March 21, 2019 / 4 Comments

Not Just Heroic…

Trying something a little new with the formatting here. Please make your comments/ thanks/ complaints in the space down below.

Anyway, looking at the calendar, it’s getting to that season where I blather on about superheroes again.

Or maybe superpowers.

Or both. They’re kinda related after all.

As some of the book covers displayed on this page suggest, superheroes are kinda my jam. Have been for years and years now. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I feel safe saying my knowledge level is in the higher percentiles. I thought about these stories a lot as a kid growing up and, in a way, even more since I’ve moved into this odd career of “professional storyteller.” It’s a topic I can blather on about a lot.

As I’m about to demonstrate…

One thing I’ve noticed in some corners is a bad habit people have of labeling a lot of things “superhero” stories, because that title carries a lot of weight. About twenty billion dollars worth, if we go off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not exactly a bad weight to have hanging on your shoulders.


I think it’s worth noting that there are a lot of differences between a superhero story and a story about people with superpowers.  They are not the same thing.  Not remotely.  And if I try to do one while using the devices and tropes of another… well, I’m going to mess with people’s expectations.  Which usually leads to a disappointed audience.

Now, granted, none of what I’m spouting here is formal rules set down by tenured professors or doctoral candidates.  If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this idea’s been around for ages.  Superhero stories and superpowers stories have always been two very different animals.

So, what are some of those differences?

Let’s break ‘em down…

First off, superpowers do not automatically equal superheroes. We can all agree on that, right?  CarrieBlackbirds. Limitless. Girl Like A Bomb. Glass. Stranger Things. All of these stories feature people with superhuman abilities.

But are any of these superhero stories? Not really.  Just having some sort of superpower doesn’t automatically make someone heroic. Heck, in a couple of those stories the person with the powers is arguably the villain.

And that brings me to my second point (one of the big ones). Heroics depend very much on motivation. The same action can be heroic in one situation, almost cowardly or bully-ish in another. Or maybe it’s just an action. We all do things on a daily basis that are personally motivated, and maybe even a bit challenging, but it doesn’t make them heroic, right? A superhero story’s almost always defined by a character who makes a conscious decision to use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t). Obvious as it may sound… superheroes act heroically.

And just to be clear, when I’m speaking about heroic actions…  Don’t confuse heroic actions (i.e. actions that are brave and selfless and pure of heart) with the actions of our hero (i.e. actions taken by the protagonist). Just because he or she’s the hero of the story doesn’t mean all their actions are automatically heroic. Make sense?


When we read stories about super-powered folks, though, they’re almost always more personal and intimate. Dare I say… a little selfish. In these stories, people are doing things much more for themselves than for any sort of greater good. It’s not that they’re evil, it’s just that the plot concerns them first and maybe the world second or third.  If at all.

Another common point of confusion here is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Is Yakko taking down the bad guy because it’s the right thing to do… or just to get revenge? Is Dot stopping the bomb to save thousands of innocents… or just to save her friends who are handcuffed to it? Is Wakko fighting the Automata Society to end their reign of terror… or just so they’ll stop coming after him?

A third point (strongly related to the last one) is that superhero stories tend to be about public use of powers and abilities. They’re about people who’ve decided to use their abilities to help others, and they get seen doing it. This public nature also means they deal with public reactions of one kind or another. Sometimes they’re loved, sometimes they’re feared and hated.

I’ll note a lot of stories that are just about folks with superpowers tend to involve hiding abilities. Keeping things secret from the world at large. In the same way their motives are personal, their actions tend to be a lot more low-key and behind the scenes. In fact, when abilities get revealed in a superpowers story, it’s almost always a cause for panic.

That flows nicely into point number four. The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme. Phoebe’s not just strong, she’s throwing-cars-down-the-street strong. Wakko doesn’t just move things with his mind, he can throw cars down the street with his mind. Dot doesn’t just start fires, she can throw fireballs that blast cars down the street.

You get the point. Superhero stories involve throwing a lot of cars around.

But when a story’s just about someone with superpowers, we tend to see a lot more limits on those abilities. Not always (Dark City and The Lathe of Heaven come to mind), but most of the time they seem to be much more grounded in reality.  A little easier to rationalize, at least. Side effects and odd handicaps are much more common.

