Superheroes are huge, not just in comics but in movies and novels as well. So there's nothing more exciting than the idea of creating a new superhero from scratch. But aren't all the good ideas taken? Not necessarily.
We asked some of the sharpest minds in the world of superheroes, and they shared some ideas with us. Here are some sure-fire tips on creating a new superhero or supervillain — without ripping off an existing character.
Want to avoid using a name that's been used before? You can always use Google, says Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. Like, you could search for "Nega-Boy"+superhero. And then possibly double-check with "Nega-Boy"+comics. Says Jones, "It would take some scrolling, but I think if another published comics hero had the same name it would come up reasonably quickly. Also, remember that it's pretty safe to use an earlier character's name unless it's an extant trademark or currently in print."
If you're creating a character for a big comics publisher, then the company will do a "name search, which is some mysterious process by which they find out whether a name is already in current ownership," says Gail Simone, writer of Birds of Prey, Secret Six and creator of Welcome to Tranquility. So you may not get your first choice (or your third, for that matter) for a character name.
But it's almost impossible to be sure, cautions Kurt Busiek, creator of Kurt Busiek's Astro City and writer of Avengers and many other titles:
I have a very good memory, but even so, I occasionally wind up using a name that's been used before — ASTRO CITY has a 1940s hero called the Lamplighter, and there's an old Green Lantern villain of that name. But it's not necessary to avoid every single name that's ever been used anywhere, really. Nobody's going to care that there was a minor character back in the 1960s with the same name as a minor ASTRO CITY character, any more than they care that there are two King Kulls, or numerous Sandmans, or like that.
Plus, of course, even if I managed to be perfect about creating new names, it wouldn't stop duplications — I created a Confessor and a Street Angel in ASTRO CITY, and afterward, Marvel introduced their own Confessor and there was an indie book called STREET ANGEL. So it goes.
Austin Grossman, the author of Soon, I Will Be Invincible, is even more fatalistic about your chances of creating a superhero name that nobody else has come up with or will come up with:
There's no superhero name that's so incredibly witty it hasn't been done before. I don't bother checking - if I do, and start to see everything that's been tried and thought of, I feel too hemmed in even to think, and my whole idea for the character starts to get distorted and lost. I think the last time I did that was with Mirror Master, and there have already been three of those at least. I just accept that someone has already thought of it - I don't think that part of it matters - and just try to draw the character as vividly as I possibly can.
The most important thing, says Busiek, is to come up with a name that fits your character:
Mostly, I just try to come up with good, memorable names that sound like the right sort of name for whatever time period the character I'm creating came from. The All-American is a 40s character, Leopardman is a late 50s character, the Experimentals are late 60s...they need to ring true for the time period.
"It's just a question of having an ear for it," says Simone. "J.R.R. Tolkein may be the ultimate example of a guy who could say volumes with just a character's name."
How do you come up with an origin story for your hero that hasn't been done a billion times?
Jones says that researching to see if someone's done your origin story before is harder than with names.
I have no idea how you could research that, unless there's some very specific detail. Like origin+superhero+ferret+refrigerator. But then of course you'd miss the earlier character whose origin involved a weasel and a refrigerator, or a ferret and a dishwasher, and people would say you obviously ripped it off. [But chances are], there will never be any more original origins. It's all about what you do with it. Keeping it really simple is probably best, so you don't look like you're going for originality and failing.
The main thing, says Busiek, is to come up with a unique character — so even if the basic origin has been done before, it still hasn't been done before in that way. Busiek explains:
My character Quarrel became a superhero because her dad was a super-villain and she wanted to bring honor back to the name, to erase the shame she feels over what her father did. If I find out that's been done before, I won't worry about it. I'm confident that whatever character it'd have been done for isn't the same character as Quarrel, so it's not an issue.
What matters isn't whether it's a never-before-used idea. What matters is what you do with it. Samaritan's origin — that he was sent back in time from a nightmarish future to prevent that future from ever coming about, gaining powers along the way — is, at least loosely, the same idea as the Terminator movies. Without the superpowers and with more killer robots, at least. But we did very different things with a similar idea, so who cares? People have been wanting revenge against those who betrayed them long before and long after THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and heroes have escaped from jail and adopted a fake persona to get that revenge, but if you do it well, it's still going to work.
As Simone puts it, the point of the origin story isn't really to explain how the hero got his/her powers, it's to explain "what they most desire, what they most fear. The best origins, like Spider-man's, Batman's, and the like, encapsulate the character's reason to exist. The worst merely explain that a drum of radioactive waste fell on their head and now they can fly."
So what actually motivates your hero to put on a costume and fight evil? (Or your villain, to put on a costume and be evil?) Is it really possible to come up with an original motivation for superheroics or supervillainy?
