most superheroes are 1) extremely physically fit but 2) do NOT work out regularly at a gym or at home. If the investigator has access to credit card records, he can look for purchases of gym membership and/or fitness equipment. Most superheroes won’t have any. (If Clark Kent started bench-pressing thousands of pounds at a gym, it would raise a lot of questions).
  • Most superheroes don’t have any kids or pets. First, there’s the time factor. Being a superhero is a major time commitment. There could also be security issues if a kid sees anything interesting or complains about his parent(s) disappearing every night.
  • Superheroes will give off lots of signs of combat experience but almost never have any military experience. (Even Captain America had only 1-2 years before getting iced). What sort of signs of combat experience might an investigator look for? Behaviorally, the person will probably pay a lot more attention to exit routes, habitually glance at anyone enters the room, and will avoid turning his back towards an entryway or window.
  • Adult superheroes are almost always college-educated. In contrast, 70% of U.S. adults don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
  • If you interview the coworkers/boss of a superhero, certain traits will probably crop up. They’re brilliant, but hard to work with. They have major absenteeism issues and frequently come into work tired or with (poorly explained) injuries, and they NEVER follow orders or a chain of command.  Despite their many failings, superheroes’ coworkers will unanimously agree that they are exceptionally competent at their job. (Bruce Wayne is virtually the only exception here — most superheroes are too proud/lazy/careless to pull off a dummy act).
  • In most cases, everyone that knows a superhero well will agree that he’s unusually courageous and altruistic, but has issues with punctuality and reliability. A lot of people that know him will attest that it’s hard to get him on the phone and/or that he sometimes disappears during work.
  • Everyone that has observed this person in a life-or-death emergency will agree that he was unusually collected, even if he’s normally sort of bumbling (e.g. Clark Kent).
  • They won’t own any guns, no matter how bad their neighborhood is.
  • Superheroes are generally extremely sensitive about their medical records. Even the identity of their general practitioner will be a closely-guarded secret. The reason here is that the doctor is almost always an active collaborator that knows what’s going on. It would be very hard for a superhero to hide that something unusual is going on from his doctor because routine x-rays will show an extensive history of broken bones and the superpowers may cause their bloodwork or DNA to be highly unusual.
  • We can rule out virtually everyone who has an unprestigious job. In-story, this might be explained because a vigilante that’s flashy enough to create a gaudy persona is probably an attention-seeker. Also, prestigious jobs tend to be more helpful for a superhero than an unprestigious job would be (in terms of resources, access, training/skills/education, etc).
  • Superheroes tend to value money quite a bit less than the population as a whole. Most superheroes could be wealthy if they wanted to be, but most don’t care that much about it. Even billionaire superheroes tend not to be that personally involved in the day-to-day operations of their company.
  • If a superhero suspect has a personal connection to a supervillain, follow up on that. People that know a superhero are far more likely to become a supervillain. In particular, the easiest way to become one of Spider-Man’s villains is to meet Peter Parker.  (Green Goblin is his best friend’s father, Lizard employed him as a teaching assistant, Venom is a rival at work, Dr. Octopus once taught him at a science camp, Man-Wolf is J.J. Jameson’s son, etc).
  • If the police suspect that your Clark Kent is Superman, CK may have trouble coming up with an alibi for times when Superman was fighting villains.

 