And for our fifth and final point, let’s talk about the elephant in the superhero room. The costume. The outfit that hides our hero’s secret identity from the world.

I wouldn’t say a costume/ secret identity is absolutely necessary, but I do think it creates a lot of odd situations in my story if there isn’t one. If everyone knows who Yakko is, then they know who Yakko’s friends and family are.  They can find out where he lives and shops and eats. If he’s not using a secret identity, he’s either aiming for a very solitary life or he’s painting a lot of targets on people and places.

One other aspect of this a friend of mine once brought up (he’s one of the writers on the new Pet Semetary movie (shameless plug)) is that a superhero often becomes an identity unto themselves. They’re iconic symbols, and not necessarily tied to the people who first created them. Spider-Man, Batman, Ms. Marvel, Superman, Captain America, the Flash… all of these superhero identites have had multiple people behind them.

Compare all of that to a story about superpowers, where secret identities almost never come up because… well, like I mentioned in point three, nobody knows about them. I don’t have to hide my identity when I teleport because I do everything I can to make sure nobody finds out I can teleport. So the people in these stories tend to wear… well, street clothes. They never duck into a phone booth to change before using their powers in public because—again—they almost never use their powers in public.

Okay, for our sixth and final-for-reals-now point, let me add this. The setting matters a lot in these stories, too. If I’m just telling a story about superpowers, they’re almost always set in the real world. Or, at least, a world indistinguishable from the real world to the casual viewer. Because if they weren’t, it’d imply having superpowers wasn’t that impressive. Being telepathic in the sci-fi world of the Federation—a coalition of hundreds of alien races with unique abilities– is checking a box on a recruitment form. Being telepathic in a documentary about 1940’s Paris, though… that’s freakin’ amazing.

Superhero stories, though, tend to take place in worlds that are already fantastic. They’re already pre-loaded with amazing things. Consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aliens are real and publicly known. Magic is real and publicly known. Cyborgs.  Androids. Inhumans. Demons. People fly! Lots of people! This is not the world outside anyone’s window.

Now, again, this is not a set of iron-clad guidelines. I have not defended my thesis or gone through rigorous peer review. This is just forty-odd years of observation paired with forty-odd years of thinking about how stories are told. And, as I often say, there’s always going to be exceptions. So if I’ve got a superhero who doesn’t wear a costume or a super-powered person who’s acting very heroically, it doesn’t mean my whole story’s about to collapse.

But maybe I should run my story of super-powered beings through this list and just see what side of things they fall on. Does most of it line up with the kind of story I want to tell? Is the label I’m putting on it—and the expectations that label will bring—going to match up with what my story delivers?

Because if it doesn’t… maybe I’m writing the wrong thing.

Next time, I’d like to quickly revisit an old favorite before heading off to Wondercon for the weekend.

Until then… go write!

