Let’s be honest: a novel is not really the first thing that springs to mind when you say the word “superhero”—and that’s okay. These stories originated in the pages of comic books, after all, and once they fully jumped the gap to the big screen, they became one of the biggest sources of revenue in Hollywood. It’s easy to see why: the splashy, bombastic fight sequences; the glorious (or sometimes gloriously bad) costumes; the larger-than-life powers. It all translates incredibly well to visual forms of storytelling.
But the last few years have seen a surge in the publication of superhero fiction, from novelizations of big-name franchises, to authors both traditional- and indie-published alike simply making up our own heroes and abilities and bringing them to life on the page. If you’re an aspiring author seeing this, you might want to try your hand at it yourself, but because it is still such a niche genre in written fiction, it can be hard to even know where to start.
So today, I’m bringing you the top five tips that most helped me when I first sat down to write a superhero novel. Let’s get started.
Tip #1: Always remember what you love about superhero stories
For me, this was the cornerstone. The whole time I was writing my book, I kept checking in with myself: does this feel like one of my favorite superhero stories? Genre is really all about creating a specific reader experience, and since there are not a lot of articles defining what superhero fiction is (compared to other genres, anyway), you’ve got to define your own. I made a list of my favorite superhero movies and TV shows, and then I went through and I listed out all the tropes I could think of, good or bad. Then it was just a matter of figuring out which ones I liked. What aspects drew me to those specific stories? Superhero fiction can feel scary and uncharted, but really, the groundwork has been there for decades. Just remember your source material, and remember why you fell in love with it in the first place.
Tip #2: Try to make your book feel as visual as you can
I admit, this one I’m a bit biased on. The Private Life of Jane Maxwell is about a comic book artist, and one of the conceits of the book is that she literally “sees” her world by breaking it down into how she’d plan out her comic book spreads. So yeah, mine is perhaps playing a little more overtly with visuals than most—but even so, I’d argue that vivid descriptions are an important part of any superhero story. This genre was born out of visuals, after all. Always try to make sure that your descriptions are alive with color and style, that you can really “see” the world that your characters inhabit. You’ll never be able to perfectly replicate the visual experience you get through comic books and movies, but the closer you can trick your readers into picturing it themselves, the more immersive and action-packed the story will feel.
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid of the cheese
There are obviously a lot of different ways to tell a superhero story, and sometimes you want to subvert the tropes. But often, a big part of the fun is simply embracing them and running with it. If you want to write superheroes because they’re capable of being splashy and silly and glorious, please don’t ever feel like you need to tone it down. Cheesiness is often part of the charm, and while there’s going to be a balance and a point where it might become too much, you really can push that line quite far before it gets unpalatable. People come to superhero fiction expecting tropes. It’s okay to give it to them.
Tip #4: Superheroes are larger than life, and your story should be, too
Similar to the last point, a superhero story is usually going to be much more intense and grand than anything grounded in realism. Of course, most SF/F stories can get away with a grand scale and end-of-the-world stakes, but they work especially well here. While there are exceptions to this rule, there’s usually a reason why we choose to tell our stories within the framework of superpowers, and that reason is often that the genre allows us to dial everything up to eleven. Use your superpowers as a lens, to take a real-life issue or situation and draw it to its most exaggerated conclusion. Especially in the written format, the large scale will help give it that superpowered “feel” that can so easily be captured by visuals.
Tip #5: But always remember to be human
At the end of the day, the best superhero stories are really about the hero, not the powers. As much as we want the spectacle, we also want to relate. Remember to give your heroes personalities, not just one-liners. Remember to give them flaws beneath their masks, and struggles anyone can understand. The best heroes are the ones that remind us that any one of us is capable of rising up and doing the right thing, should the situation present itself, and these stories can only do that if they remind us of ourselves. Show us that we all have powers, beyond just the super- kind, and you’ll resonate much longer in the minds of your readers.
Okay, so that’s all I have for you today! What about you, what elements do you think make up the best superhero stories? Are there any tropes that you particularly like, or feel would best be avoided? Even if you’re a reader, not a writer, you can still weigh in—you never know who your opinion might help. Let’s chat!