Smoke surrounds a building as fire glows behind the front door.

Image by Tithi Luadthong on Shutterstock

If your new hero likes to mind their own business, how do you force them to save the day? This is especially troublesome for superhero stories, because the hero’s special abilities are supposed to be, well, special. That means baby’s first antagonist should be non-magical and largely coincidental. But most of us don’t run into emergencies that often during our non-magical lives.

Unfortunately, storytellers often resolve this problem by punching down. In many cases, racial stereotypes about bad neighborhoods or gangs are employed to explain why people attack without motivation. Even when antagonists are white, these stories rely on racist tropes to explain wanton violence.

In many other cases, heroes go after people committing property crimes that are often motivated by poverty. Exaggerating how often property crimes occur and demonizing poverty-motivated criminals encourages a punitive, “tough on crime” mindset. That enables cruelty at all levels of the justice system.

So let’s look at seven better ways for heroes to run into trouble when they aren’t looking for it.

1. Sports Brawls

Sports fans are perfectly capable of getting in big, and even deadly, fights. This goes double for team rivalries that are particularly heated and weekend evenings when fans have been drinking a lot. A surprise loss that ruins a team’s chances at the finals could be particularly upsetting, making fights more likely.

Some brawls are also more like beatings, with several fans on one side relentlessly attacking a single fan of the other team. This can give a hero a great opportunity to rescue someone and take on several opponents.

While fights often happen right on the sports stands, they might also occur in parking lots or other public areas shortly after the game gets out. In that case, game security is less likely to be present. A hero walking by wearing the wrong color might even get caught up in a sports brawl by accident.

2. Vehicular Accidents

Car crashes are the leading cause of death globally for people ages 5–29. That’s not great, but it means a sudden accident is less likely to feel contrived. While an accident may not provide an opportunity to fight (unless you’re including some serious road rage), it provides lots of opportunity for impressive physical abilities. That semi-truck isn’t going to lift itself.

It’s also easy to make accidents more epic; just put the road in a dangerous environment. It could be on a tall bridge, a steep mountain slope, or near a rushing river. Your hero might also have to deal with a possible pileup. Once a vehicle is stuck on the road, another might come whipping around the corner to hit it.

3. Protest Fights

If your story takes place in the current day or close to it, no one will be surprised to see some protests. Most protests are peaceful, so don’t show a protest turn into a mob just because. However, violence can still occur at protests for several reasons.

The first is the police. Even when protests are peaceful, the police may choose to treat it like a mob, especially when protesters are people of color. The police are known to surround and bottle up protesters, to use tear gas on them, to pepper spray the faces of people just standing there, and to shoot less-lethal rounds at them. In many cases, reporters on the scene are also targeted by police.

There might also be counterprotesters. If two opposing groups are both protesting in the same time and place, tensions will be high, and fights could break out. White supremacist counterprotesters, sometimes even encouraged by the police, have been known to attack racial-justice protesters.

If you want a violent mob, you can feature the type of election deniers who storm the capitol hoping to hang the vice president. Maybe next time, they’ll attack polling places without as much security.

4. Severe Weather Events

Dangerous weather may seem coincidental, but it won’t be soon. Our climate is changing, and that is making severe weather events all too common. In particular, wildfires and floods have already become more frequent.

In the United States, wildfires burn western states every summer. While natural wildfires are usually caused by lightning, these days about 84 percent of them are because of people. In many cases, a campfire spreads. If your protagonist is out in a wooded area, camping, or near a campground, a wildfire could spring up to threaten people, homes, and wildlife.

Flooding is more likely to happen in the eastern US after a heavy rainfall. Besides threatening people with drowning directly, heavy rains can also cause landslides. Consider sending your hero to rescue people who are trapped in their vehicles.

5. Creepy Dudes

If you need sudden antagonists on the street, look no further than dudes. Men regularly harass women, and they can get violent when women reject them. However, this can be sensitive for women, so let me give you guidelines on escalating the situation without featuring sexual assault. You’ll also want to use a heroine for this one, rather than using a woman as a damsel.

Start with a dude walking up to the heroine and saying something that is technically a solicitation, but an extremely rude one. He might call her a “bitch,” for instance. Understandably, she swears at him or gives him the finger. This injures his man-pride, and he responds by grabbing her wrist, elbow, or shoulder. If they’re in a bar, he can instead block her from leaving. She responds by putting him in an arm lock or shoving him out of the way.

From there, he or his friends get mad and throw a punch. This allows the heroine to proceed with general ass-kicking.

6. Structural Collapse

It’s another Tuesday in superhero town, so naturally some building is getting smashed to smithereens. This gives your hero the opportunity to save the people inside or keep the debris from crushing anyone nearby.

The great thing about collapsing buildings is that they can be either natural or caused by destructive magic. Maybe the hero damaged the building while experimenting with their new powers. Alternately, a secret villain could have been there, but the hero doesn’t find that out until later. Before then, the cause of the collapse could be mysterious.

For a more natural collapse, use a derelict building that people are supposed to stay away from. Either reckless teens or homeless people looking for shelter could go inside. That gives your hero some people to save.

7. Repossession Violence

When creditors send agents to repossess cars, violence often results. In the US, a repossession agent is not allowed to repossess a car if the buyer is in the car or physically blocking them from taking it. If they have to use force or threats of force to repossess the car, they aren’t allowed to do it. Theoretically, the buyer doesn’t have a reason to use violence either, because they can just put themself in the way.

Of course, in practice it often doesn’t work that way. The buyer could get violent and hurt the repossession agent. The agent could use violence and intimidation to try to force a repossession even when the buyer is present. To make things more complicated, the police sometimes accompany the agent. They are supposed to be a neutral party there to prevent violence, but they sometimes use force to ensure a repossession. This is also illegal.

Needless to say, there’s plenty of room for your hero to come in and either stop the attacker or just defuse the situation. It’ll be hard to repossess a car when it’s hovering fifty feet in the air.

If you want your hero to run into antagonists on the street, punching up becomes more difficult. Powerful people don’t need to commit crimes in public. If they can’t get what they want from a legal system that’s stacked in their favor, they’ll hire more vulnerable people to do violence on their behalf. But we still have opportunities, and targeting the powerful is more satisfying than beating up yet another purse snatcher.

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