Superhero Nation: how to write superhero novels, comic books and superhero books » Superhero types and how to differentiate yours (Part 1)

May 20 2010

Superhero types and how to differentiate yours (Part 1)


  • The student/superhero usually goes to A School Just Like Yours for maximum relatability, but sometimes the school is more unusual (for example, superhero academies like the Xavier Institute for mutants or Sky High or the school for supergeniuses that Tony Stark attends in Ultimate Ironman).
  • Whether you go with a typical school or something more extraordinary, I’d definitely recommend differentiating the school if you set any scenes there.  For example, instead of doing just another school, maybe it’s an inner-city school.  Or a school in an area so preposterously wealthy that the kids have plastic surgeons on speed-dial.  Or maybe the petty rivalries between students are notably fierce.  Or maybe the kids are training to lead humanity against the Bug hordes.  Just do SOMETHING with it besides being a default school–otherwise, it probably won’t have very much personality.
  • Similar to the previous point, how do you differentiate your leads from Peter Parker?  What are some conflicts your student characters might have that a character like Peter Parker wouldn’t?
  • In terms of conflicts at school, can you do something fresher than using jocks vs. dorks?  Thanks.  There are so many ways kids split into cliques  and screw each other–surely you can come up with something!  (For example, see Mean Girls or the house system in Harry Potter or mutants vs. humans in X-Men).
  • Student superheroes are probably more prevalent in cartoons (which are usually aimed at something like an 8-13 audience) than superhero comic books (which almost always rely on men aged ~18-30).  If you’re doing a comic book about a student superhero, many (most?) of your prospective readers are probably significantly older than a high school or junior high student.  So just doing a straight-up story about the character getting through high school or maybe even college probably wouldn’t work very effectively for enough people that actually go to comic book stores.  In the world of novels, Ender’s Game and Lord of the Flies successfully retained older readers with stakes that are considerably higher than, say, making the cheerleading squad.

Noble Strangers

  • This is a character whose differentness is a major part of his origin story.  They are often alien or foreign to most of the other characters around them.  For example, Superman and Martian Manhunter are aliens, and Wonder Woman and Black Panther and Aquaman hail from magical Mary Suetopias.
  • The character will usually have either no flaws or subdued flaws.  Are we really supposed to hold it against Superman and Wonder Woman that they are too nonlethal?   Additionally, the character’s native society will usually be utopian.  One alternative would be that he is a refugee (or official/tourist/emissary/field researcher/used ray gun salesman/whatever) from a place that has a lot of shadiness going on, like the imperialist Krypton analogue in Invincible. Adding depth to the society usually makes the stranger more interesting.  Another choice to consider is whether the character is a child or an adult when he leaves his homeland.  I find that it usually says more about the character and his decision to leave if he departs as an adult, but do what fits your story best.  (For example, Superman’s all-American childhood helps give him relatability and ties into his moral decision to become a superhero).
  • Conflict between the noble stranger and the locals (or their values or customs or laws) usually plays a significant part of the plot.  The most cliche way to do this would probably be “KILL THE FOR’NERS!”, but it could be as simple as the locals curtly enforcing a “no shirt, no service” policy.  I’M LOOKING AT YOU, NAMOR.  (AND TRYING NOT TO).
  • On a superhero team, the stranger(s) might conflict with the locals in values or methods.   For example, Superman vs. Batman.
  • Noble strangers don’t usually have much relatability.  One unusual possibility: what if we’re meant to relate more to the stranger than the locals?  Peter Parker is arguably a noble stranger when he’s on the Avengers by virtue of being the only normal guy there.  For more examples of normal characters thrust into strange worlds, please see Avatar, District 9, Dancing with Wolves, Pocahontas, The Taxman Must Die, Escaflowne, Bleach, Inuyasha, etc.

