Two important comic book facts to know about me:
1.) Marvel forever. I asked my future-husband when dating whether he liked Marvel or DC more–and if he had said DC, who knows where we would have ended up? 😉
2.) X-Men rules. I am a huge fan of the creative (albeit sometimes ridiculous) superpowers, the concept of being ordinary people alienated for something they can’t control, and the wide cast of characters (until M-Day and…I’m still not sure how I feel about that).
Anyway, sufficed to say I saw X-Men: Age of Apocalypse with my husband on Memorial Day. This isn’t a movie review, because I am highly biased and have no desire to approach dissecting the movie rationally. Plot holes? Oh yes. Underused mutants? Absolutely. Crazy anti-climactic moments where a major catastrophe is broken up by a certain speedy mutant saving the day to 80s pop music? Yes, please! And through all that, an underlying thread of meaning and regret and purpose. What I love about X-Men is that these aren’t larger-than-life superheroes or driven soldiers. These are kids and professors and losers from their parents basements who come together to make a difference.
That brings me to the tips! Special abilities. Some people dub it magic. You could also say affinities or abilities or talents. I usually label any extraordinary skills superpowers, just for the sake of simplicity. I even put Adrian Monk from Monk in this category. Whatever word you prefer, having a special oomph in a certain area can amp up characterization, super-charge the plot, and just be a lot of fun to mess around with.
1.) Make the superpowers contrast a character’s personality
Contrast is one of my favorite story buzzwords, simply because tossing in a contrast is a super-easy way to create interest, tension, and conflict–all things that push plot. In this case, give the character a power, talent, or racial ability that directly goes against their innate tendencies. Make a quiet, brainy girl a Phoenix. Give a lazy, basement-dwelling guy super speed. Make a dragonshifter afraid of heights–and even fire! Or, for a more normal twist, make a pacifist a natural with a weapon. This creates internal conflict as the character struggles against their own gifts, and that will go a long way to making them more interesting. It also pushes for the characters to grow and expand in their perception of the world, for good or for ill. Make a thoughtful, rational person an empath, and suddenly they have to cope with all of the emotions of those around them. This could drive them crazy, but it could also force them to understand and appreciate the individuals around them more.
Note: be careful that the contrast isn’t so agonizing that the character spends the entire time whining about it. Then it just becomes annoying. Also, be advised that when you choose to go the route of contrast, it will take over a significant part of the character’s arc, and possibly the plot as well.
2.) Make the superpowers an extension of the character’s personality
This takes the opposite side of contrast, but if done correctly, it can be equally effective. Adrian Monk from Monk fits this to a tee, with his OCD giving him the ‘superpower’ of being highly detail-oriented (combined with human intuition). Another example is Iron Man, whose suits are literally an extension of his incredible intellect. A third? Steve Rogers. While he could also fit into the ‘contrast’ category as a weakling given superhuman capabilities, his heart, honor, and code of ethics are already superhuman. The physical stuff is just part and parcel. Their superpowers become part of a character’s identity, because they are already synced with their natural inclinations. Not only does this make their personality larger than life (helpful if your character is an introvert), but it also means that the superpowers can be woven into their origin stories in a very organic way. Consider how the death of Monk’s wife spurred his OCD, as well as his desire to track her killer. The more you can weave a superpower into a character’s psyche and make it natural, the easier it can be for the audience to accept it.
Note: be careful the superpower doesn’t take over the actual characterization. Story-tellers often find making personality and power match substitutes for actually digging into their brains and making them tick. While this can work for tertiary/side characters, it’s unsatisfying for primary or secondary characters.
3.) Make the superpowers have serious side effects
Some superpowers are innate, especially racial superpowers, like elvish nature-abilities or Vulcan telepathy. Others come about unnaturally, but end up helping the character (even if they hinder them at times). However, there’s always a third kind: the awful ones. Rogue’s life-force suctioning, denying her basic human touch. Scott Summers’ energy beams, which require that he wear ruby quartz glasses 24/7. In my Houses of the Dead, the abilities of each Blood Kind house have equally matching psychological conditions: super-senses get a sensory processing disorder, charisma opens up social conditions, and high intellect equals neuroses and savant syndromes. Any of the above make a superpower more than just fun escapism. They make things serious, and ground the story in a sense of reality. In real life, things have consequences–and adding side effects or difficulties increases the potential for consequences and disaster in the narrative. And that pushes plot.
Note: be mindful of audience expectations and the expectation of your genre. Serious side effects often add a dim or even depressing tone to a story. Readers like superpowers for escapism and may not always want a power laden with Serious Repercussions. If you’re going the route of heavy side effects, try to find ways of adding in moments of lightness or humor. Unless you’re going super grimdark.
Thanks for tuning in! Character-Building From the Inside Out should be out by the end of the summer. In the meantime, please comment with your own favorite or least favorite superpowers and share why–as well as the superpower you’d like to have! Broad categories count; if you really want to be an elf, that race counts as a superpower. 🙂