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September 23rd, 2012, 11:35 AM #1
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What good are super-powers (to an ordinary teen)?
I've decided my fifth Shapechanger Tales book will be YA. But I'm puzzling over a major problem.
Most comic-book superhero stories are science fantasy (if not outright fantasy). Science is used as a substitute for magic. Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider. Superman's powers come from our "yellow" sun.
But I write science fiction, not science fantasy. My superheroes' powers don't come from magic thinly disguised as science. If someone exerts extraordinary strength they must pay for it in some way. And there are other limits. They don't get something for nothing or almost nothing. They are not so much SUPER human as EXTRA human - ordinary people with a few extraordinary but real abilities added.
So the situations I put them in are realistic, ones you might read about every day in newspapers and newsblogs.
For most western teens this means they live at home under parental supervision. They get their money as an allowance or from working part-time and/or on weekends. They go to school. They have little free time to go about fighting crime. There are no super criminals with super powers or from an alien dimension where mythic gods are real.
So what good are their super/extra powers?
September 23rd, 2012, 12:47 PM #2
So does everyone have these powers? Meaning they aren't super, just normal within the world of your story? Or are they genuine powers beyond the abilities of 'normal' people? In which case the unbelievable part of your story isn't the superpowers, but expecting us to believe the teenagers lead normal lives. Would you do what your parents told you if you could fly or lift up a truck in one hand (and they couldn't)? Would you mow the lawn or wait tables, or bother with school?
September 23rd, 2012, 01:21 PM #3
Well you have a team of teenage girls as your consultants; you might ask them.
It depends on what the powers are. But the actuality is that teens actually do have a lot of free time, as most parents work. It's true that they spend a lot of it in their rooms on the Internet, but they do have it and they don't have to spend the time in their rooms.
If the powers are physical, then a teen might use them to excel in sports. If they are mental, they might use them to get good grades, hack into computers, etc. If there are adults with their abilities (as half-aliens, aliens,) who find them, then there can be threat. Possibly also with other teens who have the abilities. A teen might use the abilities for bad things, such as stealing, get into a fix with adult criminals, drug dealers, etc. and have to get out of it. So you might want to consider what theme you want for the YA series and build a story around that.
The films Hanna and Abduction with Taylor Lautner are two films that might be helpful. Both feature teens who are somewhat enhanced but have limits and are facing adult suspense threats.
September 23rd, 2012, 01:21 PM #4
Superheroes with no, well, superpowers:
Catwoman (well, come on...),
Daredevil (to some extent),
And so on.
Well, you could go on. But balancing is easier than you think. In David Weber's A Beautiful Friendship, Stephanie Harrington has enhanced genes that improve her muscles, give her denser bones and so on, in order to counter the effects of living on a planet with stronger gravity. This means, in a 1G environment she would likely be stronger and more resistant than someone unmodified. The trade off? She has a higher metabolism and needs to eat more, so it's easy to reason that if her supply of food was reduced she'd become lethargic and less strong.
Not everything is like Superman and Kryptonite, the trade-off doesn't have to be that severe or cliché. If a character is more athletic or able to glide/fly, it's possible that their bones will be lighter and, as such, weaker. That would mean a bad landing or getting in a fist fight could render their power useless. Enhanced strength would likely mean lower agility, which might in turn make them seem almost clumsy.
September 23rd, 2012, 02:41 PM #5
In your original post you say you wanted to place your story in an ordinary world of ordinary teens, of which one or more have super powers - for me, the first step to avoiding the fantasy tag would be convincing the reader that Little Miss Superma'am is not just the recipient of some arbitrary and gratuitous leg-up gifted them by the author. [I just deleted about half my text because of all the greater wisdom being expressed while I was typing.]
If you want to avoid accusations of science-fantasy for your hero theme, you need to distance yourself from non-hard-scientific justifications for superpowers. There are already enough geniuses on the planet for you to shake a stick at, as well as occasional people with uncommonly dense bones, heightened musculature, extra-potent immune systems, so you can go beyond what is currently naturally possible and still be fairly realistic.
Two average parents produce a super-foetus. From an evolutionary perspective, that would most likely mean a child with similar but (in this case much) improved characteristics to their own. In this case, something like Superman's generally increased physical characteristics is a perfectly implausible option: ordinary people process sunlight through their skin, super-child just does it much much more efficiently. In Some Way (tm).
It doesn't have to be solar power, of course, and if it is simply a case of "improved characteristics" then the most interesting concept from Unbreakable can rear its ugly head: what's to say that such a person would necessarily find out they even have some uncommon characteristic? Or that their power would find a means to be expressed in ordinary life?
This last point has "reality" potential. Imagine there is a change in environmental conditions such that a previously unnoticed facet of an individual's genome becomes phenomenally advantageous; they suddenly appear to be super-powered, yet had this big change not occurred they could have gone through life and to their grave none the wiser. However, perhaps the same was potentially true of (one or both of) their parents, who were simply never exposed to the solar flare which recently caused skin cancer rates to increase 30,000% and killed all plant life on the planet (or whatever); their offspring just happens to be the new baseline Alpha Fe/Male for whom this lucky characteristic makes them everybody's favourite member of the gene pool. That would be a valid evolutionary foundation for establishing a plausible superhero.
The environmental aspect isn't essential of course, but it is a way to logically throw an individual's unique powers into sharp relief, for themselves as much as for anyone else (reader included). This is the significance of the train crash in Unbreakable, and it is basically how the cheerleader in Heroes discovers what she's got going on: by enduring a radical change in their environment, in these cases survival of more small scale disastrous events. Heroes is also the problem though. If the special powers you have in mind are really* special (space/time travel, eye lasers/x-ray vision, transformative physiology, etc.) you're going to have to do a lot more work for them not to seem like standard fantasy features. Claiming "evolution did it" don't make X-Men any more scientific...
However, it seems to me that the central issue of "what is the super power good for" is sort of irrelevant. Give any kid any of those wow-things and they will tinker with them and get into trouble... and the same goes for super-strength or genius powers too... in fact, kids don't need super powers to make their lives complicated, exciting and/or miserable, they do that anyway.
What are they bad for is probably far more interesting.
* ie: magically/implausibly/cartoonishly
Last edited by Andrew Leon Hudson; September 23rd, 2012 at 07:13 PM.
September 23rd, 2012, 06:28 PM #6
Stuff happens to teens. My daughter just accidentally took out the screen of her laptop in the middle of homework projects tonight. Luckily we were able to hook the computer up to a monitor. If a kid had special abilities, that might cause accidents, or they might be able to fix the accidents they get into.
September 24th, 2012, 03:11 AM #7
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Have you seen Chronicle? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronicle_(film)
Fantastic film, I thought. Totally unlike most of what you see out there, and definitely (in the end) a kind of classic superhero v. supervillain scenario. I think it could at least provide some fuel for thought.
September 24th, 2012, 10:36 AM #8
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What a great brain trust in one place. Thanks much!