On writing superheroes: A response
An essay by the fantastic Brandon Sanderson has been making the rounds thanks to io9 in which Sanderson “Explains Why Superheroes Are So Hard to Get Right.”
Sanderson’s right—superheroes are a lot harder to write in prose form than you might expect. But reading his well-intentioned piece, I found myself wishing he’d dug just a bit deeper into the much more complex reasons why it’s so hard to get superheroes right (and this goes not just for prose writing, but even in their native medium or on screen).
The two focus areas Sanderson targets in his essay are costumes and fight scenes. He’s not wrong, of course. Costumes and fight scenes are a core part of the superhero genre and both run a real risk of turning into self-parody or even, in the case of superhero combat, committing the cardinal sin of becoming boring if done wrong. (As a superhero writer, every time I’ve read a review saying that my own fight scenes are well choreographed, I breathe a sigh of relief rather than let out a whoop of victory. Fight scenes are hard!)
I wanted to peel a layer back to the analysis, though. Are these two stereotypical pieces of the superhero genre really the hardest part to get right? Or is the real challenge finding a way to take a genre that is often treated as just spandex and fight scenes and make sure you’re telling a story that rings real and true, with characters who also ring real and true?
I think the biggest obstacle to writing superheroes is giving yourself permission to forget you're writing about superheroes. It's all storytelling in the end. Writing for superheroes has all the inherent difficulties as writing for romance novels or horror or adult contemporary literature. How do I tell a good story? How do I give my readers something to fall in love with? If there’s spandex and capes, let there be spandex and capes. If there are fight scenes, let there be fight scenes. But they do not define the genre. The genre is so much more complex than that.
But to Sanderson’s point, superhero writers face the additional uphill battle of working their way through all those core storytelling challenges while still (even in this day and age where Nolanverse Batman and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are taken so seriously and so beloved by the mainstream viewer) being downplayed as a lesser type of storytelling because of… well, costumes and fisticuffs.
Other genres face similar stereotyping. A certain world-renown literary god once said she didn’t write science fiction because she had no flying space squids in her clearly speculative, futuristic stories, despite the fact that she’d written what could be considered some of the most groundbreaking science fiction of her generation. There will always be those who think fantasy is the home of elves and dwarves and dragons when those same readers might find themselves captivated by the rough and tumble realism of Joe Abercrombie. Romance and mystery and all other genres are frequently painted by unfair brushes, though it could be argued that superhero prose, with its history in four color print comics, has it a bit worse than the others.
But while the world might try to impose rules upon superhero literature, the best part about writing superheroes is there are no rules. Where else is it perfectly acceptable for a solar powered alien, a demigoddess with a magic lasso, and a detective with a thing for flying rodents to not only coexist but be central figures to compelling, fun, and even beautiful storytelling? And the books that do best in every genre are the ones that kind of forget they're in a genre.
It’s also worth mentioning that superheroes are hard to get right because superhero readers have a really sharp BS meter. They know when they're being pandered to, so it’s almost impossible to fake it—it’s a tight-knit tribe who check your credentials at the door. It’s easy to make fun of obsessive arguments over Superman’s lack of red underwear in his latest costume design or whether or not it’s important that the enormously tall and handsome Hugh Jackman has been playing the short and ugly Wolverine for more than a decade, but those arguments happen not out of spite but out of love. Superhero readers care. A lot. And they expect their writers to care too.
Superhero readers have the biggest hearts in the world. We argue because these works of fiction are important to us. And that, to me, is the hardest part about writing superheroes, and why it is so hard to get superheroes right. You are, as a superhero writer, not only writing something new. You are becoming part of a community, you are adding to the verbal tradition of storytelling that has taken the place of mythology in our modern world, and you are becoming one of the caretakers of a form of storytelling that is incredibly important to a huge, loyal, and fiercely protective audience.
I'm not saying Sanderson is wrong at all. Those components he talks about are unique to the genre, and very, very important. But they are also the fun part. And I’d argue that they aren’t the reason it’s hard to get superheroes right—it’s making sure to remember that superhero stories are so much more than costumes and fight scenes that poses the real challenge.
Matthew Phillion is the author of the Indestructibles Young Adult superhero novel series. Book 2, Breakout, is now available. The third book in the series is scheduled for release in 2015.