August 25, 2016 / 3 Comments

Sucker Punched

             Grrrrh. Running behind again. Sorry.  Juggling too many things right now.  Honestly, I think I’m thinking about juggling too many things and just being hit with a paralysis by analysis situation…
            Speaking of things that aren’t immediately apparent, I wanted to talk about a problematic character point for a moment.  It’s one I’ve stumbled across a few times (and fallen victim to once or twice myself), and once I worked out exactly why it was problematic, I thought it was worth mentioning.
            A few quick examples…
            I saw an older movie recently from the dark era of superhero films. You know, that time before Blade when studios (and writers, and directors…) really didn’t believe you could do a serious superhero movie. Well, not without changing everything about it. Play it more for laughs.  Minimize the costume.  Avoid logos. Avoid masks.  Absolutely no capes.
            Really, how could you hope to do a movie about superhero characters who wear masks and capes and get anyone to take it seriously?
            Anyway, this film had a scene where the superhuman hero waded into a minor gang war while wearing his street clothes.  To be clear, at this point, the hero knew the full range of his abilities. Super-strength.  Near-invulnerability. Enhanced reflexes.  So the bad guys were throwing themselves at this skinny guy and ending up with bruises, cracked knuckles, broken limbs, maybe even one or two concussions in there.  By the time they figured out something wasn’t right, the hero’d probably sent a dozen of them to the emergency room.
            Here’s another example from the book side of things.  As usual, names, genders, and genres have been changed to protect the innocent.  Or maybe they haven’t, just to throw you further off the trail…
            A friend of mine had been doing a western horror story recently and asked me to take a look at his current draft.  His main hero, Wakko, was a pretty solid gunslinger/sharpshooter type (yeah, named his lead Wakko—weird coincidence, isn’t it?).  At one point, Wakko and the other heroes find themselves taking refuge in an old frontier fort that’s run by some less-respectable types. Wakko wanders around and finds the local tough guy, and inwardly notes a few things that confirm the guy may have been the best in the fort, but that doesn’t mean he’s particularly good.  To prove it, and make a point, Wakko teases and insults the other guy until he finally leaps up, grabs for his pistol
            And Wakko flicks out his own gun and shoots the guy dead.  Justified, of course.  That guy was trying to draw.  Everyone saw it.
            I made a note that this scene didn’t make Wakko look particularly heroic.  In any sense.
            This sort of thing is a hustle.  A con.  If you’ve ever played pool, nothing annoys people more than to discover the cute “rookie” who tricked them into wagering everything on their third game is actually a pool shark with countless notches on her belt.
           One thing about a hero—in real life or in a literary sense—is that we expect a sense of fairness and general decency from them.  They shouldn’t abuse their power.  They won’t deliberately harm people.  Yeah, they might have to do awful things at some point, and they might not hesitate to do them when they need to, but it won’t be something they want to do.
            Y’see, Timmy, a superhero in regular clothes is… well, just a dick.  Yeah, even when it’s Christopher Reeve.  Let’s be honest, that was a cheap move, beating up that guy in the diner.  A green beret who goads people into taking a swing at him is also a dick.  Or a gunslinger who forces somebody into a quickdraw contest.
            Honestly… it’s a bully move.
            Now, when my villain (or just a general antagonist) does something like this, it often works well for my story.  How often have we seen our hero throw a punch or kick or hail of bullets that had no effect?  What appears like a minor obstacle  just became a much more serious challenge for my heroine or hero to deal with. And challenges are great.
            But bullies aren’t.
            Especially when they’re supposed to be my protagonist.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about some thing.
            Until then, go write.
May 6, 2016

The Challenge Round!

