Tag Archives: writing superpowers

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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How would someone who could teleport like in jumper fight? What kind of fighting style would they have. And when I say teleport they don’t hop in a portal or turn into smoke, their whole body disappears and then reappears.

It really depends three things:

1) The strengths and limitations of the powers aka how many times they can teleport, the places they can teleport to (does it have to be somewhere they’ve been, somewhere they’ve visually seen like on television or in a magazine, wherever they want, or just wherever?), the range of their teleportation, the physical/mental strain of teleporting, and what they can take with them (if anything).

2) Their personality, their values, their personal beliefs and how they interact with the belief systems of those around them, their worldview, their morals, etc.

3) Their skills and experience.

Superpowers are only one aspect of a person’s fighting style. The way we fight is dictated by knowledge (what we know) combined with our personality (how we see and interact with the world) and what we can do (our physical/mental capabilities in conjunction with learned skills). The ability to teleport comes in on top of that and opens up a new set of available options, though the character’s ability to use said options is heavily dependent on whether or not they know those options are available.

For example, your teleporter could have a tragic accident in their past where they were having an argument with a friend or family member and accidentally took their arm with them in an unintentional jump which resulted in the family member’s death.

This is different from the character who intentionally begins fights this way. Where if someone is pursuing them, they appear behind them and take a limb (or several) while en route to another part of the globe. This is a particularly brutal methodology for a character, but some characters might be comfortable with it.

You have the ones who know how to fight and use their teleportation abilities sparingly/strategically. Always holding onto an ace in the hole, hiding their greater abilities, and never giving up their more specialized secrets unless it becomes necessary.

The ones who don’t teleport at all, choosing to fight like a normal human because they’re in it for a fair fight.

The ones who essentially use their teleport abilities to control the turf. They use their abilities to keep their enemies disoriented and off balance. They always stay moving, jumping around or behind enemies with enough room for one strike before they vanish again. (Think Kurt Wagner, specifically the White House fight in X-Men 2, you’ll notice that Nightcrawler’s fighting style is influenced by his history as a circus performer and his other mutations).

The ones who never learned to fight because why would they? They can always teleport themselves out of trouble. There are the cautious ones, the ones who run first. Then, the cocky/playful ones who like to play games with their pursuers.

When Writing Superpowers:

Because superpowers work outside the range of what reality allows, it’s important to set limits for yourself. It’s much easier to get creative within a self-assigned box than it is when your character can suddenly do everything. One of the major complaints about Superman is that nothing can threaten him outside of a select few narratively assigned weaknesses like kryptonite. However, that doesn’t stop Superman from being an interesting character or a distinctively memorable one in the right hands. He’s part of our cultural consciousness for a reason.

Don’t get too caught up in determining physical threats to your characters, but also psychological and emotional ones. One of the core themes about Superman is his ability to inspire hope contrasted by humanity consistently letting him down. His struggle between letting the people choose for themselves and becoming an authoritarian dictator. He has all the powers of a god and the threat is that he could become one. Then we have Clark Kent, whose story is that of an immigrant struggling to fit in a world that doesn’t really understand him.

It’s easy for superpowers to get away from us or focus on them over other aspects of our characters, and the sky’s the limit there. Your character can be as powerful as you like, but always ensure you build in points of tension somewhere in your narrative.

Weaknesses and limits are key to defining how any character chooses to fight. By working our way down through what they can do versus what they can’t do, we get a better picture of what they’re capable of. Once we know where the baseline is for the character’s normal, we then work outwards to establish what is a threat to them and how they creatively work within or push their limits.

If you have a difficult time with that, work from the perspective of your villain or antagonist. I often discover the weaknesses of my more powerful characters by using another character to theorize solutions on how to stop them. Sometimes it’s technical, sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s psychological, and sometimes it’s all of the above.

Lex Luthor can’t stop Superman directly, so he starts a PR campaign to discredit him. Luthor tricks Superman into destroying public property in order to turn national opinion against him and uses him as part of his platform when he runs for president.

Lex Luthor builds a robotic suit powered by kryptonite to give himself super strength so he can go toe to toe with Superman.

Lex Luthor kidnaps Lois Lane to distract Superman while another villain destroys downtown Metropolis.

The weakness can be a physical one a la Superman is weak to kryptonite, much like how in Jumper the humans use an array of weapons built from special materials to stop the teleporters from using their powers.

