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I've read somewhere that there is this writing rule stating that, for some superpower, it would be less believable if two completely different settings are present in order to obtain the same superpower. In the article, I remember it mentioned in the movie Spiderman (which I've not watched), the protagonist and another character gain the power through different means.

What's this rule and does it have a name?

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    I don't know that rule, but I would disagree. If the superpower is "flying", for example, it's fine if one character got it from a radioactive duck while another got it from a radioactive bumblebee. The only thing that has to be believable is the explanation for them getting their superpowers. Of course if the definition of the superpower is much more narrow, like "flying by antigrav mutations", then it's weird if two character just happen to have the exact same thing, but different reasons for it. – PoorYorick Apr 6 at 14:32
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    Agreed. In Worm (parahumans wordpress.com), we found out near the end (after 1.5million words) of a common cause for all Powers, but the immediate causes are often very different: flying could bemagnetism, telekinesis, controlling birds and riding giant ones from the past, tinker powers to create a flying suit, your forcefield flies and carries you.... it all works. – April Apr 6 at 17:36
  • There's an anime called "Needless" about some people having superpowers (such powers called "fragments" in-universe); the story states that there cannot be two people with the same fragment, but at some point there are 3 characters that control fire. Its later revealed that only one of them actually controls fire per se; other manipulates temperature and the other one creates microwaves. As long as there's a plausible explanation, you can make more than one person with the same abilities and different origins to them. – Josh Part Apr 6 at 17:43
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    All the writers who ever worked on the Justice League or the Avengers are quietly moaning. – Cyn Apr 6 at 17:54
  • @Spectrosaurus I wouldn't call 'radioactive duck' and 'radioactive bumblebee' different source. Radiation is still the source, if one was 'radiation' and the other was 'generic experiments' and they result in the same power, is the answer different? (For the record I don't think it's bad writing either) – linksassin Apr 8 at 3:45
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First, welcome to StackExchange!

Now onto your question: there aren't any enforced rules when it comes to superpowers or even fiction. The closest thing would be a consistency guideline. Consistency, while not a rule, is usually something a reader will be quick to call out if they perceive it to be broken.

When you hear readers complain about a story having many plot-holes, a lack of consistency is sometimes the cause. But what the reader expects to be a constant changes from story to story. As the writer, you set what is believable or unbelievable in your setting.

Take My Hero Academia (Boku no Hīrō Akademia) for example: the story establishes early on that people in that universe are born with superpowers. Their genetics determine what 'quirk' they are born with and from there they can train their power and become stronger, but never change the ability itself. Without getting into any spoilers, the plot deals with a rare example of where that isn't the case. While that may break the consistency established at the beginning of the story, the plot goes on to explain how this happens and what it means in that universe.

The bottom line is: As an author, you determine everything that is a possibility in your world. As long as you give the reader enough information as to how anomalies can occur (or even foreshadow that they may occur), the consistency isn't broken.

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I have been researching comics history for a few decades and I have never heard of such a rule. Others in the thread have given examples.

It's true that there are a few stories in which all superpowers have a common source, typically an alien contaminant into the Earth biosphere (J. Michael Straczynski's series Rising Stars and Supreme Power both explore this option, as does the Wild Cards anthology), however these are the exception rather than the rule.

Keep in mind that the most established superhero universes (Marvel and DC), the characters were created in tandem and only after the fact organised into a unified 'universe' ... so you might have the Human Torch (who flies because, I suppose, heat rises) battle the Sub-Mariner (who flies because he has little wings on his feet) ... and there was never any sense of contradiction there.

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For something to genuinely be considered a "rule" of writing, which will delineate bad writing from the rest, it generally has to denote something that is hard to do successfully. Given the fact that most Superhero universes violate this rule all the time, and they're currently quite popular, evidence for this rule being able to separate good writing from bad is pretty minimal.

So odds are good this was just a statement from someone who prefers that sort of thing, aggrandizing their own preferences by declaring them to be a "rule".

That having been said, "believe-ability" is an interesting domain. The thing is, in the general Superhero milieu, pretty much anything which does not directly contradict previously established rules is more or less acceptable. To the extent that Superheros are science fiction, they are very clearly on the softer side of it. The softer the sci-fi, the less "believe-able" it needs to be; the audience is pretty willing to swallow a lot of oddball concepts if they are interesting and you're giving them what they're interested in (cool action/etc).

