rown-up geek women like me remember the dark days of fandoms. We remember buying our anime from the dimly lit back walls of video stores. We remember memorizing every line from the 2000 X-Men movie, back when Hugh Jackman was still cutting his claws into his role as Wolverine. And more than anything, we remember seeking out others like ourselves. The ridiculed and rejected. The nerdy outcasts, usually other girls, who spoke our language and understood our obscure references to various canon.
After finding and gathering our female nerd tribe, we engaged in the most sacred ritual of all. We swapped our stuff: worn VHS tapes, scratched DVDs, poorly translated manga, comic books, video games in dented cases—our accumulated libraries of fandoms were evaluated, appreciated, and loaned out.
For us, these works were our sacred texts. We found ourselves fascinated by these heroes who splashed and ripped through their respective plots. We appreciated all the characters from the little cousin relevant to the complicated backstory to the dangerously sexy villain.
Yet, our hearts belonged to the protagonists. Male, female, human, android, animal, purple-skinned? None of that mattered. What mattered was that our heroes triumphed against insurmountable obstacles and impossible odds. From anti-heroes like Vampire Hunter D to do-gooders like Drizzt Do'Urden, we rooted for our heroes in ways only those who perceived themselves as spurned and misunderstood could.
Years passed, and geek girls became geek women. Most of my former sisters-in-fantasy-arms have long forgotten those stories that kept us awake at night and bound us together. But a few of us have held onto our nerdy passions. We've gained some wrinkles and responsibilities along the way, so we have to be selective in how we scratch our nerdy itches. In my case, I spend my preciously rare free time returning to the roots of my fandoms, learning from the G.O.A.T.s (Greatest of All Time) of fantasy and science fiction, like Jules Verne and Octavia Butler.
By studying these masters as well as comparing them to modern-day works of nerd pop culture, I've managed to obtain the secret formula for creating iconic superheroes. (*Cue maniacal supervillain cackle*) After all, this geek woman now writes new geek stories for the next generation of geek girls. It should come as no surprise that my past passions of yore have resurfaced in my writing process.
Every protagonist is a superhero. Even if you’re writing an adult romance, you can apply the guidelines of creating a great superhero to your story’s main character. You can accomplish this by remembering the key aspects of any cape-wearing or super-powered good guy.
In anime, as well as in most comic books, the main character rarely changes clothes. As a youngster, I remember wondering why the artists didn’t bother changing any characters’ shirts. Only later did I realize the intent of this choice. The clothing and appearance are assertions of the characters’ inner traits. The characters have some physical aspect that draws attention to their inward nature.
The actual costumes of superheroes often have their own detailed, thorough backstories. This is because the costumes symbolize what the characters stand for and also some of the characters’ inner conflicts. Captain America wears his patriotism on his chest, but he has had a long, complicated relationship with American politics. His costume has shifted through the years to indicate these complexities. Tony Stark keeps his face covered as Iron Man, suggesting that the man behind the mask has many secrets and insecurities that he’d rather not reveal or discuss.
An example from another corner of geekdom is Goku from Dragon Ball Z. Arguably the most iconic character in Japanese animation, Goku’s larger than life persona is matched by his orange martial arts uniform (called a “gi”); his large, symbolic writing (called “kanji”) on his back; and his spiky, color-changing hair. Goku is meant to be noticed by friends and foes alike. He can be a bit reckless, but he's also effective. His fierce loyalty to his friends is also evident in his costume, as many of his siblings-in-arms don the same uniforms.
When I write my characters, I ask myself what physical aspects I can include that will provide potent visual cues regarding the characters’ core traits. My debut novel, The Ghost and the Wolf, includes a broody, moody teen named Lex. I call him my firstborn creative son because he arrived in my brain, fully formed in all his angsty glory and ready for me to craft a story for him. I symbolize Lex’s aloof nature with his ever-present hoodie that he pulls low over his face. He also keeps a skateboard around at all times, offering him a rebellious method of transportation that also serves as a quick escape from awkward social situations. His ripped jeans and skater shoes hint at a character that desperately wants to be understood by the very society he is trying to scorn.
Powers of Mind and Body
When most of us think of comic book heroes, we think of superpowers. Spider-Man slings webs, Dr. Strange wields magic, and Superman does ... well ... almost everything. Yet, even authors of more realistic stories can apply the concept of the superpower to their characters.
Every character you create should possess some talent, trait, or strength that is somehow exemplary or noteworthy. The character should be known for this ability, and that ability should also play a part in how he or she ultimately contributes to the story’s resolutions. In anime, I think of L from Death Note. L has no superpower except for the analytical brilliance of his mind. While the anime does involve supernatural elements, L’s only defense against a serial killer with a death god on his side is his logic. For this reason, L is often considered even more of a superhero than the characters who possess powers.
In the superhero genre itself, I have long been fascinated by the heroes who have no “powers” other than their mental faculties. Of course, most of them also happen to be rich, so the resources at their disposal are often endless. Yet, Bruce Wayne would not be Batman if it wasn’t for his infinitely powerful intellect. Bruce Banner as the Hulk is possessed by the smashing powers of a green monstrosity, but Dr. Banner as himself is almost as powerful due to his scientific reasoning.
Let’s return to the crew in my novel. I’ve tried to imbue my side characters with specific strengths to help them stand out from the crowd. Mason has a photographic memory. Elijah can motivate and lead others. Helena fights like a she-devil, especially when her friends are under threat.
My debut novel is part of a trilogy. Helena, Mason, and Elijah all develop their own plots and character arcs as the trilogy progresses. By imbuing these minor figures with some impressive traits, I set my trilogy up with plenty of material to explore in later books.
