Novel problem: how to explain superpowers

by Alexis

Question: First of all, I would just like to thank you for all the tips and information put up on this site-it has truly helped me better organize and specify my first novel. My novel is really seeming to come together.

I just have one question that maybe you could help me on or give your opinion to. My novel is about a group of 17 year old kids who live in a small, present-day town. They were all born on the same day, at the same hospital, within the same hour. They are now all developing supernatural powers. A local scientist who is looking for a big discovery that could boost up his status from local-scientist-gone-mad to scientist-that's-history-book-worthy finds out about them and kidnaps them. He tries to do experiments on them, his goal is to come up with a way to inject their powers into himself and others.

The ONLY thing I can't seem to think of is what exactly caused their powers and why they aren't appearing until 17 years later. Do you have any ideas what of I could research or suggestions in general?

Thanks for your time and the pure act of putting up this site!


Answer: I can't tell you what your story should be (you're the writer, after all), but here are a couple of thoughts...

On the one hand, it doesn't really matter what device you use to explain why these kids have their powers. It's going to be a violation of known physical laws no matter what.

The important thing is whether the characters and their conflicts will engage the audience - the protagonist's inner struggle, the dramatic tension as he/she pursues the goal, etc. If the characters are people the readers find interesting and engaging and the plot is sound, the readers will accept whatever device you use. The reality of the characters is what makes the book believable, not the fantasy world it is set in.

For example, vampires do not exist. But no one criticizes the Twilight series on that ground.
Warp drive and light sabres do not quite follow the laws of physics, but that doesn't stop people from enjoying Star Wars or Star Trek.

It also depends a little on your audience and the genre you're working in. Hard core science fiction readers expect the device to be scientifically plausible. (That's when you really must bone up on the latest scientific research.) Soft science fiction readers are more forgiving. Fantasy or supernatural readers don't care and will accept pure magic as an explanation.

That said, readers do like the world of the novel to be internally consistent, and they appreciate a well-thought out device. For example, something fans love about The Lord of the Rings, is its rich, imaginary cultural, historical, and even geographical detail. Similarly, the magic system in A Wizard of Earthsea is beautifully laid out. But readers will accept much simpler devices so long as they can relate to the characters' struggles.

Knowing your genre, you have to decide whether the source of your characters' powers is based on science, magic, or something in-between. You should also consider where your interests lie. Are you a science buff or do your interests lean toward magic? What sort of origin stories do you like?

You have made a good start at coming up with an explanation of the factors that conspired at a particular time and place to give your characters their powers. Keep asking yourself questions -- the same kind of questions a reader might ask - and make lists of possible answers. Eventually, something will gel for you.

For instance, a couple of questions that come to my mind are...

What doesn't the scientist understand about these kids?
What unintended consequences might his actions lead to?
Was it just a random event that gave birth to these heroes, or is there a hidden purpose/history behind it?
Is there a particular event that happens when these kids turn 17 that triggers the appearance of their powers?

But that's just the way my mind works. You must come up with your own questions.

Comments for Novel problem: how to explain superpowers

Click here to add your own comments

Superheroes on Thursday
by: Violeta

Definitely good questions to ask. :)

I have to say that I am the same when it comes to creating my 'world'. I always feel like it has to make sense, you know? Not for the readers's sake, but for mine, lol. Anyway, of course, I see the value in TOTAL fantasy.

But I was actually so excited when I read this: 'science, magic, or something in-between'. Now that I think about it, some of my favorite stories ever have combined science and fantasy (in my head, it's science fantasy), and so I do the same, and... not sure if I should say this, also throw in a dab of paranormal. Dunno, that's how my mind works. :D

Thanks for making me think about superheroes. Good start of the day, always. :)

Superpowers come with an emotional cost
by: Dave Morris

I'd first check out Blake Snyder in Save the Cat on what he calls "double mumbo jumbo". Usually it's better to pick *one* way that your story world deviates from the real universe and stick with that. The discipline leads to a better book and it will be easier for readers to believe in.

Also, you are talking about origin stories here and all great superhero origin stories are *personal*. Sometimes the powers are derived from an event that changed the character's life directly (Iron Man, Silver Surfer, the Thing) and sometimes the effect is indirect, ie an event whose repercussions continue to define and affect the character on a personal, emotional level (Superman, X-Men). It's never just "So that happened...."

Powers and Abilities Beyond Those of Mortals
by: Phoenix

Whatever choice you settle on must be one that is cool and exciting to you. That choice will fire across your neural paths and drive you to write like a mad fiend as connections come together.
"Something in-between" usually translates to "alchemy" in my head, if that helps among your options. You might also consider that your ambitious mad scientist (love those guys) learns that he actually had a hand in creating the super kids. It could be the accidental product of some earlier action he took or he may learn that he's more mad than he thought, having initiated this with purpose and somehow lost knowledge of it. Maybe it's the result of an experiment he undertook but thought had failed when it didn't produce immediate results. Perhaps it's the work of a rival or an ambitious apprentice.
As the other commenters have said, the possibilities are many. You have to find something that works for you and the story. You may be excited to find that the choice you make is something that already fits perfectly with other elements you've put in place as though you knew the answer all along. I love it when that happens. It's an acknowledgement that your subconscious is helping you write. Great luck.

