Fun Scifi Tropes: Superpowers

Hey gang! Here’s the first of the tropes post I was talking about last week!

A trope, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a common or overused theme or device.” (Also “a word or expression used in a figurative sense” such as a figure of speech, and “a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass in the Middle Ages,” so there you go.) Trope does have a bit of a negative connotation, normally something along the lines of implying that the creators are just sticking to common tropes and the work ends up being boring, shallow, derivative, or otherwise problematic.

And yeah, tropes can be used badly, and you can end up with bad or boring stories. But they can also be used awesomely. And the reason why something becomes a trope is because, at its base, it is awesome and it’s something that people are attracted to. Most everyone has a trope or two that they really like and gravitate toward.

Today we’ll start with superpowers. This is fairly self-explanatory; this trope involves humans with powers outside the ordinary. The most obvious example is the superhero genre, but you can also find examples of this throughout other science fiction and fantasy stories. (I’m focusing on tropes that tend to be more historically considered “science fiction” right now, even though most tropes can carry over to fantasy, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion about soft versus hard science fiction, which is a topic no one agrees on and that will never end.)

My favorite thing about the superpowers trope is that anything goes for the source of a superpower. Bitten by a radioactive spider? Great! Spacecraft got hit by cosmic rays? Sure! Normal human evolution? Fantastic! As long as it’s vaguely science, go for it!

The biggest issue with the superpower trope is that it’s easy to overpower a character. Look at poor Superman. He’s strong, bullet-proof, can fly, can see through walls, doesn’t need a spacesuit to go into space, can go back in time (when plot convenient), etc. And as a result, a lot of people find Superman boring. He can fix any problem easily, so often the plotlines get convoluted in an attempt to keep up a semblance of suspense.

There are ways to overcome that, certainly–you give your character or the power itself a limitation. In fantasy, when we create magic systems, there tends to be a system of equivalency–some give and take. You can cast this spell, but it’ll make you blind for a day. Or you can perform this ritual, but if you do it wrong, you’ll be bound to the netherworld for eternity. Those same principles can be tied back to superpower usage.

I like the trend with the superpower trope that we’ve seen lately, where we move away from your standard Superman or Batman and explore other aspects, such as kids gaining superpowers and having to deal with the fallout from that, or people taking over mantles that have belonged to other people and trying to live up to the name, or “normal” folks trying to work beside their superpowered allies.

What’s your favorite superpower, Squiders? Favorite book/movie/TV show that deals with this trope? (I am not really a comic book person, but I recently bought some Hawkeye comics because they’re really good.)

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