Part 2 here.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Superhero types and how to differentiate yours (Part 1)”

  1. anonomuson 01 Jul 2010 at 11:17 am

    I like your way of thinking about giving examples to generate ideas

  2. MemeticRachelon 07 Feb 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Hey there. I’ve been a long time lurker around this website for a while now, and it has helped me so much in my writing. I especially love The Taxman Must Die!
    I have a quick question, though: would you say that the ‘school for mutants’ idea is overdone, and any story based around it will automatically be connected to the X-Men? I have a story such as this in the planning stages, and a lot of people are telling me that this is a cliched and tired idea, which while be difficult to make different and ‘fresh’ What is your opinion on the matter?

  3. B. McKenzieon 07 Feb 2012 at 5:08 pm

    “Would you say that the ‘school for mutants’ idea is overdone, and any story based around it will automatically be connected to the X-Men?” If the only thing that was notable about the school was that it was an academy for mutants, X-Men would probably come to mind. Here are some ways you might be able to distinguish your school:

    Maybe you have different reasons that mutants want to go to school with mutants rather than a regular school. I would say that the main reason that students go to the Xavier Academy is that there’s discrimination at regular schools and/or their powers would create safety hazards at regular schools. There are quite a lot of other reasons that students and/or parents might want to try a private school. (Some examples: “Johnny’s not being pushed hard enough in his classes,” “Luke’s got academic issues and he’s not getting enough individual instruction,” behavioral issues, “Joe’s incredible at math and science [or athletics or dance or music or pretty much any specialized interest] and this school has phenomenal resources to help him reach the next level,” “I really want to be a superhero and/or commando,” etc).

    Another possibility would be incorporating regular people in a different way. If the school is meant to foster understanding between nonmutants and mutants, it’d be intuitive that there would be at least a few nonmutants there. If nothing else, maybe younger siblings of mutants. If a sibling and/or a parent is a mutant, the parents might want the younger siblings there because they COULD become mutants at some point and because nobody knows how dangerous their prospective powers might be. It might suck for the younger siblings, though, especially if the siblings want to get back to regular school with their friends and/or are praying that they do not become mutants).

    Another possibility would be examining why the school was founded in the first place. In the movies and TV shows (but generally not the comics), Xavier is usually a purely heroic figure without any vaguely objectionable thoughts ever*. Maybe the head of your school has a more conflicted relationship with humans? Maybe he himself is a human and is setting up the school for some reason besides concern for mutant welfare? (For example, maybe he’s closer to the CIA handlers in X-Men: First Class than he is to Xavier). Alternately, maybe he played some role in the origin story (e.g. doing something that increased the prevalence of mutations) and feels guilty about how that’s worked out for the kids.

    *Uhh, actually, if I were a parent, I’d be concerned that he’s sending kids on incredibly dangerous paramilitary operations and hires at least one instructor with homicidal tendencies, but the movies and shows usually present Xavier’s decisions as totally pure. Even with extremely careful supervision, I’m thinking that Xavier would face a series of felony charges related to training minors in the “Danger Room.”

  4. MemeticRachelon 08 Feb 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Perfect! Thank you so much. I’ve developed the idea a bit more, and have decided that:
    1. The founder, principal and mentor of the school is actually a human posing as a mutant, hoping to use the student’s powers for herself (yes, it’s a woman. I thought that having a female mentor would be different!) She faces a lot of problems from the humans also, mainly due to the huge bullying, neglect and behavioural problems at the school.
    2. The parents of the children are mostly wary and cautious of allowing their children to attend; the principal has to coerce, force and occasionally brainwash them into sending their children to a school where they are often injured, maimed or killed being trained to use their powers.
    3. Some of the children there themselves do not want to be there ad run away. When that happens, the mentor sends lackeys to recapture them and uses one of the obedient telepathic students to wipe their suspicious memories or thoughts.
    4. The mentor herself is a very racist person, and after taking control of all of the mutants she plans to get rid of them- she sees them as unnatural freaks.
    What do you think? I had briefly thought about making the mentor a racist in the other sense- that is, she hates humans and everything to do with them and believes that mutants are the ‘next step’ for evolution. Therefore, she wishes to give everyone powers, or get rid of anyone who doesn’t have any. Would tht be better or worse?
    So, what do you think?

