Tag Archives: writing superheroes

Q&A: Bullies and Superpowers

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.

That’s tension.

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.

-Michi

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Q&A: Powerful Characters

If I already set a character to be very powerful/skilled in a fantasy setting (either like making them canonically the most powerful swordsman in the world, or giving them abilities to do something like cut a castle wall with a sword), how do I keep tension in a fight scene/story? How do I make a fight scenes with overpowered characters entertaining other than giving them more powerful enemy to fight or weakening them somehow?

There’s two types of powerful characters in fiction: Wish fulfillment power and power with consequences.

Wish fulfillment power is boring, and no amount of creativity is really going to make it interesting. This power is here to give us a high, make us feel powerful as the self-insert and then go away. The fight scenes based on wish fulfillment power never lead anywhere, they never do anything for the story. I’m not saying these characters won’t be popular, they are but they’re also not interesting.

Power with Consequences is interesting. If Superman used his powers at their full strength, regardless of his intentions, he’d be seen as a villain by everyone in his setting. He must moderate his abilities for the enemies he faces because otherwise he’ll be more terrifying than they are. That’s tension.

With Superman the question should never be: can he save the day? We know he will. There’s no tension in the question, it’s not up for debate. The real question is, can he do it without wrecking a city block or destroying Metropolis?

Regardless of their powers and abilities, a hero must still live in their world. If your swordsman can cut a castle wall in half, then that’s great up until the moment where he needs somewhere to stay and no tavern or local inn will have him due to the trouble he’ll bring.

The more powerful you are, the more famous you are. The more famous you are, the more challengers come crawling out of the woodwork to face you. The more challengers who crawl from the woodwork to challenge you in order to take the crown of “Best Swordsman” then the greater likelihood innocent people, their homes, and their means of making a living will be caught in the crossfire. Whether it’s a sword strike that levels a farmer’s field or a mass battle with hundreds dead, that farmer still will have their field destroyed. If it’s destroyed, then they’ve no way to feed their family or sell their produce. They’ll starve.

It’s important to remember that no character, no matter how powerful they are, is free from the consequences of their actions.

This is the problem of characters who are “The Best” at something. The Best is a concept, it’s a title given to someone by others. They get it through competition, and the competition doesn’t stop just because they’ve been crowned.

“My character is the best swordsman in the world.”

So? The pinnacle of ability is a moving target. The Best At This Moment isn’t The Best Ever. Perfection is what we chase, it isn’t what we are. The closer we get to the top, the more heated the competition becomes. The more powerful you are, the more skilled you are, and the more your skill is recognized then the more battles you’re forced to fight. The Best is just more incentive for all those who want to be the best swordsman in the world to come take that title from them. Like Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin, your super skilled character will never be able to get away from challengers even after they’ve decided to retire.

The Best is a state determined by others in their field and not by the character themselves. They may think they’re the best swordsman or the best assassin in the world but they’ll still have to prove it. If they’re recognized as The Best it’s because of the battles they’ve fought to get there, usually killing someone else who was also considered The Best. When a character is The Best, all they’ve done is set the mark that others will strive to reach. Being at the top is painting a target on their back, and every single asshole who thinks their the best is going to jump at the chance to knock them off the pedestal. “The Best” is a nebulous concept, it’s a title, and titles can be taken.

When you’re famous, people speak about you in hushed whispers. They talk about you behind your back. You may be asked to leave because the guards are coming and yes, you could kill them but the tavern owner will pay the price after you’re gone.

Remember, characters other than yours will also pay the price for your super skilled character’s actions. If you played The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, think about how much attention Geralt gets. He can’t go anywhere without being noticed, and most places he’ll be recognized either as a Witcher or as Geralt, the White Wolf. He attracts powerful figures to him, those who will make his life difficult if he doesn’t provide them favors. He could probably kill the garrison commander who wants him to kill a griffon, but that’d just create more problems for him in the long run and end with the nearby village getting destroyed in retaliation. Violence won’t solve all your character’s problems, and definitely won’t provide any help with the social ones.

The better you are then the more responsible you’re expected to be. The more famous you are then just as many will hate you rather than love you. You are an unwitting rival to those who want the adulation you enjoy, and a thorn in the side of the socially powerful who’d rather you just went away.

A famous character creates problems for themselves in their own narrative by existing. They don’t need to do anything, the problems will find them the moment they step out their front door.

Himura Kenshin is probably one of my favorite examples of a powerful character who self-limits. 90% of the tensions in his fight scene aren’t built on whether or not he’ll survive, he probably will. He’s a famous manslayer who doesn’t want to kill anymore, and is trying to hold to that even as he’s forced into battle. The tension in his fight scenes is whether or not circumstances will force him to break with his self-imposed limitations, flip his blade over, and kill. (Rurouni Kenshin ignores blunt force trauma, but this is an issue for another day.)

