How to Write a Superhero Story

Sophie Playle

After a long, close association with comics, superhero fiction is enjoying a literary heyday. So if you’re planning to write a superhero novel, keep these things in mind.

The superhero novel is one of the most exciting branches of fiction. But to write a good one, you need to be familiar with the genre.

Until recently, there weren’t many superhero novels on the market – unless they were adaptations of comic books or films. The graphic novel and superhero fiction are natural bedfellows, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The twenty-first century has seen a move towards standalone superhero fiction. Austin Grossman’s 2007 novel Soon I Will Be Invincible has been credited with bringing about this sea change.

Without a long-established literary genre to study, you’ll probably feel a thrill of freedom if you’ve decided to write a superhero novel. But you’re also probably feeling some uncertainty: what will work and what won’t work when it comes to exploring this genre in a new medium?

Well, something that won’t be different is that first you need a superhero.

In his analysis of superhero fiction, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, Peter Coogan lays out the ingredients for the classic superhero. He says that the superhero has powers beyond those of mere humans, and that they have a mission to do good, but he reminds us that they must also have a double identity, one part that’s their superhero self, and one part that’s a private – and often unprepossessing – citizen.

Here are some other aspects to think about:

  • To give your superhero novel depth, consider this tip from Michael Chabon’s meta-novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: your superhero needs a why. The why explains your superhero’s powers, but most of all it explains why they’re committed to their mission.
  • Every superhero needs a powerful antagonist: the supervillain. So don’t forget to create a nemisis worthy of your hero, someone equally as interesting. Please give them more complex motivations for trying to thwart your superhero than just ‘because I’m evil, mwa ha ha!’
  • The superhero genre is about an individual struggling to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of their mission. Therefore, The Hero’s Journey is a good starting point when it comes to structuring your superhero story.
  • Although every superhero fights for justice, their notion of justice is often personal and at odds with sanctioned ideas. For example, V, the dubious hero of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, works towards a ‘free’ society based on violent struggle.
  • Many superheroes are orphans, or are otherwise estranged from their parents. All kinds of reasons have been suggested to account for this. I think the most useful explanation is that it adds power to the why of your characters, leaving them free to reinvent themselves and fulfil their mission … But perhaps you can think of a way to subvert this trait?
  • Fight sequences are a big part of comic books, graphic novels and superhero movies, but blow-by-blow accounts don’t transfer well to the pages of a novel. Instead, think about how you can give a unique flavour to different fight scenes in your novel, and don’t stop the progression of the plot for too long while your characters are battling it out.
  • Contemporary superhero novels are highly genre aware, and the most interesting (such as Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century) play with the form – and there are a lot of ways you can play with form when writing a novel. So if you want to write superhero fiction, it pays to read superhero fiction – not just watch the movies. Go see how it’s done.

The stories and characters depicted in comic books, graphic novels and superhero movies are inherently far-fetched and larger than life, so how much realism you want to bring to your novel is up to you. Whatever you decide, my advice is to keep a consistent tone and run with it.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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