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I find myself limited or stuck between writing two types of characters. One character type is the Batman type. The type where the hero can be vulnerable to any form of damage and can be taken out easily at any time.

The second character type is the Superman type. Where the character is strong and can overcome anything. They can use their powers to avoid all forms of threats.

The problem I have here is that I'm struggling to find a middle ground between normal humans and superhumans.

Characters like Captain America or Daredevil are the only blueprints I can use to take notes. Those characters are superhumans who can still get killed by bullets or regular people. I don't know how well this would translate to an audience. If I were to put a bigger emphasis on those types of superhuman characters' vulnerability. Comics books tend to ignore this about more weaker superhumans. Maybe the audience not liking it could play a role. I don't know.

I know glass cannon characters exist. But I'm more so talking about weaker superhumans with low-tier defense-based powers rather than high-tier offense-based powers. Characters like Nolan Bane or Bruce Willis's character in Unbreakable are the closest things to examples I can use to describe this issue.

In conclusion. I guess my question here is. Are superheroes considered too strong to be in a vulnerable position? Especially when their powers are physical-based.

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  • When you say "weak" I think you actually mean "vulnerable". One major part of many superhero stories is about superheroes facing their weaknesses. That's why kryptonite exists. it was also a simple way for writers to stop Superman in his tracks. Forcing the situation by giving Superman the dilemma of choosing between two catastrophes needing his help can only be done so many times before its an obvious gimmick.
    – a4android
    May 29 at 12:28

4 Answers 4

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No, in fact to me, the more god-like and invulnerable a character is, the less heroic he is.

What do they have to be afraid of? What makes them struggle? If you are invulnerable, it is not "courageous" to walk through a battlefield with bullets, shrapnel and missiles exploding all around you, to save a child.

It is far, far more impressive if the person running to save the child is entirely human without even any body armor, that can be blown to bits at any moment, shot or killed, and still risks life and limb to save the child. Especially if their choice gets them hurt or wounded early in the process (proof of danger) and they keep going.

The firemen running up dozens of flights of stairs in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were unbelievably brave and courageous. Superman rescuing people by flying and carrying them out ... Meh. Thanks dude. But that is not brave and courageous, that is just a little bit of welcome altruism. He's just donating time, he had nothing to fear, and did not risk his life.

I was far more interested in Stephen King's Firestarter, a little girl that could absolutely be harmed or killed, with one superpower: She could start fires with her mind. That's it. Everything else, she was purely human; she could even be burned.

Limited superpowers are far better, especially with proof of danger (the superhero gets hurt sometimes). The audience can fear with the hero and admire them overcoming their own fears for the good of others, saving lives by risking their own.

Give me Bruce Willis in Die Hard every day of the week over Superman. The original Spiderman could be hurt and injured.

There are plenty of X-Men that have a super-power but are physically vulnerable, I'd rather see any of them. In my own stories, every hero has both a great power (or skill) and a great weakness; in fact the story is about them facing a problem that targets their weakness and cannot, apparently, be solved with their super power. To me that makes for a good "change" story, my hero has to learn to be a better person.

Yes, audiences will be very accepting of a weak superhuman. Be sure to prove both (weakness and superpower) early in the story. Then give them a cause, a reason to be brave despite their weakness. That is admirable. Doing something when you cannot be hurt? Meh. The action may be clever and exciting, but I have little admiration for Superman doing anything in which he cannot be hurt. That's not bravery, that's just being charitable because you can. That's like retired people volunteering their time at the local Food Bank.

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    That's why, if you want to make Superman more heroic, you have to throw challenges at him even he cannot face. Give him a villain like Lex Luthor, with superweapons and an endless supply of Kryptonite bullets. Make him face another Kryptonian who's just as strong or stronger like General Zod. Or give him a world-ending threat like Darkseid. If you have an overpowered character, give them villains even more powerful than they are. Maybe even massively more powerful. Then that's heroism. They're powerful, but they know they can still die. Otherwise, who cares? May 15 at 14:35
  • Precisely. In the early stories, the appeal of Lex Luthor was that he was smarter than Superman, a super genius that could outwit him. Mislead him. Send him on wild goose chases. but that's my point; it is actually easier to write superheroes that do NOT require a constant supply of world-ending villains; that are always at risk by violence. TV Series about Sherlock for example; he can be kidnapped, beaten up, shot, frozen or trapped. His superpower is observation and thinking; nothing else. Sherlock hunts ruthless murdering criminals while being just as physically vulnerable as any of us.
    – Amadeus
    May 15 at 17:02
  • @Amadeus Sorry, but Superman was smarter than Luthor. It was only from 1986 onwards when John Byrne and DC dropped Superman's super-intelligence and dumbed him down that Luthor was the smarter cookie. Many early Superman required to solve problems that he couldn't simply directly use his super-powers to fix. Some of them read like screwball comedies. They demanded he be ingenious. Its the later comics have superheroes slugging it out for supremacy. Now that's boring!
    – a4android
    May 29 at 12:36
  • @Amadeus I certainly agree it's much easier to write non-super-powered characters risking their lives against heinous villains. But they do have to survive to the end of the story and foil the evildoers. James Bond and the Batman are superheroes in all but name in terms of their exploits. But that's part of the act of fiction.
    – a4android
    May 29 at 12:42
  • @a4android I don't recall any Superman stories in which Superman was smarter than either Lex Luthor or Brainiac.
    – Amadeus
    May 29 at 13:18
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The move powerful a character is, the harder it is to create situations when they can be either brave or cowardly.