Weak Associations

  • Superheroes are generally romantically dysfunctional. There are a few superheroes that make a long-term relationship work (frequently because they date/marry other superheroes), but more often it’s a Bruce Wayne or Punisher situation where the character is a pathological loner or divorced by murder.
  • We can safely eliminate anyone that’s poor, and I’d look especially closely at billionaires.
  • Most superheroes are 15-40, particularly 20-35. In general, most superheroes have had unusual success in their chosen day-job at an early age.
  • I’d take an especially close look at scientists, journalists, and corporate moguls.
  • Generally very talkative/outgoing, but secretive.
  • Some people close to the hero may suspect the person is having an affair or otherwise hiding something because he lies so often (and perhaps so implausibly) about so much (e.g. where he is, why he misses appointments, why he’s been injured, whatever).
  • Most superheroes aren’t noticeably religious, even the ones that personally know gods. In contrast, most Americans attend religious services regularly.
  • Most superheroes aren’t noticeably politically active. In contrast, most American adults are registered to vote with a particular political party.
  • Nobody’s ever seen him sweat or show any signs of fear.
  • Generally has lived in a particular very large city his/her entire life. In particular, most Americans don’t attend college in their hometown, but most superheroes do.
  • Probably attended a very respectable university in a city (e.g. Empire State or Gotham University). In real life, the United States only has a few of them (U-Chicago, Columbia, maybe USC and Rice). There’s going to be so much strangeness surrounding these few elite urban universities that it’d be impossible to miss — e.g. Dr. Connors turning into a lizard monster.
  • Even within the city, most superheroes do not move very often. (If there is a secret compartment in the house, moving would be very inconvenient). If a superhero does move, he does not use a moving company.
  • Superheroes tend to be significantly more attractive than the population as a whole. In particular, most superheroines could pass as models.

 

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Version:

Almost every adult superhero will meet at least at least 4 of the following 6 characteristics:

  • They’ve had a loved one murdered by a stranger.
  • They will not give police any medical information (e.g. medical records or a saliva swab) because it might be incriminating.
  • They’re exceptionally good at their day job but have trouble following orders.
  • They’ve graduated from college (usually a prestigious one) and have a prestigious or glamorous career.
  • They’re exceptionally physically fit, but not a member of a gym.
  • There is evidence they’ve been in combat*, but they don’t have any military experience.

 

31 responses so far

Sep 28 2013

Prisoners Was Really Good, But…

Published by under Realism

Prisoners was highly entertaining and I think the writers did a good particularly good job portraying the families going through the kidnapping of their daughters. However, basically everything the police did in the movie was exceptionally Hollywood, so much so that it nearly turned the movie into an idiot plot. If you’re the sort of person that would be distracted by characters habitually acting stupidly to put themselves in suspenseful situations, this movie may not be for you.Pro tip: ace detectives should not hunt alone for serial killers. There must have been SOMEONE in his unit that was good enough to keep up with him… and have Thanksgiving dinner with him.

 

I think the best decisions in the writing/direction were in what they DIDN’T show (e.g. the kidnapping, the 911 call, the relative lack of emotional outbursts from family members, the way the movie ended, etc).

 

Anyway, the movie was extremely entertaining. If you like Homeland or Dexter even though they play really, really loose with realism, you’d probably find this movie very entertaining.

 

10 responses so far

Feb 14 2012

One Thing Hollywood Has Taught Me…

Published by under Realism

…is that nobody will notice that anything is amiss if incredible, mind-blowing superpowers are used at a high school talent show. Basically everything besides blowing up the building can be explained as part of the act. If superheroics do somehow blow up the building, then the superhero needs to move up to “lab accident.”

What has Hollywood taught you?

7 responses so far

Jan 26 2012

Another Plausible Superhero Origin?

“Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease. Though preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future.”

31 responses so far

Dec 02 2011

Writing More Realistic Violence

Here are some points I took away from this article on violence.

1. Very few people are actually prepared for a life-or-death, organ-stabbing fight.  ”Herein lies a crucial distinction between traditional martial arts and realistic self-defense: Most martial artists train for a ‘fight.’ Opponents assume ready stances, just out of each other’s range, and then practice various techniques or spar (engage in controlled fighting). This does not simulate real violence. It doesn’t prepare you to respond effectively to a sudden attack, in which you have been hit before you even knew you were threatened, and it doesn’t teach you to strike preemptively, without telegraphing your moves, once you have determined that an attack is imminent.”