            Back from Texas Frightmare, where a fantastic time was had by all.  Well, maybe not all, but everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time.  If one of those folks happened to be you, thanks for stopping by…
            Also worth mentioning—this is post #350 here on the ranty blog.  I’m kind of amazed I’ve managed to come up with this many posts. Even more amazed that so many folks keep reading it.
            So thank you all very, very much.
            But on to today’s (hopefully) helpful rant…
            A basic element of storytelling is the obstacle.  It’s what stands between my characters and whatever it is they want.  In The Fold, solving a puzzle for his oldest friend is what stands between Mike and getting back to his normal life.  A lot of time and a whole lot of space stands between astronaut Mark Watney and getting home to Earth.  The monstrous Zoom stands between the Flashand keeping his home city safe, but so does the potential risk of regaining the “speed force” that makes him the fastest man alive.
            Although, seriously… is it just me, or for “the fastest man alive” does Barry run intoa lot of people who are faster than him?
            Folks may have different thoughts on this, but—personally—I think an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict.  It’s just terminology, but I’ve noticed that exterior problems tend to be called obstacles a lot of the time, while interior ones are almost always labeled as conflicts.  In that example above Barry has to defend the city and his friends from Zoom (obstacle) but also has to weigh the risk of setting off the particle accelerator again to regain his powers (conflict).  Make sense?
            Now, while in strict literary terms either of these can be correct, I prefer to use the term challenge.  I’ve found that thinking about “obstacles” tends to guide the mind toward physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course.  While this isn’t technically wrong, it does seem to result in a lot of the same things.  This is when you get challenges that have an episodic feel to them.  Character A defeats obstacle B, then moves on to obstacle C, and finishes up with D.
            Anyway, I’ve gone over it in the past, but I thought it might be useful to go over some tips about challenges.  Some of them you might not have considered before, and a few of them… well, one or two it’s kind of sad that I feel it’s necessary to bring them up.
            For example…
I have to have one.
            Yeah, this sounds basic, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stories where people either sit around doing nothing or just stroll through events with no worries or effort.  They’re geared up for whatever they might run into, from werewolves to biological warfare.  Anything they don’t have just appears.  Anyone they meet is willing to help.  Any lucky break that has to happen does so at the perfect moment.  I know this sounds silly to most of you, but it’s honestly stunning how often this happens in amateur books and screenplays.  Heck, it’s bothersome how often it happens in professional writing.
            There needs to be something between my characters and their goals, because if there isn’t, they would’ve accomplished these goals already.  If I want a LEGO set, I  can walk up the street to Toys R Us and get one– that’s it.  Not exactly bestseller material, no matter how much pretty language I use.  On the other hand, if I want the Transforming Interlock-Cube Tactical Operating Chestplate that MIT designed for a black-ops branch of the NSA… well, getting that’s probably going to involve getting past fences, computer-locked doors, armed guards, a laser security net, pressure-sensitive floors, a badass female ninja, and that’s before we find out Theodore’s a traitor and he betrays us all (knew we shouldn’t’ve trusted that guy…)
            That’sa story.
My characters need a reason to confront it.
            If my characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it.  A real reason.  Watney isn’t alone on Mars growing potatoes as part of a psychology experiment—this is his only real chance at survival.  When things start to go bad at the Albuquerque Door project, Mike doesn’t stick around because he can’t get an Uber to the airport—he stays because the lives of his new friends are at risk.  If Zoom isn’t stopped, he’ll kill thousands of people just to amuse himself.
            Make sure this reason is really there.  It may be obvious in my head why the characters are going to undertake a challenge, but is it that clear on paper?  This is especially true for more internal challenges, where my readers need to see why Mike is so hesitant to use his gifts and why it’s a big deal when he finally embraces them.
I need a reason for it to exist.
            A combination of the first two points.  Nothing’s worse than a challenge that has no reason for existing in the world of the story.  No past, no future, no motivation—it’s just there to be something for the protagonist to overcome.  We can probably all think of a book or movie where an obstacle just popped out of nowhere for no reason at all.  That kind of stuff just weakens any story. 
            Challenges have a purpose.  They’re characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have set in my protagonist’s way.  There’s a reason Zoom exists (he was caught in Earth-2’s particle accelerator explosion), and there’s a reason he’s going after the Flash (he needs to absorb speed force to keep himself alive). He didn’t pop through a breach and start tormenting the Flash and company for no reason.  I need to think about why a given challenge is in my story, and if there isn’t a real reason… maybe I should stop for a few minutes and re-think it.