A character who is almost totally omnipotent, almost totally invincible, and almost totally invulnerable, compared to the people and natural forces around him can not be either brave or cowardly. It is almost totally impossible for them to face danger, and thus almost totally impossible for them to be either brave or cowardly.

If heroism is defined as facing danger and what one is afraid of, then the more powerful the charcter, the less heroic they will be no matter what they do.

I have an idea for a character called Magnus the Great.

He is a highly eccentric and intelligent human hcild who basically is chose to become and immortal child. His bodie never grow old, and henever he may be killed he is given a new body.

He is sent to many different times and places in the universe.

When he visits a place as advanced as 21st century he can acquire smaell items which might be useful on his travels, such as, for example, a hand gun, a smart phone, a Swiss army knife, a pocketcalculator, etc.

And when he visits socities many thousands or millions of years more advanced, he sometimes acquires items which are of the same raltive importance in those societies, though many times more advanced than anything on present day Earth.

Picture the Krell machine in The Forbidden Planet (19560, a cube 20 miles on a side, able to read thoughts and provide whatever was desired. Suppose that if Krell society continued to advance, the dimensions of a newly built Krell machine might be reduced to only one half, and the volume to one eighth, every century.

After i century each side would be 10 miles long, after 2 centuries each side might be 5miles long, after three centuries each side might be 2.5 miles long, after four centuries 1.25 miles, after five centuries 0.625 miles or 3,30 feet, after 6 centuries 1,650 feet, after 7 centurie 825, after 8 centuries 412.5, after 9 centuries 206.25, and after 10 centuries 103.125 feet or 1,237.5 inches.

After another ten centuries the sides of a newly built Krell machine would 1.208496 inch long, and after another ten centuries, 3,000 years in all, each side of a newly built Krell Machine would be about 0.0011801 inch, almost microscopic.

So if Magnus obtains one or more pocket sized or dust sized equivalents of a Krell machine while visiting an advanced world, he would still be helpless against the most advanced technology of that world, but would have godlike power at his command compared to a technologically backwards society like 21st century Earth.

And you might remember the Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer" where the starship Enterprise is totally controlled by the M-5 computer.

Suppose that an advanced society has computer controlled starships as mighty as the Enterprise and 1,000 meters long, and advances fast enough that each century the dimensions of newly built computer controlled starships can be reduced by half.

After one thousand years the length of newly built computer controled starships would be reduced to 0.9765625 meters, after two thousand years to 0.0009536 meters or 0.9536 millimeters, almost microscopic.

So it would be possible for Magnus to acquire a fleet of tens, or maybe millions, of microscopic starships, controlled by computers which obey his mental commands, when visiting advanced societies, and so become as powerful as a Greek or Norse god compared to technologically primitive societies like 21st century Earth which he visits.

Mgnus is cautious and prudent and even cowardly, so when he has no advanced technology to protect him he behaves cautiously and advises those he may like to be be timid and cautious. And being intelligent, timid, and unemotional he spends a lot of time thinking about the best courses of action to take in various emergencies. So when those emergencies do happen, he takes the best course of action while not displaying much fear or other emotion, and so some people may falsely think that he is being brave insead of rational.

And when Magnus is equippped with tools, weapons, devices, and other stuff from societies many thousands or millions of years more advanced than the one he is in, he is almost totally omnipotent, almost totally invincible, and almost totally invulnerable compared to the people and natural forces around him. Thus it is almost totally impossible for him to face danger, and thus almost totally impossible for him to be either brave or cowardly.

So the greatness of Magnus the Great has nothing to do with his almost non esistent "heroism" but comes from other qualitiies he has.

There was another question asking about creating interesting stories about a very powerful character who can almost never be defeated conventionally.

