I’m kind of stalled on my space western at the moment, but last night I began a new superhero flash piece. I wrote a paragraph or two, and when it came time for this guy to start using his powers, I wondered at how important or unimportant most people consider the actual powers when they read stories about metahumans.

This probably seems like a no-brainer to most people; if anything distinguishes a super-powered hero from a run-of-the-mill hero is the supernatural powers, right? (For the moment we’ll set aside guys like Batman or Green Arrow.)

When I was younger, I completely agreed with that. I had to know exactly how Bishop’s power worked, or what Magneto’s limits were. The bright splashes of color and people getting knocked through walls and thrown into orbit is what really made those stories fun.

But over the last few years I find that I don’t really care all that much. Powers are important insofar as they inform people’s personality, sure; someone who is invulnerable may approach a situation or relationship differently from someone who is a telepath. But I find that the actual details just aren’t all that important to me, or even find them tedious, getting in the way of the stories and character interactions that I actually want to read. In my last post, I mentioned briefly that over the last few years, Matt Murdock has hardly spent any time in the Daredevil costume – in essense, Daredevil has hardly been in the Daredevil series. And I didn’t really care. The problems of Murdock’s personal life, and the consequences of all those years during which he was wearing the costume, were interesting enough to keep the series more that simply afloat. Matt is one of those rare superheroes who is just as interesting without the mask as with it.

When Ultimate Spider-Man debuted, it got a lot of flack because the costume doesn’t even show up until issue 6 (or whenever it was, somewhere around then). When I read, I didn’t even notice. Who cares about this Spidey guy? There’s a perfectly entertaining Peter Parker here keeping me interested.

That’s not to say I don’t like the costumes and the energy beams. But I just don’t feel like I need to know exactly how many tons Colossus can lift. He’s a big guy, and he’s really strong. Move along. I want to see him have a beer with Wolverine. I want to know if he’s going to hook up with Kitty Pryde.

When I sit down to start writing a new hero, I tend to initially assign them a generic set of tank powers – strong, tough, maybe they fly. If the story needs them to have something else, I’ll change it. Personality first, powers second or third.

Along that same vein is the origin story – I don’t consider how they got their powers nearly as important as why they’ve decided to use their powers for this particular purpose. Power sources are usually pretty silly anyway, which is why I consider the advent of the mutant to be a pretty important milestone. Trim the fat.

As a result of all this, I’m afraid I’m too lazy on the power side of things. Most of the heroes I’ve created are pretty basic – tanks (like the Scarlet Ranger), energy manipulators (like Starburst, Radio Gal, or the Chicago Defender), or mages (like Sevastian or Tenebrous). Do I need to try and stretch and come up with new abilities? Is it even worth the bother considering the glut of metahumans already on the market? Would it distract me from what I consider priorities? I don’t want someone to look at one of my stories and roll their eyes and say “Oh, hey, another dude that shoots lasers out of his eyes, pass!” but I also don’t want to get bogged down in unimportant details or force myself to come up with something really weird that takes a lot of explaining to even be remotely understandable.

I guess this falls pretty much into the same category as “how much technospeak do you want in your science fiction?” I think most people would agree they want it kept to a minimum, especially since most of it’s just made-up nonsense to begin with. But a superhero’s powers can actually be a pretty important part of their personality, so it becomes a more relevant, and difficult, issue for me.

Or maybe I’m just getting old and thinking about it too much.


3 thoughts on “Powers”

  1. I think it depends a bit on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. A story that focuses on a single character should keep the power set simple, so that the reader can relate. (Take Kirkman’s Invincible; Invincible is the most basic “tank” character you can think of, but it doesn’t matter, because that’s not really what the story’s about.) If you want to do larger things with an entire team, then you need to come up with more creative origins and powers to differentiate them–and you need to go a step beyond that as well, to avoid the accusations of creating a JLA-clone.

  2. I think you’re right — the character, the personality, they are much more important than details about a superhero’s powers. The powers are interesting in how they shape the personality.

    Though, in the spirit of twisting the genre and doing that ellusive “something new,” if you get an idea for a super power that is unique, then I’d go for it. But if you don’t, I wouldn’t worry about it too much, as it really is the characters that make these stories fly (pun only partially intended 😉 ).

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