Sci-fi hardness is a useful way to examine this "rule". It is effectively promotes a kind of "One Big Lie (TV Tropes)" style of superpowers and world-building. That is, you pick one, or maybe a few, mechanisms for how superpowers work, and you stick with just that. Different powersets are just a matter of how someone chooses to use the special rules and physical laws you create.

Is that more "believe-able"? Well, it is easier to swallow a single change to reality than the anything-goes style of many superhero universes. Some people may take a work more seriously if it is like reality except for one thing, particularly those who like hard Sci-Fi. And having this kind of focus can lead to some interesting worldbuilding scenarios, which can lead to unique superheroics and the like.

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I have never heard of such a rule in writing, but there is a principle of logic that sort of goes along with this: Occam's razor. For those unfamiliar, Occam's Razor is a way of determining the most likely answer to a question by eliminating answers that require the introduction of more assumptions.

It makes more sense if a known and understood cause or principle underlies something as fantastic as super power. There's certainly a benefit to this kind of logic when developing a story.

In comics, for example, while it may be that heroes have radically different backstories on how they gain their powers, there are "acceptable" methods which make sense to readers: Magic, advanced technology, radiation, ancient beings/artifacts of power, and intense mental/spiritual training are all general sources.

Notably, in the case of Spiderman, both Peter Parker and Norman Osborne gain their strength, durability, and quickness from science. In Peter's case a radioactive (genetically modified) spider. In Osborne's case from an experiment attempting to create a super-soldier. Not too different, actually.

However, once a story has established specific instances of a power, near-identical versions are more believable if the source is the same. For example, Marvel's She-Hulk and Red Hulk both gained their powers through the original Hulk. DC's speedsters are all connected to the Speed Force.

Considering the medium, there's considerable latitude, but the principle does hold a certain truth to it.

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    Edited as per your suggestion. – Michael Apr 7 at 13:08
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I've never heard of that rule but I think it is actually more of mnemonic for not messing up than an actual rule.

The problem it would solve is that you might be tempted to forget that the source of the power is actually part of the definition of the super power as much as the abilities it grants. A super power that has a different source is by definition a different super power even if it grants the exact same abilities. And that should be reflected in the flavour you give to the abilities it grants.

I think your confusion stems from not making a clear distinction between the super power and the abilities it gives. The distinction is not really needed to read or write about super heroes but it is pretty important if you try to make your own supers with unique powers.

I'd suggest reading the rule book for some RPG that has rules for creating super powered characters with custom powers. For example GURPS has expansions for both Supers genre and Powers in general, and the rules explain much of the basic "genre logic".

EDIT:

I probably should give an example since this is not really obvious without one.

Lets have three characters with ability to cling to the walls using three different sources. One was bitten by a radioactive spider and got "spider abilities" because of that. One has telekinetic abilities that allow clinging to the wall. And one has super-science suction pads in his suit.

The first would be a "natural" ability. It would be highly reliable and the character could use it instinctively. He'd be able to move very rapidly and accurately on all kinds of surfaces. And the ability would work unless he is sick, poisoned, or the surface is coated with some exotic substance he cannot stick to.

The second would be a psionic ability. The character would have lots of control over it and be able to use it in flexible fashion. He would be able to move fast and with high precision but would lack the kind of fluency the first character would have. He just would not be quite as good at using it, especially under pressure since he would need some level of mental focus to use it. It also could be disabled by anything that stops him from concentrating or that blocks or disrupts psionic powers. On the positive side the ability would not really care about the specific surface and the character would be able to control the specifics of how it works. They might for example be able to repel surfaces to slide frictionlessly or even use it to throw objects.

The third just has some weird and unrealistic gizmos. It would probably break if handled carelessly or if maintenance is skipped. Fixing it might require expensive or otherwise hard to get parts. And the character would not be able to move with very high speed or precision since the gizmo would have strict limits on how it works. Moving too fast or trying to do a fancy move would probably see the gizmo simply not work and the character falling in an embarrassing fashion. It would also fail on all sorts of normal surfaces because it is just a machine. And an EMP or even dust in the air might make the gizmo stop working.

I hope this example makes my meaning (which I hope is related to the rule in the question) clear. The source of the power is an intrinsic part of the power itself and it should be clear to the reader that the "same" ability from different sources would be entirely different thing. The reader should never think that the above three characters with the "same" power actually have the same power.

