The Blight of the Superman

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a character type that stifles creativity and turns your story into a railroad plot!

June 18, 2012

Mary and I had an idea for an RPG. In a few weeks, when we need a break from D&D, we’re going to run a superhero game. As much as I would love to learn Mutants and Masterminds, I’m going to use the ever-flexible Cortex system and my players will become super-powered heroes. Well, the “heroes” part might be a stretch.

In figuring out how to make their powers balanced and work within the context of the rules, a few writing troubles arouse that made me conscious of a few flaws and doubts about my own writing. For example, in making a game about superheroes, the inevitable flying brick will appear. You know the type. Super-strong, super-tough, flight, and will be nigh-invulnerable unless you manage to find yourself some tanks or a really big nuclear missile. How would a super-powered but otherwise normal vigilante stand up to something that can tear through buildings with its bare hands? Angels, and Carmen, in Charcoal Streets offer a similar dilemma for me.

Superman by *DazTibbles on deviantART
They’re very strong, very tough, and have a small suite of powers that make them demigods compared to normal humans. In the as-yet-unfinished story “Eternal Love and Other Lies,” for example, Carmen has to contend with another of the nephilim, a half-angel, who is just as strong as her and maybe more crafty. Not to spoil much, but Carmen has to think outside the box to take care of this…

But that’s one solution. I do have story reasons for angels not just exposing themselves and ruling as god-emperors. I just have to make sure it makes sense.

Just like it should make sense that Superman doesn’t just go rogue and take over the world.

There are reasons in the story that prevent this immortal from taking over. He’s the new nuclear option. Angels in my stories are powerful enough to level a city if they tried. Carmen had to resort to mystical means to kill a demon, and even then it was hinted that killing a demon is a very rare event.

What does any of this have to do with the RPG I mentioned in the beginning? What does it have to do with writing?

If you characters have skills, make sure the threats they deal with are comparable to those skills. This is the reason Superman Returns sucked. You have one of the most powerful beings in the universe return to Earth and he has to deal with… being an absentee father? At least in Smallville they had the good sense to depower Supes for a while so he could deal with more down-to-Earth problems and still make it plausible for him to have a life.

False Clark Kent II by ~kahwe on deviantART

In effect, this is the danger of the Mary Sue, the superman in writing, the intrepid archeologist adventurer that has a solution to everything and just happens to know the right bit of information to solve the puzzle at the last minute. This is why proper background planning is essential for characters. Give them some sort of reasonable flaw, their kryptonite, if you will. Don’t make them invincible men and women who can do everything. I actually edited a manuscript once that included dog groomers who were trained commandoes and could quickly quit their day-jobs and head to South America for a black ops mission after being recruited by a retired soldier who had just won the lottery and was putting together a team.

And if that sounds like it might be awesome, let me burst your bubble right now.

It sucked a bag of donkey dong.

If your characters are gods in a world of mortals, why even include the mortals?

“It’s a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then… he shoots fire from the skies, and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him.”

-Batman, Superman/Batman #3

And now, let’s look at a man who is crazy-prepared… but it makes sense.

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