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It's hard to be really original during a time where you literally have TV shows and movies every few months, but some clichés seem to be recurring.

For example, in a lot of superhero movies, you have: a badass character who can't die and has an existential crisis about their immortality, a telepath who is hurting everyone around them and then becomes too powerful and becomes a living threat, a secondary character who can attack with energy coming from any part of their body (hands, eyes, mouth, etc.), a character who can force you to obey with their voice, a character with super strength, etc.

On the other side, I have seen some good powers that could really improve a book with their originality. A man who is forgotten by everyone he meets, living in a perpetual limbo. A man fairy. A kid who can make his drawings come true.

How do you come up with original superpowers like this? Please, help me to get out of the overused telepath-strong-immortal trio.

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    I always thought the power to make puppies appear anywhere was a stroke of genius. But of course that's already been done now.
    – towr
    Jun 28 at 11:20
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    Welcome to Writing.SE! I've edited your question slightly, as "Do you have any ideas for original superpowers" is an open-ended idea-generation question, and as Amadeus already explained, we don't answer those here. However, your actual dilemma is "How do I come up with superpowers that haven't been overused", and that is something we can help you with, so I've re-worded the question accordingly.
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 28 at 14:40
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    If you didn't check it out yet, please see Superpower Wiki
    – Alexander
    Jun 28 at 17:20
  • Read Worm. Has literally hundreds of unique superpowers, and subverts many cliches typical to the genre.
    – vsz
    Jun 28 at 19:35
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    I suggest the Question has nothing to do with Writing but would be much better placed in World Building… although there, I'd be suggesting that could not be a serious Question. Could you look past the examples in the exposition and Post some ideas about what powers you might like to give a character? For a silly example, what would be wrong with the power to fulfil imagination? Whether you take that as far as Forbidden Planet (1956) or insist on the characters having their own, direct powers as distinct from using machines are different questions. Jun 28 at 19:47

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Well, this particular community prohibits asking "what to write", your creativity has to be your own. So I will aim to provide some guidance on how to think about it, instead.

But I agree, the most overused power in fiction is invulnerability / instant healing / immortality. To me, that massively diminishes the character. I'd be pretty courageous too if I could not be harmed in any way. I'm not sure we should even count that as "courage" or "bravery".

In your example of the forgettable man, he doesn't have to be invulnerable at all. He may be completely human and vulnerable. So he has to think strategically how he can use his power to his advantage, for good or evil. He has to be clever.

Same with the kid that can make his drawings come true. As long as that is not too instantaneous,like he can't protect himself from a bullet by drawing a shield in less than a second, and cannot actually draw himself powers like flying, then the kid is vulnerable, and he has to be clever and think strategically.

Another factor may be that his drawings may have unintended consequences. He draws something to get what he wants, like money, but the way it is delivered horrifies him. He drew a picture of himself finding a bag full of money, and he does, but it is the result of a bank robbery gone wrong with people getting hurt. He feels responsible.

So that is that pattern you want to think about. A minor superpower that does NOT confer immunity, or immortality, or freedom from physical harm. One that must be used strategically.

You can base this on senses: Super hearing, super vision, super olfactory senses. Sherlock Holmes key sense is a super memory and super observation of minute details, that is basically how he solves every crime. It is not described as a supernatural power, but clearly is. But Sherlock is just human, he can be kidnapped, beaten up, and emotionally manipulated.

I saw a series some time back, I think it was called "Strange Luck", but the hero's super power was "Luck". If he bought a scratch off, it won. Not big bucks, but $10, $20 whatever. His car gets stolen, and while running a completely different errand, he finds his car across town in the parking lot of the store he's gone to for the first time in his life. Weird stuff like that, but he is not invulnerable at all. Just a normal guy with supernaturally good luck.

So I'd say think in that direction. Super power something we all have occasionally, and give that to a hero that is otherwise a normal person. So they have to use it strategically to be a hero.

