I was hoping you could help me with a problem my story. It complicated but the base of it is a boy who is a part of a superpower race. He was separated from his family as an Infant and adopted by human parents. They don’t notice his abilities (which in short is super strength) but still they raise him and let him attend a school. His powers are dormant and he gets bullied. I’m trying to find a way for him to accidentally activate his powers and harm the bullies but not kill them.
You know the answer to this one in your heart.
He kills them. Or, at least, he kills one of them.
That’s the situation you’ve created for yourself, and, you know, it is a great one for angst. This is a classic superhero setup, there are a certain number of power-types and power levels that won’t automatically result in accidental death when put under a stress test but the kind of punch through a wall/punch a bus super strength isn’t one of them. (Much less Superman or Hulk levels of super strength.) The only get out of jail free cards are against government agents, assassins, and other soldiers-types so far beyond the level of what a normal child can deal with that it’s obviously self-defense.
Physical damage to another person is path of least resistance, which means this boy could easily end up hitting back and putting his fist through the bully’s chest. When you’ve got enough force behind you, you don’t hit people and they fly backwards. At a certain level of force, you just go through them. If he can crush a human skull with his hands when he’s controlling himself, then whatever he does when his powers activate is going to be 100x worse. If he’s powerful enough to stop a bus in its tracks, they’re dead.
This is the Uncle Ben setup from Spiderman. “With great power come great responsibility.” If you don’t figure out how to control yourself, then bad shit happens. Death is a great lesson about the necessity for control. Most superheroes have some secret shame or someone they accidentally killed when they’re powers activated, especially bullied teenagers.
Beyond that, bullying doesn’t play with superheroes and super-powered individuals the same way it would in a situation between two humans. The problem is power dynamics.
Bullying is not about violence. Bullying is about power and control.
A bully attacks when there’s no fear of repercussions, no fear of consequences. This is why having consequences for violence in your fiction is so important, when you’re characters are making choices and taking action without fear of the consequences for those actions (and the follow through) they are bullies. They may be bullies we sympathize with, but they’re still bullies.
A character with superpowers versus the average human not only has the ability to act, but the ability to act without repercussions. If you imagined that their superpowers opened up a whole new venue for their fight against injustice against non-powered humans then that’s exactly what I mean. Their powers give them the freedom to act without fear and control others through the threat of violence when they are at no risk themselves. That is a bully and that is the logic behind how a bully operates.
Bullies act when they are entirely safe, when they know their opponent can’t fight back. Superpowers upend the scales, even when the character doesn’t know, a superpowered individual standing up to a bully who can’t actually hurt them is just another bully. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the accomplishment, nothing to bond the reader to them. There is nothing impressive about a character standing up or inflicting violence on another individual when the individual in question is powerless to stop them.
Violence in fiction is built on balance. Balance creates tension, two people of similar ability balance each other out and we as the audience know there’ll be some consequences to the scuffle. Audience expectation is not necessarily based in reality, but this is why weigh ins at prize fights are so important. The weight is supposed to show that they’re at least equal in this very narrow respect, regardless of any other aspect.
When you set the scales out of balance, you want your hero to be the underdog. Not secretly empowered, just an underdog. The odds are weighted against them, they’ll have to work harder in order to win. When the scales are weighted in the protagonist’s favor, they have the responsibility to act accordingly. This is where a surprise death can be so effective. An example is when a soldier character is in a recently conquered village and killed by a subdued villager. The situation was safe and then boom: death.
There are certain traits that will ensure the scales are permanently weighted in a character’s favor against certain opponents. Combat training, for example. Superpowers are another. Both require restraint and responsible use against specific opponents for the character to be perceived as a good person.
Remember, you’re never just balancing how reality works in your fiction. You’re also balancing audience expectation, genre conventions, pacing, and narrative tension. For obvious reasons, fictional fights and entertainment work differently than they do in real life. Fiction has a hierarchy of power that dictates expected behavior based on the skills one possesses. Working off generic assumptions rather than situational specifics based on your characters will only lead to a bad fight scene.
There is no narrative tension in a situation where the character was never actually in any danger. If you have no narrative tension, you have no scene. You’re just mashing puppets together.