Superman can’t fight public opinion conventionally with his powers, being rejected by the people is damaging both to his psyche, his belief in his own ideals, and his desire to fit in.

Superman cares about Lois, she’s an emotional weak spot, but he also cares about Metropolis. By threatening her and the city at the same time, it forces Superman to make hard choices about which matters more to him: a single person or the people of a city he’s sworn to protect. He can’t be everywhere.

Think About This:

At the end of the day, powers both open up new options and create limitations. You can’t open up one door without closing another.

Where does this character fit into the world you’ve built?

Where do they want to fit?

What has been denied to them because of their powers?

What has been denied to them because of their social position?

What has been denied to them by their personality?

What has been denied to them because of their morals?

What have they denied themselves?

What have they gotten in return?

Do they think it’s worth it?

Once you know who your character is, how their abilities work, their skills, and their limits then you will start figuring out how they fight.

What they can do versus what they will do.

We all make choices and those choices are ultimately what define us. Just because your character can take someone’s arm or dump them in the middle of the arctic ocean or leave them on the moon, doesn’t mean they will. Just because they can steal public property or another person’s car in order to take it back and ram it into a pursuer doesn’t mean they will. Just because they can teleport doesn’t mean they will.

Start with what they can do then work out the consequences of those decisions to find out what they will do and what they personally find repugnant. Then, you can balance what they will do with the temptation of what could be. You also have a basis for how other characters with similar powers might behave.

-Michi

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I write short stories about characters in a D&D style, high-fantasy setting. I was wondering if you have any tips about writing people with multiple abilities, and how they would use them in a fight? For instance, say a character were to “Transform into a dangerous beast, command a fearsome flow of magical energy, then use combat techniques natural to the beast”, how would I do that without it becoming too much of a mouthful?

This single sentence suffering from a serious problem of “Show, Don’t Tell”. You want to try not to cram all information into one line. The more someone needs to know about a character (such as they use multiple skills) then the more time you take introducing the audience to it. “Show, Don’t Tell” is one of those much debated pieces of writing advice and my opinion on the subject is that we do both. We show and we tell. You show the reader what is happening while also telling them why this is occurring, along with character motivations. Combine your description with your exposition. The second problem is that sentence is not only a mouthful, but too general. Specifics and description of the powers will better help the character come alive in the minds of your audience.

If you feel a sentence has gotten too long, the best thing to do is break it up. Don’t try to quickly jam all the important information into one, instead stretch it out. Show the transformation into the form they take, describe them drawing on their powers and casting, and show them fighting in their beast form. This will make the scene play out faster, while also leading to less confusion on the part of the reader as to what you’ve intended.

Specify the transformation: what are they actually transforming into? A bear? A wolf? A tiger? A golem? They could be a master of many forms, in which case they might use different strategies and tactics for dealing with their foes.

Specify the spells: what magic are they using, what is its effect on the battlefield?

Specify the beast powers: what are they attacking with? Biting? Claws? Do they leap? Do they swipe? What’s going on?

I really like watching Matt Mercer on Critical Role for this exact reason because his storytelling with the different RPers abilities is so vivid. The episodes are three hours long, though, so take breaks.

If you want to skip the hours then here’s an example of what I mean:

Drawing on the power of the forest, Liza slid into the sleek body of a gray wolf. She shook her head, lips curving into sneer, and dove into the brush. Come too close to the sacred druid sanctum, the human travelers would pay for their intrusion.

Claws itched at warm dirt as she circled their camp, counting the number of wagons and guards. Four wagons paired with oxen and fourteen guards, if she trusted her eyes and the wolf’s sensitive nose. The oxen could be frightened, but the guards were too many for a single wolf alone. And they most assuredly have a mage, Liza thought. These days no caravan dared travel through the Wending Woods without one. They’d be whatever the merchant could scrounge for the trip, but no wizard or sorcerer worth their salt would be fooled by the simple illusions Liza might conjure. This dropped her odds of driving them off significantly. It’ll be a fight then. Her best chance lay with taking them in the night while they slept.

Don’t worry too much about length in the beginning
(harder in practice, I know), just figure out your characters, their
powers, and their story. Define those and everything will become easier
with your story, but marrying description to exposition is a skill that
takes practice. So, don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come across the
way you want right away.

If you need a quick description, try inserting some personality.

Merril was a druid from the Wending Wilds, combining fierce forms of nature’s animals with lightning storms and floods. And, on off evenings, she entertained the group with a real good tune on her banjo.

