Nov 05 2008
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.
- One character is secretly related to another.
- One character is pretending to be something else, like a man posing as a woman or possibly an alien posing as a human.
- 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).
- A character is a god posing as a mortal.
- One character is secretly posing as another. (This one has the most promise, I think).