How Can I Have a Non-Powered Hero in a Super-Powered Setting?

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Hi, I’d like to know what your take is on the Badass Normal trope. Is it realistic to have a non-powered hero in a super-powered setting be able to kick just as much ass as their super-powered compatriots or even able to take down a superhuman in a fight? (Think Hawkeye and Black Widow in The Avengers, or Batman in Justice League and the ilk.)

My reason for asking is because I know there are many writers who are dismissive of this trope due to the unrealism of it all (such as Orion’s Arm referring to this trope as the “Plucky Baseline Syndrome”). In addition, your article on oppressed mages also highlights a point on why muggles wouldn’t stand a chance. So the bottom line of my question would be – is there any way to make the Badass Normal trope work? Or is it one of those tropes that need to be dropped from a story?

-Justin Wou

Hey Justin, thanks for writing in!

It’s totally possible to have a Badass Normal in a story that’s otherwise full of super-powered characters, and in fact, this character is almost always a fan favorite. There’s something extra likable about a character who has to work harder and show greater ingenuity than their peers. We inherently cheer for the underdog, and how better to illustrate that than a character with no powers in a world of supers?

The main problem is, as you’ve guessed, this gets unrealistic really fast, and most superhero stories are way past the event horizon of believability. Black Widow and Hawkeye should both be dead a hundred times over as they go up against enemies scaled for Thor and Iron Man. I call this phenomenon “power-leveling.” Remember that fight where Captain America and his crew take on Thanos’ minions at the start of Infinity War? You’ll notice that when Cap, someone with supernatural strength, punches an alien, they grunt and get knocked back a little. When Black Widow, a normal human who works out a lot, punches an alien, they grunt and get knocked back a little. I guess Cap and Widow’s powers are about on the same level in this scene!

Heck, this isn’t even just a problem for mundane characters. It comes up any time characters drastically differ in power levels. Captain America is explicitly not bulletproof, whereas most of the other Avengers are. He should be dead a hundred times over when he takes the same kind of hits they do, but for some reason he never is!

Marvel gets away with this because they’re a multi-billion dollar film franchise with super high production values, and so most people agree not to care about goofs like this, but the rest of us mere mortals have to try a little harder.

The easiest way to make a mundane character matter in a super-powered team is to give them expertise in things beyond hand-to-hand combat, which is what most superpowers are used for. This is what’s known as the Sokka approach. Even after getting his sword, Sokka is no match for the other characters in a fight, but that’s fine because Sokka’s contributions to the group are tactics and planning. This is why the best stories about Batman in the Justice League tend to focus on his detective skills rather than his fighting skills. There’s just no realistic way Batman will ever be as good in a fight as Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc.

If you want your mundane character to go head to head with the supers, that’s a lot harder. You can try to compensate with cool tech, but that has some hard limits. If the tech is so powerful, why don’t the super-powered characters use it too? Captain America would be a lot more effective if he had one of those sweet energy guns. Or just a normal gun. For that matter, there’s no real explanation for why Tony’s never made a suit for anyone else. Imagine what Black Widow, someone actually trained to fight, could do with one. At that point, the tech itself starts to feel like a superpower.

You can put some limits in place, but you need to be careful with them. Avatar, for example, has a strong implication that bending doesn’t work unless your hands are empty, which lets non-benders level the playing field a little with swords and spears. The show isn’t 100% consistent about this, but it’s still a good idea. Even so, a powerful bender quickly outmatches even the best armed warrior.

In most cases, your best option is to keep your superpowers fairly weak, or very limited in scope. This can still provide a really strong advantage, but it’s also believable that a mundane character could overcome that advantage with enough determination and grit. Season 1 of Heroes is the best example I can think of for that. Most of the characters there either have weak powers or don’t know how to fully use them, so the Horn Rimmed Glasses Man can still compete even though he has no powers of his own.

If you want to know more, I’ve written an article on this subject: Five Ways to Handle Characters With Different Power Levels

Hope that answers your question!

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  1. Cay Reet

    I think the human brain can function as a superpower of sorts, too.