Your famous, powerful swordsman may enter situations that handicap and essentially force them not to fight at their full potential. These handicaps are social rather than literal. They are self-limiting out of survival. Those handicaps create natural tension, especially when their enemies use the rules of the situation to their advantage. We see the potential consequences if the hero fails to abide by the social rules, and that reinforces your setting’s worldbuilding.

Kenshin could kill, and be justified in killing. However, killing betrays the person he’s trying to be and the philosophy he’s chosen to pursue. Skilled characters like Saito Hajime and Shishio Makoto actively challenge his philosophy in combat.

What brings a fight scene to life is the people in it. Tension comes from what will happen next and where the character’s actions take the narrative. The more powerful a character is then the more responsibility they have not to use those powers. That sounds backwards, I know. Why give a character powers if they won’t use them? The reason is that the other people who exist in the setting with them won’t stand by and take it. Power is fought or fought over.

You have a character who can cut through a wall with their sword? They will either end up the ruler of the kingdom (possibly just out of necessity) or every lord in the kingdom will come chasing them down to take that power for themselves. They can’t afford to have that power in the wild. The more power a character attains then the higher the stakes are for them. Extend the context beyond, “hey, my character can do all these cool things” to “what does it mean that my character can do these things?”

The consequence of power is that you are ultimately responsible for what you do with it.

When a character overreacts with their power in a situation that doesn’t warrant the reaction, they become the villain. An example is a character who can swing their sword to crack a castle wall uses that same techniques on bandits and ruins the road. Now, we have all these additional problems. They start with the asshole who blew up the road.

It is much more difficult to limit yourself so that you’re only just a little bit better than the people you’re fighting than it is going all out. However, for the warrior and martial artist, having control is a part of your responsibility. Acting reasonably and appropriately is a requirement. It is a social mandate, a choice made out of survival. Your character has to live in the world, if they throw their power around willy nilly no one will have food to sell them.

By pitting what a character can do versus what the situation allows for naturally creates it’s own tension. Superhero comics and anime do this all the time, there comes a point where the character’s abilities simply become to dangerous to the world around them. The focus shifts then to the character trying to fight while avoiding hurting the innocents around them. This is a challenge in and of itself. Moderating your ability to what is contextually appropriate and still win against someone who is going all out against you is more difficult than simply fighting.

This act of self-limiting gives the author the freedom to cloak the character’s true abilities and save their punch cards for when it counts, while also eventually bringing in more powerful enemies who will test the hero’s limits and press them to reveal more of their abilities as they a battle for their life. Then, the action versus consequence of the hero’s powers enter into the fray.

The trick to understanding this method is that self-limiting isn’t weakness, it’s acting responsibly. A black belt who spars a green belt or a blue belt must limit themselves. They fight on the green belt’s level rather than going all out like they would in practice with another black belt. The same rules apply to the “best swordsman in the world” being challenged by some random nobody in the middle of the street. If they go all out, they will have acted inappropriately and be seen as a villain by anyone watching. Their job is to mitigate and subdue, not kill. This often means resorting to skills your character may be less practiced at or less familiar with.

As a character, Superman is only interesting when he self-limits. You can’t treat Superman like Batman because he’s a different sort of character. Batman may be considered one of the best martial artists in the world, but that doesn’t help him much when he’s fighting Killer Croc. He faces challenges that test his intellectual ability from the Riddler, and a random thug on the street will still mess him up with a single well-placed bullet. The Best doesn’t mean invincible.

Batman has a host of weaknesses that make each and every battle with him interesting (in hands that know what they’re doing.) Superman is one where you’ve got to fight for it. If he lets loose, innocent people get hurt. If he roughs up thugs too badly then he’s the villain. Superman dangling a thug off the roof is a villainous route, no matter his intentions. Superman inevitably attracts far more dangerous villains to him than Batman. People are afraid of Batman, but no one’s really afraid of Batman. Everyone is hoping deep down that at the end of the day Superman is a good guy because they’re screwed if he’s not. We see groups like Cadmus refuse to take the risk.

We have to trust Superman and the question is, can you?

Think about the episodes from Justice League about the Justice Lords. A setting where Superman just straight up lobotomizes… everyone who disagrees with him.

When dealing with characters who have massive amounts of power then the more you need to internally justify the scene in the narrative and it has to lead somewhere. The consequences are important because not having them will break suspension of disbelief. The more power there is, the bigger the consequences there will be. If Superman levels a building in Metropolis then something better happen as a result. That’s the beginning of a story, not the end of it.

-Michi

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Did you see Wonder Woman? The fighting that the Amazons did was extremely choreographic and really beautiful to watch for a plebeian like me, but did it seem grounded in reality?

