Yesterday, fellow blogger and fantasy writer David, from the Scholarly Scribe, wrote about online writing prompts and how they can help a writer fight back against the dreaded writer’s block. He then challenged his readers to answer the questions in the above picture, essentially asking us to create a superhero.
Regular readers of Sinistral Scribblings will know that there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity. What fan of comic books and superheroes wouldn’t jump at this chance?
There are a number of things to consider when creating a superhero that will engage readers. There’s much more to it than giving him or her “cool” powers and having them fight bad guys. That’s going to get boring pretty fast. Here’s what I think will make a good superhero. We’ll explore these points and in part two of this series, we’ll use these points to make our own superhero. Remember, these are my rules for creating a superhero – you may disagree, and that’s fine.
1. Powers need to be believable
To me, how a superhero gets their powers is very important. If it can be based in science and fact, then it becomes believable. The X-men are mutants (most of them); their basic DNA structure has changed as part of natural evolution, giving them super human abilities. Superman is an alien, and has a different physiology than a human. Batman, while technically not super, has an unlimited supply of money, allowing him to create and build any type of gadget he can imagine. (The same goes for Iron Man, no superpowers, but I think that at some point in the future, someone will be able to build a functioning suit of armor like his.)
In recent years, there have been a few movies that have given superpowers to people in a believable manner. “Unbreakable” by M Night Shyamalan, explained that comic books were actually about real people, though the stories enhanced the truth. “Hancock” by Peter Berg, is about a superhero who discovers he’s actually an angel (or what religious myth calls an angel). “Chronicle” by Josh Trank is about three teenage boys that encounter something in the ground that bestows telekinetic powers on them.
Heroes like the Hulk, who came about when Bruce Banner was subjected to lethal amounts of gamma radiation and Spiderman who gained his powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider, did not gain their powers in a believable way. In reality, they both should have died from radiation poisoning. But, before you start laying down the hate, Hulk and Spiderman are still good superheroes because…
2. The hero needs to resonate with the reader
What’s this mean? You, as the reader, need to connect with the hero in some way. Superman is not a hero people can connect with. He’s an alien and he can do almost anything. He is the stereotype of superhero and kind of the benchmark as far as powers go. But he’s not relateable. Readers can’t connect with him – as is. So, the writers of the early Superman comics made him all about “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” The 1950′s was a time when American patriotism was running high and making Superman all about America made him the most popular superhero around. (As an aside, earlier this year, Superman renounced his American citizenship, which fits nicely with the large lack of patriotism today.) Superman’s patriotism was something that was added to his mythos many years after he was created in an attempt to garner more readers.
What about heroes that connect right away? I think we can agree that Spiderman immediately comes to mind.
Before Peter Parker gains the powers of Spiderman, he is a high school nerd who is bullied by the jocks in his school. Who do think was the largest demographic reading comics in the early 1960′s? It wasn’t the jocks.
So, here we have young Peter Parker, a science nerd, bullied and picked on, who suddenly finds himself able to do almost anything a spider can do. He’s super strong, fast, agile, can climb walls and stick to ceilings – he just can’t make webs. Well, he’s a science nerd, remember? He’s able to design a substance that resembles spider silk and makes shooters to dispense it.
Peter Parker was able to connect to comic book readers because he was them and once he had his powers he used them to do good while being a wise-ass.
There’s more to Spiderman’s story though that makes him a good superhero. His motivation.
3. The hero needs a good back story to justify his/her actions
This is starting to border on nature vs nurture, I think, but it’s important. Where did the hero come from? Who were his parents? How was he raised? Does he have a moral/ethical code? The questions could go on and on, but this back story idea is the largest factor in determining whether your person with superpowers is going to become a superhero or a super villain.
Looking at Peter Parker, his parents are dead and he’s being raised by his aunt and uncle. They’re good people and teach Peter to be a good person. This “good morality” is so ingrained in him, that when he gets into a fight with Flash Thompson after he gains the Spiderman abilities, he doesn’t abuse those powers to beat up Flash. He humiliates Flash, yes, but he doesn’t abuse the powers.
Let’s now look at Erik Lehnsherr from the X-Men movies. (I’m using the movies rather then the comics since the story is a bit simpler but between the two, the basics are the same.) Erik was a Jew raised in Poland during the second world war. He witnessed first hand what tyranny and oppression are. Erik was also a mutant with the ability to manipulate magnetic fields. After he survived the war and found that there were other mutants by befriending Charles Xavier, I think he began to feel a sense of belonging. But in the following years, it became clear that humans were afraid of mutants and when there were rumors of laws being passed to “register” mutants, Erik had a falling out with Charles. While Erik and Charles both believed that mutants were the next phase of human evolution, Charles wished to integrate mutants into society and Erik wanted to avoid anything that resembled the Nazi “bagging and tagging” of Jews during WWII. Erik found like-minded mutants and split with Charles. He took the name Magneto and became Charles’ and the X-men’s greatest nemesis.
In a 2008 interview, Stan Lee, the creator of Magneto and so many other famous Marvel heroes, said that he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.”
4. Above all else, the hero needs to be human
This sort of fits with a number of other things I have already mentioned, but I believe deep down, that the hero needs to be human (or at the very least, have human-like qualities). The hero needs to be able to feel emotion – love, hate, remorse, anger, regret – all of these things. Without them, the hero would be wooden and boring.
The hero needs a life outside of crime fighting (or whatever it is the hero does while wearing a costume). They should have a family, love interest and friends. Maybe even a day job. Spiderman is a newspaper photographer, Daredevil is a lawyer, Superman is a newspaper reporter, Iron Man is the CEO of a weapons development company … the list goes on.
It’s knowing that these heroes have a life outside of being a hero that allows the writer to create compelling stories. Loved ones can be captured and held for ransom by the bad guys, for instance. (Which is, of course, the main reason many superheroes have “secret identities.”)
Understanding that your hero is human allows you to tell human stories that will allow your readers to connect with the hero. It also allows you to tell more about the hero than just their next fight with the “bad guy.”
So, I think that’s it. Four rather broad categories for making a good superhero. What do you think makes a good superhero?
Within the next few days, I’ll follow these rules to create an original superhero. I’m not sure how it’s going to go, but perhaps it’ll be the spark I need to write a superhero novel!