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How to Create a Superhero (Part 2): Origin Stories

Welcome to part two of how to create a superhero (you can read part one here)! Last time, we talked about what a superhero is and their amazingly detailed history. Today, we’re looking at putting that history into action.

Superheroes are still characters in a story, and like every other character type, they needed to be round and dynamic. Without that, they’re not interesting. And we don’t want that.

But what you may not realize is superheroes have a little extra character development than normal heroes do. Superheroes don’t typically reside in a world that looks exactly like ours. There’s always something more to the worlds that they inhabit, which means we have to look at our worldbuilding a bit more closely.

It also means that we need to give them an origin story. But before we get into that, let’s look at the need to know information about the characters themselves.

How to Develop Your Superhero Character

Superheros are almost always regular people who can do amazing things that extend beyond the extra dose of a normal hero’s courage. And because of that, your superhero is going to follow some different archetypes.

8 Superhero Archetypes

You can apply eight archetypes to superheroes, and a lot of this is based on their genre and their powers. And if you go looking online, there is no definitive list of archetypes because they largely depend on the universe (DC or Marvel) and the genre.

With that said, I decided to go with an infographic to explain everything instead of breaking it down into sections:

8 Superhero archetype infographic

The Blueprint for Your Amazing Superhero

Now that we have the archetypes down let’s look into the things your superhero needs to survive in today’s literary world.

And if there’s one thing that I hope you take away from all of this is that you create real people with relatable problems. This is what’s going to draw readers in more than anything else.

Without further adieu, here are my tips for writing the next great superhero:

Most superheroes have two identities, which means you’ll need to craft two characters.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but most superheroes like to hide their powers from the rest of the world for various reasons. (We’ll get more into this below.) But this means that you’ll need to spend a lot of time figuring out who your character is.

You’ll need to craft your character’s “superhero identity” and their “civilian identity.” And you’ll have to figure out which identity is the mask your character is wearing. It’s also an excellent time to figure out what their stage name is and what their superhero costume looks like.

And instead of going right to the hero identity, craft your civilian identity first. This is the person that readers will fall in love with, not the powers or the superhero. As Lauren Quigley puts it:

If the character isn’t interesting or relatable before they gain their abilities, they won’t be interesting or relatable enough afterwards.

Your superhero is only as good as their enemy.

Just like with any other type of hero, he’s only going to be as fantastic as his villain. So make sure you show your villain or supervillain some love in your character development process.

And if your superhero doesn’t have to struggle, they’re not going to be that interesting. Think of it like this: without the Joker, we would have no Batman.

Give your superhero a weakness.

My biggest pet peeve about Superman is he’s almost unbeatable. The only things that cripple him are Kryptonite and Lois Lane. Other than that, he’s a goody-two-shoes that can’t be beat. Or everyone seems to have access to Kryptonite, which is stupid because it’s supposed to be rare. And the damsel in distress routine gets old quickly.

So give them something other than a girl and an easily accessible but rare stone as your superhero’s weakness. It can be anything from self-doubt about their abilities, they have a fear of heights, etc. It would be best to make it believable, but making them ridiculous isn’t out of the question.

They also need a moral code.

Our next tip relates directly to the above one. Your superhero’s moral code can be his downfall, as well as what makes him good. This code can be simple, like family above all else, or it can be complicated, like killing under any circumstance is wrong. Whatever it is, make it interesting.

And here’s a Captain America example to help you out. For Captain America, things like loyalty are essential to his being, making him go above and beyond for those he holds dear, like Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier).

Despite Bucky going to the dark side in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America continues to try to help Bucky realize that he’s not the bad guy he’s been programmed to be. Even to Captain America’s own detriment, which continued to play out into Captain America: Civil War, when our superhero goes rogue, giving up on the values that he’s held dear, like law and order.

Give them a sidekick, best friend, lover, or beloved family member.