There’s nothing about Wonder Woman that’s grounded in reality. This is an intentional design decision and, to be fair, the likes of Atomic Blonde and Haywire aren’t either. In Haywire’s case, it’s because what makes for a good MMA fight is about as far from SpecOps as you can get.

The combat seen in Wonder Woman is stylistically designed to be superhuman because Diana and the Amazons are superhuman. They’re immortal, godlike beings who live on a paradise island hidden from the rest of the world. Their combat style and choreography emphasizes that aspect of their characters. It’s part of the visual storytelling ongoing to show us who and what they are.

Wonder Woman is the sort of archetypal character meant to inspire, who we look up at in wonder, who inspires us to be better, and to believe in ourselves.

The combat isn’t grounding in reality and it doesn’t need to be. In reality, we can’t reflect bullets with gauntlets and walking across No Man’s Land with just a shield would just lead to Diana’s legs being shot out from under her by a gatling gun. Realism isn’t the point of the movie though.
Besides that,
Wonder Woman
is no more realistic than Captain America fighting Nazis with a shield or Batman doing whatever Batman does in the Dark Knight. Or Athena kicking Ares keister in the Illiad.

Wonder Woman walking into the No Man’s Land is thematic not realistic, and that’s the same for the movie’s fight choreography. Hear it: Wonder Woman walks into No Man’s Land. You don’t even need the visual to feel a sense of awe. This woman walking where soldiers are scared to go.

This is archetypal, mythic storytelling with mythic heroes.

The problem is that “grounded in reality” has become the new version of “believable” or “suspension of disbelief” or “relateable” except with much more restrictive rules. Usually because this justification is really “I don’t like it, therefore”. Used more often to shut down conversation than start it, because “realism” sounds more legitimate than personal preference or inherent bias. If you’re ever in a discussion with someone and they can’t elaborate on why it isn’t “realistic” with a genre that was never about realism anyway, then you can usually say this is why.

Realism as an argument gets brought up a lot with superheroes, and the idea that anything in the superhero genre (and this includes superspies) is real is laughable. It’s called “superhero fiction” for a reason, and DC’s heroes from the Gold and Silver Age are all archetypal, mythic heroes who are better than humanity and through which we find the best of ourselves.

What’s real are the emotions and beliefs Wonder Woman inspires in you, the sense of awe, the wonder, and the hope. To hope for and fight for a better future than the one we see before us. To inspire our dreams so we find the courage to chase them. To look up at the stars instead of down at our feet.
To believe we’ll find victory so long as we keep getting up again.

To remind us we can change the world.

Sometimes, we just need freedom reality’s constraints to find the best in ourselves. Inspire us to see who we could be, beyond what we’ve previously believed to be possible.

You know how many glorious scientific inventions we have because of science fiction? Like hoverboards from Back to the Future. Or flip phones from Star Trek. They weren’t grounded in reality either when they were imagined. There was only the possibility they might, maybe exist… someday.

When discussing anything creative try and remember this: no is not a shut down nor does it remove the idea’s value.

Rather, any explanation on the subject is meant to help us gain a better understanding of the subject. The more we know then the more choices become available, and we’re able to pick the one best for us. 

The choreographers, directors, and producers who put together the Amazon’s combat style are people who have a firm grasp of how combat is supposed to work both onscreen and off it. They chose this route because what we see on screen is representative of the themes they had in mind and the story they were trying to tell. It was intentional, not accidental. They knew what they wanted.

The point is don’t be discouraged from chasing after a feeling or a dream just because fiction is what inspired you. The difference between fantasy and reality is the will we have to take ourselves there.

-Michi

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What are your thoughts on superheroes that use their powers and fighting skills to kill instead of just wound bad guys? Would the public be more likely turn against these people and accuse them of playing “judge, jury, and executioner” than if they had a code against killing? I ask because I’m writing for several superheroes, and I want them to have a code against killing (otherwise I couldn’t have recurring villains) but I’d like “public perception” to be why instead of “because it’s wrong”)

This is a time honored quandary about superheroes and morality. One that has been debated and debated and worked out in comics for a very long time. I’ll start by saying there’s no right answer, so there’s no wrong answer. Killing people is taking the law into your own hands, but so is chasing a bank robber with fire streaming out your hands and trying to blow them up on the highway as a means of stopping their getaway.

Public perception is important for heroes and so is morality, because if public opinion is the only thing driving our heroes forward then things’ll get shaky if they encounter the likes of J. Jonah Jameson. It’s worth remembering that both extend further out and are more complicated than just “killing is bad”. However, if your heroes are wanting to avoid a citywide manhunt then leaving the actual arrests to the police is probably for the best.

If you’re wondering, both work as reasons why.

