Nov 05 2008

Why Secret Origins Are Usually Awful

Occasionally, an author will breathlessly offer some revelation about a character’s origin.  (Luke and Leia are siblings!  Sylar is actually a Petrelli! That mysterious old man is actually a god!)  Secret origin stories are rarely effective.  If you’re doing a secret origin, here are the biggest potential concerns.  If you can avoid these, I think the secret has promise.


1.  They tend to be unnecessarily confusing. On top of everything else you want us to remember about your characters, you now want us to forget what you originally told us about your Luke being an only child.  Including false or otherwise misleading information in a plotline may make the plot convoluted.

2.  The secret doesn’t add enough to the reading experience. Let’s say you want to reveal some “epic” secret about your character.  He’s actually hundreds of years old, or someone’s son, or really a god in disguise.  Is there some compelling reason to hide this information?  If this information were actually interesting, wouldn’t this information interest us even if we knew it upfront?   That would also help resolve the confusion issue.

3.  The “surprise” rarely adds intrigue. Strong mysteries are interesting because we know the question and can follow along as the heroes try to answer it.  “Who is the killer?” is an interesting question.  This is a high-stakes question and it’s on the reader’s mind.  “Who is Luke’s sister?” is not because we get the answer before we know that the question exists.  There’s no anticipation, or even a sense that the question matters. Most secret origins create a “gotcha!” moment that comes out of the blue.

4.  They are typically contrived. It’s pretty convenient that, of all the trillions of people in the galaxy, it happens to be Luke Skywalker that rescues Leia from the Empire.  In your story, it will probably feel just as contrived that of all the millions of potential parents, your hero just happens to be the son of the villain.  (Also, that’s criminally cliche, particularly since Star Wars.  If you’re going down that path, at least make the hero the father?  That would be marginally better).

5.  They frequently lead to continuity errors. When you decide that your main character has a secret origin, it’s hard to anticipate and correct all of the resulting changes.  For example, the original Star Wars movie was marketed as a romance between Luke and Leia.  Uhh, yeah.  That’s pretty creepy.

Here are some of the more common secret origin stories.

  1. One character is secretly related to another.
  2. One character is pretending to be something else, like a man posing as a woman or possibly an alien posing as a human.
  3. The character is far older than he seems.  (“But, if you were at the Battle of Asalukakoala, that would mean you’re thousands of years old!”  More importantly, it would mean that the story is probably neck-deep in cliche).
  4. A character is a god posing as a mortal.
  5. One character is secretly posing as another.  (This one has the most promise, I think).

72 responses so far

72 Responses to “Why Secret Origins Are Usually Awful”

  1. Bretton 05 Nov 2008 at 8:36 pm

    Suppose a character is not a god posing as a mortal, but rather a god incarnated into a mortal body because he gave up a significant portion of his power to help save someone from death?

  2. B. Macon 05 Nov 2008 at 9:17 pm

    As long as readers (and ideally the other characters) know that, it should be OK.

  3. Bretton 06 Nov 2008 at 4:22 am

    Well, some characters know, others don’t. But it’s clearly imply-revealed at the end of the very first book.

    (What I mean by imply-reveal is that it isn’t explicitly stated, but we see the character saying/doing/knowing something that only the god-mortal could say/do/know, so although I don’t come out say it, the reader knows. Kinda like when at the end of a movie you see the villain’s eyes or hand or something, or like when Starscream escaped in the end of Transformers. It’s not stated, but you know it happened.)

  4. Bretton 06 Nov 2008 at 9:35 am

    Is this too much?

  5. B. Macon 06 Nov 2008 at 10:42 am

    Erm, maybe. I guess it depends on the context. Which characters know? If the main heroes know and the main villains don’t, my gut feeling is that the element of secrecy will probably be minor enough that it won’t confuse people.

    A few factors that will add to the potential for confusion are how few people know and how long it takes them to learn it and whether the character lies about his background. Deception is surprisingly confusing.



    Could I ask a clarifying question? When you say that you clearly imply-reveal his lineage at the end of the very first book, do you mean that you’re clarifying it for the characters or the readers? (The example you give with Starscream suggests it’s for the benefit of the audience rather than the characters). If that’s the case, it may be problematic if readers are in the dark for most of the book about something that the character has known all along. (My rule of thumb is that the readers are entitled to know everything that the point-of-view character knows).

    Caveats
    1: I’m not sure that he is the POV.
    2: Readers will cut you a lot of slack if you offer an immediately observable reason for hiding the information. Just make sure that the readers know the question is out there (“who’s the killer?”, for example). The question can interest us even if we don’t know the answer immediately. But just suddenly dropping the answer out of the blue will not be interesting.

  6. Bretton 06 Nov 2008 at 11:04 am

    OK. Here goes.

    The character in question is Headmaster Gabriel, who is in secret Auringel the Phoenix Lord.

    two characters know from the beginning, Lupus Cane and Mesirturon the phoenix. Lupus knows because he’s Gabriel’s right hand man. Maesirturon knows because he’s Auringel’s brother. After Alex encounters Maesirturon, he is told that Auringel will find him and complete his training, and in fact Auingel has already found Alex. Here’s a quote:

    [“So how will I find this Auringel?” Alex asked.
    “Don’t worry, he will find you Alex. Indeed, I believe he already has.” Maesírturon replied.

    ...Maesirturon does the phoenix death/rebirth thing and comes back as a hawk-sized bird....

    Alex later returned to the Academy with a strange red-gold hawk, which escaped no one’s notice, least of all that of Headmaster Gabriel, who, from a distance, watched Alex enter with the bird. He smiled knowingly. “Ah, Maesírturon. Your task is complete. Well done my brother, I can take it from here.” ]

    You see? The question is known to the reader and the answer is known to the reader. The only person who doesn’t know is Alex & company. Alex later finds out.

    Auringel is a god. He never lies, but the fact that he is in mortal form means there is potential (albeit small) for him to make mistakes.