Catchphrases and Action Moves
When done well, your characters’ mannerisms and speech patterns can make them unforgettable to your readers. One of the most famous in recent anime is Naruto in the series by the same name. Naruto is a discarded, sometimes abused outcast who is known for saying, “That’s my ninja way!” He only delivers the line at critical moments, like at the end of a marathon of a fight.
This line stays with fans and never comes off as repetitive. The iconic line serves as a core reminder of what makes Naruto such a unique character everyone finds themselves loving and cheering for. He is determined to succeed, and he is always considering the welfare of others. Some characters dismiss him as stubborn or even simple-minded due to his singular focus on achieving success alongside his friends. Yet, it is this same focus that ultimately leads to his triumphs, time and time again.
And as it relates to action moves, I’m sure anyone with YouTube has seen videos of teens “ninja running” through their school hallways as well as performing elaborate “jutsu” routines with their hands and fingers. Naruto is credited with adding these behaviors to our cultural lexicon.
When I think of Goku, it’s impossible not to hear him shouting “Kamehameha” during the build-up to his signature energy attack. I don’t know one nerd who can even read that word without hearing Goku shout it out, syllable by syllable. It’s loud; it’s repetitive; it’s a little obnoxious—but most importantly, it’s deadly. Those words, to me, sum up Goku. (Yes, Goku is obnoxious—lovable but obnoxious.) Often, mannerisms like these define the characters even more visually than their own names.
When writing other genres, action moves and catchphrases can still be present, but these will require a more subtle touch. In my novel, Penelope nibbles on her nails when she’s nervous, and she finds it difficult to make eye contact with others. While this isn’t a catchphrase in words, it is a physical habit that defines her. Also, the gang is continually telling wise-cracking Drips to “shut up.” Most of my books involve physical combat, but even realistic fighting can include signature moves or weapons. Griffin prefers to get up close and personal to her foes with her brass knuckles while Avi is more likely to attack with the ferocity of an unchained animal.
In the grand scheme of character development, all of these small details may seem unimportant or even superficial. After all, it is the inner heart of a character that drives the story. The heroes’ courage, intelligence, or charisma help them save the day, not their wardrobe choices. What do physical attributes and habits like these matter when it’s the inside of the character that really counts?
Yet, anyone who has been on a first date knows the truth of the old adage “first impressions matter.” This is because we, as people, make many decisions about another person based on what we see. The conclusions we draw, whether on target or misguided, will influence our first interactions as well as our first memories of a person we meet. An impression is just that—a mark left in our minds by a person’s first indentation.
Our characters are similar in that they, too, have the potential to leave deep impressions on our readers. This is where a handy acronym can be used: WDTSAYC? It stands for the following: “What does this say about your character?” As you are designing some of these superhero-aligned traits for your protagonist, ask yourself this question: WDTSAYC?
Don’t give your character pink hair for the sake of pink hair. What does this choice say about her as a person? Is it a protest against conformity? Is she an anime fan? Perhaps she is rather straightforward in nature, and she chose pink hair simply because it is her favorite color.
Regardless of your character’s hair color, eye color, or preferred weapon in a fight, make your choices with a purpose in mind. Always ask yourself, “WDTSAYC”?
Apply It Yourself
If you think your character is worthy of his or her own superhero cape, check out the questions below. The purpose is to motivate your application of these concepts to your protagonist. Notice that each question ends with WDTSAYC? That is because this question is vital and deserves repetition. Every piece of your character should come together for a higher purpose.
- What is your character’s most commonly worn clothing item or style? What do these say about your character (WDTSAYC)?
- What is your character’s hair color, length, and style? WDTSAYC?
- What are your character’s talents? WDTSAYC?
- What is your character famous (or infamous) for? WDTSAYC?
- What are your character’s other innate strengths? WDTSAYC?
- What could your character say that could be repeated at multiple points in your story? WDTSAYC?
- What defines your character's fighting (physical, verbal, etc.) style? WDTSAYC?
- What are your character's mannerisms and compulsions? WDTSAYC?
Don’t Forget About Your Antagonist
As a final thought, remember that antagonists are the heroes of their own stories. The supervillains are often as memorable, if not more memorable, than the main characters. They, too, follow many of the same guidelines as their good-guy counterparts.
Looking at characters from our previous examples, consider Vegeta from DBZ, Artemis Entreri from Forgotten Realms, and the Winter Soldier from Marvel. Vegeta’s pompous attitude and insistence on calling Goku “Kakarot” are signs of his huge ego. Artemis, a bitter loner, is known for his intricate swordplay and dastardly tricks, making him the perfect antithesis to equally skilled but nobler Drizzt. And Bucky Barnes wouldn’t be the tragic, misunderstood Winter Solider without his metallic arm emblazoned with the Communist red star.
For motivation, dig into some retro fantasy, science fiction, and superhero lore. There is something pure, real, and inspiring about these early attempts at hero-based storytelling. These stories stay with us because the characters are worth rooting for (or against). And, with a little planning, your characters can rise to these same superhero heights, datteboyo!
Dr. Michelle M. Haberberger is the author of The Broken Series under her pen name, Shelly X. Leonn. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, Shelly worked at her hometown newspaper. During her time advising the youth staff, Shelly realized her true calling was to teaching. Her thirteen years in St. Louis City education have been spent in language arts classrooms as well as in mid-level administration. She is also an adjunct professor for a local university. Her works include the YA mystery thriller trilogy The Broken Series, the YA psychological horror Cabin Redemption, and other editing credits, anthologies, and articles. Visit her website.