Whenever you set out to write a fight scene, there’s one question you need to ask first: is my character in danger? If they’re not, then the tension’s got to come from somewhere else.
It’s got to be more than just an excuse to get your character to show their powers. That’s a narrative inevitability, not tension. Is my character going to kill this guy? That’s tension when the question jives with the character’s personal state and mentality. If not, then it’s a false question. The question has to be real and relate to the character as a genuine possibility.
Stories are built on the pervading question of: what happens? Answering that question creates the scenes which move the story along. Those questions create other questions, all of which should have a myriad of possible outcomes. Or, at the very least, a tick and a tock. Both the tick and the tock should have an equal chance of happening with the narrative consequences hanging on the outcome. Yes, or no. Life, or death. Kill, or be killed. However, these questions must be genuine, honest, representative of who your characters are, and relevant to their circumstances. If they’re not, you have no tension.
Narrative tension shifts as your characters make decisions, and moves based on desired outcomes versus the negative outcomes while weighted by audience expectation. There’s no tension in a character who wants to die dying, but there is if they realize they want to live and dying is still on the table. If they still plan on dying, and roll with “I’m taking you with me” as a heroic sacrifice then the tension lies in whether they succeed or fail. If they do die, but succeed then we get a cathartic release. The tension then shifts and lands on the surviving heroes, who realize they just lost one of their most valuable warriors on whom they can now no longer rely. Or, they live, and are cut off from helping our heroes anyway. Or, they get murdered by the Big Bad and the stakes have been tripled.
See, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re looking for that little part of you that goes, No! whenever some terrible event is about to happen.
Take Jedi Knight Ganner Rhysode’s heroic last stand in Matthew Stover’s Traitor to cover Jacen Solo and Vergere’s escapes from the Yuuzhan Vong seed world. A lackluster and generic Jedi formerly interested only in personal glory and recognition, fighting an alien warrior race from outside the galaxy who’ve already killed countless better Jedi. A joke of a Jedi now the only one standing between Jacen Solo’s freedom, the galaxy, and conquest by the Vong. He’s framed in a gate, unlikely to defeat even one Vong warrior instead of the hundreds coming. Wielding Anakin Solo’s lightsaber, he battles until he’s standing on a pile of bodies, until the pile is a mountain, until… finally… he’s cut down. Alone, in the dark, where there’s no one to witness or remember his heroism except his sworn enemies.
Let’s get back to bullying.
Combat is 90% mind games and 10% actual physical harm. The bully lives in the 90% more than the 10%. They have a finely tuned understanding of risk assessment, and a need to establish control over their environment. They are frightened individuals whose lives are out of control, and they regain control by inflicting their fear on someone else. They’re taking out their insecurities on their victim. Ultimately, the bully is punishing their victim for the bully’s inability to control their own life. The bully builds their self-identity off their ability to take power from their victims, and that’s what makes them dangerous. From the bully’s perspective, a bully’s bullying is always about the bully’s self-esteem and self-identity. Their victim is a tool whose pain and powerlessness they utilize in order to make them feel good about themselves.
There’s a fantasy in conventional wisdom that lies with the idea that if you just stand up to the bully they’ll go away. They won’t. Often, the bullying will escalate and get worse. If a bully’s identity and self-esteem relies on their victim’s powerlessness then they must exert control over their victim. When their victim challenges that control, challenges their authority, they double down. You can have a character with superpowers retaliate against bullies but, unless they’ve got the perspective of Eleven from Stranger Things, all they’ll manage to do is get them to retreat for a short period. Then, they return with a new plan and new ways to bait their victim.
Say you’ve got a character with super strength who is trying to hide their powers from the public. The bullies discovered this character has powers because the character used those powers against them. However, they lived and said character wasn’t in control. Which means… they now move the bullying into a public sphere with other people present. Minor stuff in the hall, during PE, in class, all to get said other child to lash out. Bullies do this. If private doesn’t work anymore, they’ll move over to public. Slightly more risk but they’ll use social order and the victim’s own fears of discovery to enforce their control. After all, the stakes for the character with superpowers are much higher than they are for the bully.