  5. VisaVion 22 Feb 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Hi all. I’ve been a long time lurker around this very excellent webaite for some time now, and have only recently gained the confidence to write my own superhero story, mainly due to the excellent advice and encouragement offered here. So, I’ve decided to finally participate and ask for some advice! The few people I have showed this to insist that it is a lot like X-Men, and I am wondering how true that is, as I don’t want to have a very cliched story.
    My story is set in the modern day, but a modern day where ‘freaks’ are shunned and feared. Every year from the age of twelve, children are tested for any signs of powers, as this is around the age that the abilities manifest. If the powers turn up, the children are taken from their parents and homes and brought to the ‘ghettos’, where they stay with the other freaks and are trained to use their abilities by government assigned mentors and trainers. The children are used in conflict and crime-fighting whenever it is convenient to the government, and essentially have zero rights. They are split up into classifications (type of power), grades (strength of power), and then grouped so that each ‘team’ has a set of powers that compliment each other. The story starts when my main character, Kenzie, takes her fifth test at the age of fifteen and is discovered to be a freak withthe abilities of intangibility and occasional teleportation, if she is panicking or in pain (the teleportation only activates as a last resort, a survival instinct to keep her alive). She is then sent to the ghettos to be trained and is forced to experience racism from the other side.
    The powers in my story are due to a mutation in the freaks’ DNA. Not much is known about it, but the normals fear the freaks anyway because they often appear strange, have outbursts of abilities that are often dangerous to civilians, or are simply different. A sub-plot involves the fight for rights for the freaks, and the fact that several are turning to violence, crime and riots to get what they want. The freaks are eventually split into three- those who want peaceful equality, those who want equality and don’t care how they get it, and those who belive that freaks are better than the normals.
    What do you think? Do you have any comments on flaws or criticisms? I am looking specifically for problems with this, as I would really like to improve! If you have any ideas for different powers for Kenzie, they will be greatly appreciated as this is just a rough outline. Thank you.

  6. Anonymouson 22 Feb 2012 at 5:15 pm

    How does a “atheletes vs artists” conflict in a school sound?

    There’s always prejudice against the artists because people tend to think it’s useless and there’s no real stable career out of it. But I don’t know what the artists think about the athletes.

    My hero is part of the artists group because she loves to draw. Maybe later on after she’s gained her powers she can start to attract the attention of the coaches and sort of pressured into being an athlete at school and looked down by the artists for being a sell out.

    How does that sound?

  7. B. McKenzieon 22 Feb 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I like the artist angle, but the athlete angle has been used very often. It’s hard to tell, without having any idea of what your characters are like and how you will individualize them, but personally I’m sort of fatigued when it comes to (usually one-dimensionally nasty) jocks and/or popular kids as school antagonists. I think empathy for both groups, but especially the antagonists, would help the conflict feel more memorable.

    Some variations that come to mind:
    –The character starts out as an athlete and subsequently becomes interested in art. (I think this could give you a better opportunity to develop athletic characters, which I think will be harder than the artistic ones).

    –Poets/artsy writers vs. journalists/commercialized writers. It might be easier to incorporate journalism into a superhero story than athletics–for example, journalists raise the stakes on secret identities and it’s probably easier to do journalist-superhero conflict or support than athlete-superhero conflict or support.

  8. Comicbookguy117on 22 Feb 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Um… B.Mac I tried to post my first issue on my review forum. It took it, but it didn’t post it. What happened? Did I do something wrong?

  9. B. McKenzieon 22 Feb 2012 at 6:46 pm

    I put it through. It’s displaying now.

  10. Comicbookguy117on 22 Feb 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Cool thanks.

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