Thoughts on Characters: Capes

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

© 2013 G.N. Jacobs

            Among other things, I write original superhero fiction. I do it because I like the genre. For you, Dear Reader and Fellow Screenwriter, I start with the assumption that there is also money in doing capes and villains. The process goes like this – a good superhero movie from the last cycle did well where the public ate that applesauce up with a spoon and a Cheshire Cat grin. Development types (always the ones to ride concepts into the ground) put time (= money) into new similar, but not too similar projects. Once word gets around in the semi-closed shop of the Company Town that certain projects have a little bit of heat to them, certain agents who may represent actors, writers or both will get calls – “Hey, I’m thinking of doing Superman. I already have Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White. I need a writer and do you have anyone to lead the movie?”

But, only expensive established writers even have a chance of getting that call to do Batman, Green Lantern, Wolverine or the Shadow. And sometimes an expensive writer may be passed over because they have less similar work to convince the producers and studio to say yes than the writer they did hire. Rom-Com writers, for example, who want a change of pace may have to write a spec about somebody in the four-color spandex set. Alternately, a producer may have gotten squeezed out in the ongoing Darwinian struggle for the best projects and wants to do a similar cheaper movie with original characters. These are at least two reasons why a writer would want to immerse him or herself into the world of superheroes. What follows are my suggestions for getting the almighty characters right.

Suggestion #1 – When the costume is hanging in the closet or at the cleaners, the superhero or sidekick (second or third lead, depending on villain casting) is merely a regular person constructed for the screen like any other character.

When we start writing we buy at least one book telling us how to write for the medium we choose. Before I stopped reading screenwriting books for being heavy on platitudes and lighter on a sliding scale downward about actual techniques or more importantly, the discipline it takes to practice our craft well, the sections on compelling characters all talked about the motivation, positive traits or fatal flaws. Needless to say, once, through trial and error, you start applying and playing with these concepts for regular characters they will with minor tweaks apply to capes as well.

Spider-man takes the spider bite gaining his powers (listed in the positive traits column along with the rest of his personality traits), but doesn’t decide to be a hero until some thug whacks Uncle Ben (MOTIVATION in All Caps). His flaws are that of being an emotional teenager set loose on the world with power he has to grow into during adolescence. I do this sort of thought work for all my characters regardless of whether they wear a cape.

I sometimes have other tricks for characters. I came up with Anna X, my spook hunter/journalist that leads my novel Blood & Ink and eventually will interview and assist the many capes with whom she is a contemporary, by stipulating three things – “I’m writing about vampires and journalism practically requiring a female protagonist.” – “I want to do a character that can expand into any other type of weird horror, SF or fantasy story kinda like Kolchak in a skirt.” – and “I’m starting out and probably should base this girl on myself.” Once I made the usual concessions to the marketplace that Anna should be twenty-something, hot like Wonder Woman with striking bottle-green eyes instead of male, forty-something and still working on his conditioning, I had a character.

I have also stolen from Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets), which I will paraphrase as “when creating a woman, I think of a man with traits, flaws, needs and the whole nine yards, and then I make that woman live closer to her emotions.” I then developed the female to male corollary – “Think of a woman, with traits, flaws, needs and such and then make a man by adding the crushing weight of a 150,000 years of there’s no crying in baseball.”

There are other tricks that we discover through trial and error for making normal characters be interesting. So now that you know that whatever you do make a lawyer interesting will also start you on your superhero, we can move on to the capes and externally worn underwear.

Suggestion #2 – When stuck for coming up with a cool superpower, it is perfectly okay to borrow from previously established archetypes if the underlying human being is interesting.

            I have no compunction about ruthlessly ripping off Batman, Wonder Woman or any other licensed character for getting proven superpower niches. I do the changes to the underlying character that appears in his or her street clothes as suggested above, change the symbols on the costume and tweak the origin story just enough to avoid the lawsuit.

Batman becomes Dark Warrior when I decide I need a warm body to prowl the streets of Los Angeles with gadgets, Kung Fu and (as hasn’t been well-depicted in recent Batman comics) world-beating forensics skills. So, I need the rich playboy with the money for a Bat-mobile and a lair that has lost somebody to crime and strangles his demons in their crib by being a tireless defender of the City of Angels. A few tweaks to Batman’s origin that allow for living in Los Angeles (see Suggestion #4), being younger and I’m ready to rock and roll with Dark Warrior. The finishing touch is to avoid being sued by changing out the bat and cape for a simple black ninja suit with Yin-Yang on the chest.

Similarly, it’s an easy jump to Night Fury by imagining Wonder Woman with the Hulk’s rage issues. Okay, I did want to jettison the Lasso of Truth largely because Wonder Woman keeps getting tied up in her own weapon suggesting an interesting sex life on the part of her writers, at least. So, I re-read the Orestia and come up with Alecto, the middle sister Greek Fury banished for sleeping with Orestes, as a way to get Wonder Woman with a sword, spear and Xena’s black armor skirt (sans Frisbee of Death, of course). Since another common dicta of character creation is that often times the character is his or her own worst enemy, this means that Night Fury in her normal state is the nicest, sweetest, most thoughtful domestic goddess that always beings wine or brownies to the party. Do you see this character taking shape in your imagination?

Suggestion #3 – Be open to all sources for inspiration including finding original or underused superpowers. 