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    Thank you for your help ! Your comment was really interesting, I will try to think through this angle to not go from "power" to "originality" but rather the other way around. I am new on the community, sorry I didn't knew for the rule. If I have an idea X (with the whole developpement following, like my idea just need to be written now), can I submit it to see the feedback ? Or is it seen as cheating ? Jun 28 at 12:22
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    @KiaraClément-Martin No, we don't do critiques of writing or plot reviews here. Or "surveys" as your headline question implies. But we do try to solve problems. The idea is that we want questions and answers that help more than one person. So what I answered is more like "How do I avoid cliché powers like immortality, invulnerability, super speed, etc?" That is a question others might be interested in, so I provided a template and examples.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 28 at 13:11
  • @KiaraClément-Martin We also don't allow "what to write" questions. However, a sister community, WorldBuilding, does allow asking for help on original ideas and plot building. See this: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions
    – Amadeus
    Jun 28 at 13:13
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    Thank you a lot Amadeus ! As much for the rules than for the WorldBuilding. I will really use it later, you helped me a lot here. Jun 28 at 13:29
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    Agreed! I was thinking along these lines, but you said it much better than I would have. I've always felt that the way in which the powers were used and impacted the world around them was the more important piece. For example, somebody has the seemingly-trivial superpower of being able to "blink," to travel back in time by a trivial amount, like 1s. What can he do with it? What does he do with it? Can he take somebody else with him? Does he run out in front of the bus, grab the kid, then blink back by 1s to where he "was," taking the kid to safety?
    – Deacon
    Jun 30 at 15:25
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A big trend right now is finding awesome uses for seemingly mundane powers. The often lambasted "Speak to all creatures of the deep" power of Aquaman fame is broken in the hands of a writer who knows what that entails. By technicality, Polar Bears are classified as Marine Life... and really... all life on earth is descended from marine life. In Kansas, yeah, Aquaman is going to be up crap creek without a paddle... figuratively speaking of course... Kansas has no rivers. But in his own element, there are all sorts of things that are deadly in the oceans... and so much more density of population to.

One character I once worked on was a character who could know the correct answer to every question he asks or is asked correctly. This didn't mean he was an instant expert because he had no idea why the answer was correct... and he was fully capable of lying. But asking "When should I pull the trigger so the bullet injures but does not kill my target" makes him an instant marksman and asking for where the weak spot of something is can help him identify spots to concentrate on in attacks. And in the event he is kidnapped, he will always know if the villain's plan will succeed... but the bad guy usually doesn't realize that while the character knows the answer... he can still lie about it (He's not compelled to answer correctly. He only instantly knows the correct answer). Oh... and then there's also a mean hacker game he can play.

Other series, like Avatar: The Last Airbender have limited powers, but no power was greater or lesser than the other, and the battle went to the Bender with the greatest skill. The only time any opposition between the four elements came up was discussed as a problem with Airbender Avatars (who rely more on avoidance and redirecting tactics) has difficulty when studying Earthbending, because Earthbending relies on standing one's ground against opposing forces. Presumably Fire and Water bending have the same trouble since Fire is mostly relies on "the best defense is a good offense" tactics while waterbending is more about being flexible. The same episode that established this also showed that even if one was not the Avatar (and thus could only bend one element) studying the other four styles was beneficial as the motions of waterbending could give a firebender a defense to their deadliest attacks (and one that most Firebenders thought would have no defense). In other instances, each bending style is given additional unique skills if one is able to think outside of the box with their thinking. To paraphrase Futurama, most other magic styles were just primitive degenerate forms of bending... and usually relied on applying a different style of thinking to their main bending style could cause other abilities to happen. When introduced to sand benders, a group of earthbenders living in a desert, we see that they have many techniques that rely on moving the sand grains around like a fluid... more in line with air or waterbending than Earthbending. Firebending's two specialties relied on being in complete emotional control, while the style mainly used aggression and passion to fuel it's powers. Failure to do so made the techniques too wild and dangerous for even the user. Earthbenders also had to think differently to bend metal (focus on small scale earthbending and being quiet and calm to listen) while lava bending required them to observe some waterbending elements of flexibility. Waterbending sub-skills of there are the most numerous and at the same time the least, really rely on knowing that water is a the majority of the mass of all living things. This allows for the waterbender to both heal injuries by both bringing blood to the wound and unblocking ki, bend plants by forcing water through their vascular system and most disturbingly puppet other people's bodies and block ki to deny bending abilities (or using the healing skills to cause harm). While it's all one techique when you think about it, it still speaks to the flexibility of waterbending in that there are so many uses for what is one skill... and most waterbenders don't need to look to other bending styles to get inspiration, since it's all based on moving water unseen.