Or:

Annalise could be anyone. Josie sometimes wished it was a joke, but her friend could take the form of anyone she saw. It made mornings terrifying when Anna acted as a personal alarm and Josie woke to her own face staring back at her.

Or:

George snarled and snapped as the large man drew closer, baring large German Shepard teeth. He took a step back, summoning an electric surge. Concrete warmed under his paws and his ruff stood on end.

Make it personal and unique to the character and their specific personality traits, how they choose to use their powers and abilities. Tell me what she is and then explain what it means. Assume your reader doesn’t know much as you establish who the character is and what they do. Translate the knowledge in your head onto the page itself, bringing in the character will bring it to life.

Think about it, it’ll come to you.

-Michi

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What could happen if a normal person wake up with a superpower? What do you think they will feel, or will do? Thank you.

That is your story.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but this question is really too broad to address directly. The real question is, “what do you want to do with this event?”

  • What kind of a story do you want to tell?
  • What kind of a person are you telling your story about?
  • How do superpowers change your character’s daily life?
  • In the short term?
  • Is your character okay with the short term?
  • In the long term?
  • Are they okay with the long term?
  • Are these powers a blessing or a curse? (Figuratively or literally.)
  • How do these powers change your character? (What is their character arc?)
  • How do their powers affect the people around them?
  • How do the people in their life react to their powers? (If they know about them at all.)

Once you start combining the answers for these questions together you should have a much better picture of what you’re wanting to do with your story. This will also tell you things like, “what powers did they receive?” Because their powers need to be in service to the story you’re wanting to tell.

Once you know your character, you should have a pretty good idea of what they’ll do, and what they’ll experience. But, this is your story. I wouldn’t dream of taking that from you.

-Starke

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Suppose someone has superhuman strength (specifics: capable of lifting a stone statue 15 feet tall with both hands and minor strain) and they land a punch. What kind of damage would be plausible for the head/jaw, chest, belly, and limbs, assuming the aforementioned body parts are uncovered? I’m initially thinking of outright pulverization and shattered bone, essentially a car smashing into them, but is that too far/little of a stretch?

Well, bone pulverization is a real risk for your character.

There’s a simple solution, but first, let’s talk about strength, and what
that means when your character is inhumanly strong.

Even without a superpower, your body is strong enough to tear itself apart.
The classic examples are improperly tensed punches, which can do all kinds of
horrible things to your hands, and improperly lifting heavy objects, which can
tear up your back.

Personal experience has seen both of us do pretty horrific things to our own
bodies without needing super strength.

Adding superhuman strength to the mix just exacerbates this. Your character
can lift a statue, but it will do horrific things to the weakest structural
point on their body. This is not a function of lacking the strength to lift it;
it’s the result of their spine being strained beyond its breaking point.

One really good example is, if you have a character with cybernetic arms,
you need to anchor those to their spine, reinforce that and their legs, or
they’ll be able to rip their own arms off by picking up a car.

If you can throw a punch with sufficient force to send a midsize sedan
flying, you will break every bone in your hand, (and possibly shatter
your arm.) Even using proper techniques. Your body simply isn’t built to handle
that kind of force. Also, it’s not going to send the car flying, I’ll come back
to that in a minute.

The simple solution is to also make your character inhumanly resilient to
damage. This has some other considerations. The same resilience that allows
them to actually punch someone at full force will protect them (to some extent)
from the people they’re fighting.

This isn’t the only possible solution. For example: a character who can
reassemble their body on the spot, no matter how mangled it becomes could use
super-strength, with the understanding that they’d need to spend a few minutes
putting their arm back together after they reduced their foe to goulash.

Without any additional powers, super strength becomes a very tricky thing to
use. Your character could still have it, but need to be very careful with how
they use it, and pull their punches. Not because they’re concerned about their
opponent’s well being, but because they don’t want to destroy their own body.

That said, a character with super strength can literally tear their foes to pieces, if they choose to. Using the
statue example, you’re already talking about a character that exceeds the
tolerances of the human body to a comedic degree.

So, the simple answer to, “how much damage” is probably, “chunky salsa.”

I mentioned that the car wouldn’t go flying a minute ago, so let’s explain
the problem. Your average car weighs around 3000 to 4000 lbs. Your average super
hero weighs between 100 and 250 lbs. When your character tries to punch that
car, the force will go both ways, and the relative masses become far more
important than how strong your character is to determining who will win. With
proper bracing, they can probably kick the car a few feet, but without
something to brace against that extra strength doesn’t translate into airtime
when you’re tossing around improbably large objects.