    There is a reason for so few people knowing this. Auringel is the only one powerful enough to destroy Valigroth. Thus, when he gave up his power and became mortal, Valigroth saw an opportunity to kill him. (Aslan-esque resurrection potential?) Thus it is imperative that Gabriel’s identity be kept secret. Alex is charged to tell no one. Gabriel created the Knights to protect the world, find the Emissary, and hold off Valigroth until his power was restored.

    Auringel’s mortality is also the reason he will not be present at the “final battle that isnt truly final”, because too much is at stake for him to die (this also prevents deus ex machina). He will however offer spiritual support and guidance, maybe even appear in vision or temporarily merge with Alex.

    At the end of the series Auringel will leave the known world in Alex’s care and go off to fight evil in other uncharted worlds. This poses a question that may be answered later. Alex is not immortal, so who will carry on after he’s gone? His children. Why is that problematic? Because his relationship with Amorelia failed and his love life is in a wreck.

    Your thoughts?

  7. Bretton 06 Nov 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Am I over the top?

  8. B. Macon 06 Nov 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Hmm. I’m leaning towards saying it’s OK.

  9. Bretton 06 Nov 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Leaning? Is there anything problematic?

  10. B. Macon 06 Nov 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Gods in mortal bodies tend to be corny.

    But I’m leaning towards saying it’s OK because it sounds like readers and the protagonist will know pretty early on that the character is (sort of) a god, so at least the element of secrecy won’t be much of a problem. Furthermore, the secret identity might be interesting because the hero may have to help the headmaster protect it. It may have dramatic potential.

  11. Jaya Lakshmion 20 Aug 2009 at 7:07 pm

    What if the goddess is immortal but suffers the pains of mortal flesh? Would that be all right?

    And how secret is a secret origin if it’s revealed at the beginning of the story and keeps on unfolding?

  12. B. Macon 21 Aug 2009 at 12:46 am

    If the origin is revealed to the readers very early on, it’s probably less of an issue. Telling readers the truth up-front will reduce confusion and probably enhance the dramatic potential. For example, if the plot is about whether the god can maintain his human disguise, it’ll be a lot easier to understand what’s at stake if we understand what’s happening.

  13. Jaya Lakshmion 21 Aug 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Well, I’m writing two separate stories that involve secret origins (or not-so-secret origins.) One is a novel, the other is a short story.
    The novel involves the character gradually finding out that about her dad, who was a wolf that became human. (NOT a werewolf, though.) I’m debating about whether or not to go ahead with my plan and have it revealed that a wolf pack who wants to ally with the protagonist have killed her father (for being reckless with his magic) because I don’t want the wolves to appear as rabid killers, but more like soldiers who thought they were defending their lives and property by killing off Native Americans.

    The short story is about a god hiding in exile in a desert town. The reason why she’s in exile is the main point of the story (as in she brings a bad omen on the town and needs to find out why). That could work, though, right?

  14. B. Macon 21 Aug 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I’m not sure.

    –In the first novel, I’m not sure how you could foreshadow the reader in such a way that the wolf-to-human transformation wouldn’t be totally out of the blue. (You might like to watch Holly Lisle’s Case of the Exploding Cat here).

    –With the first novel, I feel like there are talking animal concerns. Older readers often have problems taking talking animals seriously, and works with talking animals are almost always aimed at children (Bugs Bunny, Redwall, etc).

    –I feel that the second concept is more workable. I’d recommend giving the origin upfront– I suspect that waiting will probably not turn out well. (“Gotcha! She’s been a god all along!”) As a rule of thumb, if a premise is interesting enough to write a book about, it’s usually interesting enough that readers will want to know it upfront.

  15. Jaya Lakshmion 01 Sep 2009 at 5:08 pm

    First off, thank you for the advice.
    In the novel the wolves talking are an integral part of the plot because they know things that the main characters don’t know. Is there a way to make them less cliched?

  16. defon 05 Sep 2010 at 12:42 am

    So what if the pov character doesn’t Know his secret. I once wrote a “story” (it wasn’t very good), about a boy who was the offspring of a fire creature, for lack of a better description, and was able to manipulate fire. However, he develops amnesia and forgets about his power. Like I said, this was written when I was younger, and was full of problems, but if your character doesn’t know they are special, say they have amnesia, is it okay to hold back certain aspects of their past until they regain there memories?

  17. B. Macon 05 Sep 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Hmm. If the character is an amnesiac, I think that readers will have a sense that the question “who am I?” matters. So I think it has more dramatic potential than suddenly revealing that the character’s adopted parents aren’t his biological parents, etc.

  18. Herojockon 05 Oct 2010 at 7:46 am

    How well did you think JK Rowling handled her secret origins and character twists?
    Ron’s rat who was really Peter Pettigrew and Sirius Black who was really Harry’s godfather, not a murderer and actually a hero. Professor Quirrell’ in book one was a harmless teacher only really harbouring the Voldemort (qualifies as a ‘demi-god’ I say) on the back off his head, a fact we only discover right at the end. Even the deathly hallows can be seen as a secret origin, like Harry’s cloak. Or do items not count?

  19. A.Con 07 Dec 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I’m guessing I’m a bit late to ask anything but I’ll ask anyway

    On the whole subject of gods in normal people, what about if say I basically had a normal person in a gods body and much of the story is actually in the godly realm instead of earth and such

  20. B. Macon 07 Dec 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Do we know right away that he’s a basically normal person in a god’s body, or is it supposed to be a surprise that he’s actually a god?

  21. A.Con 07 Dec 2010 at 4:15 pm

    @B. Mac

    I have the full idea of the Story and a few others in my review forum. I’m Andy.C, I’m back after a really long absence if you could visit it, it be much appreciated I posted a few questions there, thanks :)

    but I guess I’ll write the story idea here as well,

    The embodiment of Death is murdered, because the world needs balance Death’s powers in the form of his Scythe are brought down to earth, someone touches it wham he’s death and he needs to figure out who of the other immortal beings killed him and why

    So its pretty straight forward and not a secret…

  22. B. Macon 07 Dec 2010 at 6:52 pm

    If it’s not a secret to the reader, I don’t think it’d be a problem.

