We love superheroes.
So they’re not going away any time soon. But how can writers create new, engaging heroes in a world flooded with Marvel and DC, full of characters that already seem to have every superpower and type of origin story possible? How can new heroes rise up above the crowd of lesser-known X-Men we have trouble keeping straight, or the iconic iterations of Spider-Man and Batman that will be rebooted ‘til Kingdom come?
This is the problem I’ve been facing off with as I develop my own superhero story. And I’m not alone—even the All-Father of Marvel, Stan Lee, constantly deals with these questions. In one interview with Ovation, he says, “What new superpower is there? You need a power that somehow or other seems unique, and you also need something to make that hero interesting to the reader—some personality trait.”
That may be an oversimplification of the starting point, but if it’s worked for Stan Lee all these years, there must be something to it. WikiHow expands the process into 14 helpful steps, but starts in the same place. While that list or other Tweet-sized pieces of advice aren’t presented as if they must be followed in any strict order, I found it interesting that almost every single guide, tip, or source I found on superhero creation began that same way: the superpower.
It makes sense if you’re interested in the genre in the first place, and there’s obviously nothing wrong with being inspired by an otherworldly ability that then spawns a character and story idea. But isn’t it the humanity of the character that we most strongly connect with? These heroes represent some of the qualities we most greatly admire, serving as self-sacrificial, courageous people who persevere no matter what blessings or curses their powers bring upon their lives. We love the epic action and famous costumes, but it’s the person behind the mask that we want to care about.
It sounds so obvious, right? Yet in the WikiHow list mentioned above, personality doesn’t even come into play until item number 6, and even then it’s the development of the “superhero personality” that comes before the “everyday personality.”
I automatically fell into the same trap. Since my story isn’t told from the perspective of the superhero, but rather someone close to him, I naturally gravitated toward figuring out who my “non-hero” was first: her personality, history, and relationship with him since I had to tell the story with her voice. Then when it came time to develop the hero’s character, I eagerly started brainstorming about what his powers could be. I came up with a few decent options that didn’t seem overly cliché or too obscure, but had a hard time deciding between them and figuring out what might work best. It seemed like the most crucial part of his character’s development to nail down, and when I couldn’t do that, everything came to a halt for a while.
Of course, I was missing the point. I was focusing too much on the super part of my character instead of the hero part — the part that ultimately defines who he is and makes him special, with or without powers. It should have been no different from the way I started creating his best friend’s character.
In an io9 article called “How to Create Your Own Original Superhero from Scratch,” other successful writers in the world of comic books seem well aware of this trend, saying there really aren’t any original powers or origin stories left, and it’s all about the more subtle details that make the characters human. Kurt Busiek, most recognized for his work on the Avengers comics and his own series, Astro City, offered this observation:
“Human drives and emotions and motivations run in some pretty basic patterns, but get dressed up in unique ways. But at heart, the strongest motivations are going to be simple ones, and you’re going to see them over and over. That said, I’m never ready to believe that there’s nothing new under the sun. Someone can come up with something that’s never been done before, maybe, but what’ll matter is whether it’s good, not whether it’s unique.”
If the character isn’t interesting or relatable before they gain their abilities, they won’t be interesting or relatable enough afterwards. Another way to evaluate this is by reverse-engineering the hero: who would they be if they lost their abilities for a considerable length of time, or better yet, permanently?
I find those kinds of questions much more intriguing and helpful in the long run, even if they take more sweat to answer than the more fun and flashy details. Honestly, even months later, I still don’t have my hero’s powers 100% defined. But in a way, it doesn’t matter yet. The story’s made much more progress by following the hearts of the characters, not just the wake of incapacitated bad guys.
However you begin to make your heroes come to life, here’s to authenticity over convention, depth over breadth, and timeless tales over temporary blockbusters. Excelsior!