Your superhero will need someone to confide in, believe in them, and get them through the hard times. Your sidekick character can be funny or serious, but they need to ground your superhero and give them hope when things look bleak.

These secondary characters also show the reader that there’s a less “awesome” side to our superhero and that they are more human than we realize. It makes your reader relate to them, which is a good thing.

Is your superhero human?

Before we get into origin stories and worldbuilding, I need you to think about this question carefully. It’s a monumentally important one, and your answer will affect everything else in your story.

It will affect how society perceives your character and provide your character with benefits. It can cause a lot of issues for your hero if public perception is not favorable. Your answer will also offer you the chance to tackle big issues, like racism, if you want it to, so choose wisely and think long term.

A Note on the Female Superhero

I want to take a second to discuss the portrayal of female superheroes. There are issues with equal representation in comic books that extends to all walks of life, not just gender. However, women are still being left off the glossy pages of a comic book or in the movies.

If you think about it, in the last few years, only two female superheroes have had their own movies: Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019). The rest have been male.

Young girls need to see more women in influential roles without the sexual component that has been seen in numerous superhero movies to date. It helps them visualize what they can do. So please consider going with a female superhero over a male one.

Resources

If you would like to learn more or would like to craft a female superhero, please take a look at the following articles:

How to Craft the Best Superhero Origin Story

Every superhero has an origin story, telling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime. It may be revealed in their first appearance, or not until an eventual flashback. But once established, it sets ground rules for which tropes apply to that particular superhero.

And according to TV Tropes, there are 10 types of origin stories that you can follow, or you can try to come up with something new.

The 10 Types of Origin Stories

Each of these 10 origin story types has its own tropes that writers tend to follow. Often, our hero gets both powers and motivation in the same event. They may also get a supervillain arch-nemesis to fight, motivated, and empowered by that same event.

Superhero Origin Story types infographic

The Lucky Accident

This is one of the most popular superhero origin stories (so much so that it’s become a cliche). Here’s how it works:

Your character is in a radioactive lab or walks down the wrong street at the right time, and BAM! They’re part of a freak lab accident, a one-in-a-million malfunction, etc.

Now they have to live with this weird ability they got for the rest of their lives. It makes them full of angst because they’re sometimes seen as an abomination, and they’re prone to reminiscing of their human days.

Examples include Spider-Man, The Flash, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and The Fantastic Four.

The Chosen One

In this popular (and overdone) origin story, your superhero is given his powers by someone else, usually an ancient and wise being, or a god. They received these powers because they were deemed worthy or as part of a prophecy. However, these transfers of power don’t always work out well for the recipient (i.e., Ghost Rider).

Examples include: Green Lantern (Silver Age) and Captain Marvel.

The Non-Human Hero

These guys are superhuman because they’re not human. They have come from space, a mystical realm, or they’re deities or demi-gods. These superheroes may be genetically-engineered, a cyborg, or some other creation of science or an anthropomorphized creature with human characteristics. The second science-made subgroup is not happy about their conditions and rebel against society’s rejection of them.

Examples include Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor, The Powerpuff Girls, and Rocket Raccoon.

My Own Creation

A scientist or engineer makes something that gives them powers and uses it to help people. Or they do experiments on themselves and gain special abilities. These superheroes rarely sell their secret or use it to empower others because they don’t think people can use it responsibly or are ready for the technology.

Examples include Iron Man, Henry Pym (aka the original Ant-Man).

Magical Objects

With this origin story, magical powers don’t originate in the superhero, but in their object. Their abilities come from a magical accessory, artifact, or cursed object they happened to find on their way to a coffee shop that morning. This object could also be a powerful substance that renders them impervious.

The magical objects origin story pairs well with the My Own Creation and The Chosen One storylines, but it can also work with the Lucky Accident. It teaches your superhero that their powers come with responsibility. If your villain strips them of their object, it can send them into a dark hole where they question their worth without said object.

Examples include Green Lantern, The Mask, and Blankman.