This saying applies to everything about writing, but I use it here to explain how I came up with some of my other characters that seem totally original or at least not well used by other superhero writers. In one case, Captain Cupcake, there is a certain female writer that I haven’t yet successfully asked out for coffee and when I started groping around for superhero characters to work out of a fictionalized version of my favorite comic book store, I picked her for the woman inside the spandex. The real lady admits to not cooking well and fretting that her mother is an awesome cook. So, I came up with her fictional spandex self as an extruder of any chemical she can think up married to a cybernetic-implant that imparts college level chemistry in her brain. Suddenly, the woman can cook (one form of applied chemistry) and blast people with lit cooking oil if she remembers to bring a match.

In another case, I was preparing to play an RPG by mail game set at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. Clearly, I needed a teenager with even more angst than Spider-man. I couldn’t think of anyone more angst-driven than the Basket Case (Ally Sheedy) from The Breakfast Club, a character who admits to abuse in the home. The minute I adopt that sort of Goth-girl character, the next question is “what superpower would the Basket Case most want to develop when her mutant gene kicks in?” Well, it’s a no-brainer that a girl abused in the home doesn’t want to be touched, by anyone except the most trusted of friends. The logical extension of that is that this girl with problems being touched would develop complete control of the friction coefficient of any object within her line of sight, including her body so the creep’s hands slide right off. Hello World, meet Quantum Glide, typically shortened to Q-Glide.

Suggestion #4 – Location and setting affect the superhero character.

In the movies, no one has ever called out Superman/Clark Kent for not speaking with a Kansas accent. But, then it’s hard for most people to identify what a Kansas/Mid-Western accent is. We can identify the Boston accent, an outer borough New York accent, the Chicago accent, a Canadian accent and most of the varieties of a Southern accent. But, most of the rest of the accents in the middle of the country are hard to tell apart and are being slowly wiped away by the greater American culture fed by the very movies we want to write, so Superman speaking in a mostly generic American accent with very little connection to Kansas gets a free pass. But, one day an actor will research the accent (the Smithsonian has recordings) and Superman will finally speak as if he just came off the farm somewhere in Tornado Alley.

Going back to my characters that I have been using as case studies in developing characters, let’s ask “how does setting the majority of my capes in Los Angeles affect them as characters and capes?” The City of Angels is a much a state of mind as a place and always has been so in my living memory. And I have, yet, to see LA represented well in comic books, because the first comic book writers had clustered around New York and hadn’t fully grasped the Big Orange.

In some cases, the reason is physical geography. How many New York-based capes can get around by swinging from webs attached to tall buildings, jumping from building to building, running fast or, at last resort, jumping the subway turnstile? Now, imagine Los Angeles and its unique physical geography where there are fewer tall buildings and our traffic snarls in a road city where everyone has to have a car are legendary. How well would Batman do in the Bat-mobile? Ergo, Dark Warrior starts driving his Warrior-Cycle as an adaptation. Almost everybody else in this stable of characters can fly, run, or skate across the pavement.

But, moving my characters to Los Angeles also affects them in their street clothes. Dark Warrior may be me doing Batman, but there is no way a guy like Bruce Wayne adapts to the Angelino mindset without some entertainment for the rest of us. In LA, the billionaire playboy that doesn’t seem to do much of anything becomes the son of technology mogul that buys his wayward son a record label with the instruction to return a minimum of one dollar more than expenses in order to keep his trust fund.

Night Fury’s big job in LA is that she’s an assistant at a production company and moving up to producer. And, the Stuntman merely uses the bottomless Bag of Many Tricks to hide his ropes, pulleys, descender rigs and air rams that define him. All of these character niches are just sooo LA, that I can’t imagine most of these ideas working too many other cities.

Suggestion #5 – It really helps to game out the character. 

Until you, the creator of a brand spankin’ new cape, test out the character by simply trying to think up ways to beat him or her, you won’t know who the character is or what they can do. Before, during and/or after writing the first draft find other people who like superheroes and test out the character. This can mean visiting a comic book store and striking up a conversation with the Comic Book Store Guy (don’t do this on Wednesday, it’s shipping day). It can also mean linking in to the comment boards at a comic book oriented website. But, mostly it means go through a few mental drafts of the character feeling free to jettison anything that doesn’t make sense.

Suggestion #6 – Remember that a well-thought out superpower becomes part of the character’s outlook. 

I probably shouldn’t even have listed this one, but sometimes the obvious has to be repeated. Superman brings his Kansas farm boy demeanor to the big city along with his abilities. He has no reason to fear ordinary humans, unless they bring Kryptonite to the party. The writer who forgets that the interplay of Superman being raised with traditional values played against his vast power that could go to his head needs to re-read whatever books he or she has on character development.

Suggestion #7 – If you can’t find any enjoyment or respect for the superhero genre don’t waste time, do something else.

            Just because the Company Town is throwing a lot of money around at cape-oriented projects, doesn’t mean we should all crush the gates like lemmings. A writer that doesn’t like discussing who’s tougher in a fight, Batman or Daredevil just isn’t going to find the right characters to do a superhero movie well. It’s okay, there are all kinds of movies out there waiting for you to write them.

I welcome any comments as part of our ongoing discussion about how to write the movies we want to see.

Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman are trademarks ultimately held by Time Warner Inc. Spider-man and Hulk are trademarks held by Disney. All other characters mentioned are creations of the author. All rights reserved. The author apologizes for not having pictures of his characters, yet.

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