People complain about how TV and film are over-saturated with superhero stories. The usual argument is that Hollywood isn’t willing to take risks.
Superhero movies, however, perform well at the box office not only because of branding, but also because they have strong story mechanics working for them.
Whether your character is the son of Krypton or a mother trying to protect her child, everyone has an inner superhero.
You can use the strong story mechanics that superhero tales frequently employ by asking yourself these five questions for your acting or writing:
- What is your character’s origin story?
Most comic book movies begin with scenes that hint or explain where the superhero finds herself as a character at that point. Past events shape our future actions. Would Batman have become a vigilante if not for the murder of his parents by a mugger? Thinking about a character’s “motivation” is too general and does not suffice. When you paint a specific portrait of a character’s past by imagining what exactly happened to them, you make your actual scenes more dimensional. By creating a vivid backstory, you create depth-of-character and the illusion of a real person who lives a full life. Audiences are intrigued to see glimpses of what lurks below the surface.
- What cause is your character fighting for?
Often this is created by the past events we discussed in number one. By knowing a character’s cause, you also create strong actions that are the propellers of the story. We usually know a story has ended once the superhero has succeeded or failed her cause. Also, a cause doesn’t always have to be positive. For example, Deadpool’s cause is to hunt down the evil scientist who ruined his life.
- What are your character’s super powers?
Your character might not have superhuman strength like the Hulk, but your character certainly does have a trait that makes her unique. Even a non-physical trait such as good listening is a power. Ironically, many characters hate the powers they posses because it makes them stick out from society. It’s your duty as an actor and writer to pull out the powers of the story even when a character attempts to hide them from the world.
- What are your character’s weaknesses?
All life-forms have a Kryptonite. Life is a system of checks and balances. We keep our vulnerabilities a secret so we may live to see another day. Examples of common weaknesses include fears, addictions, handicaps (physical, mental, or spiritual), and past secrets. By identifying your character’s weaknesses, you can highlight their strengths. A character’s weaknesses tell more about a character than her strengths because she must overcome them in order to get what she wants.
- What are your character’s enemies?
A good enemy is like a ruler to measure character. We have a better way to gauge a character’s capabilities thanks to her enemy. One of the reasons is that an enemy is proactive. She usually makes it her mission to know everything about the hero’s weaknesses. Ultimately, the hero will be put to the test. It’s important to remember that though an enemy can be physically embodied in a story, it can also be an internal struggle. When I ask people during my writing workshop “Who is your biggest enemy?” the most popular by far is “myself.”
These questions are not just for protagonists: they also work for the secondary characters and villains. After all, every character is the protagonist in his or her own story.
Eventually superhero stories will lose their popularity; another type of story will take over. But these five questions will never go out of style, and can be applied to any story. By discovering the superhero qualities in your characters, ultimately you’re affirming your own super powers.
Jeremy Frazier graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a MFA in Drama Writing. He is the recipient of the Max K. Lerner Playwriting Fellowship and the Shubert Playwriting Fellowship. He was also a finalist for the John Cauble Award at the Kennedy Center for his one-act play, We’ll Always Have Paris. Jeremy was recently named as a quarter-finalist for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards competition for his feature screenplay, Of Flesh and Blood. As the founder of the Actor’s Writing Gym, he loves working with actors to help them create their dream roles and believes that actors make the best writers.