    That is how Batman usually keeps up with his superpowered friends – and the stories are best when he does. Same goes for Lex Luthor, who doesn’t have superpowers, either, but is a scheming, devious villain. Tony isn’t superpowered as a such, either, he’s in possession of high tech – something everyone could have. But yes, it does get hard to explain why Tony doesn’t make a suit for everyone (well, perhaps not Hulk and Thor, who should both be fine without one), levelling the playing field more for Black Widow and Hawkeye specifically.

    I do remember a character whose superpower actually is to be able to calculate probabilities in a heartbeat. They’re not super powerful, they’re not able to hit someone so hard the enemy flies back a few metres. But they’re never in the line of fire, because by the time the bullet flies, they know where it won’t be and have stepped aside. If you tone that down a little and also give the ‘normal’ character some skills with laying out traps, they could very well pull even with a superpowered hero or two.

    Sokka was a great way of incorporating a non-bender into the group of The Last Airbender. Giving him strategy and tactics as a skill made him very important in the end, because the different groups needed to be coordinated and he could do that – unlike the others.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      In a lot of JLA stories, Batman’s determination, planning-for-absolutely-everything-abilities etc really are scaled up to such an absurd level that they do become superpowers in their own right – and also make Batman extremely unrealistic. But I can enjoy these stories and just roll with the premise. I still prefer this approach over non-supers somehow being as good at fighting as supers.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    In the comics, Black Widow was originally just a great spy and martial artist, but this was later retconned so that she also got some kind of super-soldier treatment back in Soviet, when the Russians tried to copy Captain America. So nowadays, she’s supposed to be a bit enhanced as well, plus age much slower than normal people, which explains how she can look fairly young even though she worked for the KGB in SOVIET for a long time.
    It’s weird that they didn’t do this in the movies.

  3. Michael Campbell

    To be specific about Captain America.
    He’s technically not “super-human” but rather at the edge of human capacity.
    He can win the Olympic gold for weight lifting and marathon running and gymnastics and boxing.
    And no human being has ever been at that level in one field without having to sacrifice the other fields so he’s not like mortal men but he’s not technically superhuman.
    *Vibranium shield is a different matter.

    • Greg S

      Cinematic Captain America is a lot stronger than Comic Captain America. He rips doors off cars and throws motorcycles around. Also Cinematic Cap has a metabolism so efficient that it is impossible for him to get drunk – which in itself is superhuman, and also implies he’d be superhumanly resistant to other toxins as well.

  4. uschi

    How about giving the non-super powered character an advantage due to their knowledge about how normal people live or think? If you are a superhero there may be plenty of problems you don’t know exist for normals, and may make it harder to predict their behaviour.

  5. Michael Campbell

    There also needs to be the question of just what is superhuman?
    Are you as powerful as a tank or a battleship?
    Having the eyesight of an eagle or the sense of small of a bloodhound would make a person in a “super soldier” but is that spectacular enough to be entertaining.

    You might have the physical muscularity to be able to lift a removalist’s, fully loaded, pantechnicon, over your head. But unless you have super bone-structure, wouldn’t you shatter all of your metatarsals and metacarpals!?!

    In many ways super-strength can’t let you run away from trouble because that’s dependent on the coefficient of friction between your sneakers and the ground but it can let you jump out of the way of trouble as that’s based on the material strength properties of the ground (or your strength, which ever is least)…so theoretically jumping up, will just cave-in the subway station below your feet, if you’re strong enough…and then simple inertia leaves you in the path of danger.

    A pet peeve of mine is when “normal human” characters, get thrown through a solid concrete wall…and survive. Does everyone in comicdom have the same superpower:- superhuman constitution!?!

    • Cay Reet

      If you look at how clever Batman still is after all the time he must have had a concussion, I think it’s safe to assume that they all have a superhuman constitution.

  6. Passerby

    This is actually something that “The Rithmatist” by Brandon Sanderson tackles pretty well. It’s not a superhero setting, but it has ‘mages’ so to say. However, the MC isn’t one of them, but he still remains an active player throughout the book. “Steelheart” may also be of notice, though there it’s more about a group of ordinary people teaming up to take down one supervillain.

  7. Sedivak

    Are you familiar with the SCP Foundation? If not, google it or find it on TV Tropes and read some. It’s a great place for some short literary pieces centered on the paranormal.