That said, I have a certain fondness for the Punisher. It’s mostly because he exists in the Marvel universe itself against the backdrop of other heroes, but I do like him. It’s a great examination of what does happen when a “superhero” just starts killing. And yeah, in setting the Punisher is very much a loathed pariah because the argument ultimately revolves around the fact that he’s a mass murderer. The Punisher himself doesn’t care much one way or the other, but he’s had more than a few city wide manhunts for his ass.

The central question for me is always:

What makes one a superhero?

Is it the powers? Does anyone dressing up in a jumpsuit or a leather bondage outfit and going out to beat the crap out of bad guys with a cool, semi-cool, or flat out dorky name get the title?

When you want to get into the nitty gritty discussion, it’s always worth having a concept in the back of your mind of what you think a hero is, what it means, and the form it takes. This will influence your work on both a personal narrative level and a thematic one.

Your going to define what a hero is for your audience. Killing and no killing can both be portrayed as heroic. You’ll see plenty of narratives where the “no killing” justification is accepted by audiences as easily as the “I must kill to save the world”.

So, you need to ask yourself what makes one a hero?

For the average person living in the setting, it’s easy to hate superheroes.

Remember, every time a superhero throws a car at a villain to explode spectacularly they’re throwing away around 20 grand and a person’s livelihood. There isn’t any “superhero insurance”, the car will come back with a deductible on their insurance but the person in question may now have no way to get to work, pick up their kids, and are out a means of transportation. They destroy work places. They blow up buildings. They destroy homes as a casual byproduct of their battles with supervillains. People die.

Superheroes often cause more problems with their destructive tendencies than they solve.

Superhero stories ask the audience to relate to the superhero, rather to the citizens in the setting suffering from Stockholm Syndrome while just trying to get by and hope their not out several hundred thousand dollars because Mr. Miracle blew up their home in an effort to stop the Rampalion Wretch from nuking the downtown area.

Vigilantism is against the law.

Powers or no, a lot of superheroes have powers and the average cops don’t. How do you stop a superhero when they go off the rails? How do you trust someone who takes the law into their own hands?

Cops should be arresting vigilantes and the justifications on why they don’t in most superhero settings is because they feel the heroes are more of a help than a harm, but that can often turn against the heroes when they go off the rails.

It makes sense for a superhero to care about the public’s trust. If they have bad press like Spider-Man then it makes their job twice as hard. Try investigating when no one on the force will talk to you. When the locals think you’re as bad as the villains you fight. How can you figure out what happened if no one will give you access to their crime scene notes, tell you what they saw, or speak to you?

No one.

On some level, a superhero needs good press, public trust, and a good reputation to continue functioning.

If you feel your heroes need to earn that trust or more importantly, they feel they need to earn it, then good for you and them. Many stories out there often just sort of assume it’s the heroes just do. Of course, the author think, my hero will be beloved, they’re on the side of right.

What’s so good about the Punisher when handled right is that he is a bit of a pariah in the Marvel world. He’s a wanted man by the cops, the superheroes, and the villains alike. He lives out of safe houses and the back of a van so no one can find him. He has one real solid contact on the police force that’s unsure if he should be working with him half the time. If it got out that he was, then the detective would lose his job.

A character choosing to take the law into their own hands has their threat level significantly upgraded. How can you trust someone who is deciding who lives and who dies? How can you trust that they’ll only be killing the bad people? Why do they get to decide that? Who gave them the right? What are the shades of gray or are there any for someone this black and white?

Step outside the characters for a moment and think about consequences.

It can be easy to justify character choices when you consider what the consequences of a character’s actions will be for other people.

The obvious justification for kill or no kill is “it’s the law”, “it’s wrong”, and “we can’t stop X from continuing to hurt people, he won’t get caught” or “the system protects them, so I’ll be outside it”.

But you can have characters moderate their behavior for a whole host of reasons. Some may enjoy fame and good publicity. Some may believe they don’t have the right to decide who lives or dies. Some may have parents who lost their home to a super-villain attack and know the personal cost of rebuilding for middle and low-income families when a hero or villain blows up a house.

What do your superheroes actions cost the people they save?

Stop and think about the world your characters exist in. Try to remember that most of our modern superheroes actually follow an antiquated value which doesn’t matter anymore.

The cost of blowing up a person’s car is much more grievous to them as an individual than stopping a bank robbery.

The line in Michael Mann’s Heat when Robert de Niro’s character gets those held hostage inside the bank to cooperate while he holds it up for a robbery: “We want to hurt no one! We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money.
Your money is insured by the federal government, you’re not gonna lose a
dime! Think of your families, don’t risk your life. Don’t try and be a
hero!”

When your character throws a car through a bank window to stop a villain on a heist, they’re actually causing more damage to the people they’re trying to save than if they did nothing at all.

So think this through, think your world through, and the costs for the people who live there.

Once you have that then the practical reasons for why characters behave the way they do will become apparent.

-Michi

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