“Superhero”

So a couple of weeks ago we were critting one of friend Stephanie’s latest stories, an excellent work about a pair of demon-powered superheroes. The story is a blast and will make a fine addition to whatever market *cough*A Thousand Faces*cough* accepts it.

One of my comments on the story was this: she used the term superhero (and supervillain) a couple of times in the story. I suggested she find better words, but I don’t think I really explained myself very well. Over the past couple of days I was checking out both Mercedes Lackey’s The Secret World Chronicle and Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps, and the terms popped up in both of those otherwise perfectly entertaining stories as well. I have a number of reasons why I don’t like seeing it in fiction, so I thought I’d lay them out.

1. Superhero is a literary term, in the same way, say, protagonist, epilogue, or deus ex machina are literary terms. We use these words to describe fiction, or scenes, or archetypes of people. But you don’t usually use them within the story, unless you’re doing it in some sort of winking, breaking-the-fourth-wall sort of way. Or you’re Deadpool.

2. Superhero has baggage. Like any broad character archetype, the word superhero brings to mind certain images and conventions that you don’t necessarily want. For most people, saying superhero will bring to mind a big guy in tights and a cape, who flies around saving people from burning buildings. But if your character isn’t anything like that, it may hinder your attempts to make them unique and interesting.

3. Superhero is generic and unhelpful. As much as the term may conjure up stereotypes you don’t want, it’s also a pretty broad category that doesn’t really tell the reader much about this particular person. It tells me they have powers, and that they are supposedly heroic (or villainous). That’s not even necessarily accurate; Batman is certainly a superhero, but has no supernatural abilities. What I’d rather see is a description of the powers or whatever is remarkable about their skills, and a reason why they’re considered a hero or villain. Better yet, show me. You can usually kill two birds with this one scene by showing them using their powers for good or ill.

It’s not that the word doesn’t have its uses. It certainly does. As with everything, context is important. But as a shorthand description as I often see it used, it’s pretty weak. There will always be a better word to use as a descriptive. This is English; we probably have fifty words for “good guy” and “bad guy” that will better apply to any particular character.

At least, that’s my opinion. Agree or disagree? Chime in!

7 thoughts on ““Superhero””

  1. Interesting thoughts, Alex. I hadn’t really considered the term in quite that way before. Makes sense. In general, I agree that specific adjectives or showing/illustrating something with action is better than using a generic term, even one as fun as “superhero.” 🙂

  2. Agreed Alex. Though there are exceptions like, “Who do you think you are, some kind of superhero?” Something like that is probably acceptable, when it is used in more of a derogatory form and not as an adjective of your main character.

  3. Oh, sure, it’s fine in dialogue. I just don’t like it as a quick and easy adjective.

    Though I probably take it too seriously. I just cringe when I see it is all.

  4. Just found your blog Alex. Good superhero stuff. I’ve been thinking about writing a superhero skit (vacation place that asks for Friday night skits. I know. Corny, but…) and your discussion makes me want to explore it further. I want to exaggerate the stereotypes, you know something corny like Superman’s x-ray vision blasting the girls bunkhouse when he all heated up. Any thoughts?

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Gay!

    I find superhero spoofs funniest when they intersect with the real world. There was a classic Saturday Night Live sketch about the casting of the original Superman (one of the early seasons, obviously). The audition was the producer shooting you; if you survived, clearly you were invulnerable and right for the part. 🙂

    Sitcom humor works well, too. Misunderstandings and euphemism can work great when people are in tights and often found in compromising positions with villains or sidekicks.

    I think you’re on the right track. Power not quite working the way the hero expects is always great. Someone underestimating how strong they are, or the petite little female bucking expectations and throwing a guy twice her size, that sort of thing.

    Let me know what you come up with!

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