 

2. All other things being equal, I would imagine someone that’s pretty mild-mannered and hasn’t been in many fights would probably have quite a learning curve as a superhero.  Most violent criminals (e.g. supervillains!) are used to violence that most people could not fathom.  In a savage fight, it is very possible that a superhero’s mental/moral hesitations and inhibitions and unfamiliarity with violence could be disastrous.  Superhero organizations might want to have new recruits fight nonpowered criminals in relatively low-stakes cases until it looks like they might be mentally and physically hard enough to survive a psychotic killer like Mr. Freeze or a death camp survivor that mentally ripped a foe’s tooth out of his mouth… back when he was a protagonist.  And, let’s be honest, it’s not likely that every would-be superhero can successfully make that transition.  (If you’re writing a larger organization like the Justice League, what does the group do about heroes that are so ill-suited for combat they will probably get themselves killed?  For example, maybe some get retrained as crime-solvers and partnered with ace combatants and maybe others get let go and maybe still more take on important support roles like medic or scientist or whatever that might involve some exposure to violence but aren’t as intense as actually being a combatant).

 

3. Although I think the author discounts the potential benefits of bravery, I agree it definitely has potential costs.  I don’t think we see very much of that in most superhero stories.  For example, violence for Spider-Man is sort of Disney-fied–virtually the only permanent costs of violence (Uncle Ben’s death) are caused by not being brave.   For most superheroes, I think the violence is heavily romanticized.  Being a superhero is more or less fun and games except when a (usually secondary) character dies and, let’s face it, he will probably come back anyway.  On the other hand, I personally don’t enjoy deep-R violence and would feel uncomfortable including it in something primarily meant as entertainment.  (For example, in Kickass, a gangster gets crushed in a car-compactor–it’s decidedly unpleasant and I’m sort of annoyed it was a laugh-line for the audience).

 

4.  It might be dramatic to make a hero choose between his pride and other goals.  For example, if 3+ muggers have guns drawn on Bruce Wayne, it’d be pretty banal for Wayne to flawlessly disarm the criminals and walk away completely unscathed–pretty much every superhero would do the same in that situation.  It might be more interesting if the character allowed himself to be robbed, walked away and got his revenge later.  How much is his pride worth?  Alternately, if the character does decide that his pride is worth risking serious physical injury and/or revealing that he has superpowers, have him pay something for it.  (For example, the first sign to Gary that something is not right about his coworker Dr. Mallow is that Gary witnesses several men rob Dr. Mallow, taking among other things a cherished personal memento.  Over the next several weeks, all of the assailants end up in mysterious accidents and the good doctor has his memento back.  Mallow could have just let it go, but trying to protect his property even after the fact bears a cost for him).

8 responses so far

Nov 28 2011

Writing a Realistic Superhero Story

Published by under Realism,Writing Articles

1. As always, realism is a stylistic preference.  Feel free to disregard any/all aspects of realism.  Generally, the fans of superhero stories are more likely to cut you slack on realism than, say, the readers of military fiction, so incorporate realism if you want to and not because you feel you need to.

 

2.  Superpower selection.  If realism is a major concern, I would recommend shying away from powers that insulate the character from vaguely realistic consequences to actions.  For example, an invulnerable superhero can just wade into gunfire, whereas a character like Batman needs to put more thought into it.  Batman’s restrictions are more human-like in that regard, so his actions will probably feel more realistic.  Alternately, if you have a character like Superman, you can try using a variety of situations where the character has to act very carefully rather than just bumrush an enemy.  (For example, rescuing hostages, dealing with an enemy like The Riddler that isn’t actually present, a “scavenger hunt” situation like finding and defusing several bombs, an enemy like Professor Moriarty that works a lot through proxies that don’t know enough to easily incriminate their boss, etc).