And in this vein, any commonly portrayed power can be creatively used to make powers that seem unique different. For example, of the Fantastic Four, all of them can use their powers to be invulnerable. Mr. Fantastic can absorb the blow as his body can deform with the force to no ill effect. The Thing and his rocky hide and increadible strength can absorb the force of the blow by not breaking or deforming upon impact. The Invisible Woman can create invisible forcefields that will also keep the impact from even touching her body, and the human torch can heat up the air around him to a point where the projectile will combust and either melt or evaporate before it comes into contact with him... and if it does, he's immune to heat damage from any melted slag that touches him... it's like being hit with a liquid. They aren't fool proof invulnerable, and each of them will have limits but they can generally cover the others gaps quite handily. All four are invulnerable, but all four are invulnerable through different applications of their unique powers.

After all, name me a person from an extraordinary society, that is raised by a people who are not his one, and when he comes of age, uses his inhuman strength and abilities to overcome villains for the benefit of his adopted people:

Did you guess "Superman?" What about "Hercules?" Or even Zeus? Moses? Jesus?

Sure... it's been done... but you can always do it differently.

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  • Nitpicks: I don't think Jesus quite fits the trope, since he was raised by his own people (specifically his biological mother); and Kansas definitely has rivers. ;)
    – DLosc
    Jun 29 at 18:24
  • A variant of "awesome uses for mundane powers" is "mundane powers that turn out to be a subset of a more awesome power". Velveteen has the power to bring toys to life, but it turns out to be anything that has what even remotely resembles a face, even if she just sketched a smiley face on a wall.
    – Bobson
    Jun 30 at 15:01
  • @Bobson pleas tell me there's an animated Mount Rushmore at one point. But you do have a good point. A lot of powers can sound mundane at first until you realize how broad the limitation is. The character of Niko from Runaways has control over "The Staff of One" which can do anything she asks it to via magic, but only once. But it's specifically does allow for use of other languages and similar words to do duplicates effects (i.e. "Teleport" only works once, but "Instant Transport" also works as well).
    – hszmv
    Jun 30 at 15:10
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Characters with superpowers don't have to be superheros. Supervillians are the obvious example of characters with superpowers who aren't superheroes. But of course anyone with a superpower could use it for any purpose they decided to, good, bad, or ethicallly neutral, and could be a superhero, a supervillain, or simply a super person.

A person with superpowers could do a lot to help society without ever doing anything noble or heroic, and they could do a lot to harme society without ever doing anything evil or illegal.

I note that a superpowered super person who is invincible and invulernable can't be heroic. If nothing can kill or hurt them, how can they be brave and face danger? So a really superpowered superperson would be more like a supersissy than a superhero, no matter how dangerous the situations they get into would be for ordinary mortal people.

So maybe writers should stop thinking out how to make super powered characters heroic superheroes who bravely face danger to save others, and instead concentrate on how smart or stupid they are in figuring out how to use their superpowrs for good or for evil.

I can imagine that there could be a story about a super person who thinks he is helping society but later realizes that his actions have actually been more harmful, or someone who thinks that he has been the greatest supervillain in his society only to humiliated by realizing that his actions have actually helped socity more than they harmed it.

And you should remember that it a super character has really great superpowers, and is really hrad to harm, it is a lot easier to make them a supervillain who harms other people secure in the knowledge they can't get hurt doding so, than it is to make them a superhero who faces danger to help people.

If your superpowers increase the probability of their possessors surviving danger you can probably never make any possesor of those powers as brave and heroic as many children have been. Why even think about whether you can make your superhero more heroic than any normal man or woman when it is actually impossible to make your superhero braver or more heroic than many children have been?

