Writing Superhero Fiction
Superhero fiction isn't just for comic books anymore. Though characters like Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, and Iron Man will always be popular in graphic novels and films, superheroics aren't limited to just those mediums. In recent years, superhero novels have been making their mark on the world of fiction. Maybe these novels aren't as celebrated as the Marvel and DC characters that kick-started the superhero mythos that has existed for past eighty or so years. Still, it's a different way to look at the superhero world. When you don't have to cram a story into twenty-to-thirty illustrated pages, you can make your hero do a lot.
I've tried writing superhero fiction, and I've failed. I think, though, it's because I'm lacking in one area: I'm not giving enough credence to the source material. I'm not looking at the works of Bob Kane, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, and Jerry Siegel.
Heck, Stan Lee alone is a testament to superhero fiction, having written countless heroes, including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and pretty much every other Marvel hero who's been making dough at the box office lately. And the guy's still writing and creating, even in his 90s! The point being, superheroes work, but they don't have to just be in comics. If the super soldier formula of writing heroes works for comics, then can't it work for actual novels?
Is there even a formula, one may ask? Well, True Believer, look no further than your nearest comic book store! Find an origin story, read it. See what happens to the hero, how he grows. Now, the formula isn't exactly set in stone, but there are key characteristics that will assuredly be able to transfer over from graphic novel to physical novel. They're pretty standard in comic book lore, and they can work just as well in any other story.
Every good hero needs an origin story. And each hero's story is unique. While Stan Lee had a love for radiation, at least he used different kinds in crafting his heroes. And guys like Batman and Superman didn't need that stuff. Superman hailed from a dying planet while Batman watched his parents' murder and took an oath to battle crime in Gotham City. Origins are varied and intriguing. They introduce heroes to pain. Whether it's physical pain (like being bitten by a radioactive spider), mental anguish (like having a monster rage inside you day and pain), or emotional torture (like having your parents killed before your very eyes), heroes always seem to encounter pain in some form. It gives them something to fight against. Banner struggles against the Hulk, willing him to be a hero rather than a monster. Batman wages a war on the crime that took the lives of his parents. So the origin does three things:
1. It introduces you to the hero. It shows how a high school geek turns into a wall-crawling hero, how a gamma scientist becomes a green mean machine, and how a billionaire's son transforms himself into a vigilante detective.
2. It gives pain. It gives the hero something to fight for or against. Whether it's a tangible evil (like rampant crime) or more of an idea (the memory of a lost loved one), the hero needs an urge to keep going in his crime fighting duties.
3. It establishes what he can do. What are his powers? What are his skills? He can fight supervillains and thugs, but how? Does he have strength, speed, cunning, honed fighting abilities?
Your hero will be the same. It doesn't matter how you bring him into the fray, but these are key characteristics to keep in mind. Flesh these out and your hero will have an interesting backstory that will keep readers going.
Every good hero needs his enemies. They keep him on his toes, test his strengths, exploit his weaknesses, and work as a foil. Villains are the characters readers love to hate, hate to love, or maybe just plain thoroughly despise or enjoy. These are the men and women who make the hero's life miserable, and the good majority of comic book superheroes have a whole Rogues Gallery of foes to torment them. What fun! Seriously, though, a hero is truly defined by his villains. The more evil the villain, the more good the hero needs to be. An example from comic book lore: In the Amazing Spider-Man #121-122, there is the story of how the Green Goblin kills Gwen Stacy and subsequently dies by his own hand. At the end of the first issue, writer Gerry Conway has Spider-Man scream to the Goblin, "You killed the woman I love, and for that, you're going to die!" All through the next issue, Spidey seethes, desiring revenge. But, as he pounds on the Goblin, he suddenly stops. He relents that he can't become a murderer like his archenemy. So while the Goblin tests the hero, Spidey comes out stronger through the trial. He doesn't back down from his morals and mission. Like origins, villains bring three elements of the superhero story:
1. They test the hero. They cause him problems, bring him physical pain, have him doubt and question himself. Villains serve as a foil for the hero, letting him look at sick versions of people with power and have him swear never to be like them. Perhaps they may be physically or mentally stronger, but the hero comes out as morally superior.
2. They excite the audience. The supervillain you create for your novel will chill your readers. Make him grim and cunning, or dramatic and arrogant. Have him hurt the hero, kill supporting characters, plot total world domination. If you build an opinion of your villain in your readers' minds--preferably one of hate or disgust--the hero will only become cooler to them.
3. They bring an archenemy. Maybe your hero will fight a couple of costumed kooks, but he needs one mainstay arch-foe. His Joker, his Green Goblin, his Dr. Doom. Someone who will rock the core of his universe, cause him the most pain, give him the best battles, and push him the farthest. An archenemy is the ultimate evil you can create for your hero. Make him a good villain, as ironic as it may sound.
Stan Lee on Comics...
"If you're writing about a character, if he's a powerful character, unless you give him vulnerability I don't think he'll be as interesting to the reader."-Stan Lee
Superman has Kryptonite. Spider-Man has compassion. Batman has his humanity. All heroes come with weaknesses, things they cannot overcome. Weaknesses can be tangible items (like green space rock or the color yellow) or intangible (like the idea of compassion or guilt). Weaknesses serve to show that your hero isn't unstoppable, he isn't invincible. Take Superman, for instance. He's the guy who can outrun a speeding bullet, fly, has superstrength, and possesses near invulnerability. And that "near" is key. As shown in comics and film, one of his weaknesses is Kryptonite, fragments of rock from his exploded planet Krypton. Though he's fast, strong, and almost invincible, Superman's can still be defeated, he can still be killed. He's got the upper hand in pretty much every fight he's in, but he still can be beat. The same should be true for your hero. It can be a physical weakness, an idea, an allergy, a wish to own a puppy...whatever. What matters is that your hero can't be unstoppable. Weaknesses are essential for three reasons:
1. It makes your hero human. We can't relate to the guy who picks up mountains with his bare hands, but we can relate to the guy who bleeds and bruises. We know how pain feels, so we know how he feels. Which also means...
2. ...we empathize with your hero. We feel the pain that he feels, we know he's hurt. If the guy can't be injured, we won't feel his emotions. He'll come off as a superpowered jerk. With weakness, we can cringe as he cringes, moan as he moans, cry as he cries.
3. It gives the hero something to overcome. Struggling against Kryptonite, Superman presses forward. Straining against adamantium bullets and knives, Wolverine goes on. Up against yellow lasers, Green Lantern pushes ahead. Whatever the weakness, your hero now has something he can overcome. He can show his foes that this weakness may hurt, but it doesn't render him completely useless. In your face, evildoer!
Yup, that's a Spider-pun. There are a lot of things to make your superhero novel as good as the comics, but these are three key characteristics. These are concepts established by the pros back in the good old days of comics. They gave heroes clever and meaningful origins, sinister and spiteful enemies, and humanizing weaknesses. You hero needs these in order to be a cool superpowered individual. Without these, he might as well be laying on the couch, wondering what to do. He needs something to fight for, someone to fight against. Your hero needs to relate with us. Only then can he go up, up, and away.
Of the heroes here, who is your favorite?
© 2014 Nathan Kiehn