    Also, I’ve updated the top part of your review forum.

  23. ekimmakon 02 Mar 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Secret origins aren’t usually a problem if they’re secret from the audience too, right?
    I recently discovered the game Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, and it has some massive twists at the end, which I think were done quite well, with a bit of foreshadowing. One of the most prominent being why the main character (who is dead) has amnesia for the whole game, while the rest of the characters who die only have it for a minute or two. It also has a good use of time travel.

  24. Ghoston 02 Mar 2011 at 3:49 pm

    OK so I have a question about this topic. What if the character doesn’t really know their own origin? What if everything they new is only a partial truth and the whole point of the story is their discovering the whole truth?
    Ok so that what two questions, but I would still like some feedback on them.

  25. GaelicGirlon 22 Mar 2011 at 11:39 pm

    What if a main character has a sibling who is supposed to be dead but isn’t? Is that an overused plotline or does it still have some degree of originality?

  26. Bretton 21 Apr 2011 at 10:53 am

    I HAVE RETURNED!

    Now to answer your questions.

    @Ekimmak: I haven’t heard of the game you’re referring to, but from what I can gather from your statement, I’m guessing that falls more into the category of “twist ending” than “secret origin.” A secret origin usually involves something established about the character’s past suddenly being turned on it’s head. The Most Triumphant Example of this would be “Oh by the way, the evil fascist we’ve been training you to kill is actually your father, and the girl you’ve been romancing happens to be your twin.” Secret origins have been done well, going back all the way to the story of Oedipus. But after Star Wars used this device, a ton of bad imitators cropped up, making this almost hopelessly cliche. So much so that there are more parodies than straight examples. The twist ending on the other hand, has not quite been tired out yet, so as long as it’s well handled, with good foreshadowing as you mentioned, it can work quite well.

    @Ghost: A character journeying to find out who they are can make for a very compelling story, even award winning, depending (emphasis here) on how well it’s written and handled. A secret origin is usually only handled if it involves deceiving the audience, establishing something about their past and then suddenly revealing, “Whoops! I lied!”

    @GaelicGirl: A relative or friend who is thought to be dead… hmmm… I’ve seen examples of that working, but from what I’ve seen, it works best in the case described above, when a character is journeying specifically to find out who they are and where they come from. For example, an adopted child going to search for her biological mother only to be told that she’s probably dead, and then finding out that she isn’t could make for an excellent story. Something like that shows a character’s perseverance, willpower, and determination to find the truth about themselves. Just as good could be the character journeying to find this person, only to find that they really ARE dead, but they were survived by a close friend or another relative who can tell the character what they were like. Both of those cases are dramatic, dynamic, interesting, and most importantly, have the character taking actions to move the plot forward. However, if a relative thought dead suddenly appears out of the nowhere to give a character helpful wisdom just so we can witness the character’s “But we thought you were dead!” moment, the audience is more likely to roll their collective eyes and sarcastically mumble, “What a twist.”

  27. Bretton 21 Apr 2011 at 10:58 am

    And my own question is, suppose a fact about the main character is known to the audience and to the side characters, but not to the main character? Is this a justifiable case of dramatic irony?

    Example: In the beginning of the story, it’s established through dialogue that a character’s mother is an exiled princess/ex-special forces/ex-FBI agent, etc. but the main character doesn’t know about her past.

    P.S.
    Dear Admin, please bold the names of the addressees in my previous for me. I forgot that little detail. :)

  28. B. Macon 21 Apr 2011 at 6:00 pm

    “Suppose a fact about the main character is known to the audience and to the side characters, but not to the main character? Is this a justifiable case of dramatic irony?” If you have more than one POV, I am highly confident this would work if one of the other POVs knows this information.

    If your narration is limited to what the POV knows and the main character is the only POV, I think it’d be more tricky. In certain circumstances, you might be able to give readers enough evidence for readers to make an inference without the POV making the same inference. In this case, a mental lapse on the main character’s part may be helpful.

    For example, let’s say a guy is at school and he sees a guy and a girl stepping out of a janitor’s closet. Most of your readers will be able to guess that the only plausible explanation for this is that they were making out or otherwise engaging in romance. But let’s say you didn’t want it to be immediately obvious to the POV that these two characters were romantically involved. You could do a conversation along these lines…

    Main character: “Hey, John! Isn’t that a janitor’s closet?”
    *The girl blushes.*
    (Thinking quickly for a lie) *John shows the main character a bandaged arm.*
    John: “I was looking for the first-aid kit.”

    In context, I think most readers (particularly the ladies) will figure out that John was actually doing in there. At the same time, I don’t think that the lie is so completely obvious that the main character will come off as a total dumbass for not figuring it out right away.

    I’m not sure if this technique would work for something as removed from the readers’ experience as someone being an ex-princess and/or ex-FBI agent, though. I think the clearest way to convey this information would be to move it into dialogue in a scene with a different POV character.

    If the main character is the only POV, I think you could effectively hint at the outline of her past by giving her situations to subtly show off an impressive familiarity with things that most people wouldn’t know about (like being unusually useful/knowledgeable about guns or police procedures and upper-class etiquette), but I wouldn’t expect any readers to infer the particulars on their own.

  29. Comicbookguy117on 21 Apr 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Hey guys, I’ve got a question for any willing person. It’s kind of personal, but you don’t have to answer. Ok so I’m working on a story where there is a group of high school kids that form a group. The reason they form a group is that they are some of the most teased and otherwise harassed kids at school. They quickly discover that they all have powers and decide to rebel against how their tormentors make them feel by becoming superheroes. So my question is this…what names were you all called in high school? I have this idea that they use the names that they are called as their codenames. So I’d like to get as many opinions/names as possible. And because I don’t expect something this personal for nothing, I will tell you I was teased for being overweight so I was called things like fatso, butterball and fatboy. Doesn’t bother me now, but it did then. So I want people to connect with this story so I’m trying to make it as authentic as I can. So what was your nickname in high school? Remember you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.