Augmentation

Be it biological, genetic, physical, chemical, or cybernetic, your superhero becomes super from external enhancements. Whether they voluntarily ask for these enhancements or not is up to you.

This origin story loves to overlap with The Chosen One, Non-Human Hero, My Own Creation, or Magical Objects. Like Lucky Accident, this type may lead to reminiscing about their human days.

Examples include Captain America, Robocop, and Jekyll & Hyde.

Pure Will

This mere mortal has devoted their lives to learning how to fight crime and are experts in all the extreme fighting forms. Or they are geniuses and created the tools they need to be a vigilante.

Examples include Batman, Green Arrow, and the second Blue Beetle.

Evolutionary Levels

Sometimes they’re born with superpowers due to mysterious circumstances. These powers could manifest at any point in their life, though many examples have them mostly occur during puberty.

Example: The X-Men

Superpowerful Genetics

They inherited their powers from at least one superpowered parent or ancestor.

Examples include Spider-Man’s daughter Spider-Girl, Violet and Dash from The Incredibles, and Magneto’s twin children Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.

Random Selection

Something random that nevertheless isn’t an “accident.” This origin story tends to fall into one of the Evolutionary Types storylines later.

Superpowers

Superheroes are not like us mere mortals. They have a special ingredient that makes them super, which means that we need to talk about their superpowers.

There is a “right” and “wrong” way to do superpowers, but here’s what you should not do:

Do not use your character’s superpower as a crutch to get them through your story.

Your character’s superpowers are not a crutch. #writingtip

It makes it hard for you to write a good plot with lots of action and drama if your super can annihilate their opponents by turning their gaze upon them. (Did I mention this is why I hate Superman?) Give your superhero a weakness and a villain who can stand up to them. Make them work for that victory.

That’s the big two things you need to know about superpowers, which brings us to our next challenge, picking one. The good news is there are many to choose from, and you can select more than one if you’d like. The bad news is there are a lot of them.

Thank goodness for Wiki Fandom, they have a list that contains every superpower that has ever graced a comic book. Go ahead and browse, or come up with something that’s never been done before.

Everything You Need to Know About Superhero Worldbuilding

Lastly, let’s spend some time on worldbuilding. DC Comics and Marvel Comics took very different approaches to their universes. DC decided to keep everything made up, and Marvel wanted to bring their superheroes into our world.

And there’s nothing wrong with either approach, and they both require a similar level of planning. I have a great list of questions on worldbuilding to ask yourself before you begin telling your tale.

Here are the links to some articles others have written:

What needs extra attention

Out of everything on those lists, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the magic and cultural aspects of your world because they most directly apply to your superhero. It also points you in the direction of which genre your comic will fall under, which will impact how your story unfolds.

Here’s why you need to pay attention to magic. If magic is an accepted part of your world, it won’t surprise the rest of society if little Johnny can control fire. And if it is not accepted, how does that affect your character’s perceptions of themselves and their gift?

It also can have an impact on how your superhero works. Are there types of magic that hinder your character’s abilities? Or do they help? These are things that your supervillain may need to know.

As for culture, it boils down to whether society is looking for a supernatural being that can do these wondrous feats or if they hate them. And this will pose its own challenges for your hero.

It can make it necessary for them to have a hidden identity. It can affect the government and policies in place. And it gives you to look at real-life issues, like discrimination and racism, in a new way.


With any luck and an overactive imagination, you’ll be writing a stupendous superhero in no time!

Superheroes live in a world of their own. It has unique challenges that help or hinder their progress in the ultimate battle between good and evil. And how they become spectacular can be centered on how their world treats them and people of their kind.

So go ahead, come up with that fantastic world, and groundbreaking origin story. Because when you put that together with a round, dynamic character, you’ll have something that looks like this:

And that’s what we want at the end of the day. People to read, discuss, and argue over the nuances to our tales.