In 2007 Alexis Goggins, 7 years old, got between her mother and the mother's murderous ex boyfriend and was shot six times, but survived.

https://www.fox29.com/news/girl-shot-six-times-protecting-her-mother-in-2007-graduates-high-school

One way to make superheroes heroic is to show constantly giving up their time, missing out on what they want to do to help others. but that has been done for decades.

Sopossibly you might want to concentrate on how the super characters figure out how to use their powers for good and are always thinking of ways to improve that.

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    "I am invincible, invulnerable. Nothing scares me more than wet cement. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, screaming, after a nightmare of being entombed, alive, forever. The worst the villain can do to you is make you die, but for me..." You can always be afraid of something.
    – Jedediah
    Jun 28 at 21:16
  • @Jedediah "Forever" is a flexible concept for someone immortal. Erosion becomes a practical strategy.
    – Graham
    Jun 29 at 9:23
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The short version is: you don't. No matter what superpower you come up with, whether it's yet another variation on the flying brick or the knowledge that you're part of a story, someone else has already written about it.

What you can do is come up with clever ways of using superpowers, particularly apparently-weak ones. Consider how the ability to talk to rats would let you know everything that's going on in a city, or how the ability to manipulate thread lets you control ropes, manipulate clothing -- or simply untie the shoelaces of someone chasing you. Give your main character powers that aren't easily used in combat, and then have them out-think the opposition.

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To learn how to think of powers in new ways, with a raft of brilliant examples, you could start by reading the online web-serials "Worm" and its sequel "Ward" by wildb0w. These are full of exactly what you're asking about - deeply creative and varied powers and sets of powers, with deep exploration of how to creatively leverage those powers. One example from Worm: control of insects. You wouldn't think that would be particularly threatening against, say, a flying human laser cannon. You'd be wrong.

For the specific question you're asking, "how to come up with new superpowers", what Worm and Ward offer is training in thinking about "superpowers" inherently more creatively - the obvious manifestation, the less-obvious uses, and the kinds of things that could disrupt them. For example, after reading it, I came up with "lying". Being able to force someone else to believe a lie could be a legit superpower, if it were for example to deceive their eyes about where you were, or where someone else was (so they miss a shot, or accidentally hit the wrong person, or repeatedly enter their bank card PIN while you watch and memorize it).

Be warned, Worm overall is a doorstopper and a time sink; 33 story arcs, lots of trigger warnings, and good enough that you may be tempted to read "just one more chapter. Just one more."

Edit: after I posted this, someone suggested "Worm" in the comments to the question, including a link to it. I can't comment yet so I can't second it there, but follow that link.

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Sounds like you are looking for a novelty generator of ideas. Anything can be a super power, if a non-super can't do it. If that "power" makes an interesting story or not, is up to you.

Constraints and weaknesses make "powers" interesting.

Examples:

Ageless and immortal, but only while living within the boarders of the town. Leave, and you start aging normally again.

Wish for anything, but it has to come out of your nose. Also, the magic takes the thing wished for from the nearest source in the real world, and leaves a note behind with your name and location on it.

Invisible, but involuntarily become visible again if anyone says the word "the" near you.

====

These are silly examples, but you get the idea. The creativity doesn't have to be in the power, but can live in the limitations around its use.

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Something I would suggest looking at is Sanderson's Laws of Magic. They're general rules for coming up with magic systems and I think they may help you with coming up with superpowers. The rules are:

  1. An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
  2. Limitations > Powers
  3. Expand on what you have already, before you add something new.

The link I have above does an excellent job elaborating on what each law means, but if you want to read my explanations keep reading.

The first rule helps us avoid deus ex machina and keeps the story grounded. Let's say our character's power was that they were lucky. What does that actually mean? How does that work? If the character used their luck superpower to solve problems, it doesn't feel satisfying because it's really loose. A good example of this is Gandalf (The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings). We don't really know what Gandalf is capable of with his magic. However, it doesn't really matter narratively since he doesn't use it to solve major problems in the story, such as delivering the ring or destroying the orcs.