  30. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 21 Apr 2011 at 9:31 pm

    I wasn’t really picked on in high school – I went to Catholic school and while I was/am dorky nobody really picked on me. I graduated last October, I’m not 18 just yet, so I have a rough idea of what today’s high schools tend to be like.

    But I have been called things like “speccy four eyes” and “weeaboo” by my siblings when they are, for some reason, mad at me. I find that namecalling is generally very stupid and juvenile unless a physical threat is also present. Like:

    “”Hey, loser!” yelled Bully. He strolled over and whacked the locker next to my head on both sides, trapping me. I tried to shrink away, but with him and his arms at the front and to my sides, and the row of lockers behind me, I was thoroughly boxed in.”

    Most people can ignore namecalling but when there’s the danger of being hit, too, it makes it harder to deal with.

    Hope I helped. :D

  31. B. Macon 21 Apr 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Our school used academic tracking very aggressively, so I had very little contact with people that were substantially less nerdy than I was. (Most of my high school challenges were class-related rather than classmate-related). So my personal experiences here would probably not be very helpful for you, unless you’re looking for something like…
    –B. Mac
    –Most Likely to be an Abercrombie & Fitch Centerfold (class elections*)
    –Geekzilla (affectionately)
    –”a pathological underachiever” (by an economics teacher)
    –Wonder Bread (I did well in a talent show by singing 1970s Soul Train songs like Ghetto Child and Rubberband Man)
    –QB, rarely (Quiz Bowl slang for “Question-Block.” Only one person per team can try to answer a question, so guessing incorrectly screws your team).
    –McFrenzy
    –Manorexic (somewhat well-intentioned commentary on my notoriously bad eating habits)
    –”you puppy-hating Nazi” (some sort of political disagreement, I think).

    I got a waiver for gym, the class that probably would’ve been hardest for me. (Being on the Quiz Bowl squad somehow qualified me for a varsity waiver–YES!).

    *And adults wonder why teens don’t have any faith in elections. That’s when mine ended.

    “II was called things like fatso, butterball and fatboy. Doesn’t bother me now, but it did then.” If your character takes on a name like Fatso (or some other insult) as his super-identity, one potential concern would be that it’d be making him sound like a one-trait character and the trait probably isn’t that interesting. (If you had to list the ten most interesting things about you as a high school student, would your weight have made the top 5?) Even if the trait was semi-interesting (i.e. somehow related to the character’s personality or relevant to plot-significant choices), like Gothzilla, I feel like it might set up the character as a Goth caricature rather than, say, a character whose Gothiness is merely one part of a bigger picture.

    I think deeper characters are more believable and interesting because most people can’t be summed up in a single trait. For example, I’ll be the first to admit I was (and am) a hardcore geek*, but I have interests, shortcomings and strengths that aren’t stereotypically geeky. Likewise, you certainly have interests besides your weight, unless you’re Kirstie Allie (who I’m convinced is under contract by Weight Watchers to mention NOTHING ELSE ever).

    *I’ve spent 3000+ hours running a website about how to write superhero stories and have won NBA Jam tournaments. The only way I could add to my geekiness is to win a Star Trek costume competition. (But I’d sooner shoot myself).

  32. Comicbookguy117on 22 Apr 2011 at 8:20 am

    “I think deeper characters are more believable and interesting because most people can’t be summed up in a single trait.” I completely agree B Mac. And my best story-creating quality is creating deep characters, so that won’t be a problem. I am aware that these characters will have more about them then what is seen in a single trait. The thing is though, that others don’t see those things. Everyone is judged on physical appearence. And these characters will take those judgemental names and turn them into something good by using them as their codenames. I believe this to be a very interesting and worthwhile idea. What do you all think?

  33. Wingson 22 Apr 2011 at 11:31 am

    Among others, I have been known as Crazy Cat-Girl/Cat-Woman* (Usually punctuated with a “meeeoooww” from the name-caller. Scarily enough, people still do this when they see me. Even if they weren’t actually in my class when I attended). I’m more recently known as Orphan to the fourth graders, which is just depressing. I’m being namecalled at by kids who weren’t attending the school while I was there. Beyond the Impossible…

    It wasn’t so much names with me…the odd physical thing (There was one boy who liked stepping on my feet as hard as he could to try and make me cry. He never succeeded. xD) was present, the usual image-related insults (The “Pilgrim Shoes” incident, I was insulted for being chubby and flat chested by the boys, the usual stuff), and nearly all of the girls in the class pretended I didn’t exist**.

    So after years of being an ignored and pudgy bookworm, I hit a growth spurt, dove headfirst into writing, discovered video games and manga, and I transformed into a hat-collecting, TVTropes-addicted paragon of sarcasm. Hooray, happy ending!

    - Wings

    * Unfortunately, I did not know about the Awesome of a certain DC Catwoman at this time, so I couldn’t take it as a compliment.

    **Unless we were working on a group project. I usually got fed up with my partner’s ineptitude and did the whole thing so that I’d at least get a good grade.

  34. Comicbookguy117on 22 Apr 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Well I’m sorry you went through that. But I imagine that everyone has horror stories from high school. Kids can be cruel. At that’s the point I’m wanting to make with my story. The main characters take their bully-given nicknames and use them as codenames in order to give them a different meaning. I wish I could’ve done this when I was in school. I guess that’s part of the inspiration for the story.

