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!

            Hey, all.
            A couple people have asked for this, and I figured I could put it up here and link to it anywhere else.  Centralized blog and all that.  I’m on the cutting edge of 2007 tech, I know…
            Anyway, this is a crazy week for me, and here’s my schedule for said week
7:00pm—at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale AZ
            I am the 14th Geddon, one of a handful of surprise guests showing up here along with Eleven-plus really spectacular authors who are already on the list. Can’t make it to Phoenix Comic Fest?  Come meet me here and get things signed.
            And from here we move on to…
10:30 am—North 126C
It’s the End of the World as We Know It – Apocalyptic Fiction
            A favorite topic of mine, and I’m moderating this one (as well as chiming in with my own thoughts)
12:00 pm—North 125 AB
Leaping Tall Tales in a Single Bound – Stories of Superhuman Abilities
            Clearly a topic I’ve been studying for many years.  I have many thoughts and strong opinions on this, some of which I’ve elaborated here in the past.  I will share them and more.
1:30 pm—North 124AB
Book Signing
            Scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.  I love to meet folks and deface their books.  This is your big chance to get me to sign all your Craig DiLouie novels. 
8:00 pm–North 120CD
Drinks with Creators
            Just follow the flow of writers and artists.  You’ll find us.  And then you can hang out and talk with us and be absorbed into out biomass.  Join us.  JOIN US…
3:00 pm—North 126C
Writing Advice I Would Give My Best Friend
            I give writing advice sometimes.  Who knew?  Show up and see how good I am with on the spot questions. 
4:30 pm—North 124AB
Book Signing
            More scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.  Here’s your chance to get a copy of Ready Player One signed by me…
10:30 am—North 126C
Bad to the Bone – Villains in Fiction
            Another topic on which I have many thoughts.
12:00 pm—Changing Hands signing area
Book Signing
            One final chance to have me scribble in books for you and bring down their resale value.
            And that’s this week.
            Plus, y’know, the usual post here on Thursday.
            Hope to meet some of you this week.  Until then… go write.
February 1, 2018 / 1 Comment

Origin Stories

            So, I wanted to talk about why things get started for a bit.
            Motives are my character’s core reason for doing something.  They’re the answer to the question “why is this story happening?” I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the issues that crop up when my character isn’t so much motivated as dragged along into a story.
            It’s not unusual to have motives shift a bit in a book, but in shorter formats (screenplays or short stories) they tend to be pretty focused.  Sometimes I’m hiding a character’s motives from my audience, but they still need to be there.   As the writer, I need to know why someone’s doing something.  Because my motives are going to a key when it comes to what kind of story I’m telling.
            No, seriously. 
            For example, it’s tough to do a revenge thriller when my heroine’s goals are world peace.  Try to figure out a way that could work.  It’s tough to solve a mystery when my protagonist’s big goal is to go the prom with the quarterback.  Likewise, if the only reason I’m fighting the dark Uberlord who’s enslaved New York is to save my niece… that’s not exactly heroic.  When I’m fighting for me—my family, my purposes, my revenge—that’s just personal.
            Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to superheroes.
            I’ve blathered on about superheroes a few times, and one of the major stumbling points I see a lot is when someone with a non-heroic motivation is crammed into the superhero genre.  It creates a stumbling block.  One phrase you may have heard before is “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” and I think this is what confuses people.  The end result is the same, even though we took two very different paths to get there… so the two paths must be the same, right?
            Hey, look—here’s an example.
            Years ago I worked on a pretty awful superhero show.  This was before anyone believed you could do costumes without camp, and it hit a lot of stumbles.  The biggest ongoing one was the main character’s motive for putting on this super-powered suit and fighting crime.
            Well, actually, that was part of it right there.  He didn’t fight crime.  Most of the time he just settled scores.  He, his friends, or his family would get drawn into some struggle and he’d put on the suit to get them out.  And… that was kind of it.  Once or thrice someone would show up specifically to challenge him and he went out to fight them. Hell, one time the suit’s creator had to actually talk him out of using the suit to get even with someone who’d shoved him in a club. 
            No, dead serious on that.  One episode started with the hero being kind of arrogant, getting pushed aside, and then deciding to use a state-of-the-art weapons system to show that other guy who’s boss…
            Like I said, it was a pretty awful show.
            But you should be able to see the problem here.  No matter how often they tried to insist this guy was a hero, even with the times he stopped an actual super-villain or monster, his motives were always personal.  Bordering on selfish, really.  He wasn’t heroic because his motives weren’t heroic.  He cared about himself, his circle of friends… and that was pretty much it.  No dealing with muggers, corner drug dealers, any of that.
            To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with personal goals, but I need to be clear how this paints my character in the bigger scheme of things.  Yeah, going up against a street gang is great, but if the only reason I’m doing it is to protect my friends and family… this isn’t about heroism.  It’s just personal.  When Bryan Mills (Taken) goes up against European gangs and white slavers and crushes a lot of their organization, he’s not doing it to make the world a better place.  He’s also not trying to help the hundreds of other families these people have hurt.  He’s just doing it to get his daughter back.  That’s it.  So if I’m doing this and trying to make him look like some great heroic figure for doing it… my story’s probably going to stumble.
            Another important point.  With a lot of these personal motives, they have to end.  Killing the gang member who killed my sister—that’s vengeance.  We get it.  Killing some random guy from another gang because he dresses kinda like the guy who killed my sister… well, that sounds a bit wrong, doesn’t it?  If Mills just kept killing various European gangsters long after his daughter was safe at home… well, this is leaning into serial killer territory now.
            Heck, even trying to recreate those personal circumstances seems weird.  The Taken movies got progressively more convoluted as they kept coming up with reasons for Mills to use his particular set of skills. The old Deathwish films just devolved into unintentional comedy, they were so ridiculous.  Stretching out this kind of personal motive either becomes laughable or disturbing.  Or both.
            Y’see Timmy, it’s really hard to have someone be a hero, in that larger sense, if they’re doing things for personal reasons.  They can be the hero of my story, sure, but not a hero in the “heroism” sense.  One of the reasons Wonder Woman was such a standout superhero movie is  because from the beginning of the story she was 100%  doing this for a greater cause. She was going to head out into the world so she could find (and kill) Ares, thus ending WWI and saving millions of lives.  Her mother didn’t want her to go.  Steve didn’t want her to go.  Honestly, it’s not even like she wants to leave her home behind.  But she sees it as her responsibility to do this, to go out and save total strangers from this faceless threat.
            That’s pretty much what being a hero is.
            Next time, it’s contest season, so I wanted to toss out a quick screenwriting tip.
            Until then, go write.
December 21, 2017 / 3 Comments

