Oct 03 2011

Pros and Cons of Using Secret Identities in Your Story

+: Secret identities provide another avenue of conflict/danger that helps develop the characters outside of combat.


-: Your readers have probably seen secret identities used quite a bit before.  It’s arguably the most cliche, conventional aspect of superhero stories.  If you go down this path, I’d recommend having it play out in unusual ways.  For example, in Kick-Ass, the protagonist’s attempt to protect his superhero identity from his father leads to a touching and darkly comical scene where the father mistakenly infers that the son was a victim of a sexual crime.


+: It’s a fairly easy way to build coherence between the superpowered side of the story (e.g. what Spider-Man is doing) and the non-powered side of the story (what Peter Parker is doing).  Another possibility that’s pretty well-worn is showing how his superpowered side affects his non-powered life.  For example, Spider-Man 2 covered how hard it was to come up with time for both.  Another possibility would be showing how the strains (injuries, stress, other damages) of one affect the other.


-: Especially in stories where only a villain or two uncover the secret identity, secret identities tend to cause side-characters to act atypically dumb.  Many investigative journalists interact with Clark Kent or Peter Parker every day but don’t ask any awkward questions about how Peter Parker comes up with so many more phenomenal Spidey shots than anyone else or wonder how Superman’s face looks awfully familiar.  If you do go with a secret identity, I’d recommend having the secret identity depend on whether the main character can successfully thwart the side-characters’ suspicions, rather than just making the side-characters too dumb/incompetent to get suspicious in the first place.


+: It adds an element of human-ness to characters that might otherwise be very hard to relate to.  Giving characters a life where people don’t know they’re super tends to give the writer easier opportunities to give them relatable things to do.  I feel Fantastic Four is an example of a team that has so little regular stuff going on that it’s harder to think of them as real people.  (In theory, the superhero team-as-family angle could create relatability, but I think it worked a lot better in The Incredibles than in most FF stories).



-: I think secret identities are exceedingly predictable, especially early on.  In the first half of the story, there’s pretty much no chance anyone will accidentally stumble upon the secret identity. Unless you have something unusual in mind to shake things up, I would not count on the secret identity to generate much drama early on.  (It could still be useful in other ways, such as making the character more relatable or enhancing plot coherence).


+: It could be a relatively rough edge for a hero that might otherwise be too purely heroic.  Usually, people concealing their identity are neck-deep in shadiness.  The superhero’s attempt to conceal his/her identity could lead to otherwise sympathetic characters questioning his intentions and/or otherwise conflicting with the hero.  I feel that morally gray conflicts (i.e. conflicts with characters that are at least somewhat sympathetic) tend to be more complex, unpredictable and satisfying.


-: If you’re doing a comic book, be aware that the mask is usually the goofiest-looking part of the costume.  Most masks also make it more challenging for the character to visually show emotion.  You can limit the damage there by leaving the mouth area exposed (like Batman) and/or using a mask that retracts or is removed outside of combat (like Iron Man).


-: I feel it’s more logistically difficult to work in individual secret identities into a team series than an individual series.  The more superhero characters you have to develop, the harder it is to develop their secret identities, particularly if their secret identities have substantially different side-casts.  I’d use Dynamo Five as a counterexample here.  Even though the series’ five protagonists have secret identities with different side-casts in different towns, it nevertheless manages to do something interesting things with the secret identities.  That said, it spends very little space on those scenes.  If you’re going with a superhero team, one approach that might be more appealing is developing the characters off-the-job by having them do things together more than with side-characters that don’t have much to do with the other members of the team.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Pros and Cons of Using Secret Identities in Your Story”

  1. B. McKenzieon 03 Oct 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Thanks to Damzo for suggesting this article. If you’d like to suggest an article of your own, I’d really appreciate that.

  2. Silvercaton 03 Oct 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Good points.

    I’m trying to walk that fine line in my story. Most of the heros (who are just background info) don’t have to worry about friends finding out who they really are, because they wander around, like hundreds of other in-story veterans.

    White Knight, on the other hand, isn’t like them, 1) because she’s not a veteran (not that all of the other heroes are), and primarily 2) because she doesn’t leave her city much. But nobody has much reason to suspect Delia is the White Knight because she doesn’t fit the stereotype of a hero. And the suit and her build make people think the White Knight is a man.

    At least, that’s what I’m going for (I have a lot of rewriting to do).