  35. herojockon 23 Apr 2011 at 1:17 am

    How well did you think JK Rowling handled her secret origins and character twists?Ron’s rat who was really Peter Pettigrew and Sirius Black who was really Harry’s godfather, not a murderer and actually a hero. Professor Quirrell’ in book one was a harmless teacher only really harbouring the Voldemort (qualifies as a ‘demi-god’ I say) on the back off his head, a fact we only discover right at the end. Even the deathly hallows can be seen as a secret origin, like Harry’s cloak. Or do items not count?

  36. B. Macon 23 Apr 2011 at 2:11 am

    Of these, the one I remember most clearly was Quirrell as a secret antagonist. I thought it was reasonably effective.

    1) I don’t feel it was confusing. I feel this is usually more of a problem when the secret origin belongs to a major character, particularly a point of view protagonist.

    2) I feel there’s a pretty good reason to hide this information. First, it helps set up the theme that Voldemort is able to subvert/corrupt people that otherwise seem more or less ordinary. (For example, Snape fooled Dumbledore). Second, because he’s an antagonist, there’s at least one excellent reason for Quirrell to hide this information from the protagonists. (And not just because “Hey, Harry, could you come over here so I could kill you?” would make for a pretty awkward conversation ;-) ).


    3) Was it intriguing? Not significantly, I feel, but if you picked up on Quirrell’s weird vibe, you might be at least mildly interested to discover the reason.

    4) I don’t feel it was contrived. Hogwarts holds at least three things highly interesting to Voldemort: the boy that survived him, the only wizard that worries him, and the item he needs to resurrect himself. So it makes a lot of sense to subvert a Hogwarts teacher.

    5) I can’t identify any Quirrell-related continuity errors.

  37. Aineon 24 Apr 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Selene, a MC and dhampir in my story, is “secretly” Armand’s daughter (it’s not really something he’s hiding from her, he just hasn’t specifically told her) but in my story it explains WHY he’s there whether she’s at her hometown or out of state for college. And the whole prophecy that involves her and worldwide destruction further explains why he cares enough to follow her (though it wasn’t really following HER, just the same prophecy she inadvertantly follows) from one state to another and why she came to be in the first place.

    It’s also less of a secret because she suspects there’s some sort of connection because she knows he killed her sister and wherever she goes he’s nearby. The only thing she can think of is that they’re related somehow. He killed her sister cause this other group of vampires opposes the whole end of the world scenario and were going to kill the half-blood responsible. Armand stepped into to “help” them, actually leading them to kill the wrong Hawthorne daughter.

    This is also one of Selene’s main reasons for hunting demons, ghosts, vampires, other evil associated with the paranormal. That and mostly she just enjoys the fighting. It depends on the mood she’s in. ;D

  38. HatiChantheWolfHogon 05 Sep 2011 at 12:03 am

    Sometimes gradually revealed back story can be a good idea I hate it when everything is spelled out in the first volume.

    Besides a good story is usually planned out before hand therefore the creator hints at the back-story in subtle ways such as symbolism in the art or hints in characterization.

    There shouldn’t be any continuity errors because you’ve already mapped out all the twists and turns along the way.

  39. Sylaron 04 Mar 2012 at 7:32 pm

    I personally believe secret origins can still work. In the Amazing Spider-Man comics, Peter Parkers relationship with Norman Osborn became very complicated when he discovered he was the Green Goblin. It added to story conflict because while Spider-Man and the Green Goblin hated each other, Peter Parker and Norman Osborn shared a deep, mutual respect and admiration for one another that really tested their morals…

  40. Sylaron 05 Mar 2012 at 1:25 pm

    And I am not a Petrelli! Arthur and Angela lied to me, and they paid for it. I got to meet my real father, and he was really pathetic…

  41. Anamon 02 May 2012 at 2:56 pm

    I see no-ones posted for a while but just in case someone will reply…..

    I have some secret origins for my character;

    My main character Reese is an orphan/raised in a foster home simply because I wanted to limit his ties to the world, and not focus on soppy drama.

    But since he has latent superpowers and learns that he’s destined to be ritually sacrificed to raise up some hell (plot of book 1), he decides to dig into his past (in the 2nd book).

    He learns that he was created by an alchemist in a lab. This freaks him out (obviously as he feels dehumanized) but he does learn that he had a surrogate mother who carried him. She apparently figured out the alchemist’s evil plan and escaped with her child. She died from complications in childbirth and Reese was then put in foster care.

    But it does comfort him that he was born (not grown in a tube), that someone loved him and helps him feel more human. This serves the character’s progression as he is more willing to open up to other people and makes him give up the chance to be fully human in order to save someone he now loves.

    (his genetic parents were anonymous donors who never appear in the story and the alchemist is not the villain of the piece.. he’s now a rambling mad-man feeling guilt for what he’s done )

    I’m pretty sure that it’s not really a secret origin in the sense you described as it’s something the main character doesn’t know either, so it’s not deceptive in my opinion but feedback is welcomed. ;)

  42. Jllawon 13 Jun 2012 at 11:54 am

    What if your character isn’t hiding his origions but doesn’t know them himself all he knows are snippets or is that whole thing sorta cliche now

  43. Shadow Forceon 19 Jul 2012 at 1:38 am

    So, having the villan as the father is just an outright no-no? Even if the protagonist was only born in an effort to bring more power and control to the father (who is a dictator of his planet) and to fufil his own insane quest?

    And what about if a mentor (different book) is revealed to be the mother of the protagonist after her death? Another no-no?

    Is there anyway that I can make these… well… better if they are no-no’s lol?

  44. B. McKenzieon 19 Jul 2012 at 4:04 am

    “So, having the villain as the father is just an outright no?” It does strike me as potentially corny, but I’d have to see how you executed it. For example, do you accomplish anything with the father-son relationship, or the father’s role creating him just a plot device to explain how the son enters the plot? If it’s the latter, I think it’d probably be more interesting if the son had a more active role defining his own role in the plot.