The Happy Ending

            Oh, get your mind out of the gutter…
           Well, it’s been a brutal week on a couple levels. And it’s the holiday season, I think we can all use a little cheering up, don’t you?  So let’s talk about some good stuff.
            And I’ll start by talking about what happens in the grim, dark future…
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice here, I’m a bit of a geek.  One of my biggest geekery hobbies by far is Warhammer 40K.  If you’re not familiar with the game, it takes place in the distant future (around the year 40,000—surprise!) where mankind has risen, fallen, risen, fallen again, risen one last time… and is now pretty much on the way out.  Not immediately. Not in our lifetime.  But the glory days are gone and the Empire of Man is well past middle aged and fighting to hang on to its driver’s license, if you get my drift.
            When my lovely lady and I first started hanging out, she expressed interest in this silly toy soldiers game, and—being a geek—I immediately started telling her about the different armies and the massive back story and setting of the game.  And after a few hours of listening to stories of the waning Imperium, she finally laughed and said, “Why would anyone want to live in this world?  I’d just kill myself.”
            Which is a fair point.  To be honest, I hadn’t been fond of some of the earlier stories myself.  They were just bleak as hell. You may have heard the term “grimdark” used for some fiction.  It actually comes from this game.  That phrase I used up above, “in the grim, dark future”—that’s part of Warhammer 40K’s tagline.
            Of course, it’s not just the little toy soldiers.  The grimdark label ends up on a lot of things these days.  Urban fantasy stories.  Post-apocalypse stories.  Superhero stories.  And this isn’t just about genre books.  People try to do “serious” books all the time that are nothing but sadness, misery, and death.  There’s a common belief that making things gritty and dark, and edgy automatically makes them more “mature.”   I’ve mentioned once or thrice before how some writers think having bleak, depressing endings is artistic because it’s more “real.”
            I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of this.
            The catch is, this gritifying of stories rarely works.  Usually making something grim and dark just makes it… well, grim and dark.  That’s it.  Seriously, check out bestselling books or big box-office movies.  The popular stuff almost always leans toward lighter and fun.  A lot of it has (gasp) happy endings.
            As another famous sci-fi icon once said, it’s not enough to live.  You have to have something to live for.
            Again, why would anyone want to live in my fictional world?  Seriously.  Take a moment and think about it.
            What saved the world of Warhammer 40K for me was the writing of folks like Dan Abnettand Sandy Mitchell.  They added a human element.  They told stories that involved jokes and drinking buddies and love and people just enjoying their lives.  Heck, Abnett had a whole subplot in one book about a toymaker saving his business by building wind-up robots.
            I’ve gotten a lot of praise for my Ex-Heroes series.  It’s a series that’s lasted through five book so far, and across six years. Long after when many people said zombies were… well, dead.  And I believe a lot of that praise and success comes from one simple thing.
            It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but it’s a hopeful one.  Yeah, things are overall awful, but the characters are actively trying to make life better.  They choose to move forward rather than do nothing or wallow in the past.  They laugh.  They love.  They play games.  They flirt.  They celebrate.  They have fun.  A lot of their life is stressful and difficult, but it’s not every-minute-every-hour-every-day stressful and difficult.
            And it’s important to see these other moments because now we know why the characters are going on.  We know what they’re living for.  Deadpool is a story about hopelessness and terminal diseases and bloody revenge, but it’s also a story where Wade and Vanessa pretty much screw each other silly for an entire year before he proposes with a Voltron ring
            Resist the urge to have nothing but grim darkness.  Don’t be scared about having a good thing or three happen in your story.  Don’t think you can’t have any light-hearted moments. 
            Believe in the happy ending!
            On which note, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and (if it’s your holiday) a very Happy Christmas.
            Try and get a little writing in before then.