  3. Grenacon 03 Oct 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I like this. I like this a lot. It is very useful for my next story C:

  4. Damzoon 04 Oct 2011 at 1:46 pm

    “Thanks to Damzo for suggesting this article.” No problem B.Mac

  5. Milanon 04 Oct 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Perhaps a rather random place to say this, but this is the blog I read the most. Thanks B. Mac for years of wonderful work, and to all your contributors!

    On topic, I agree that regular jobs don’t lend themselves to anonymity, although it still might be worth doing as part of making it easier to relate to the character.

    There might be modern ways to maintain anonymity. Plastic surgery might be a bit over the top, if it does not gel with the hero’s principles. Perhaps they could be a frequent subscriber to witness protection programs, if the police appreciate their efforts. That could mean the day job (and constantly resetting personal life) have more uncertainty even than the hero stuff. Perhaps the mask and cowl come into play when in civilian guise, like Hollywood actors trying to remain low key in the regular world. Perhaps the hero lives overseas, popping in to save the day when time zones permit. Perhaps the day job is completely unstructured, such as an informant or novelist, who might be many different people depending on what they think they can get away with.

    But anything drastic might mean we need to connect with the character on some other level, so the secretiveness would need to be particularly relevant to the plot instead.

  6. B. McKenzieon 04 Oct 2011 at 6:36 pm

    “Perhaps a rather random place to say this, but this is the blog I read the most.” Thanks!

  7. Jackie Ron 04 Oct 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Thanks for a great checklist. Though my current work isn’t about superheroes, the main character is worried about hiding his identity from one group of people while simultaneously hiding his nighttime activities from the other. It’s turning out to be one of the hardest things to get right…

  8. CCOlsonon 05 Oct 2011 at 10:23 am

    What specifically interests me is government maintained secret identities and how they would work with existing US laws (perhaps with some minor, legislatively possible modifications) as well as with the laws of some other prominent countries.

    In my story world almost all “superheroes”, at least in the United States, work for some branch of municipal, county, state or federal government as legitimate employees with public records of payment in published job positions. I’ve spent time trying to figure out how or if secret identities would work, especially in light of the First Amendment and the Freedom of Information Act.

    So far, the best reasons I have been able to figure out for having legally protected secret identities are:

    1) to protect government agents with an extremely high notoriety from personal reprisal brought about by actions taken in the course of their appointed duties.

    2) to allow government agents with an extremely notorious public identity to execute covert operations with a minimal chance of exposure.

    3) (officially unsaid, but perhaps the most important) to prevent powerful government agents in a position of great responsibility, both practical and moral, from undergoing the same kind of personal character degradation often seen in those public figures (such as Hollywood Stars) who are denied by constant public scrutiny the psychological necessity of a private, personally accounted life and who are reassured, on a nearly constant basis, that they are above their peers in importance.

    I know that was all very technical sounding. Sorry. The third reason is the one that interests me most, as a secret identity allows the hero to be a public figure in the costume, then take it off at the end of the day and still be Bob, with a relatively normal life, who answers directly to his boss as Bob, not Superguy, when he messes up, who has a wife and kids to take care of, whose friends hang with him normally without fear of TV cameras following them all wherever they go.

    Still, making that happen in the United States, legally, without shooting great gaping holes in our already abused Bill of Rights, would be very interesting.

  9. B. McKenzieon 05 Oct 2011 at 12:50 pm

    “I’ve spent time trying to figure out how or if secret identities would work, especially in light of the First Amendment and the Freedom of Information Act.” The military is very careful to keep the identities of its special operatives secret. And good luck trying to (legally) get a list of undercover FBI agents or cops or something like that. So it’s not like it’s unheard of for government agencies to be secret about their personnel, especially if there is some degree of danger. If you wanted government superheroes to be secret, it would be believable that the government was able to fend off FOIA requests or at least redact anything that might plausibly endanger the heroes’ lives. Like you said, it minimizes the threat of reprisal and it facilitates covert operations. Both are legitimate state interests.

    Personally, I don’t think #3 would hold up by its own in court*, but 1) it’d be believable if it did and 2) since it’s officially unsaid, I don’t think that’d be a problem anyway.

    *The reason I don’t think it would hold up on its own is that most government employees are rightly thought of as public figures and the freedom of the press generally entails the right to investigate and report on what public figures are doing. If the paparazzi’s lawyers can somehow convince a judge that an actor’s private affairs are a matter of public interest, I could only imagine that it’d be pretty hard for a government employee to convince a judge that his affairs were somehow less relevant to the public. (But the government employee in this case has pressing security concerns and an obvious fear of reprisal that Johnny Depp probably wouldn’t). The main reason I wrote this fairly long paragraph is because it’s an example of how different people might look at a situation without necessarily being evil or stupid. Journalists might plausibly disagree with your superheroes about what the public has a right to know.