    “What about if a mentor (different book) is revealed to be the mother of the protagonist after her death? Another no?” What would this add? I think it’d probably be more interesting if the mentor decided to mentor this protagonist because of something he does rather than because of something out of his control (e.g. his birth).

  45. Shadow Forceon 19 Jul 2012 at 4:45 am

    Well, I know it’s extremely bad to use an example of another book, but I was planning on doing something similar to the relationship between Clary and Valentine in the Mortal Instruments. No, not really the whole enter-plot thing; as said before she was born purely for his insane quest… um, i guess that’s kind of contradictive. But in character development, Indri has to deal with the disapointment I guess of having her expectations of a parent blown completely out of water when her father says that he has no real care for her, and having to accept that. Not to mention there’s the stopping her crazsy father, regaining her memory, etc.

    Well, I suppose I should have put a bit of backstory there (my bad) the protagonist is a demigod who has cat-like abilities with ther mother being a cat goddess… and I suppose that the protagonist is mentored by the team because she is one more potential ally in the battle against the antagonists.

    Anything else I should add? (Thanks for the advice by the way lol :)

  46. Shadow Forceon 19 Jul 2012 at 4:53 am

    On another note with the second case, is it overly cheesy for that revelation to happen after the mother’s death? No, it doesn’t happen on the mother’s dying breath, it’s not that riddled with cliches lol :) (sorry if I’m commenting too much :(

  47. B. McKenzieon 19 Jul 2012 at 4:56 am

    The protagonist is a demigod who has cat-like abilities by virtue of being born to a cat goddess… Generally, I would recommend giving the main character(s) a more active role in how he gets superpowers and/or his role in the story. Please see #1 and #3 here.

    “Is it overly cheesy for that revelation to happen after the mother’s death?” It might well be overly cheesy, but I don’t think whether the revelation happens before or after the death matters all that much.

    PS: It might be less cheesy if the revelation comes from somebody else (such as perhaps the main character making the realization on his own), rather than the mother. I’ve seen that sort of scene a LOT of times before. (“There’s something you must know…”)

  48. Shadow Forceon 19 Jul 2012 at 5:09 am

    Ah yes, I get what you mean, but most of the time, demigods are born with a gift from their certain parent. And if there was like a coming-of-age thing to get the powers, it sounds a bit too hard to explain and seems to take away from the whole story. I suppose in having to make her work for her abilities, she would be forced to train herself under the mentor in order to make them better.

    On anotehr note, what do you mean by giving her a more active role?

  49. B. McKenzieon 19 Jul 2012 at 5:14 am

    “Ah yes, I get what you mean, but most of the time, demigods are born with a gift from their certain parent.” So far, this character strikes me as more lucky than interesting. At the very least, if there were other demigods born with special powers, is there any way that the main character(s) stands out beyond the other demigods? Why is it this character that plays the main role rather than anyone else born with powers? (If the answer is some variation of “he was born with unusually strong powers,” I would recommend reevaluating).



    I saw a story the other day where a human character becomes something of a demigod by stealing nectar and ambrosia. A setup like that–where the main character actually DOES something as part of the origin story–strikes me as more promising than the character passively being born a demigod… The character makes a decision which helps develop his personality and his goals/motivations. Alternately, there might be some aspect to the origin story beyond just the character’s acquisition of superpowers. (E.g. the Percy Jackson camp scenes).

  50. ChickenNoodleson 19 Jul 2012 at 10:15 am

    OK I’ve got a question. What if a character is born with superpowers or into a particular race but has to train and hones their power rather than passively being a born master of there powers? Is that or would that be an interesting twist on the cliche and status qoute of being born super?..

    Hope that makes since… :/
    -ChickenNoodles

  51. M. Happenstanceon 19 Jul 2012 at 10:38 am

    Depends. Supers having trouble with their newfound powers are actually pretty common, and pages and pages of training could get repetitive really quick. A timeskip would look lazy. If you were going to do this, you’d have to work it carefully.

    How long would it take for a character to hone their powers?

    What could be interesting is if complete mastery of powers only came with a literal lifetime of training – that is, the time when the character had perfect control would come shortly before their death. This would also mean that younger protagonists would be considerably less powerful than their older counterparts, and would therefore have to be much more creative with their limited and volatile powers.

  52. ChickenNoodleson 19 Jul 2012 at 11:19 am

    Thanx, that helped give me some insight on a character im work on.

  53. Shadow Forceon 19 Jul 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Ok last question! (Hope I haven’t been taking up too much of your time lol)

    Oh thanks for answering some of my previous questions lol :) Well, I thought of making the ‘powers’ limited and that the demigods (a few are the main characters) only have control over a few aspects of their parent’s powers (like, Lina has nine lives [which increases her recklessness] and night vision. That’s pretty much it.)

    I also liked the idea of having only the full potential of your powers at the peak of your life and having to train incredibly hard to do so. I do want to give the demigods some particular strengths unique to them, but not as powerful as their immortal counterparts. So thank you :)

    Hmmm, I defintly won’t be going with the super-strongest character in the bunch don’t worry. I was thinking more of the reason that she’s the main character is because she was born and raised without much godly influence on her life (which explains her dormant powers and why the antagonist was interested at the prospect of a demigod ally)

  54. B. McKenzieon 19 Jul 2012 at 7:58 pm

    “What if a character is born with superpowers or into a particular race but has to train and hone their power rather than passively being a born master of their powers?” That could work. Some other possibilities: the character is born with lesser powers compared to other protagonists and antagonists, the powers come with interesting limitations and/or costs and/or negative side-effects, the character has to overcome significant opposition from non-antagonists*, etc.

    *For example, if there’s a mentor, maybe the mentor initially declines to help the main character because the MC looks subpar in some way (e.g. relatively weak powers or ideally a personality defect**).

    **If there’s ever a situation where you can focus on developing a character’s superpowers OR any other aspect of the character, I would almost always recommend passing on the superpowers. If the main element of the character development is the superpowers, you’ve probably already lost.