            I’ll add one other note here.  It’s generally better if the audience (reader or viewer) has at least some idea why said challenge exists.  They don’t need to know immediately, but I also shouldn’t save it for the last ten pages… or never reveal it at all and just vaguely hint at it.  “Oh, that demon that’s been hunting us since sundown… it’s probably after me. We’re psychically bonded.  Probably should’ve mentioned that sooner.”
It has to be daunting.
            It’s bad enough Zoom is about ten times faster that the Flash on a good day, but now Barry’s lost his powers altogether.  He can barely sprint across a parking lot.  Voodoo practitioner Kincaid Strange has to risk her career, her freedom, her life, and maybe even her immortal soul to figure out who raised an impossible zombie in her city.  If the Avengers don’t stop Ultron, it’s going to cause an extinction-level event and wipe out all life on Earth.  This is something I mentioned a few weeks ago—the stakes.
            Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let’s be honest– we’d all love it if more things were just handed to us.  Again, getting LEGO vs. getting the TICTOC.  A challenge needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn’t really a challenge.  Tony Stark has built a suit of armor that can take on armies, and an even bigger suit of armor that goes over that one, but he still feels his bladder tremble when he realizes he just got the Hulk angry.
It can’t be impossible.
            There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong side of a sure thing.  Nobody reading this wants to get in a fist fight with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson because we all know it’d be no contest.  None of us want to be given the responsibility of stopping a runaway asteroid or even just a runaway bus, because I’m willing to bet for all of us here (myself included) those would be things we just couldn’t deal with.
            If you’ve ever watched any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they’re more or less evenly matched.  The Red Sox don’t play against little league.  NFL teams don’t face off against pee-wee football teams.  The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the heroes have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge.  Torture porn or Ju-On horror are great examples of this.  They’re great for a bit of squeamishness or a few jumps, but we can’t get invested when we already know the outcome.  I recently recalled someone theorizing that zombies are so popular because zombies are the monsters we can beat. Werewolves, vampires, demons, kaiju—if these attack, we’re just screwed.  They’re too far past us.  But I’m willing to bet everyone reading this has something within ten feet of them that they could take out a zombie with.
            As long as it’s just one zombie.  Maybe two or three…
            The other risk to be careful of here is if the challenge is completely impossible and my hero pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock my reader out of the story.
            Actually, one last thing.  The challenge can’t seem impossible to the character, but have a painfully obvious solution to the reader.  My readers have to identify with my characters, and this kind of thing makes my characters unlikable by nature of their stupidity. That’s not going to win anybody points.
It should be unexpected.
            This isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s something I still lean heavily toward. 
            If there’s a challenge and my characters know about it, then that challenge immediately loses some of its strength.  If they have time to plan or prepare or equip themselves, the challenge shrinks accordingly.
            Consider this—every heist movie involves an enormous challenge—usually getting past security to break into a vault or museum.  There are many chapters or scenes of preparation.  Then, almost without exception, in the middle of pulling the job, something happens that the heroes aren’t prepared to deal with.  A new set of guards, new security equipment, or just that bastard Theodore betraying us and setting off the alarms in the elevator shaft.   This is where the story gets exciting.  If my heroes are so trained  and ready for anything that the job goes off without a single hitch, then there really wasn’t a challenge, was there?
            A bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives my characters a chance to look better.  When they beat the unexpected challenge through sheer skill or cleverness, it makes them all the more likeable.  Because my readers are going to identify with them, and most readers like identifying with skillful, clever people
I need to resolve it. 
            Once I’ve set up a challenge, the readers need to see it resolved somehow.  We can’t set Zoom loose on Earth-2 and then just forget about him.  Once Mike realizes what’s going on with the Albuquerque Door, he doesn’t wash his hands and walk away.  I can’t have my hero pining over their lost love for the first third of my story and then never, ever address those feelings again.  Believe me, readers will remember these things.  Once I present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored.  As Chekhov once said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three.
            So make sure the challenges in your writing really are challenging, for the characters and for your audience.
            Next week—I’ve been going over a lot of general story stuff for a while, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to go over some things aimed more at the big screen.
            Until then… go write.
April 18, 2014 / 2 Comments

