Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#32) -- Writing Superheroes as Human Beings

 Any advice for writing superheroes in a believable way?
-- Republished from Cyber Age Adventures (iHero Entertainment)

Here at Cyber Age, we like to think that our stories do what traditional comics don't or can't, that they bridge the gap between "funny books" and literary pieces. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words (as the saying goes), but sometimes a thousand great words can say more than any sequence of pictures.

Like it or not, the visual medium just doesn't always open itself to capturing the intricacies of human emotions or drives or foibles. It can capture the icon of the emotion or the instance of the emotion, but it often fails to get into the layers that have led to that instance.

Deciphering the Cyber Age basics

When writing for Cyber Age, there are five key principles to keep in mind:

1. THINK CHARACTER -- Beyond powers and costumes, who is this character and why should readers care about him or her? Does he have a job? What's her favorite movie? Does he have trouble with commitments? Is she religious?

Go past the obvious when creating your characters. Figure who they really are. A good exercise is to fill out job applications for your key characters at least. Give them a background, hobbies, job experience, educational experience, key moments in life to remember. Sure, not all (or even any) of this background info will make it into your story, but your characters will become much more real both to you and your readers.

2. THINK CONFLICT -- Not just Super-Bob versus the Giant Panda for the fate of the world, but what's really at stake? A character's worldview failing to be real? The fear of the unknown? The inadequacy of super powers? A childhood trauma that prevents a character from growing as a person?

Many times, the internal conflict can be played out against the external or physical one. In the best stories, the two conflicts are inseparable, the yin and yang, the heads and tales that make a good story a great one.

3. THINK HUMAN -- Characters become real when they become human, touchable. Do your characters have anything in common with flesh and blood people? With the reader? Readers can't identify with being able to throw tanks around, but if that character who can throw them around also has a few failed relationships or is grieving a lost sibling or has claustrophobia or struggles with shyness, then you've made the super-human more human.

4. THINK PLAUSIBLE -- In the comic book world characters may be able to fly or save the universe the minute they get zapped by lightning or sprayed with radiation, but in the Cyber Age universe, things aren't so spontaneous. They take practice. Just as you don't immediately learn quantum physics in your first class of Physics 101, Cyber Age characters don't have a graduate degree in super heroics simply by virtue of putting on a costume.

5. THINK SHARED - Your stories don't occur in a vacuum. There is a rich history and society in place in the Cyber Age universe, thanks to those who have written before you. Read a few of the stories in the anthology and from the recent issues section of the website. Find out who some of the major players are in Cyber Age - even a small detail sprinkled here and there will give your stories the edge that makes them seem that they're a part of something bigger.

Meet Greg

Think you've got it? Good, then let's try an exercise:

Greg took a long gaze at the wrecked tanker between him and the gargantuan Mr. Nobody. Great, it was burning. Now all he had to do was make it through the fire to catch the freak. No problem. Even a burning tanker was no big deal for him now that the accident had given his skin the density of steel.

Read it again. It's not THAT bad, but it's certainly not a Cyber Age story yet. Let's look at Greg for a few moments and run him through the five principles above.

1. CHARACTER: Let's give Greg a past.

Greg Armstrong

Age 32

Born: Augusta, Georgia

Currently living in: Chicago, Illinois

Works as: pizza delivery person, Gino's Pizza & Beer

Graduated from Berkley University, pursued a career in jazz, but gave it up a few years ago when he found he couldn't pay the bills, still plays the bass in his free time

Key memories: When he was five, he lost his parents in plane crash, and went to live with his aunt and uncle, Audrey and Frank, and his cousin, Andrew. Frank was a volunteer firefighter who often let the teenaged Greg tag along as long as he promised to stay out of the way.

At 14, he had his first French kiss, with Erica Wilmont, a short, cute blonde of 13.

You'll obviously want to go deeper, but you get the picture.

2. CONFLICT: So, what's really bugging Greg?

Sure, he's fighting some super baddie on the other side of the flaming tanker, but let's say that Greg just heard that his cousin, Andrew, whom he grew up with as a brother, is coming in on a plane later this afternoon. And Andrew, who pursued medicine instead of the "dreams" of a life in music, now owns a successful private practice, and inadvertently makes Greg feel like a complete loser.

3. HUMANITY: Let's de-power Greg's psyche.

No problem there. Who among us doesn't understand jealousy or the feeling of comparing yourself to someone more successful? So what if Greg can walk through fire and move a huge tanker? He's like emotional Silly Putty (TM) when Andrew is around.

4. PLAUSIBILITY: How well-trained is Greg?

Let's say that Greg's been doing this for three years. That means he's become pretty adept at using his powers, and probably even has learned how to adapt to a variety of battle scenarios. But he still remembers the times when he rushed in headlong and screwed up royally.

5. SHARED: Is anyone else involved?

At this point, there are no other characters involved in the story, but let's study the bylines from the Anytown Gazettes, too. They're a great source of other, non-hero characters that are a valid and viable part of the Cyber Age Universe. For this exercise, let's say that Greg is an avid reader of the Hero Hotsheet, but has yet to appear in it.

Okay. Obviously not all of this is going to make it into the story, but let's see how just knowing it helps as we rewrite the passage from above.

Here's the original again for reference:

Greg took a long gaze at the wrecked tanker between him and the gargantuan Mr. Nobody. Great, it was burning. Now all he had to do was make it through the fire to catch the freak. No problem. Even a burning tanker was no big deal for him now that the accident had given his skin the density of steel.

Here's the new one:

Greg checked his watch. Only three hours until Andrew flew into O'Hare. He shook his head, trying to ignore the rhythmic crackles of the flame. The wrecked tanker sang a death-song, but he had no time to enjoy its natural staccato. It figured. Thanks to Mr. Nobody and the flaming tanker, he might miss Andrew. Then he'd never hear the end of it.

"Late again, Gregory?" Andrew would say after paying the cabby for the long ride from the airport.

And Greg knew he'd be unable to stop the tightness in his chest when he faked a smile and said, "Sorry, bro. I got caught up at work."

As he approached the tanker, he saw Mr. Nobody's figure soft focused in the flames of the burning gas. Even as a kid, tagging along with his firefighter uncle, he'd loved the way that a fire took everything out of focus, and made the whole world seem fuzzy and blurred. Not at all like the annoying focus that life had taken lately.

He stared at the monstrous figure through the flames. For someone named Nobody, the villain was at first glance awfully impressive. Nearly seven-feet tall, with a physique that screamed "Charles Atlas sucks!" he could easily take out most of the heroes in Chicago, even the ones Greg read about in the Hero Hotsheet. But not Greg. In the three years he'd been learning how to alter the density of his skin, he'd discovered that even the toughest villain tended to fall apart when the first punch broke a few knuckles against his hard-as-steel chest.

Maybe a win against Nobody would get him a shot at a decent story in the paper. Even if he couldn't show it off to Andrew, it would be enough. Greg would know, and that was all he needed.

See the difference?

Although I never mention Greg's musical training, it comes through in the way he hears the fire. And the reference to him first discovering how flames blurred images clues us in further to his more artistic nature.

Note how the two conflicts are intertwined. Failing at one means failing at both. There is no way around it.

And for the humanity of the story, can you feel the pride and desire surging as Greg contemplates the newspaper coverage? And did you notice how the shared reference to the Hero Hotsheet also reinforces Greg's jealousy and desires to "be somebody" in the eyes of his cousin?

A caveat, if I may. I've crammed as many of the principles into this short section as possible to show a "textbook" example of these principles at work, but typically, you'll want to spread them out over the course of the story instead of overdoing it, as this example does.