Friday, October 5, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#238) -- Believable Super Heroes

Any advice for writing superheroes in a believable way?

I tend to use five key principles when I try to write believable super-powered characters:

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, your heroes shouldn'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 should be a rich history and society in place in the universe, thanks to those who have written before you or your fertile imagination. 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.


  1. I think you have to be careful when making superheroes more believable. For me The Plutonian and Miracleman are better examples of believeable super powered humans than Superman (non-human) or Captain America.

    1. I agree. I think some writers are doing a pretty good job of it now. Brubaker's run on Winter Soldier and Yost's run on Scarlet Spider come immediately to mind, as does Lemire's Animal Man run in the New 52.