    There, I always liked memetic and infohazardous phenomena. Basically, like hacking a computer, except instead of a computer you hack a living brain with the right sensory inputs. Imagine an enemy being shown a weird picture that activates just the right subconscious processes in their brain to stun them, or to do something much weirder.

    Your non-superpowered character could perhaps be the scientist to discover the theory behind memetic attack agents and the first one to actually employ them. It’s not wildly more unbelievable than having the usual superpowers.

    SCP Foundation website, keywords: Memetic, Infohazard, Cognitohazard (there are differences),
    Charles Stross, The Laundry Files

    • Bubbles

      I’ve read it too! Besides what you mentioned, another interesting thing is that it is basically a setting in which people with powers often have their rights restricted by people without powers. Given the whole discussion about the oppressed mages trope, I was wondering how realistic the blog writers found the SCP Foundation setting, given the particular context (which I would explain here, but it is very complex and would take up too much space and time to write down).

      • Sedivak

        The way I see it, the setting does not suffer from the Oppressed mages trope.

        While it is true that the Foundation keeps in containment many people and … things … with powers. Those held are usually lone individuals who did not have much information on the paranormal world. These people and … things … are faced with a highly organized trained and determined, completely ruthless and very well informed military-style organization which itself often uses powerfull paranormal equipment or agents (e.g. Dr. Clef, Able, Iris). Even so, many SCPs inflict heavy losses on the task force sent after them.

        On the other hand, when the paranormals become organized, the Foundation is often unable to overpower them except in some isolated engagements. Consider the Serpent’s Hand, The Daevites, Church of the Broken God, Sarcic Cults, the Wanderer’s Library, or even such organizations as MCD or GOC.

        Even some of the stronger individuals are out of the Foundation’s reach, such as Nobody or the Red Queen.

        • Bubbles

          That’s an interesting way of looking at it, which actually makes a lot of sense. I suppose another question, however, is why an organization would ever decide that all paranormal things should be hidden from the public in the first place, which is more difficult to explain. I think the best way to explain that would be that the mere knowledge of the paranormal is in itself dangerous somehow. In real life, however, people have sincerely believed that supernatural things existed or found things that could not be explained for a long time, but they were still okay, so such a danger would have to be in itself supernatural. The problem is that in the SCP Foundation world, not all SCPs are like that – there are certainly infohazards and similar, but that doesn’t describe all SCPs, some of which wouldn’t be dangerous to know about. There might be other possible reasons, and I’m thinking about some now, but I’m not sure whether any of them make that much sense.

          • Sedivak

            Well in many cases it’s about not spreading panic among the general public combined with not incentivising the other powerful groups to steal the SCPs.

            Have you read the Unfounded stories in the main Canons hub?

          • Sedivak

            It could also be that the Foundation is trying to prevent parnormal research outside the Foundation itself because people could inadvertently cause a lot of damage. That combined with the reasons stated above makes a lot of sense to me. But a good question anyway.

            Some of the Marshall, Carter, and Dark Ltd. stories show parts of society where paranormal objects are left unchecked and are used for profit and amusement and it is not pretty. Also the things that were done to 191 and 811. Sometimes an organization protecting normalcy seems necessary.

            On the other hand the foundation itself has a lot of (pretty horrible) skeletons in its closet as well and some paranormal groups seem relatively nice, like the Wanderers Library.

        • Sedivak

          My previous comment must have been influenced by [REDACTED] because I clearly meant to mention the Sarkic (not Sarcic) Cults and the Black (not Red) Queen. Serves me right for not checking the source material….

  8. Adam

    In the Civil War comic series, Frank Castle (a normy) goes up against a lot of supervillains because he fights dirty, and he fights to kill. He gets his butt kicked a lot, but he usually wins because he, like Oren suggested, has expertise in things beyond hand-to-hand combat.

    The Black Widow & Captain America example does irk me. I thought he was super strong! How can her punches hurt as much as his!?

    • Michael Campbell

      I wonder how super-strength and Judo meet?
      Does the strength of the attacker make no difference to said attacker finishing up on his arse?