  • I’d recommend incorporating as many of the superpowers into the premise rather than having characters develop some superpowers later.  I think it was fairly effective and acceptable that Heroes had a time-traveling character, but just wildly crazy that Superman went back in time in Superman I by flying around the world counterclockwise.  Heroes introduced the time-travel angle fairly quickly, but in the Superman movie, it was a deus ex machina that came out of nowhere.  (Likewise, erasing Lois’ memories with a kiss was not only a deus ex machina, but also an act of raw jackassery).
  • If uncertainty, doubt and/or paranoia are major elements of the story, I’d recommend cutting or severely limiting mind-reading and lie-detection.  For example, if mind-reading is a very intrusive act tantamount to frisking somebody, then it’ll be easier to write a situation where the character is vulnerable to uncertainty than if the character is free to read everybody’s minds without anybody else knowing.  Drama comes from vulnerability, so don’t use superpowers that will make it too hard to find vulnerabilities for the character.
  • Especially if the story is gritty, I’d recommend reconsidering incredible regeneration powers.  The stakes will probably be higher if the character’s actions have consequences, and one very noticeable consequence is the risk of injury.  For dramatic reasons,  you might want to make the character regenerate faster and/or take less damage than normal*, but I just wouldn’t  recommend overdoing it so much that you couldn’t raise the stakes with an injury at a terribly inconvenient time if you wanted to.

*Pretty much every superhero, even ones whose powers are mainly mental, are physically resilient enough to shrug off some hits that would put the average person in a hospital for weeks.  Having heroes get hospitalized for weeks after every fight probably wouldn’t be very interesting.

 

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21 responses so far

Sep 19 2011

Problems Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 2

1. Most superheroes commit crimes fairly frequently.  In real life, some crimes that superheroes would probably be charged with include:

  • assault and battery (preemptively attacking criminals in cases where an immediate threat to the public did not exist).
  • reckless endangerment (using superpowers in a way that unintentionally injured bystanders–it’s implausible that most superheroes would be close to 100% accurate with superpowers, particularly if they’ve only recently developed them).
  • child endangerment (using children as sidekicks).
  • evidence tampering (altering/destroying evidence or convincing witnesses to protect the hero’s secret identity).
  • plotting to make and/or possession of weapons of mass destruction (such as a space station with a death ray and probably adamantium claws).

 

2. A superhero’s ability to collect human intelligence would probably be somewhat limited.  Solving cases more complex than a crime-in-open-view usually requires a lot of time tracking down leads, talking to people and evaluating evidence. In particular, superheroes would probably be at a major disadvantage in convincing reluctant witnesses to come forward because they can’t offer as many incentives for cooperation (like witness protection or legal cooperation in other matters) as the police can.  Also, wearing brightly-colored spandex can make it harder to earn the trust of strangers facing life-or-death situations.  (Fact!)

  • What, if anything, makes your superheroes more effective at solving crimes than the police?  Do they have anything going on besides just getting lucky with stumbling onto crimes in progress?
  • If your criminals are geniuses, do they actually act like geniuses?  (Hint: if they’re committing crimes in open view, probably not).  Does it take any skill to find them?
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11 responses so far

Sep 18 2011

Which Crimes Do Most Superheroes Commit?

Assuming that the hero is a vigilante and the district attorney is furious, which felony charges might apply under U.S. law?

 

1. Assault and battery, probably aggravated if superpowers are involved.  The superhero will claim that he was acting in self-defense or the defense of others.  That’s fine if he was just responding to a crime in progress.  However, if he initiated the action (like attacking a gang stronghold or hunting down a supervillain), self-defense is probably off the table because the only imminent danger was created by the hero’s actions.  In particular, a self-defense claim is awfully tenuous if the hero was breaking-and-entering.

 

2. Felony murder, if anybody dies (criminal or bystander).  Assault is a violent felony, and any deaths caused even indirectly by a violent felony are deemed murders even if the superhero didn’t intend to kill anybody.  If a superhero breaks into a hostage situation and a criminal kills a bystander in the crossfire, the superhero can be charged with murder unless he was authorized to be there. As far as the law is concerned here, it doesn’t matter that the superhero was fighting against the shooter and that the superhero did not intend for a civilian to get hurt. Also, if a vigilante causes a criminal to die (either intentionally or not), that would also be felony murder.