The second rule says limitations are more interesting than weaknesses. Let's say, for example, I have a character who's superpower is telekinesis. With their mind, they can lift boulders, stop bullets, part the sea, fly, etc. This is a really generic power and it doesn't feel satisfying when it's used to solve conflicts.

Now let's take that same power and add some limitations:

  • They have to physically touch the object before using their powers on it.
  • They have to see the object to use their powers on it.
  • Moving an object exerts the same toll on them body as if they were carrying it physically.

With these limitations, the character is weaker. However, it opens the door to some very interesting questions and scenarios the writer can propose. They can't stop bullets, but what if they got into the ammo cache before the fight? They have a limit to what they can carry, but would hitting the gym make them more powerful? Could they use painkillers to push themselves past their limits? There's a lot of interesting things you could do now as a writer with that character that wasn't possible before.

The third rule says that a few powers that the author has considered in depth is more interesting than a mishmash of unrelated powers. Magic (or in case our superpowers) don't exist in a vacuum. They're going to affect everything from logistics, to social dynamics, religion, war, etc.. If I can teleport, I'm going to make a great substitute for an armored car. If I can fire explosive lasers from my hands, I'd probably be working with a construction crew. If it makes sense within the setting, give the powers a theme. For example, in the book Mistborn, magics were designed to be what thieves would want and then the powers named accordingly.

But above all else Err on the side of AWESOME. A book inconsistencies is more interesting than a book where nothing awesome happens.

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Welcome, Kiara!

I believe the trick is not the superpower, but how it solves the story problem. Perhaps someone can grow their fingernails quickly, and perhaps this allows them to do something in the final conflict. Or perhaps someone isn't immortal, but they randomly change age forward and backward and cannot predict whether they will be a toddler or a septuagenarian in the morning. They will live a normal lifespan, but in a random order of ages. How can this be used in the final conflict? Or perhaps, as Sanderson said in a lecture, a person can make a snowball appear in their hand at any moment they so desire. Or they can convince anyone they meet of something very limited and specific--like that today is Tuesday, even though it isn't.

It isn't the power that is necessarily remarkable (except for the fact that it's weird), it is how the story uses the power throughout, and eventually to solve the crisis. Or, sometimes, it is also how the power comes at a cost to the character. The person who can supercharge their fingernails to grow might do so at the cost of extreme hunger or pain. Or it might not, but it's an option and can make the story more intriguing, because every use of the power will be a question of small stakes.

So, find an organizational structure and build a spreadsheet or other matrix (ex: Physical, mental, technological, magical... these might be some of the columns) and start listing everything you can under each topic. "Physical" might have strength, speed, agility, endurance, appearance, etc. Then start brainstorming ways that a slight change in any of those could be a new idea. When you see a new idea that suggests a solution to a story problem, highlight it and develop it from there.

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What helped me in creating unique powers for some of my characters is the Fantasy Name Generator site's My Hero Academia quirk generator and superpower generator, they've helped me out quite a bit.

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  • I believe that my edits objectively improve your answer by providing links to the resources you're referring to, and improving the grammar, hence why I have restored them. If you object to some specific part of my edit, feel free to clarify and we can try and work something out, but if you're rolling back simply because you object to anyone editing your posts, then please refrain from doing so. Stack Exchange is a collaborative platform by design, and the ability to edit and improve other people's posts is an integral part of that.
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 29 at 20:26
  • Instead of relying on luck, you can go directly into page sources and pick a value. In case of superpowers, this "generator" is just a static list.
    – Trang Oul
    Jun 30 at 10:00
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This question reminded me of Larry Niven's character with 'Plateau Eyes'. There is a reflex involving the human iris: If a person has no interest, or loses interest, in someone or something, the iris contracts towards a point; if a person is fascinated with someone or something, the iris widens. The character had been born with a mutation that allowed him to work this reflex backwards. So, for example, if some school bully seemed to begin to show him attention, the character would (unconsciously at first) make his iris contract to a pinpoint, and the bully would lose interest in the character. At one point he made a cop's iris widen severely, and the cop started to feel intense fear and awe, as if he were staring at a god.

You might look into other bodily functions which could be tweaked into some sort of power, on the same principle.

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