Novel problem: how to explain superpowers
by: Ekul

Natrual disasters are always a brilliant way to bring out superpowers.
Why not have it relate to a meteor landing that occured in very close proximaty to the hospital and cosmic dust from the crash affected the babies. It would affect the babies only because the level of toxication would be in a larger proportion to their bodies.
The supernatrual powers only became apparent recently due to a new technology (such as a new way to transmit internet /phone signal etc) that has increased the level of background radiation to a critical level. This level reactivates the toxins in the teenagers bodies revealing the powers in the teenagers.

Its ALL in the DNA
by: Holdwyne

Since they were all born at the same time it is reasonable to assume they were all concieved at the same time....Perhaps a group of young married couples were all on a tour of some industrial or science corp and while there there was a lab experiment.
All this took place the day before the women were impregnated and the combining of the contaminated egg and sperm created an altered DNA for each fetus.
Although they appear normal, the change in the DNA allows for the powers and each individual DNA could have been altered just a bit different to make different powers plausible.

A mutation of Genetics not unlike that used in the Xmen series although that was far more generalized rather than a localized event.

How to explain super powers:
by: F.EN.I.X.

Super hero stories are some of my favorites. There's always a big conflict in the story, there's usually some kind of cool tech or something like that involved. One of my heroes gained his powers in an accident that was partially brought on by himself and partially by another event. Basically, his cells and DNA were fundamentally altered when the space-time of a wormhole he had just entered was warped and distorted by the radiation and blast wave of an atomic explosion. Another one gained his powers by a method similar to how Captain America got his. A "Super-Soldier Serum". Only I differed his enough that its not a rip-off (I like scientific causes best). Obviously, your newborns are probably not going to be travelling through wormholes in the hospital nursery or experiencing atomic explosions. My point is, you have to get creative with it. It doesn't have to be from just one source. It can be an unfortunate combination of disastrous events.
Also, to solve the problem of why the kids' powers activated when they did, you could say that they were activated by the onset of hormones during puberty. I know its been done, but that's not necissarily a bad thing. LOTS of things change when you go through puberty. The higher levels of testosterone or estrogen combined with the emotional mood swings (for lack of a better word) that teenagers go through could be a viable activator for dormant or undeveloped super powers.
Also, a plot twist that you might consider could be that one of the kids decides to join the mad scientist. It always makes for some good drama when you have a hero who either does not subscribe to the normal values of the quintesential super hero or one who completely switches sides and throws another cog in the gears for the good guys. I call these guys anti-heroes. i'm not sure if that is correct terminology, but it gets the point across.
Anyway, your story sounds like it willl be good once you've finished it. you've got a cool concept going. Good luck.

Super virus
by: Encypher

I love Wildcards, the way George RR Martin gave his characters superpowers is with a supervirus (his came from space, an alien bio weapon) whereby on infection, the virus mutates the hosts DNA, most die horrificly as a result some survive although they wish they had not being now monsters with no practical application for their strange mutations, and a very very small proportion of survivors discover they have abilities that are beneficial in some way... Aces amoung the jokers...

It Needs To Be Something That Is Impossible But Still Realistic In A Sense
by: AFellowAuthor

I am writing a story as well and mine has appearance off superpowers via radiation mutation. A supernova takes place causing a planet to explode, sending irradiated fragments towards Earth. Then the fragments were experimented but they caused an overload spilling radiation mixed some dark matter and other things all over the Earth contaminating the Earth and everything therein. It affects everyone who has not gone through puberty with the effect being more severe the younger you are, however you are most vulnerable at age 8. Powers only manifest whilst undergoing extreme emotion. It sounds perfectly believable, sort of. If you are looking for inspiration check out the Gone series by Michael Grant

by: Anonymous

A way that you could explain why it's happening 17 years later is because maybe they didn't develop their powers until they were old enough. Kind of like charmed, they didn't get their powers til they were in their twenties.

Felt unrelated In some parts
by: Anonymous

Didn't help at all

An event
by: Anonymous

I think I have an idea on how you can explain or tell why they don't get their powers until they turn 17 years old. If you would like to find out and still need help on it. Just replied to my comment by commenting back and put yes in the comment title.

Ambiguity Can Be An Ally
by: Anonymous

Sometimes it's best not to give some cheesy explanation like they got it through an experiment or through aliens. In my story the main character has powers and it's never explained, because the origin of the powers is not important to the story. it's what he does with them. As long as there are good rules and limits to their abilities there does not HAVE to be an explanation.

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Genre Invite.