This doesn’t mean your character would throw a punch at a car, and go flying
in the opposite direction (they’re far more likely to find their hand embedded halfway into it, because the force has to go somewhere), but it does mean they’re not going to be
able to use a ’57 Chevy as an improvised club.

Again, this is something that characters who can flat out violate the laws
of physics can get away with. A character who can rechannel kinetic energy, or lock
themselves into their environment, can start to fundamentally mess with how
mass behaves. They’re not a 150lb guy grabbing a car; they are a 150lb guy who is
functionally fused into the city street, tossing around a car. Also a character
who can alter their own effective mass on the fly could lead to some really absurd
Berserk like combat sequences.

Alternately, you can have characters that pick up the car, try to throw it,
and send themselves flying in the opposite direction. It’s not exactly realistic, but there’s comedic merit
to the approach.

So, the basic advice for this is, study some basic physics, and have fun
with the absolutely insane things you never thought of before.

-Starke

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What would be a fighting style for Hawkgirl/any human with actual wings on their back? They’re mostly shown just mowing down their enemies from above, I get that, but I’m talking like, in a fist fight or where they’re fighting on the ground and having to dodge blows and jump around, how maneuverable would they be with wings folded behind them?

Well, you have to consider that they have wings. Any creature with wings gives up a certain measure of maneuverability on the ground. Depending on the type of wings, they’re going to be more vulnerable there. Think about it like attaching a fairly heavy contraption to both your shoulder blades that’s also pretty delicate. Organic wings with hollow bones are very fragile.

If we’re talking about Archangel from X-men, who has had his wings ripped out and replaced with metal ones then it’s a different story.

So, depending on the rules you’ve decided to use in your story, it could be fairly maneuverable to ground equals death. Or, at least, no flying for six months if ever. They’d be giving up a lot of their maneuverability on the ground as the wings will get in the way even when folded. There’s also the extra weight to account for which will unbalance them. It’s important to remember that the martial combat techniques we have are designed for humans and human bodies. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t be modified for someone with a different body type or concerns, but adding wings will throw off the body’s equilibrium. In nature, some creatures have wings for a reason and their behavior is built around that. They trade aerial movement for the ability to move well on the ground. The wings are going to get in the way when you’re fighting, especially if you’re trying to use any sort of human combat techniques. This is because combat actually relies more heavily on power or force generated through momentum than it does strength.

You need rotation, balance, and the ability to turn the body. If the elbow is getting caught in the wings, or the extra weight tips them when they pull their arm back, turn their hips, or what have you then it could be very dangerous.

The only thing I can think of the wings being helpful for is sending multiple enemies stumbling back when they open or buffeting.

The character could fight on the ground if they really want to, but it won’t be the place where they have the advantage.

-Michi

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How would you write action scenes with characters who have superpowers. For example the power to channel light or maybe teleport.

Superpowers are a tricky beast to write. Like all fantasy, they’re also rather difficult to work with without having access to specific world building concerns. How they work, what they do, how they affect the world around them, how people with superpowers are viewed by society, and the questions go on ad naseum until your head spins free from your head and flies off into orbit. As annoying as it is, though, it’s important to understand. Details are how you ground your audience in your narrative, and allow them to buy into it.

A skill like teleportation comes in a lot of different flavors. Bending space and time like Ciri from the Witcher 3 so that one can strike an enemy multiple times at once. Jumping into mass battles to cause rather huge explosions of air and heat as physical space is displaced a la Warhammer 40k. Opening portals large enough to transport a number of troops and carving a hole through the gray space between realities. Beaming up like they do in Star Trek. Short term bursts that allow the character to quickly move around the battlefield.

You have to settle on what the hell these powers do and how they affect the world around them. You also don’t have the same luxuries to communicate this information in text that you do in visual media like comics or cartoons. So, a greater focus on how it works is necessary for describing crumbling buildings or the sharp bang of air being displaced when a character decides to jump out.

“I hate when they do that.”

“Ow, it hurts my ears. Ow. Stop blinding me. Ow. Turn off the lights, damn it!”

“Damn it!”

Fortunately, superpowers themselves are well documented and a vast array of media is available for reference. We have over a hundred years of superhero comics and serials, and this is before we get to the entire fantasy/science fiction genre.

