I just spent the weekend on grandma duty with a 3-yr old grandson. We did a lot of fun things, but when we needed some quiet time we watched The Incredibles…over and over….
It’s a great movie…honest…but now I know the dialogue by heart.
Superheroes are huge in our pop culture. I love them, and everyone loves them. So what is it that makes a story involving a superhero intriguing? First of all, this type of tale is speculative fiction. It is based on the power of “what if….”
When you open a book of speculative fiction, you will often find yourself reading a morality tale, a “there but for the grace of God” tale that keeps you thinking long after you have finished the book.
The main characters are usually flawed heroes, imperfect people who come through in the end, and win the day. Nowhere is the concept of the flawed hero more clearly drawn than in the sci-fi sub-genre of Superheroes. It is a branch of science fiction that has become a sub-culture.
Traditionally, science fiction involves the accurate portrayal of science as we know it, including the cutting edge of theoretic science. For the fans of this genre, plausible science is critical, along with a strong morality tale set in a futuristic setting.
“Superhero” stories take “what if” science speculation to an extreme: they tend to be a mix of known and as-yet-unknown science extrapolated out to the nth degree and heavily padded with uber-dramatic plots.
Mad science has free reign, threatening the citizens of a frequently unnamed metropolis. Sometimes, ordinary people are caught up in these experiments and granted super powers. Think about Spiderman: he is the victim of an experiment gone wrong. A bite from a radioactive spider triggers mutations in the teen-aged Peter Parker’s body, granting him superpowers.
The early series revolves around his maturing through teen-aged angst to married adulthood, while dealing with his super powers. He is one of the few working-class superheroes–he has no fortress of solitude from which he works, but he does live with his elderly aunt and attends high-school.
Sometimes their gifts are used for good (our superheroes) but more frequently the powers take away their “humanity” turning them evil (enter the supervillain).
It is the imbalance of evil super-ness to good that creates the never-ending string of villains for the superhero to battle.
Other superheroes have super technology. Consider Batman: he possesses no superhuman powers. However, he has mastered the martial arts, developed espionage techniques, and understands everything from physics to forensics. What he lacks in super powers he makes up for in super-science.
Superheroes all have an exceptionally rigid, highly moral code of honor. They are eager to risk their lives in the service of humanity and expect no payment.
They often work alone. The catch phrase “it’s complicated” completely defines the flawed superhero. Again, let’s look at Batman: he is dark, brooding. He is a man obsessed with the murder of his parents and is consumed with avenging them, taking to the streets to hunt down super-criminals. He is possessed of the money to enable him to fight evil with incredible technology, and he spends it like water.
All superheroes must have a fundamental motivation, a reason for their obsession. In many cases, it’s a sense of responsibility and guilt for a traumatic incident witnessed in their childhood.
Tales involving Superheroes are usually set in modern cities, and have a strong science theme, although the science is frequently fantasy-based. Magic is rarely used in western superhero stories, although Japan has a long tradition of combining science and magic in its manga (comic books).
Most superheroes and the supervillains they battle operate from a secret base or headquarters. These bases are usually equipped with state-of-the-art, highly advanced, and/or alien technologies. No amount of money is spared when it comes to designing a superhero’s (or villain’s) fortress. Let’s examine the Batcave: Batman’s secret headquarters, command center, and safe house. The cave’s beating heart is a supercomputer whose specs are on par with any of those used by our government. It’s capable of global surveillance and also connects to a massive information network including, but outside of, our usual internet.
Naturally, a computer of that size stores vast amounts of information, both on Batman’s foes and his allies. He even has satellite link-ups that allow easy access to his information network anywhere around the globe. No matter where he is, he is connected. Of course, the systems are highly protected against unauthorized access, and any attempt to breach their security is immediately made known to Batman.
As an added bonus, while the superhero is often dark and brooding, the evil he battles is outrageously megalomaniacal. The supervillain’s ego is as large as his fortress, and so is his disdain for humanity in general.
Be aware, the science in these stories is “squishy,” and requires the reader to set aside their inner skeptic. For this reason, the superhero is a sub-genre all its own.
There is a lot of room for imagination when writing about a superhero. Lean prose is required, and an almost comic-book style of plot. A plot should have all the elements of a thriller, with a certain amount of mad science thrown in. When done right, the superhero book can be quite a fun read.
For an excellent example of books in this genre, check out Lee French’s novel, Dragons in Pieces. It’s as perfect an example of work written in this sub-genre as I have read outside of a comic book. It has great characters who are complicated and slightly flawed, plenty of mad science, loads of evil henchmen, and an epic plot.