  55. ChickenNoodleson 20 Jul 2012 at 11:28 am

    Coool. Thanx!!!
    I’ve been working on a character that is a hybrid of two races but has had had his powers supressed for most of his life by a group of antagonist. When their means of supressing his power begin to fail he begins to manifest his powers in small burst and escapes them through cunning and some help. He then encounters a support character that helps him train and hone his powers. That’s pretty much the gist of it(somewhat).

    Any advice you guys might want to spare? :)

  56. Sam N.on 05 Aug 2012 at 12:02 am

    The origin of all superpowers in my world is a race of advanced aliens, who have perfected genetic engineering and modification. The human superheroes are all “test subjects” to see how these modifications work on the human race. Many of those “gifted” with powers were supposed to die as children/infants due to diseases, defects, etc., and these aliens are benevolent. Does this sound feasible as an overarching origin story for most powers, or is it cheesy?

  57. B. McKenzieon 05 Aug 2012 at 4:32 am

    “Many of those “gifted” with powers were supposed to die as children/infants due to diseases, defects, etc., and these aliens are benevolent. Does this sound feasible as an overarching origin story for most powers, or is it cheesy?”

    1. I think it would really help if the aliens had some motive besides just the goodness of their hearts. What is their goal? Do they expect anything in return from humans for their help (or from the humans they help)?

    2. “The human superheroes are all ‘test subjects…’ Many of those ‘gifted’ with powers were supposed to die as children/infants… these aliens are benevolent.” As the aliens are described here, I feel like there’s a discrepancy. Why would someone benevolent use children/infants as “test subjects” in dangerous experiments? Is there any conflict with humans over these experiments? Are these experiments necessary?

    3. Do the aliens have personality?

    4. Besides giving out superpowers, do the aliens have any impact on the plot?

    5. Do the aliens contribute to any protagonist-vs-protagonist or protagonist-vs-antagonist conflict?

  58. Anonymouson 02 Oct 2012 at 10:54 pm

    @B. Mac

    Some of the examples you gave about secret origin can be also called as ‘twist in the plot’. Now there is a twist in the climax of my novel which reveals that a partner of the hero is actually the main villain. Is that workable?

  59. Mariahon 03 Dec 2012 at 9:40 pm

    Okay, so I have the villain as the father of the “chosen one.” (The main character.) But it isn’t a coincidence. See, the villain (a king) had an affair that resulted in the main character’s birth. The mother dies giving birth, and the king is distressed that his child is going to grow up on the lowest rung of society, without even parents. He takes an existing prophesy that he has been hiding (because he fears it, and the group of people it benefits) and has it modified so that it says his child is the fulfillment of it, and otherwise warps it to his liking. The main character then grows up on the highest rung of society, as the prophesy now declares her to be a goddess. The king then keeps his meddling away from everyone, including the main character. Only one other person knows about all this, and that is the scribe who changed the prophesy text. The scribe leaves and joins the group the true prophesy benefits, out of guilt, and marries a woman and fathers a child that is actually the true fulfillment of the prophesy. (This isn’t coincidence either, more like divine influence.)
    Content with her life (or at least convincing herself that she is) the main character never put much thought into who her parents are, so there wouldn’t be a misleading answer to fill in before she learns of her parentage.
    I’m defaulting to 3rd person, so would it be better if the reader learns the king is her father early on? Otherwise, it’ll be hinted at, so it won’t come out of the blue.
    The main character’s arc will go from selfishness to humbleness, from a goddess to part of the supporting team for the true fulfillment of the prophesy. (In the least boring way possible.)
    So, do you think my take on the villain father and chosen one are fresh enough? (The villain does more villainous stuff, this is just the stuff that relates to being the father of the main character. This is mostly just backstory stuff, really.)

  60. B. McKenzieon 04 Dec 2012 at 6:14 am

    “The scribe leaves and joins the group the true prophesy benefits, out of guilt, and marries a woman and fathers a child that is actually the true fulfillment of the prophesy. (This isn’t coincidence either, more like divine influence.)” I’d recommend making this more of a form of divine retribution (for hubris–mortals attempting to seize heavenly prerogatives).

    “I’m defaulting to 3rd person, so would it be better if the reader learns the king is her father early on?” I think that’d be preferable. I wouldn’t draw out a mystery that many readers will likely be able to guess on their own. A mysterious parent situation usually means that the actual parents are very high-ranking–in this context, that’d probably be gods, royalty, or perhaps a legendary hero. If readers have any doubt that she actually is a goddess, I think royalty would be the next guess.

    I like the subversion on the hero NOT being the chosen one. It vaguely reminds me (in a good way) of Harry Potter vs. Neville Longbottom. I was rooting for Neville to be the prophecized one the entire time.

    “The main character’s arc will go from selfishness to humbleness, from a goddess to part of the supporting team for the true fulfillment of the prophesy. (In the least boring way possible.)” This sounds like it could work. However, when you’re ready to pitch the story to publishers, I’d put a lot of thought into how to pitch the main character’s role in a more interesting way. For example, if you were writing a synopsis for Zero Dark Thirty, I’d highly recommend against demoting the main character (an interrogator whose main job is locating Osama bin Laden) to just a supporting member for a different central plot (the SEALs killing bin Laden). Describe the character’s role in such a way that it sounds like many readers would definitely be interested in what she does. (E.g. an interrogator plays a crucial and dangerous role locating OBL vs. an interrogator is a side character in somebody else’s story).

  61. Mariahon 04 Dec 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks! Yeah, I need to figure out how to pitch it in a non-boring way, but I’m not going to worry about that yet, because I’ve just started on this idea.

  62. Voyeuron 19 Jan 2013 at 2:32 am

    What about if character is hiding in another country’s faction and is part of said faction’s special military team. A few of the high ranked members know who she is but the lower ranked troops don’t. She does not speak anything about her past and only changed her name

  63. ColdWindon 19 Jan 2013 at 6:24 am

    we might need a little more background info please.