Do you want your character’s light based powers to function like modern strobe lights? Is it light based constructs like the Green Lantern? Do you want them to be like Doctor Light? Are they heat or radiation based? Do they work more like Superman’s laser vision? What constitutes light in your mind?

You make it real by grounding it in the world. What the powers affect, what they can do and can’t do, will dictate a fairly significant portion of the way your character fights. We play to our strengths. We try to mitigate our weaknesses. This doesn’t change. You actually write actions sequences with superpowers the same way that you write any action sequence. The considerations change based on the individuals involved, but the base questions often remain the same.

What do they want? What’s their goal? What are they hoping to achieve?

Where are they fighting? What is the layout?

Why are they fighting? What are they willing to sacrifice to win?

What do they bring to the table? What are their unique abilities? Their experience level with combat? Their other skills? Their morals? Their personal values? What are their specific weaknesses? What are they not good at?

Is this a surprise attack or premeditated?

How does that change their approach or plan?

How can those approaches be countered?

Do either opponent know how to counter these ability sets?

On a basic level, action sequences are a reflection of your characters and your setting. They are a way for the audience to get to know both and see what they’re like when put to the test. It’s a test of creativity, ingenuity, and brutality. Where everything that your character chooses to believe about themselves and the kind of person they are is put to the test. And, yes, you do need to test it.

At the end of the day, superpowers are actually about ethics. You give someone phenomenal powers and then you see what they’ll do. What do they become? What are the temptations they must fight in order to keep from abusing their powers? Can the average non-powered individual even trust them?

Yes, that’s a serious question and, more importantly, it’s not one that you as the author really get to decide. Not without taking a step back after you’re done and looking at it from an objective viewpoint, and what your character actually did over the course of their action sequence or the narrative itself.
The guy who can slag you, vaporize your brain, cook your eyeballs, or dump you in the middle of space or on some alien planet with no recourse? Yeah, that guy. Would you trust them?

Try thinking about life in New York City from the perspective of the average non-powered Marvel denizen. Any minute, Rhino could come blazing down the street, killing you, destroying your car, demolishing your business or where you work. Your only hope is that one of the countless superheroes in New York manage to get to you in time before the 800 pound meathead crushes you beneath a concrete wall. You’re just a fly on the wall to him. Meanwhile, the Spider-Guy is up there cracking wise while you’re trying to drag a half-dead friend or another citizen out from under an overturned car because there’s no way the paramedics are getting here in time. All while cars (hopefully empty), pieces of broken concrete, roads, and who knows what else are flying over your head.

Characters with superpowers are not automatically owed the love or loyalty of anyone just because they fight crime. Or, at all, really.

So, when you’re thinking about superpowers and combat, it’s also helpful to think about the consequences. To think about what your characters are actually doing to other people. Whether the harm that they’re causing them is justified. Superpowers get us into some really interesting questions about use of force, personal boundaries, public safety, and privacy violations.

Yes, these are important to writing your fight scene because your character will eventually have to face the consequences of their actions. Or, at least, they probably should.

It’s all fun and games until someone’s internal organs get liquefied.

-Michi

Okay so the back ground of my story is that everyone has the same super power. With hard work and other factors there powers can become stronger or weaker. The natives of the world are at war with other beings just as powerful as them. Now there are a number of chosen one types of characters who have a second type of power. They are either friend foe or neutral. How could you write a fight scene with super powers then write a training scene

This is a really hard question to answer without context and primarily why we don’t talk about how to write superpowers in anything other than generalities. Every setting with magic or superpowers come with their own rules and we’re not privy to what those rules are. Our focus on “realism”, technically just how weapons work in the real world, comes from that. Telling me “superpower” or even “telepathy” or “telekinesis” doesn’t actually help me much if I don’t know what it affects, it’s strengths and limitations, or how it gets used. I mean, even just telekinesis runs the gamut from “can pick up silverware” to “fling bus with startling accuracy” to “devour star system”. Move over to Star Wars, you’ll find Luke’s small time stuff in the Original Trilogy like choking, jumping, and retrieving fallen weapons to Starkiller dragging an entire star destroyer out of orbit. In the EU, one Sith Lord used the Force to slam two stars together to destroy a fleet that was chasing them. Babylon 5′s telepaths go from “can’t quite read your mind, but can tell their minds are being read” to “detonate entire planet”.

