24 June 2022
Author Claire Fayers looks at how to draw from superhero stories to improve your own writing
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved superhero stories. The heroes and villains, the fights, the explosions, the world being saved from certain doom over and over again. Writing a superhero story is a bit like grabbing a large paintbrush and slapping bright colours everywhere. The result is big, bold, often messy, and always fun. Whatever your favourite genre, you can look to tales of superheroes to give your plots and characters an extra sparkle.
So, up, up and away! Let’s get started.
Subtlety is not my name
Do you want your readers to remember your characters long after they’ve finished your book? Then you need memorable names.
Superheroes and villains do not do subtle when it comes to names. Superman, Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, Dr Octopus. Their names are short, obvious and cut straight to the heart of who they are.
You could raid the world of myth and legends for names. I also like to come up with a naming ‘theme’ for a story. For my Accidental Pirates, I chose star names. A quick look through an astronomy dictionary gave me Cassie O’Pia, Orion and Marfak West.
Keep your names simple, and distinct. If you have characters with similar-sounding names, your readers will get confused. The last thing you want is for your reader to reach an important scene and think, ‘Hold on, which one is this person again?’
Turn up the power
Superheroes and villains must have powers. Their powers define who they are. You might not want to go as far as giving your main characters the power of flight or superstrength, but what are they good at? What defines them?
And, just as a superhero’s power must come from somewhere, think about where your character’s main strength comes from. What are the important events in their life that have shaped them so far?
Of course, we can’t let our characters become too powerful. Overpowered heroes have nothing to challenge them, which makes for a dull story. Your characters’ strengths, therefore, must be balanced by…
The fatal flaw
Superman’s weakness is Kryptonite. Iron Man relies on his suit. But sometimes a weakness can be a flaw in the character (anything from arrogance to a fear of heights), or it could be the thing your character loves most. Spiderman’s real weakness, for example, comes in the form of his friends and family. Maybe Dr Octopus can’t defeat Spiderman, but Aunt May is an easy target.
I like to link my character’s weakness to their strength if I can. My pirate hero, the legendary Cassie O’Pia, is completely fearless, but because of this she never stops to think and so she has a habit of leaping into action and making situations much worse. (Her catchphrase, unsurprisingly, is ‘Well, it could be worse.’)
Bwahaha - the evil plan
Every supervillain needs an evil plan. What does your villain want? Power? Money? Revenge?
Now dig a little deeper. Why do they want that? If they want power, what are they planning to do with it? If they want money, what will they spend it on? If it’s revenge, what happened to them in the past?
I find that the most interesting villains are the ones who really think they’re the heroes. They truly believe that they are saving the world. Think of Magneto, fighting against prejudice. Or Erik Killmonger from the Black Panther movie. We want to see their downfall, but we also like them as characters because we can relate to them.
With great power
This is also true of your hero. You might know how they got their powers, but what made them decide to put on a costume and become a hero?
Take Spiderman. Peter Parker gained his powers when he was bitten by a radioactive spider, but he didn’t take his powers seriously until his uncle died. Then, his uncle’s words ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ become Peter’s motto. This is what drives him through all his various battles. This is what keeps him going when things get tough – his belief that it’s his responsibility to stand up to the villains.
What’s driving your main character? Are they trying to fix a mistake? Prove themselves? Protect family and friends?
When your characters care deeply about something and are trying their hardest to get it, and when it’s for reasons we can understand, then your readers will care too. This is the heart of writing memorable stories, whether your character is Captain Superlative with his laser vision, or Mrs Smith who lives alone with her goldfish.
Above all, have fun. Superhero stories have one main purpose – to entertain. If you’re bored with your story, chances are your readers will be bored too. But if you write about the things you love and bring them leaping off the page, you readers will love you for it.
Claire Fayers is the award-winning author of the Accidental Pirate duology, Mirror Magic, Storm Hound and, her latest book Welsh Fairy Tales Myths and Legends, nominated for the Carnegie Medal. You can find her online at www.clairefayers.com. She is running a Heroes and Villains workshop for children at this year's Bradford Literature Festival.
Bradford Literature Festival is an annual arts event and year-round cultural outreach programme that hosts respected authors, poets, speakers, musicians and artists from Bradford, from the UK, and from around the world. Founded in 2014, BLF is now a key event in the UK cultural calendar and the most diverse literature festival in the country.
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