  64. Anonymouson 19 Jan 2013 at 7:36 am

    There are three factions in the entire story which use different variations of mechs.

    The ones stationed on earth, one on mars and one on the moon.

    Lyra is a side character came from the moon colonies and her home, along with the main villain who is her brother during one of the most bloodiest battles in the war.

    She later gets transferred to Earth using her large fortune and a fake name to prevent xenophobia with only a few that know of her past.

  65. Voyeuron 19 Jan 2013 at 7:43 am

    There are three factions in the entire story which use different variations of mechs.

    The ones stationed on earth, one on mars and one on the moon.

    Lyra is a side character came from the moon colonies and her home, along with the main villain who is her brother during one of the most bloodiest battles in the war.

    She later gets transferred to Earth using her large fortune and a fake name to prevent xenophobia with only a few that know of her past.

  66. SquirrelShinobion 29 May 2013 at 10:07 am

    My protagonist just avoids talking about his past to much unless pressed, unless talking to somebody directly involved, or he just slips up. Where does the line between secret origin and simply not divulging much. I admit, nothing in his past really has a major effect on the over all plot. No special destiny or odd birth, just some things that motivated him to make particular choices. All of which will come out as the story unfolds.

  67. Jade D.on 15 Sep 2013 at 2:10 pm

    In my story the character doesn’t know who his parents are because he was an orphan (probably the only non-cliche reason why someone wouldn’t) His mother was a highly-specialized spy and was killed behind enemy lines. His father is unknown to be alive or dead, but he left the mother. Contrary to standard cliche, he is chosen to work at his mother’s agency because of his own ability, not because of birthright.
    Is this cliche?

  68. Jade D.on 15 Sep 2013 at 2:14 pm

    P.S. This secret is not kept from him but just unknown until he started working for the agency and was told, just as a side piece.

  69. Dinstowon 15 Sep 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I’m currently working on building a word where origins aren’t a big focus. People get powers at random, and then decide what they’re going to do with that power. I intend to give more attention to what happens once they make that decision.

  70. Squatchyon 26 Dec 2013 at 12:34 pm

    I want my villain and hero to have a connection but not have it be a cliché. Any ideas?

  71. Juliaon 18 Mar 2014 at 2:56 pm

    I’m writing a novel which has been influenced by Harry Potter, X-men and Percy Jackson and the Olympians at some degrees: Say that there are tons of parallel universes to our Earth where different people originated from and then came to Earth because of the Babylon tower. The Bible says that God created the different languages to stop the people from finishing the tower, but in my story what He really did was send people from those other universes to our universe, on different places on Earth away from the Middle East, and partially bringing their Gods with them. And we all know that Gods and Demigods have always loved to have sex with humans, so that created a lot of people with divine blood in their veins, an the number skyrocketed after the medieval times because the population grew so big.
    But it’s not something publically official, only those involved know about this information, but there are many “divine-blooded” than live their entire life not knowing, becaue the “divine-blood gene” has to be triggered into action, either by trauma or life-or death situation or puberty or something as random as trying a new dish.
    In the story, the main character Samantha goes on a camp and meet new friends, an the second day on the camp her new friend Domi gets struck by lightning. This triggers Domi’s gene an the shock from the situation triggers Samantha’s, giving them superpowers.
    They will then later on have to enroll to a school in an alternate universe to learn and control their powers together with their friends.

    They will pretty soon after this get to know from which religion and God/Demigod their power originate, but why they try on Domi the whole system crashes and they’ll have to put it on hold for a long time.
    The big relevations will be that Domi’s blood comes from the archangel Michael and from Lucifer, and the two different “divine-blood genes” always try to cancel each other out, risking to kill Domi any minute. Why this is so big is that there has never been any “divine-blooded” from the Abrahamic religions, and further on she’s practically a prophet and the antichrist at the same time. And her parents divorced when she was an infant and she’s always lived with her mom without having contact with her father until her early teens. And he is the great Antagonist, and Domi an one of her friends (not Samatha) and the leaders of the school has known how she is related to him throughout the whole story.

    But I’m still not sure if I should drop hints and questions about Domi’s origin until the secret is greatly revealed and splits the group when they need to be together the most, or if I should make it obvious from the beginning…
    What do you think?

    My story shifts between the main characters’ (seven including Domi and Samantha) perspectives in first person, but Domi is always in third so that the readers will never fully be in her head. Is that a good layup or should I reconsider??

    (PS: Also want to add that I’m not going to promote Christianity as a religion better than any other just because of this, I even personally see myself as an atheist. The only reason that Domi’s the only one from the Abrahamic religions is because of the importance of the seven virtues among the angels. I’m trying to make a great diversity in culture, ethnicity and religion and all religions will be seen with equal part of importance )

  72. Kevin Holsingeron 20 Mar 2014 at 6:48 am

    Good morning, Julia.

    1. Is the lightning strike random, or connected to an actual lightning god?

    2. As I also like the idea of fusing religious mythologies into the same world, let me just warn you that this creates potential problems. Our mythologies weren’t designed to interconnect. In fact, they can brutally contradict each other. Going to Hell after one life (Christianity) and being trapped in the cycle of life, death and rebirth (Hinduism) aren’t the same thing. You’re left either changing Earth’s history so that the mythologies never contradicted each other, ignoring the contradictions while hoping your audience does the same, or explaining the contradictions.

    3. You have a fairly complex world that you’re setting up, and need to keep that in mind when deciding when to give your big reveal. While I personally would prefer to get the Big Reveal out of the way quicker (twists are harder to pull off these days), the amount of info you have to reveal to get to your Big Reveal probably means that you should do it later.

    4. Concerning people descended from angels, you might want to take a gander here…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephilim_in_popular_culture

    …just to make sure you don’t copy others’ ideas.

    Best of wishes on your story.

    Enjoy your day.

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