Is there any point where an overpowered main character could be an interesting one?

Some answers, including mine, suggest ways to create interesting problems and situations for overpowered characters. They often involve the personal relationships or psychological hangups of the protagoists, or ethical dilemmas which can't be solved by their superpowers.

You should consider such suggestions. The less you want to use such suggestions, the less overpowered you should make your superhero protagonists.

You don't want to make a superhero too weak and too vulnerable. If he is not very powerful he will seem more heroic, but also more foolish the more he faces optimal dangers, instead of being forced by his conscience to protect the endangered. A character who rushes into danger thoughtlessly might seem like a thrill seeker with a psychological problem instead of a hero.

Thus while watching Duck Tales (2017) I more and more came to think that the MacDuck clan were all more or less insane, being totally irrational thrill seekers.

A veteran of the US Civil War reacted to being called a war hero by saying the real heroes of the war were dead. The greater the heroism the greater the probability of being killed performing that act of heroism. So surviving heros are likely to be less heroic on the average than dead heros were. The bravest men, and women, and children I have heard of almost all died as a result of their bravery.

But avoiding making a superhero too super is also a good idea.

The less super a superhero is compared to ordinary men, the greater the possibilities are to put them in real danger, and the more heroic they can seem. If they are invincible and invulnerable crimefighters, they might seem like a bully who get their kicks out of beating up helpless and defenseless criminals, using the crimes of criminals as an excuse to be brutal to them.

The tv series Dexter was about an evil serial killer who got his kicks out of identifying and killing other evil serial killers, and justified it to himself by claiming he was doing a public service by exterminating them.

A too invincible and too invulnerable superhero who always clobbers criminals and supervillains might seem to some readers or viewers like a somewhat less evil version of Dexter.

Which would be better than being a bully who gets their kicks out of beating up defenseless good people, but would still not be very heroic or admirable.

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You can use any combination of powers, giving your superhero any level of competence, that you can pull off. Indeed, there have been superheroes suffering from crippling disabilities such that they could not even do normal human activities while at the same time being able to carry out superhuman feats.

There will be substantial influence from the setting. For instance, Astro City has several stories revolving about street-level heroes. Because that setting has heroes up to a Superman-level of power, it tends to have them feel bottom tier. On the other hand, if you do a world in which that's the normal or even exclusive level of superpowers, or your character is the only one with even that much power, that will also be a big influence.

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Even The Strongest Superheroes Have Weaknesses

No matter how strong a superhero may seem, there is usually always a force that could curb stomp them into the ground. Superman's pretty tough, but what about in comparison to someone who can freeze time? What about someone who can warp reality? His only hope of beating an opponent like that would be outsmarting them.

Despite seeming invulnerable, there are many forces that could defeat him. He also has his most obvious weakness, Kryptonite.

Every good character has their Kryptonite. Not just superheroes.

The most important thing when writing powers is to focus specifically on the limitations. If you know what a character can't do then that gives you a much clearer idea of what they can do.

Let's brainstorm a middle-of-the-road character who's stronger than a normal human but not ridiculously so.

His limit is that he can only lift a truck with his bare hands and run at 100 mph at max. Bullets can pierce his skin but it would take about 100 to kill him. He cannot fly and has no other abilities.

If you stop there, you already have a pretty standard superhero character.

Now, what if you want something a little more complex than just a stronger-than-normal human?

This is where the limitations come into play. Let's make a new character.

This guy can freeze time for fifteen minutes at a time. Limits: He has to freeze it for exactly fifteen minutes. He has no other abilities and thus is human otherwise. He can move things when time is frozen but cannot lift things heavier than he could lift in normal time. He must recharge his ability after every use with five minutes of concentration.

How useful does this ability sound? Well, if used correctly it could be used to make a person seem like they are teleporting. They could steal jewelry, hide from a hero, or beat up a rival in that frozen time. However, because of the time limit and their weaknesses as a human, they cannot kill Superman by most normal means, and the time limit makes it hard to just spam the ability indefinitely without getting caught.

If you want to make a medium-level superhero, just strong ability and add some weaknesses. Superman-level strength but no flight or laser vision, for example.

A few other examples I've come up with:

1-Has superspeed or flight but is only as fast as a moving car. Needs to take breaks like a normal human.

2-Heat powers but the basic weakness is water.

3-Cold powers but the basic weakness is temperatures above freezing.

4-Invisibility and no other ability.

5-Telepathy and no other ability.

6-Telekinesis but can only lift objects lighter than 15 pounds. Cannot get them to move faster than 50 mph.

Etc.

Hopefully, this was helpful.

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