Who’s your favorite superhero? Have you ever argued over nuances in a comic book?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.

Cheers,

Danielle

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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.

Comments

3 Responses

  1. Back in the late 80s, when I was reading comics, one of my personal jokes was, “There’s nothing more depressing than a Spiderman storyline “.
    I mean, with Peter Parker, the most prevalent things in his daily life were the health of his dear little old aunt – his only living relative , his aunt’s financial situation, his own financial situation. Not to mention Mary Jane’s family life, and how Peter had to deal with these things. Furthermore, a LOT of times, when Spidey bumped into another superhero, they would get into a little disagreement, and they would fight. It’s like, he came into conflict with the good guys nearly as often as the villains.
    I figured out the writers were trying to go for drama, but really, that was a bit much.
    Also when I was younger, I noticed most girls were simply not into the Zap!, Bam!, Super Powers! world of comic books. And if there was a female hero/character, they didn’t care. It was like comics were a superficial thing, and they were looking for a more sophisticated and mature form of reading entertainment (text novels like Charlotte’s Web, Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High, and equestrian stories).
    Also, stories with superpowers tend to be centered around violence, which I think turns off young girls. Young boys on the other hand ( personal experience) tend to like them more. So, it’s not that girls need a role model in a comic book format. If you want to give them positive or inspiring role models, you need to present them with a story that has deeper meaning, and more meaningful things for the characters to do than put on a flashy costume and go break something.
    However, I think the story format presented is crucial to audience appeal. When she was a young girl ( back when comics cost like 10 cents), my mom read the Lassie comics, Trigger the horse of Roy Rogers, Champion the horse of Gene Autry, I Love Lucy, Silver the horse of the Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. Those were simple stories told in comic format. They were not trying to present superpowers to tell the story of the characters.
    I know everyone’s different, but that’s what I can tell you based on what I’ve seen, and the girls I grew up with.

    1. The other thing to remember with Spider-Man is that he is a teenager dealing with all of these things. Teenagers are not always the most adept at handling girl problems and family problems under normal circumstances. Add in a superpower, and things get dicey – teenagers are known for arguing with everyone over trivial things. I can also see the creators throwing in some unnecessary drama to liven things up. 😛

      You also have to take gender roles in the 1980s into account. Women, yes, are starting to buck traditional gender roles, but they’re still adhering to them. So they may have been interested but didn’t want to face disapproval or rebuff for that interest. It could be the reason why they seemed to prefer more sophisticated stories. I can also personally attest to the turn-off of excessive violence for young girls.

      Let’s fast forward to the 1990s (my childhood). I was, and still am, in love with Sailor Moon. She is a weak character, but she always came through and showed agency in her adventures. She’s also able to take down her foes without using excessive force. During this time, I also loved watching superhero cartoons (like X-Men, Batman, and Spider-Man) with my dad. I always loved it when Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Batgirl, or some other female superhero or supervillain was in the show.

      The “superheroes” they did create for girls at the time, like the Powder Puff Girls (PPG), were so stupid. They always upheld traditional gender roles and played into the damsel in distress trope whenever a man popped up. And the characters were really catty, which personally made things unwatchable for me. I was also subtly encouraged to like stories with horses and sophisticated tales by teachers and family members because comics were “for boys.”

      When I hit university, I found women like me who wished for more female superheroes and supervillains in comics and on the big screen. It’s during this time that women reading comics and being geeky are gaining more acceptance and popularity.

      The other thing I want to point out is that the genre has developed a more sophisticated narrative style over the years. Comic book readers of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations have demanded it. And many authors are trying to keep up with this demand by reimagining tales to support strong women characters and diversify the characters even more.

      And I totally agree with you. Personal preference does come into play, and there’s nothing wrong with not liking comics. Or enjoying comics without superheroes. So, in summary, if you’re thinking about writing a female character, try to create a strong one. That way, female readers have someone to relate with in a male-dominated genre. 🙂

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