      • Gray-Hand

        It becomes a lot harder for the Judoka.
        They might be able to use leverage to knock the strongman down, but any holds or attacks that rely on joint manipulation don’t work, because the super strength holds the joint in place.

      • Adam Reynolds

        If this were true, Judo competitions would not need weight classes. The fact that they exist is exactly the problem with an idea like this. While there are smaller individuals who can do well in combat, they will generally lose to someone of equal skill and superior strength in a straight up fight.

        For a case not that unrealistic if we’re talking superstrength, has a Judo master ever won a fight with a gorilla?

        The problem for superheroes is that unlike a more realistic character like John Wick or Michael Westen, they aren’t really allowed to fight dirty in the way that actual violence professionals would, nor do they rely on teams to the same extent. A police officer will tell you that the reason that they needed five officers is because six weren’t available, while even elite soldiers are only as effective as their teams. This might actually be the best solution to this idea. Instead of relying on a lone superhero non-powered characters rely on group tactics to overwhelm individually superior enemies, often losing people in the process a la X-COM. Now that I think about this, that actually might be interesting: X-COM versus super villains.

        • Cay Reet

          Humans are pack animals … we’re at our best in teams and that should actually reflect on superhero teams a lot more than it does.

          X-COM vs Supervillains would be an interesting take. Something like Freedom Force, I guess.

  9. Rose Embolism

    Unpowered humans can’t match benders? Mai and Ty Li would like to have a word with you. In fact both series are notable for having unpowered humans give benders a run for their money.

    In the general question of whether unpowered heroes can match Superheroes in a story, a lot of that is going to depend on exactly how the superpowers are defined. If we’re talking about Justice League or Avengers, normals may be a stretch to believe (though exploding batarangs help). If we’re talking about say, early X-Men, on the other hand, a talented normal probably could be an asset to a bunch of inexperienced teens who have limited powers. If it’s something like Dragon Prince or animated Teen Titans, then it’s clearly shown that the talented normals are just as capable of affecting the world as the people with powers.

    Even in the Avengers Black Widow brings talents to the table the others don’t have, cracking the case and finding the solution to the situation. And don’t talk to me about shooting Black Widow or Captain America-in that case, all of the original X-men could be taken down by a sniper.

    Relative ability to affect the world and the story is key here, more than raw power. In the webcomic A Miracle of Science, the Martian group mind embodied in the character Caprice has immense amounts of power, ranging from nanotech implants to a fleet of warships. Caprice still has to work with the unaugmented human police officer Benjamin, because she doesn’t have the right sort of power and influence for the mission at hand. It’s that sort of balance that

  10. Tawny

    A neat example of this trope is the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. The main character is a teenage boy who doesn’t have powers in a world where everyone who has at least hit puberty has powers. He mostly wins fights through ingenuity or surprise, but would get creamed in any direct fight. The series also ups the scale quite nicely.

  11. Greg S

    The trope of the highly-trained person with weapons being able to keep up with the supers is a much discussed topic, and there are lots of work-arounds depending on the degree of realism we’re after, or the scope of superhuman powers in the setting.

    On the opposite end of things there are some things to consider too. For example, we have a super villain who can shoot death-rays out of his eyes, but doesn’t seem particularly bulletproof. Why can’t some non-super SWAT marksman just shoot him in the head? Villains like Doctor Octopus give Spider-Man a hard time, but a sniper in a helicopter would end his threat once and for all.

    So while you’re looking for ways to make your normal folk competetive with your super folk, also be aware of how your super folk will need to stay alive in a world of normal people that can create and use tools, weapons, and common sense.

    • Bubbles

      I think the problem with that is that the superhumans often both have their powers and can use “normal” technology as well. If they can, they will still be more powerful than normal people. If they have limitations/weaknesses that normal people don’t have, however, normal people might be able to overpower them in certain situations.

  12. Diana

    “Captain America is explicitly not bulletproof, whereas most of the other Avengers are. He should be dead a hundred times over when he takes the same kind of hits they do, but for some reason he never is!”

    A) he’s superhuman

    he’s intelligent enough to use his shield to protect himself.

    • Cay Reet

      I accept the shield explanation, since the vibranium shield should be a good protection against bullets.

      But superhuman doesn’t automatically mean he’s also bullet proof.

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