I am working to build a parallel Earth that is home to individuals with superhuman abilities (in addition to ordinary humans). This Earth has all of today's knowledge and technology (and perhaps beyond), and exists in a galaxy where sentient extraterrestrial life is possible.

Through researching superhumans in other media, I’ve noticed there are several common ways for an individual to acquire such powers. Here are a few:

Influence of a god/higher power (Hawkman, Moon Knight)

Genetic, either nonhuman lineage or mutation (Thor, Wolverine)

Object/Artifact, potentially magical or alien (Green Lantern)

Magic (Dr. Strange)

Chemical (Flash, Captain America)

Electromagnetic radiation (Hulk)

Cybernetics/Technology (Cyborg, Batman)

I’m trying to shy away from the clichéd “super soldier serums” and in favor of something more obscure and/or creative. To clarify, I’m looking for a specific phenomenon or method by which an individual might “receive” a superpower of their own. These methods don’t need to be observable or scientifically accurate, just interesting. (But I would be interested to read how such a thing could be made scientifically plausible.)

In addition to myself, I feel like a lot of other superhero builders out there could benefit from this knowledge and inspiration.

Edit: Often, the means through which a power is attained is related to the power it bestows. As an example, raw genetics is usually the cause of anatomical differences between ordinary humans and superhumans, such as fangs, wings, or a prehensile tail. But this isn't always the case. To refine my question, what event could grant an ordinary human the power to telekinetically control an "element," such as water, acid, miasma, or wood?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't actually see a question here, but it looks a lot like a "list question," which asks for a bunch of answers with no clear way to determine if one is better than the other. Those kinds of questions are hard for the StackExchange format. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 11 '18 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Axiom. It's a common temptation to use Worldbuilding.SE as a sounding board to fish for ideas, but that's not our goal. We call these kinds of questions High Concept questions in that they're more about building your world for you than helping you iron out the details. It would help if you gave us a starting point. What specific superpower needs a justification? $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 11 '18 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I peacefully disagree with your statement that this is "High Concept." I have the world itself mostly fleshed out; I'm just looking for a couple of specific means to attaining a superpower so my origin stories aren't too repetitive. But thank you for the suggestion on how to improve my question and directing me to an explanatory meta link. $\endgroup$ – Axiom Sage Aug 11 '18 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ "superpowers" could cover almost anything, asking how to get a specific superpower my be on topic but just how to get superpowers is way too broad. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 4 '19 at 10:38

You didn't mention one that is common in China, it is xiu lian in Chinese, and it means that the person was both lucky and hardworking in a world that is filled with magical "atoms" that they can "inhale" through meditating. Then they meditate and has all these powers, which use up the "magical atoms", it is a common trope in China, but elsewhere no one has ever heard of it, which means it's at least good enough.

Another common subtrope found in the xiu lian trope is how the amount of magic you inhale is also determined by how much magic you have inhaled before, and that there are several "levels", in which the difficulty of advancing a level and the power that is gained from such is exponentially increasing.

(edit) The level of inhaling energy is for the containing power of a pool of magic that restores itself magically without using any resources, not getting magic from the air and forming it into a spell. (edit end)

(add) The mediators usually have Chinese religious features, such as Dao and Fo, Taoism and Buddhism. They also wield magical weapons that enhance their abilities. They have different spells, most of which expends the pool of magic. With most Chinese novels, the cycle is mostly: Meditate --> Enhance Level --> Fight --> Get Into Difficult Situation --> Use All Strength To Get Out --> Gains Something Along The Way --> Meditate. They often have to expend all their strength to get the opportunity, a key word called ji yuan , and then gets somewhere else where there are enemies that match their level. They often have to fight enemies that are many levels above them, about five, a deemed impossible task but often done. They then get to super high levels and feel the power, and gets three wives and are happy, mostly that. They also, when at lower levels, act modest as an character trait (often also ability to bear difficult situations), then brag at high levels, often with the narrator commenting that he (often a he) has the power to back that up.

They also are able to create, or form from magic and different magical herbs, medicine called ling dan and they give the character help. Sometimes people are free to make these and sometimes they are restricted by reasons and only a select few, including the protagonist, gets to make the medicine. The characters can also make magic areas called zhen, where the zhen does things the characters often do but are too busy, or for the case of tombs, dead. There are also currency, mostly something with magical power imbued into them and may act like a key or an aid to expanding the pool. The characters can often fly and break mountains when they reach the 20th level or so, and there are often 50 or so levels. The levels are often split into 10 big levels, where there are more of an increase than ever.