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This is not just about the source of superpower. This is about character's uniqueness and devaluation of this uniqueness.

For example, most comic book leading characters (Superman, Spiderman etc.) were first established as one of a kind, absolutely unique individuals. Large part of the following storybuilding was based on this uniqueness. It was even becoming an author-reader contract that the title character in unique. But as more and more installments follow, this uniqueness is becoming a limitation for new stories, and author is tempted to break it.

But how do you break it? It's easier if this uniqueness is coming from a common source. "One of a kind" implies that there is a "kind". Superman does not have to be the only survivor from Krypton. But what if this source, by definition, is more unique - for example, a one and only special spider? Then, if the author goes ahead and creates a second avenue for the same uniqueness, this may not go so well with the readers. Big twists with no foreshadowing seldom go well. The reader may say: "Oh well, when everyone's super, no one will be." Thus, every big story development should be done with caution.

The above typically applies to a serialized, multiple installments format. If a single story is conceived with similar characters who turn out to have very different backgrounds, that Ok, because author has never tried to capitalize on uniqueness of the first character.

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This tends to be a trend in films and movies, especially in the former and especially if it's the first installment in the franchise for a hero (Think of the MCU films which, when the line first started, most of their heroes were not well known to the general public. Prior to 2008's Iron Man, the term could refer to Cal Ripkin Jr. or the Black Sabbath Song in the general public conscious. A decade later, and it's the dude with the robot armor).

This can be for multiple reasons. Stan Lee explicitly said he develop the concept of mutants in Marvel so he could be lazy and not think of origin stories for super-powers (and focus instead on the personal stories, which was a strength of both the heroes and the villains in the Franchise). It's also not uncommon for a hero to have a Dark Version of him or herself, because it allows writers to see what the hero would be like with no morals. Hence Venom to Spider-Man, Iron Monger to Iron Man, Red Skull to Captain America.

The reason its common in film and televison adaptations and original stories is because it allows for narrowing of the story. If the device that gave the hero his powers also empowers the villain, it contains the story a bit more and doesn't overly confuse the audience. Especially if the hero is not well known A-Listers and has to be introduced to a general public not familiar with comic books. For example, Iron Monger was in the first Iron Man film because a guy making another super-suit after seeing Iron Man's specs requires less explanation in the film than explaining Tony's origins and the Origin's of one of his more well known rogues gallery members (The Mandarin, who is a long hinted character in the Marvel Films that has yet to make himself fully known). Similarly, Batman Begins used Scarecrow because a big theme the shared between the hero and villain was using fear as an ally. One notable exception is the Toby McGuire Spiderman film, where Venom was held to the third instalment in favor of Spider-man's archfoes in the first and second who has very little in common in origin but are very famous villains in the franchise and instantly recognizable (Doctor Octopus was widely considered to be Spider-man's biggest villain until Spidey and Goblin had that famous encounter at the George Washington Bridge.).

Man of Steel used Zod because of the rehash of Superman's origin story. In other cases, the stories are condensed to better fit. For example, the films would show you that it was Magneto who made Xavier wheelchair bound, despite the comic depiction of the event was caused by an alien Xavier fought before he formed the X-Men. Where the two are paired off is that they are both Mutant Rights Activists but with different philosophies (Often Xavier v. Magneto is comparable to Martin Luthor King JR. v. Malcolm X, respectively, though their creation was hardly intentionally trying to link the two to the similar philosophies).

In series such as TV and the MCU, tying all heroes to a single origin is more to condense different elements into a more focused narrative. Marvel contains magic and science elements, but Magical elements in it's initial period was enschewed for weirdo objects that have rules, but not understood ones (Thor for example, is specifically an alien but does realize magic exists). Other elements got repurposed or given dual hats with similar objects to save time and make a more concise story. For example, 4 of the five reality stones in the MCU are combined with other Marvel artifacts of similar to keep the story simpilar for the film. The Space Stone is also the Cosmic Cube, the Reality Stone doubles as the Aether (similar items), The Mind Stone is Visions Sun Crystal (not to mention the origin of Pietro and Wanda's powers, since they couldn't have mutants due to liscensing issues) and the Time Stone doubles as the Eye of Agamotto. None of these artifacts had any connections in the comics, but are connected now because it's easier to attribute the items to their very powerful items that were needed to tell the story).

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