So I have been debating writing a story idea I have had swimming in my head for a long time. I love superhero comics, and I love the more character driven aspects of the stories.

I have been tinkering in my mind with an idea for a story like this, a more character driven novel like story. It would be looking into the relationships, alliances, families and friendships that these people who are in a kind of social bubble have.

I know it's not a novel story in the sense of it being new, it has been done before and will be done after. My question is, not only because works like Watchmen and other deconstructionist super hero stories exist; but also because of the sheer level of influence well known heroes have in popular culture, how does one go about working with this without it sounding too obvious?

I know that in part I want to base it on the stories I grew up with so the influence of for example the DC properties is inevitable, so how does one navigate this? Or do I just write and when someone says "this sounds like Superman and Batman with other names" I go "Well it's based on superhero comics we know."

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    Writing genre fiction is like cooking comfort food or a traditional holiday dinner for the family. The goal is not to be 'original' with exotic spices and random ingredients to the point it is no longer recognizable, the goal is to provide the expected meal (as remembered from childhood) competently and with heart. All the favorite dishes in the right proportions, with plenty of tradition borrowed from grandma's recipes. Good luck, and remember to enjoy the meal too! – wetcircuit Mar 10 at 12:34
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    Step one: read Worm. – vsz Mar 10 at 20:11
  • @wetcircuit Yes that was part of the worry, I want to keep some aspects and conventions of the genre because in the end it's the love of this that inspired it. Really wishing I could choose more than one answer in this question. – Scott.Bell Mar 11 at 14:20

You cannot stop people from drawing comparisons between your work and earlier, similar works. Readers are going to do it no matter how original you strive to be. You cannot cover up an influence that actually exists in your writing, because people familiar with the original ideas have a bias for recognition of those same ideas.

It sounds like what you're worried about is people paying more attention to the similarities between your work and existing works than to the important ways it is different. If you actually do have enough original ideas to tell a story substantially different from its inspiration, you should have faith in those ideas and emphasize them as much as possible, over the derivative ones.

Test readers are important for gauging this kind of audience reaction. Find people you trust to give you honest, usable feedback. If they tell you "this is basically just Batman" then you know you're not emphasizing your own ideas enough, or you don't have enough original ideas in the first place.

It's important to note you can be totally comfortable with being derivative, if that's the story you want to tell, but it doesn't sound like you're comfortable with it and want people to appreciate the original ideas in your stories, despite the derivative elements. In that case the only solution is more originality, which means either changing the derivative ideas or adding more original ones to crowd them out and make them less relevant to the story. In either case you aren't hiding your inspiration, you're actually changing the story.

The only way to "hide" ideas is to obfuscate them with deliberately vague language or obtuse symbolism and allegory. Nobody can accuse you of being derivative if they can't even figure out what you're writing about. I really wouldn't recommend that route though, unless you have an ambition for obscurantism.

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  • I think I am mostly worried about what you mention of being totally comfortable with being derivative. Being used to the calls of "there can only be one"in a lot of writing spaces has made it difficult. So that might be what I do, just get comfortable with it. – Scott.Bell Mar 11 at 14:16
  • Whatever you choose, I do recommend finding test readers. It's invaluable for anybody seeking to improve, but in your case will really help you decide if you're comfortable with those kinds of comments and how to manage that perception of your work. – Dmann Mar 11 at 20:05
  • Test readers where already a must in my mind. I am conversing with both people who are also fans and thus more versed on it , and people who are not as involved. I want to see if those comments overshadow the rest of it. In the end, influences are everywhere. Like does someone being clearly influenced by Tolkien overshadow what they are working with? Well if the story is good it shouldn't matter right? But yes, test readers have always been in my mind, thanks for the feedback. – Scott.Bell Mar 11 at 20:15

While powers are important and defining to a character, think about what else makes a character - is Hancock "basically Superman"? They have similar powers, but the characters, personal issues and story is completely different. Is Vegeta "basically Goku"? Definitely not, the characters share a lot of powers but the difference is clearly in the character, motivations and the resulting conflicts and stories. They are not redundant. The Incredibles are basically the Fantastic Four, if we talk about powers - except they have completely different problems, conflicts and stories.

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  • I don't know that those are good examples for someone trying to avoid even the perception of similarity. I've certainly seen Hancock compared to Superman. Vegeta/Goku is kind of cheating, since those characters are from the same work. And the Incredibles get away with being an obvious Fantastic Four homage at least partially by being in an animated comedy. – Aaron Rotenberg Mar 10 at 16:50
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    you dont have to limit it to superheroes to draw comparisons either. Consider Hunger Games is almost identical to Battle Royale in every conceivable way. Very few noticed that, and when BS was called on it basically nobody cared. – Kai Qing Mar 10 at 21:20

Try changing their aesthetics and/or powers.

For example, you ask how to avoid getting people to call a character "that guy is basically Superman". So, if you want to avoid that, you have to ask what would cause people to do that. For superheroes, specifically, I think that would boil down to their superpowers and aesthetics. If they're a guy who wears tights and a cape, and is invulnerable, superstrong, and flies, they'll probably go "that's basically Superman".