There are social interactions and huge groups called bang pai , the groups are always wealthier than the individuals, and the groups have ranking of mostly a supreme leader (strong for emergencies), a leader, several elders, captains, and regular members. The groups may be divided in mountains and an elder or several for each one, the mountains' number varies from 7 to 108. The groups have a home base, and their base is almost always protected by a zhen. (add end)

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  • $\begingroup$ Aren't you just describing how magic energy works in most setting? inhaling/absorbing magic. and cultivating/training the way to use this energy? $\endgroup$ – Nuloen The Seeker Aug 11 '18 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ No. In xiu lian, it is meditating that increases the POOL of energy available, and while the pool regenerates itself, it can be drawn upon by the meditator with different spells that expend different amounts of the pool. Thank you for asking for clarification, I will edit my post. $\endgroup$ – Aphrodite Aug 11 '18 at 11:26

Let me try to give you a methodical answer. First, divide the power's origin into one of two categories, based on whether or not our world's humans could figure out why the superpower happened.


Clearly, understanding how it happens means it falls under some scientific discipline. Let's just name all the disciplines that could be relevant here:

  • Physics (Particle/quantum physics): already mentioned
  • Physics (Material science): Could be its own thing. Maybe the power derives from some interesting or super-strong material.
  • Physics (classical physics and electromagnetism): We understand these a bit too well for you to credibly say they caused a superpower. You'd need to combine them with something we understand a lot less well (i.e. an electric surge combined with an experimental modified virus to allow the person to generate lightning).
  • Chemistry: already mentioned
  • Biology (genetics): already mentioned
  • Biology (neuroscience): Neuroplasticity is a nice untapped option. Say your main character was in an accident and suffered brain damage. After they healed, they had telekinesis or something! Obviously psychic powers have never been recorded as side effects of the brain healing itself, but some downright strange things have, like being able to play new musical instruments or speaking with a different accent.
  • Biology (cellular biology): A novel protene, enzyme, modified cell, virus, etc., could all cause basically whatever powers the plot demands.
  • Biology (other): Symbiotic organisms and parasites are a cool way to get powers that isn't overused. Usually these are alien in origin (Venom, Blue Beetle).
  • Engineering: In addition to obvious technologies that can make your Batmans and Cyborgs, another notable option is nanobots. You can basically ascribe any power to nanobots.
  • Mathematics and Computer Science: As far as I can tell, if you try either of these, you're either locked into mad genius / hacker stereotypes or you've made magic, and either way, people in these fields will hate you.


If we don't understand it, either someone/thing else understands it or it's impossible to understand.

Case 2.1: Someone/thing else understands it

  • Aliens: already mentioned
  • Gods: already mentioned
  • AI: Maybe we made an artificial intelligence that can figure out ways to give us superpowers. Still probably an artifact, but thought it was worth a mention.
  • Future humans: Again, probably an artifact, but future technology sent back in time sure sounds like superpowers to me.

Case 2.2: It's impossible to understand

  • Magic: everything in this category is some form or another of magic. Psychic powers, unexplained tap-into-the-energy-around-you powers, etc. It's all magic. That said, this category is by far the largest. There's no limit to the number of ways you can design a magic system that's interesting and ties into a superhero aesthetic.

I feel like that pretty conclusively goes through all the cases. I might have skipped a category or two within one of those cases, but hopefully that helps to narrow down the power sources you might have missed.

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So here are a few ideas:

  1. Maybe a sort of freak virus or parasite that contaminates a passerby at a ufo crash site and genetically alters them with alien characteristics and abilities somehow.

  2. Or just a plain old parasite or virus that instead of hurting the victim makes them stronger as it is evolved to help it's host survive as much as possible so that it can survive as long as possible within the host.

  3. You could go with contamination by a chemical weapons test on death row prisoners in which the gas happens to be a crazy highly reactive mutagen that alters DNA and grants superpowers.

  4. Man is illegally held by the cartel and forced to experiment with drugs and they happen to heighten his mental abilities.

  5. Man is made to test steroids as a test subject by some unscrupulous corporation and they happen to be some accidentally discovered super formula.

  6. Affected by some whacky CERN experiment gone wrong.

    I'm not a storytelling genius, but these may act as a springboard to help you advance some ideas of yours to help with the plot of your story.

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