How do you write a fight scene with superpowers? You have to figure out what the superpowers can do and what they can’t do. Where the assumed upper limit is, where the actual upper limit is, and what that means for your story. Unfortunately, the primary onus for that is going to be on you.

You’ve got to figure out how the powers work, how they manifest, and the rules this society has erected to keep everyone in check. How they influence their day to day lives. How they’ve evolved to make use of them. Etc. Really good settings have very solid world building that show all levels of the society and how the powers at play have affected them. Harry Potter, for example, does an excellent job of showing the utility of magic and how the Wizarding World has evolved their use of magic to aid their everyday lives. Rowling creates a sense of wonder while simultaneously grounding the reader into her world through some rather mundane activities like travel or cleaning the kitchen.

So, world building. Fantasy settings need it. The rule set grounds you into the world. Writing combat is fairly easy once you gain a basic understanding of the rules, how they get broken, and how people behave when under pressure. Once you as the author figure out how to start thinking from that perspective, it gets a lot easier to predict how your characters are going to behave. While superpowers ultimately don’t alter the baseline of how people behave that much, they do change how the problems get solved. New toolkit, new methods with which to solve problems. Start asking yourself some basic questions:

If I had this power, what would I do with it?

How would I use it to affect my day to day existence?

What parts of my life would it make easier?

What would it make harder?

If someone was threatening me, what would I do?

Inside out rather than outside in. Then, consider the other character’s perspective in the scene. How do they respond? What do they do? If everyone has the same power and one character is more experienced at using theirs than the character who just activated their powers, then it’s unlikely the newbie can overpower them. Even if they are actually stronger. And, as you said, the strength talent is the based on hard work anyway. Your protagonist is probably going to get their ass beat the first time out and that’s okay.

Really.

(And if they show their special Chosen One ability in that fight when under pressure, I just want you to know that’s… very cliche. Not that you can’t do it, just know almost everyone does.)

If you’re confused or unsure then I suggest a Lit Review to see if that inspires any ideas. A Lit Review is when you go out and read a bunch of novels or view a lot of media that’s similar to your own idea to gain a better understanding of your genre. You’re not reading or viewing for enjoyment so much as raiding for ideas. It’s helpful to review what other authors have done in order to find inspiration for your own work.

You want to write a scene which involves a character new to their powers and unsure of how they work fighting someone else? Get thee to the fantasy section of the library or start reviewing superhero movies. From bad to good, there are a lot of examples from the humorous to the serious of characters screwing up, nearly dying, or scraping by.

This is all important when it comes to writing training sequences. Why? You as the author are teaching your audience about your setting. Your characters actually have to learn something and that something should be applicable to the job they’re going to perform. This requires understanding that something well enough that you can communicate what it is, what it does, and why to the characters and your audience. You want to write a training sequence for a spy? You need to understand the tradecraft and what a spy actually does. You want to write a military training sequence a la boot camp? Probably best to learn what the military is actually doing because they’re not just teaching their recruits how to kill people.

Sports movies are often mocked for being corny and cheesy, but the secondary aspects of the training are actually more important than the training itself. In the Karate Kid remake, for example, a huge part of Dre’s evolution as a character comes from his training with Mr. Han. He’s not learning to beat people up, he’s learning responsibility, respect, and building his confidence.

Good training sequences demonstrate an author’s understanding of their setting, their characters, and their subject matter. So, to teach, you first must develop your own understanding.

All combat training comes in three tiers: the physical (the body) and the psychological (the mind), and the additional overlay of whatever their training is molding them to become. This is the insidious part of training that most writer’s miss. Training isn’t just teaching you how to fight or how to use your powers, it’s changing how you think, it’s affecting your morals and your values, it’s redefining your perspective, and, in some cases, a character can come out of it as an entirely different person.

Is your character’s mind being broken down so that they can be remolded into a proper fighting machine? This is what Stanley Kubrick was talking about in Full Metal Jacket, the military’s dehumanization of recruits and stripping them of their previous identities in order to transform them into soldiers. I bring up Full Metal Jacket because it remains the go to resource for most writers when they’re writing military training sequences, but many imitate without understanding. The other big one is Fight Club. Often the theme of dehumanization actually ends up in the story through the training sequences and is portrayed as a good thing. Divergent is one such example where the themes of dehumanization and rather brutal abuse are introduced via Dauntless training methods but never extrapolated on.

