Writing the superhero genre

Whatler White, Heisenberg, Breaking Bad, Superhero genreThe superhero-genre is not only a genre you can use when dealing with a classic superhero with “magic” powers. It’s a genre where your protagonist is an expert.

Why the fascination with superheroes? Because we like to see people excel at something. We love witnessing a skilled character shine in his or hers right element. Hulk, Spiderman, Ironman, Wolverine … they’re all superheroes with special powers. We love to see them do what they do best. But not all superhero stories have superheroes in them. Confused? I’ll fill you in.

Superhero as a genre

The genre “superhero” can be defined like this:

An extraordinary character living in an ordinary world. But not necessarily a character with magic powers.

What about Walter White from Breaking Bad? Yes! He is a superhero as well. At least from a story and dramatic perspective.

If the definition of the superhero genre is an extraordinary character living in an ordinary world, Walter While certainly meets the criteria!

TV-examples of superhero stories without a classic superhero are:

  • Breaking Bad – Walter White excels in chemistry.
  • Dexter – Dexter Morgan excels in killing.
  • Sherlock – Sherlock Holmes excels in deduction.
  • Doctor Who – The Doctor excels in … a lot!

You can even argue that many AAA games have at least one leg in the superhero camp. Agent 47 from Hitman certainly has some kind of super powers. In AAA games, the protagonist is often an extraordinary character (certainly with extraordinary abilities) in an ordinary world.

Why genre is important

As a writer, it’s beneficial for you to identify what genres you’re working with. Just because your protagonist is a character with extraordinary abilities doesn’t mean you’re dealing with a superhero story. That depends on what other themes are shining through your story. No PR agency would label Breaking Bad or Dexter as a “superhero” story. Breaking Bad is “crime” and “drama”. No doubt about that!

That said Breaking Bad and Dexter lends several plot devices from the superhero genre including:

  • Secret identities to protect family and friends.
  • Vigilantism.
  • A “dark side” to the superpower.
  • Costumes when in action. (Walter White wears signature sunglasses and a hat when he is Heisenberg, Dexter wears his signature shirt, pants, and gloves. These elements are clearly inspired from the superhero genre.)

What to do when identifying superhero genre elements

Next time you’re writing a story, figure out if you’re dealing with parts of a superhero story and see if you can enhance it by lending devices from other superhero stories. Does your character need a signature outfit to make him or her more iconic? What about a secret identity? Being aware of what genres you work with can give you clues about where to look for inspiration when creating “that special mix” of genres you’re looking for.

Thanks for reading.

This is the first of two articles about working with superhero stories. Next article will be about why the first superhero story is usually the best.

photo credit: Mr.Ucci via photopin cc
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