A bully doesn’t care about what their victim can do. They only care about what they will do. A bully is making and taking calculated risks based on the knowledge of their environment and the power they wield. They almost always have some sort of safety net behind them, a powerful protector who lets them get away with their behavior. Like most humans, the bully will revert to their first impression and work off that. You can have superpowers, but that doesn’t mean those superpowers will protect you from a bully.
Duncan versus Scott Summers in X-men: Evolution is a great example of the bullying continuing even after Duncan learns Scott is a mutant. He knows what Scott is willing to do, what Scott won’t do, and that the cost of the outcome is much higher for Scott than Duncan. By baiting Scott, Duncan potentially gets what he wants which is Scott kicked out of school. If Scott opens his eyes after Duncan steals his glasses, bye, bye Bayfield.
The kids on the bus bullying the school bus driver are usually the ones with influential parents. Or, they know that the stakes for the adult if the adult retaliates are higher. Maybe the kid gets a dressing down, but the adult loses their job.
Another great example of bullying in fiction is the first season of Stranger Things with Mike and his friends. Where when Eleven shames the bully by forcing him to pee his pants in front of the whole class, the bully just waits for an opportunity where she’s not there. He escalates, comes back with a knife and threatens to cut out Dustin’s teeth if Mike doesn’t jump into the quarry. (And kill himself.) Eleven saves Mike, but what ultimately drives the bully off for good isn’t just Eleven breaking bones. It’s the knowledge that she will kill him, mercilessly, quickly, and without remorse because this child is no different to her than the Federal agents who abused her. It isn’t the broken arm, or the superpowers, it’s the fact that Eleven is goddamn terrifying. It all happens at a speed too quickly for the bully to comprehend.
Bullying is about who can escalate further faster, bullies live in the comfortable state of knowing they can get there first, and they can go higher than you can. Whatever they’re showing in their hand, they’ve got a lot more lined up. Bullies are all about calculated risk. They wouldn’t be bullying if they didn’t have a firm grasp of social politics and an ability to manipulate the surrounding power structure to their own benefit. They’re sharp, and they pick their victims. They’re going after a personality-type, someone who is socially isolated and easy to intimidate. Someone without connections, someone whom when they’re both dragged up in front of an authority figure they can point at the victim and the authority will believe its the victim’s fault. Or, at best, equally to blame.
You can’t beat bullying with violence and you can’t stop a bully with violence, not as a long term solution. I don’t mean this as advocating for pacifism. Bullying is about power and power dynamics, it’s about control. I wish punching a bully was enough to make them go away. I wish having superpowers and punching a bully would be enough to make the bully go away. I honestly wish the catharsis of this entire setup was more than just an exercise in catharsis and Feel Good Violence. However, none of these states are true. In point of fact, violent bullying itself is Feel Good Violence. That’s why bullies engage in bullying. Controlling another human being is cathartic, it feels good and it makes them feel good. This why you authors who’ve never personally experienced violence or engaged with violence beyond the schoolyard should be careful with your characters. The first step on the path your imagination will lead you when it comes to violence is bullies, because bullying feels good. It is easier to simulate abuse and abusers as violence in fiction than it is any other form of personality, especially when you’re trying to exert some measure of control over your environment through your art.
When a bully is beat up, the bully only ever learns the same lesson that the bully already understands. For a character with superpowers, by beating up a bully they become a bully.
Superman can’t beat up bullies because the bullies can’t actually hurt him. They can hurt his feelings, but when they shove him into the locker he can’t feel it. In fact, he doesn’t have to move if he doesn’t want to. He could stop being bullied at any point in time, but he doesn’t. The reason why Superman doesn’t stop bullies from bullying him isn’t just about keeping up appearances. The truth is that when you deflect a bully off yourself, you don’t stop them from bullying. They just find a new target. This is why you can’t save someone from being bullied, you can make the bully afraid of you but that does a fat lot of good when you’re not there. With Superman, or Peter Parker, or Scott Summers, the bullies bullying them is safer than it would be if they were bullying the average human being. In some ways, these superpowered characters save those vulnerable characters around them by taking up the bully’s attention. (This is not a method you should be replicating in real life, these are rules for characters who can survive being tossed off a fifty foot cliff.)
The problem in fiction with human bullies versus superpowered characters is power dynamics. A character with superpowers inherently has more power than a human being, therefore the rules are different for them.