Why? Because the process of transforming someone into an out and out psychopath is treated as “just hardcore” in a lot of fiction. That is the point of the Fight Club itself, by the way. It’s not about teaching someone how to actually be good at fighting. It’s actually about adrenaline junkies, about getting high off asserting physical dominance over someone else. If you want a novel that’s legitimately talking about “toxic masculinity”, then Fight Club is it. Real training doesn’t actually look anything like Fight Club, but then Fight Club isn’t actually about creating competent soldiers.

Some Quick Don’ts:

1) Don’t overestimate to be more impressive.

This is a pitfall almost everyone falls down the first time, but I’m mentioning it because everyone falls down it. Figure out what people can get away with in the real world when training, then compare that to the characters in your setting, and build into that. There’s nothing more annoying than the character who supposedly spent a year or five in solitary confinement showing no signs of sensory deprivation or crawling up the walls.

Boot Camp does blast you with near constant exercise in order to weaken your mind. If you’re interested in what they actually do, there are resources available to tell you the training regimen. It’s fairly sophisticated in what it’s actually doing.

2) Don’t go for shock value

The ones who fall down the Fight Club trap are usually going for shock value. Shock value is worthless in the long run. Substance is better.

3) Don’t forget that this is about teaching.

If the sequence isn’t teaching us something about the world, the powers, and the characters or advancing the plot, then the sequence is not necessary. And really pay attention to what your training is saying. This isn’t really one of those “fake it until you make it” endeavors, you gotta teach.

-Michi

So, my character goes to fight another character that she is a bit stronger than. He’s a guy, but they’re vamps and she drinks more blood. If they were to get in a fight starting at the center of a room that’s about 15 ft across both ways, how long should it take her to get him pinned to a wall?

But, the real question is, how many dots does she have in Celerity?

The problem with a question like this is, whether you mean to or not, you’re basically asking me, “which of my character’s superpowers are better?”

Vampires are rapidly becoming the urban fantasy counterpart to elves. Which is to say, when you use the term, there’s a vague understanding of what you’re talking about, but no uniform, concrete rules.

Hell, when it comes to a vampire’s power scaling with when they’ve fed last, my first thought is actually The Elder Scrolls setting, where feeding weakens them, but makes them harder to detect. While starvation makes them stronger and more feral. But, that one scales over time, not how much the eat.

When it comes to overall power, I tend to lean towards World of Darkness’ generational system, or the idea that they just get more powerful over time, so it’s an age issue, not a feeding issue.

This is all dancing around the point that I don’t know how strong your vampires are. Yes, yours. Unless you’re writing fan fiction, or RPing in an established setting, those are your characters with superpowers you’re defining.

For that, you probably need some kind of system to operationalize your vampires. Your options are to either cook up a system for yourself, or borrow one.

If it’s the latter, then World of Darkness isn’t a bad system to pull from. Basic character generation is really fast, and the system is good for getting a quick feel on what a character’s strengths and weaknesses are. It doesn’t hurt that one of the main games in the series is focused on vampires, so you might end up with some ideas to flavor your setting with along the way.

Vampire: The Masquerade provides the tools for a huge range of different styles of vampires in the core book alone. They’re all, more or less, inside the European immortal blood drinker genre, but it’s still fairly diverse group. And looking at the disciplines (specialized powers characters pick from) should give you some ideas about just how powerful you want your characters to be.

There’s also Werewolves, Mages, Hunters, and Demons. Given the series started in the early 90s, it’s a surprisingly comprehensive look at the common Urban Fantasy lineup. Though Demon: The Fallen was a smaller run, so that one will set you back a bit, if you end up wanting it.

I actually did an article on the setting awhile back, but, right now the main takeaway is looking for a rule system to say, “my character is this strong, and is this good at fighting.”

If you’re familiar with D&D, or GURPS, or really any RPG, and know what their numbers actually mean, then that will probably work just as well for you.

I’m not a fan of recommending D&D for stuff like this because character creation is a fairly involved process. Just crunching the numbers can take awhile. But if that’s the system you know, it’ll still do what you need.

I’m also more of a fan of recommending GURPS for the contents of its source books, over the actual game system. Speaking of, if you want a good quick primer on actual vampire folklore, GURPS: Blood Types spends the first 30 pages on the subject, before going into game systems. There’s also a chunk further in the book focusing on a lot of more obscure varieties of the myth. The discussion on how to make vampires is a little rule heavy, but still worth taking a look at.

-Starke