No Capes!

            Decade-old pop culture reference, but it’s still relevant.  And fun.  Especially today.
            As a lot of the book covers over on the right suggest, I’m big on superheroes.  Have been for years and years now.  They’re a popular topic these days, too.  Comics.  Television.  Movies.  I tend to get asked about them a lot, and I talk about them a lot.
            Because superheroes are so popular, people are slapping that label on lots and lots of stories. There’s a distinction that needs to be made, though, and I think it’s one some folks have trouble grasping.  And since so much of being a good writer is grasping those little details, I thought it would be worth going over.  Apologies, because this one’s going to be a little more lecture-ish.
            First… a little history.
            The whole idea of masked avengers arguably started with The Scarlet Pimpernel.  There’s probably a strong case to be made for the Count of Monte Cristo, but I think for this little rant the Pimpernel’s probably the best example.  It was a 1904 story by the prolific Emma Orczy about a swashbuckler who fought for the oppressed in Robespierre’s France by using a series of disguises and a circle of secret operatives.  There was also Doctor Syn (a.k.a. the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) in 1915, Zorro in 1919, and then a series of comic book superheroes like The Phantom and The Spider before we started seeing familiar folks like Batman in 1939 (seventy five years ago almost to the day, in fact).
            Interesting point, though…  None of these characters had any sort of actual powers.  They were just mortal men (and a few women, even back then) with a lot of training and skills who hid their true identities behind a mask or elaborate disguise.
            Now, on the other hand, stories of people with actual superhuman abilities have been around for thousands of years.  Literally, thousands.  Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Icarus all had superpowers centuries before the birth of Jesus (who, arguably, also had some powers of his own).  The regenerating Green Knight first appeared in medieval Arthurian legends.  The Grimms wrote up several stories about the strongest man in the world, the fastest man in the world, the man with the sharpest hearing, and so on.  Robert Louis Stevenson created a scientist who could change into a monster, and H.G. Wells had one who could turn invisible.  In modern day times, Stephen King started his career with a telekinetic teenager, a precognizant schoolteacher, and a pyrokinetic little girl.  Alexander Key, Dean Koontz, and Stephen Gould all wrote novels about people who could teleport.
            However… are any of these characters actually superheroes?
            My point is, superheroes and superpowers are, and have pretty much always been, two separate things.  One doesn’t necessarily require the other.  And, like a lot of story forms, if I get confused about which one I’m telling, things can go in a lot of weird ways that… well, don’t work.
            Now, some folks claim, for example, that Gilgamesh was always a superhero story.   So were all the Greek and Norse myths.  That’s what superheroes are, right?  Modern mythology?
            I kind of disagree with this.  H.P. Lovecraft once made the very clever observation that we couldn’t have true supernatural storiesbefore the 19th century because until then people really didn’t know what the naturalwas.  So trying to re-classify older stories doesn’t work.  I think the same thing applies here.  There were many tales of heroes with superhuman powers and abilities before the Scarlet Pimpernel, but I’d argue the idea of an actual superhero story didn’t exist until the early 20th century.  There was a definite split there into those two distinct forms—superhero stories and superpower stories.
            And, as I mentioned above, if I don’t know which one I’m writing, it can cause some problems.  They’re not interchangeable, and some of the concepts don’t play well together.
            Let’s go over a couple basics I’ve observed over the years…
            Right at the start, I’ve noticed that superpowers stories tend to brush over the origin of said powers.  In both Jumper and the Harry Potter books, we’re just told that this is the way the world has always been.  Some folks get the teleport gene.  Some can do magic.  That’s it.  If superpower tales do have an origin in them, they tend to lean toward the hard sciences, making it as believable as possible… but still pretty much brushing over it.

            With superheroes, though, the origin is pretty much a standard.  A writer can also get away with somewhat sillier, softer-science origin stories.  More than a few characters have gotten superpowers from blood transfusions (including one of my own).  Lots of folks stumble across magic or alien artifacts.  Radiation was a common source of superpowers for decades, despite what we learned in seventh grade science class.  Heck, Stan Lee wrote a story where someone got their powers by standing near a nuclear bomb when it went off.  Absurd, yes?  Yet here we are today and that’s still the accepted origin of the Incredible Hulk (though they’ve quietly retconned him a bit further away from ground zero).