For example, if you have your Superman-equivalent be a xianxia-style martial artist who wears an elaborate robe, and whose powers derive from his knowledge of ki manipulation and his cultivation of the Tao of the Fist, that's a lot less Superman-like even if he's still flying around while superstrong and invulnerable. Maybe your Batman-type might be a vampire who decided to use his vampire powers for good after his transformation, to the amusement of his vampiric sire.

You might get them compared to other characters with similar powersets and aesthetics, though (e.g. "that sounds like Goku from DBZ").

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    "That's basically Iron Fist". ;) – Ben R. Mar 10 at 14:51
  • This is something I have been working on now that I have been defining them more as originals. There is still some aspects that I am keeping more as callbacks to what inspired this, but there will be some changes there, thanks! – Scott.Bell Mar 11 at 14:18

I am a fellow writer. I am currently working on adapting a semi-original screenplay I've written last year into a wholly original novel for children. This screenplay was based off a popular animated series in my childhood about fifteen years ago. When I wrote the script, I only used the characters and was inspired by the plotlines in the source material. For the novel, I had to re-imagine the entire world to make my story wholly original. I had to change the character names and get rid of all direct references to the source material. Now, I have been re-imagining each plotline that I was inspired by. This takes work and I suggest that you do the same.

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Dmann's answer has already done a good job addressing some general points about writing genre fiction and getting test readers, and nick's answer covered changing aesthetics. But I wanted to mention one aspect of superhero fiction specifically (as well as fantasy hard magic systems) that can help avoid drawing undesired comparisons with prior art. Namely: don't underestimate the freedom you get by making powers weird.

If I tell you I have a character who can climb walls and trap opponents with spider webs—you are going to think "Spider-Man", even though Spider-Man has a bunch of other powers besides those. But what if I tell you I have a character who can make building materials sticky, so he can climb walls by making the wall adhesive, and throw bricks at his enemies to trap them? No one is going to think that character is Spider-Man.

If I tell you I have a character who can fly anywhere on Earth in seconds, is immune to bullets, and can punch you hard enough to turn you into red mist—you are going to think "Superman," even though Flying Brick is an entire trope. But what if I tell you I have a character who hovers constantly in midair and can teleport from place to place instantly, but can only move by teleporting and never touches the ground because any solid matter that touches his skin is instantly teleported into the Earth's core? Well, he can get anywhere on Earth in seconds, he's immune to bullets, and he can kill you with a touch… but no one is going to think "Superman." (This description also suggests some dramatically-convenient weaknesses that arise more naturally than Superman's kryptonite. He's immune to solid objects, but what about liquids/gases/plasma?)

Those are just some examples I made up on the spot. Rather than creating characters that have the same set of powers as some character you are already familiar with, consider whether it would work better in the context of your story to create a character whose powers fill a similar functional role to another character you are familiar with but that work very differently in the details.

If you are short on ideas for "weird powers," it might help to spend some time surfing around on sites such as r/whowouldwin and r/respectthreads, and to read some works that are known for off-the-wall superpowers such as Worm or JJBA. Or just take a handful of powers from DC and Marvel and try to figure out ways to twist them.

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I also suggest just embracing it and using humour to take momentum out of the "Well you just reinvented superman"-arguments of possible nay-sayers.

You could have characters say something like

Man! That guy is just like superman! Except he doesn't have this weird curl and he can also do X / he can't do Y.

This way, the reader won't think he "caught" something but that you made it intentional this way.

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Sometimes the answer can be simple. You want to write a novel with character-focused superheroes. Focus on their characters.

For example, Bob Johnson is an orphan alien humanoid with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. This sounds like a carbon copy of Clark Kent/Superman. Sure that's an obvious influence. But if his alien humanoid nature is an extremely important of his character this is already a step away from Superman as he is usually depicted. If his powers and abilities are different from those of Superman, this is another degree of difference. Also, this is similar to what the Manhunter from Mars was originally like. He was a less powerful version of Superman, but with his alien nature emphasized, and with additional super-powers.

The important part is, as I said, the focus on their characters, the lives they live, the people they interact with, friends, work mates, partners and enemies. Take a good careful look at how your superheroes combine their working lives with teir heroic derring-do. I've always wondered why Clark Kent wasn't fired as reporter, because he was always off doing all his Superman stuff when he should have been reporting for the Daily Planet. When does Bruce Wayne sleep? Especially if he's always on Batman patrol night after night.

The super-powers are there for decoration. Concentrate on how your characters live, work and love. How they blend their roles as ordinary citizens and as super-powered vigilantes. Think about what their roles are in society. Keep doing that, tweak their powers, give them backgrounds and worlds they inhabit and soon enough typical comic book influences will be irrelevant. Either that or your readers we will be saying they never thought of Superman or Batman being like that. if so, you have succeeded.

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