 

3. Reckless endangerment, if any bystanders get hurt.  In severe cases, this could be a felony. (E.g. vehicular manslaughter if Batman happens to hit anyone while driving several hundred miles per hour through Gotham traffic).

 

4. Obstruction of justice.  For example, breaking into a hostage situation while the police are still trying to negotiate with the hostage-taker would be a felony in some states.  (Note: if nobody gets hurt, the DA might knock this down to a slap on the wrist, particularly if the superhero is extremely popular).

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31 responses so far

Sep 04 2011

Difficulties Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 1

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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27 responses so far

Jul 21 2011

10 Common but Totally Unrealistic Romance Storylines

Published by under Realism,Romance

I liked this list of common but unrealistic romance storylines.

 

I was not personally familiar with the Angry Kiss, but if anybody tried those shenanigans in real life, he’d probably be registered as a sex offender, fired, and subjected to a restraining order.  As for the Wealthy, Good-Looking Stranger, let’s be honest.  If somebody is wealthy, hot and “single,” he/she is probably a mental case and/or not actually single.  Case in point: Me.  I’m hot*, single and frequently sane, so obviously I’m unwealthy.  What can I say? Writing really is less lucrative than vagrancy.

 

*On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

32 responses so far

Jul 10 2011

22 Ways Fiction is Usually Different than Reality

Published by under Realism,Romance

Two psychologists independently argue that romance novels are unrealistic and set their readers up for unhealthy relationships. Take Twilight, for instance.   Bella falls for Edward because he’s preposterously good-looking (as she reminds us incessantly), tough (abusively so) and more exciting/unpredictable than the nice guys she knows.  If Bella were your friend in real life, you’d probably beg her to stay away from this unhealthy relationship even if Edward weren’t 50+ years older.  Do you think she’ll have the guts to walk away when Edward starts (keeps) abusing her? Hell no–she wasn’t even tough enough to walk away when he told her to.

 

I think that fiction authors of every sort frequently bend reality to make their stories more entertaining.  Here are some other common examples.

 

1.  Fictional dialogue is generally wittier and more concise than in real life.  Most real-life conversations have a lot of idle chatter, but there’s less time to waste in a novel (usually ~80-90,000 words) or comic book (~22 pages).

 

2.  Across the board, when a character lies, somebody will almost always find out.  A perfectly-maintained lie is not as dramatic as dealing with the consequences of being found out.

 

3.  By the end of the story, the main character will almost always know everything important.  It’s very rare for, say, a detective to fail to solve the case even though it happens quite often in real life.  (Half of U.S. murders go unsolved).

 

4.  The story tends to revolve around the main characters and everybody else gets sidelined.  For example, Harry Potter goes off on adventures and saves the world because nobody actually running Hogwarts seems to have any idea about the nefarious plots unfolding there each year.  (Don’t even get me started on the Ministry of Magic).  In contrast, I really liked how the TV show Dexter handled this–Dexter is a serial killer with a day job as a police lab tech.  Instead of passively benefiting from incompetent authorities, his coworkers are competent enough to pose an obstacle, so he sabotages them to keep himself safe. For example, he frequently delays investigations by planting evidence to implicate plausible suspects.

4.1.  Authority figures are useless, unless they’re the main characters.  It wouldn’t be a very satisfying horror story if the victims could just call the police, right?  So authority figures (like the police in any kind of story, parents and teachers in young adult fiction, the army in alien invasion stories, etc) will almost always be useless, antagonistic or unreachable.  Outside of a police story, when was the last time the police actually solved a case on their own?

 

5.  Cellphones fail surprisingly often, especially when it would short-circuit the plot.  Count on the batteries to run out, the phone to get misplaced or stolen or damaged, the reception to fail, and/or something exotic like electronic jamming or magical interference.  Alternately, perhaps the character never had a cellphone for financial or criminal reasons or the character has a working phone but does not call the police because he/she would also be implicated in illegal activity.

 

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15 responses so far