            As far as character motivations go, a superherostory is almost always defined by a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t).  Most of them feel morally compelled to use their abilities this way.  They aren’t doing it to show off or to get even with someone.  Obvious as it may sound…superheroes act heroically.
            This public nature also means they deal with public sentiment of one kind or another.  Iron Man’s a celebrity in just about every sense of the word.  Superman’s an iconic part of Metropolis.  Captain America’s a venerable historic figure.  Batman and Spider-Man receive mixed reviews.  The X-Men are openly considered criminals.
            In a superpowers story, the characters may have superhuman abilities, but their motivation tends to be personal, and their actions are usually behind-the-scenes.  When powers are revealed in superpowers books, it’s almost never a good thing.  Consider Carrie and Firestarter, both of which I hinted at up above.  In each book the girls hide their powers until they need them (for revenge and to rescue her father, respectively) and when their powers are revealed these are moments of absolute horror.  The Green Knight tests the character of knights on a one-at-a-time basis, and if you know that tale you know the awful way people learn about his powers.  In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith’s trying to save the world, but he has to do it alone and secretly because no one will believe him.  Hiding your powers and staying apart from the world is a main theme in both the Harry Potterand Percy Jackson books. 
            The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme, too.  There’s Superman and the Sentry, two examples of the “living god” superhero.  For decades the Flash could actually run faster than the speed of light.  The Scarlet Witch could alter reality on a planetary scale while Phoenix could telekinetically manipulate matter on a molecular level.  The only limit to what a Green Lantern ring can do is the wearer’s imagination.
            Compare this to superpower stories, where powers are usually much more “believable” and often have limiting side effects.  In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith hemorrhages when he uses his powers too much, and so does Charlie’s dad in Firestarter.  In Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place, teleportation can mean scrambling your body, your mind, or both.  In Limitless, the IQ-enhancing drug can (and usually does) kill you when you go into withdrawal.  In fact, the only two superpower stories I can think of where someone has overwhelming powers would be Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven and the film Dark City (but if you can think of others, please let me know).
             In a superhero story, I’d say a costume is almost necessary, much in the same way a cowboy needs a hat and a horse.  Mostly because it’s how my hero or heroine protects their secret identity and the people around them.  However, I will toss out the proviso that putting my main character in a costume doesn’t make my story a superhero story, just like putting them on a horse doesn’t automatically make it a western.   
            Superpowers stories involve street clothes.  Even if someone has a “uniform” way of dressing, it tends to be suits, boots, leather jackets, and other things that wouldn’t look that out of place on a city street.  Hercules didn’t have a special outfit for performing the twelve labors.  Carrie doesn’t duck out of her prom to put on a leotard and a domino mask.  On Grimm, Nick tends to just dress like a police detective, even when he knows he’s going up against Wesen or other monsters.
            I also think a lot of this difference has to do with the world a given story is set in.  More often than not, a superpowers story has a very realistic setting.  Aside from a very limited, few beings (most of whom stay out of the public eye), there’s almost nothing to distinguish it from the real, day-to-day world we read about online.  And that’s going to affect what characters know and how they react to things.  Even how they interact with each other.
            By contrast, look at the settings for some of our well-known superheroes.  In both the Marvel and DC universes, the existence of aliens—several types of aliens—is a well-documented fact.  New York was very visibly invaded by aliens in The Avengers movie.  Superman’s a known alien.  So are Hawkgirl and Hawkman.  Green Lantern works for aliens.  Magic is real in both universes, too.  Spider-Man is a common sight swinging through his version of New York, where the Avengers and Fantastic Four both have very public office building.  Heck, I think the Avengers have two or three buildings at this point.
            Needless to say… those stories are not set in the real world.  And, as I said before, the setting definitely influences my story.
            So, all that being said…
            I think one of the problems with pushing a superpowers story into the superheromold is the silliness factor.  The motivations don’t always work as well.  When someone puts on a costume in a real world setting, it tends to feel like the writer isn’t taking things seriously.  In the final chapter of the BBC’s Jekyll, when Dr. Jackman unites with Hyde to become truly superhuman, It would’ve been ridiculous if he’d stopped to pull on a leotard and cape.  There’s a well-meaning little indie film called Sidekick where the hero does just that in the third act to rescue his love interest, and it feels completely absurd.

            You get similar issues going the other way, too.  People historically read superhero comics for escapism.  We want to see Superman fly around the country, not walk across it.  When someone picks up the latest Incredible Hulk, they want to see him get angry and perform some feats of amazing strength, usually coupled with some amazing property damage.  While some of the issues Doctor Banner’s dual personality causes him are interesting, nobody opens an issue of the Hulk really hoping to see ten or eleven pages of Bruce sitting in a diner discussing physical strength vs. spiritual strength with the waitress.  I think Marvel and DC’s sales figures over the past few years will back me up on this.  The audience for superhero stories isn’t looking for stark realism.
            This is also why some things in related universes just don’t mix well.  John Constantine is part of the DC Universe, but he doesn’t really fit with in with the Superman, Captain Atom, Green Arrow crowd.  Neither does Dream of the Endless.  Marvel has zombie hitman Terror, who also is clearly in the Marvel universe but just never sat right alongside Spidey, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, and the rest.  Whenever these two types of characters interact it always seems awkward, and one or the other doesn’t really feel right.
            Now, granted, these aren’t formal rules that have been set down by tenured professors.   If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this separation of powers (so to speak) has been around for ages.  I’ve given a bunch of examples here, and even more when I first talked about this idea a few years ago

            As always, I’m sure someone can dig around and find that one story where Constantine teamed up with Green Lantern and it was magnificent.  But overall, if I’m going to play with super-powered characters, it’s probably a good idea to be clear what kind of story I want to tell.  Because if I don’t… well, there might be some clashes.  Not the fun bare-knuckle kind, either.
            Next time, while I try to finish up this new draft before Texas Frightmare, I’d like to talk about drafts.
            But until then, go write.