May 29 2008
Here are a few tips to help you write better origin stories for characters in superhero novels and comic books.
1. Give us a reason to care. This does not mean that your character has to be similar to your readers. However, if your character is a prince from Atlantis or an alien emissary, you do have to convince us that we should care about his story. Readers tend to prefer stories that feel relatable. Although you can probably convince readers to look at a book about Atlantis’ court intrigue, it’s more of a struggle than selling a story about Peter Parker, the guy next door.
One way that you could help readers care about a highly exotic character is by giving him a few distinctly human characteristics. For example, even a savage alien warrior might have an affection for his family that seems positively human. For example, I have a picture for you…
This alligator’s smiling hatchling makes him looks very friendly. You might even forget that he’s a 750-pound predator! Does your character have a highly unusual origin story? In what ways will we relate to him?
Finally, it may help to show the character interacting with a familiar human culture. That will help us compare and contrast the foreign culture to our own and we will probably empathize with an alien struggling to fit in. For example, would an alien know how to use a doorknob? A doorknob’s function is not at all intuitive. I think readers would sympathize with anyone who struggled with something like that.
2. Don’t make your hero a Chosen One– give him a chance to prove himself. Characters generally make their strongest impressions on us as they fight through adversity. But if your character was born into a highly powerful caste or inherits some great power, that robs readers of the chance to see him prove himself. How has your character earned his story? For example, the Green Lanterns recruit someone only after they have proven themselves worthy. Likewise, the Amazons choose Diana to be Wonder Woman not because Diana was born a princess, but because she snuck into the Amazonian trials and won the competition. She became Wonder Woman despite her high birth, not because of it.
If you would like a character who has an unusual birth story, I would recommend making him the victim of chance. Instead of being born a prince, make him born into a low caste. Instead of making him an object of unbridled admiration, like Eragon, may he has to overcome widespread doubt and/or contempt.
3. It may be useful to tie your character’s origin story to the villain’s plot. Ideally, your hero will have some link to the villain. At the most cliché level, the villain killed the hero’s family or received his superpowers in the same accident. (Fortunately, you can create more original links in your story).
Spiderman has an origin story that builds a tight plot. Spiderman gets his superpowers through a scientific accident, like his archrival Norman Osborn. The two also share a personal connection through Osborn’s son and, more importantly, they are moral foils. Peter Parker’s morals center on several ideas: “with great power comes great responsibility” and that revenge is rarely satisfying– his attempt to get back at a wrestling boss gets his uncle killed. In contrast, Osborn believes that power and entitlement come hand in hand, which is why he kills his business competitors. Finally, there’s a strong white-collar vs. blue-collar aspect to the fight, which is especially compelling because the series doesn’t romanticize poverty too much.
In contrast, Static Shock’s origin story could contribute more to a coherent story. Although he receives his powers in the same accident as his villains, he doesn’t share many other links with them (personal, ethical or otherwise).
4. Is the character’s background too exceptional? For example, instead of being just a soldier, your character is a Navy SEAL. Instead of being just a government functionary, he’s a cabinet secretary! Instead of being a corporate flunkie, he runs the company… he won a Pulitzer… he’s won several Nobel Prizes, etc.
It’s much harder to write a gripping story about Bruce Wayne (the company’s owner) than Peter Parker (an entry-level nobody). No one’s going to get in Bruce’s face like a supervisor would. Additionally, someone who has truly mastered his sphere, like a Navy SEAL or Nobel-winning chemist, will probably be completely self-confident. Real people sometimes doubt themselves, so they can relate to heroes that have some doubts. (However, for a mainstream story, pushing the self-doubt too hard will drive the story into emo wangst territory).
Alternatively, you might want to use a character who has an impressive but low-ranking background. For example, Army sergeants and stockbrokers are not especially high in their respective organizations but have many useful skills.
5. Give us a chance of a happy ending. If the character’s origin story hinges on an overwhelming tragedy, what’s he fighting for? No matter how many criminals The Punisher executes, it won’t bring back his murdered family. Your ending doesn’t have to be happy, but if readers think that a happy ending isn’t possible, they probably won’t care about the story. Effective tragedies usually generate drama by playing on the readers’ hopes and expectations that the ending will be happy.
If you plan to use a tragic origin story, I’d recommend looking at Spiderman and maybe Spawn. Even though they’ve lost loved ones, these characters still clearly have something to fight for.