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

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