Busiek says that more than coming up with an original motivation, what matters is that your character has a strong motivation:
Human drives and emotions and motivations run in some pretty basic patterns, but get dressed up in unique ways. But at heart, the strongest motivations are going to be simple ones, and you're going to see them over and over. That said, I'm never ready to believe that there's nothing new under the sun. Someone can come up with something that's never been done before, maybe, but what'll matter is whether it's good, not whether it's unique.
Grossman says you should stick to the basics:
I don't want to win the "what wacky new power can I think of" contest. I think the moment for me was Chairface, in The Tick - I thought that was hilarious, but for some reason it's the last novelty superpower I need to see. I like the classic powers - flight, speed, invulnerability, telepathy, all that stuff - I like to explore how they intersect with personalities and bodies and the real world, it's as rich a subject as I need to have - I don't think a new power is going to help me find more than that.
Clones of Superman
How do you avoid just creating a clone of Superman? Given that so many other classic superheroes were created to copy Superman, what can you do to make sure you're not sticking too closely to the formula of the invulnerable flying strong guy?
Simone says it's a matter of going off the beaten path:
So much of the character writing that's out there is based not on humanity, but on second- and third-hand versions of stuff that's already proven and popular. There are dozens of characters that are essentially Spider-man or Batman or Wolverine. I would much rather create a superhero or villain that, say, has a surgical addiction or a short-term memory retention problem. Something we haven't seen yet. Character, to me, is the search for humanity, and I'm always vastly more interested in desperate characters than whatever the zeitgeist has decided is cool and hip that week. It's a matter of something that affects a small audience more deeply, perhaps, than the mass-appeal stuff that is often more forgettable.
As with other things, Grossman is a tad fatalistic:
There is no superhero that is not in some way derivative of Superman — that ship has just sailed. Powers, origin, forget it - we're all doing variations on a theme, and there's nothing wrong with that. And if someone's going to start suing people, they're going to start by picking on somebody a lot richer than I am.
Kieron Gillen, writer of Thor and Uncanny X-Men, basically agrees:
The question of what is or isn't originality is enormous. In the last thirty years or so, some of the most interesting superhero work hasn't been with characters whose originality is the point — but what they allow you to say about existing characters, the archetypes they've created and the genre they exist inside. I mean, for my money, the majority of the best ten Superman stories ever told don't actually feature the bona fide Superman. In other words, "unoriginality" can absolutely be part of the point of a character.
But Busiek is a bit more optimistic:
It's not like you're going to accidentally invent someone who comes from a blown-up planet who has mighty powers under Earth's sun. If you do that, you'll know what you're doing. So don't do that.
SI've created characters similar to Superman — but for all that people see similarities in, say, Samaritan, if you look at the character, he's not from outer space, he doesn't have powers due to his biology, he wasn't raised by kindly small-town role models, and so on. Other than the fact that he's strong, fast, flies, has a cape and is heroic as hell, he's largely different from Superman. Different history, origin, powers, mission and more. And those similarities are pretty simple, nothing anyone can really object to.
Sometimes, you want a particular kind of character, so you're going to be building off a familiar archetype. If you do that, make sure that if you've got a similar basic idea, everything else is different. Or if you start with a set of powers or a strong motivation or whatever, don't build the character along the same lines as other characters who has that same kind of power, or same motivation. Go in a different direction.
And make up a lot of characters. Practice helps.
That "X" Factor
Don't ask yourself — has this been done before? Ask yourself what unique thing you can bring to it. What can you put into this character that people haven't seen before — like something from your own experience or imagnation?
Sean McKeever, creator of The Waiting Place and Gravity, and writer of Teen Titans and many other titles, gives a great example:
When Mike Norton and I created Gravity for Marvel, I won't pretend for a second like we weren't doing our own take on the 80s, college-aged Spidey we both grew up with. That wasn't around anymore and we wanted to make those kinds of stories for today.
What I did, though, was tap into my own experience of being a Midwesterner, and my many brushes with disillusionment in my college years, and tossed those qualities into the mix, along with my love of cosmic-style origin stories (which we've never had the chance to fully explain, but hopefully someday). That gave it a fun aw-shucks-ness and enough of a spin to feel new to us while still paying homage, and hopefully that came across to the reading public.
The bottom line is, you really want to do something that's exciting and thrilling, and not just the same old stuff. Here's how Simone puts it:
I feel like writing is like kayaking down a river with many creeks and tributaries. When you're in that situation, there's almost always a clear, safe path, a route that your mind automatically gravitates towards. It's the path that most writers automatically cleave unto, as it were. And a lot of fiction takes that path at every fork in the river...movies that do the expected, novels that never surprise.
But that path is always the least interesting, to me. It always seems that the little freakish and neglected paths are the way to go, even if you sometimes end up hitting a dead end or sailing over a cliff to the rocks below. When I feel that obvious route coming up, I pause and look for other options.
I think the answer to all these questions [about creating characters] is the same for me: When you come to that fork in the road, take the one that looks the scariest.