    Also, whether the press reports on the secret identities of the officers in question, I would expect the press coverage to be pretty intense regarding what they do on the job. That could be particularly problematic if the heroes fail at some point (or do something controversial) or if the press interfere with a crisis in progress. There have been critical incidents blown in the U.S. and elsewhere because the press was too aggressive in reporting on situations-in-progress. (For example, if the police have a perimeter around a hostage-taker, the hostage-taker probably has access to a radio/laptop/smartphone/TV and can hear whatever the media are reporting. It could give the HT heads-up on when the SWAT team is about to move in).

  10. CCOlsonon 05 Oct 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I’ve thought about that alot too. I’m thinking that in my world there’s something called HeroCenter that’s alot like SportsCenter, only they specifically cover any interesting talent action from around the world. Marion Harmon pointed out in Wearing the Cape that one can keep many people from being too interested in a private identity by distracting them with the very obvious public identity.

    Rationale #3 is actually what the Eagle, the big trendsetting hero in my story universe, had in his mind when he helped get the Agent identity protection laws passed. The first two are just the official justifications he told everyone.

    Of course, the internet would be a big problem with all the independent posters who could breach an identity. I think the best the government could do for agents who are public figures (heroes) would be to keep their identities from being common knowledge.

    Has anyone considered the effect that widespread superhuman ability would have on professional sports?

  11. Wingson 05 Oct 2011 at 3:53 pm

    With most superhero teams in my main universe, secret identities are more of a formality. Like, what celebrities use in order to travel incognito – the Six operate like the Fantastic Four, but their real names aren’t known to the public and they’re never seen out of costume. Granted, I’m still not sure how Masochist’s disguise is a pair of glasses*, but hey, if it works for Clark Kent…

    – Wings

    * Though this could be a subversion in that the one time the reader sees him using glasses as a disguise, it doesn’t work.

  12. B. McKenzieon 05 Oct 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Sean Higgins–the Green Bay menace–once asked me about superpowered sports. I responded here and here.

    Also, Kurt Warner is Sylar.

  13. Indigoon 08 Oct 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I enjoyed this article, and even after reading the cons of going with a secret identity, I still like the idea, albeit it’s cliché…Most if not all of the super heroes in my comics have secret identities-how else could they protect themselves, their family, and friends if everybody, including the villains, knew who they were and how to find them? Also, concerning masks, I prefer the simple eye mask, it covers part of their face while still allowing for facial expressions. On a side note, How do you figure Kurt Warner is Sylar? That is the funniest thing I’ve heard all day! 🙂

  14. B. McKenzieon 09 Oct 2011 at 1:16 am

    “How do you figure Kurt Warner is Sylar? That is the funniest thing I’ve heard all day!”

    First, he looks exactly like the guy that plays Sylar (Zachary Quinto).

    Second, people that have followed his career have noticed certain… irregularities. From 1999-2001 and 2007-2009 (ages 28-30 and 36-38) he ranged from really good to legendary. (He holds the top three passing records for Super Bowls, 181 passing touchdowns vs. 98 interceptions, four Pro Bowl selections, etc). But the five seasons from 2002-6 ranged from bad (27 passing touchdowns and 30 interceptions over five years) to ugly (backing up Marc Bulger and Matt Leinart). The only other thing I can think of that had such a high quality gap from one season to the next is Heroes (Sylar specifically). In Season 1, I feel he was probably the most interesting character on television. After that, he was maybe a Petrelli, maybe a half-assed antihero, and definitely past his sell-by date.

    Finally, both Bulger and Leinart have since been decapitated, which would be a truly impressive coincidence if Warner were not a psychic decapitator.

  15. B. McKenzieon 09 Oct 2011 at 1:29 am

    “how else could they protect themselves, their family, and friends if everybody, including the villains, knew who they were and how to find them?” I could see a few scenarios where heroes might not use secret identities.

    1) The character’s loved ones are mostly superpowered and/or not in harm’s way. For example, if the character is a superpowered alien, chances are his family members are, too, so protecting them from danger is a bit less essential. Alternately, in Booster Gold’s case, his family is hundreds of years in the future, so he doesn’t have to worry about them getting hurt.

    1.1) The character has family/friends to worry about, but a secret identity is not an option. For example, see the Thing in Fantastic Four. Alicia Masters might be safer if Ben Grimm had a secret identity, but there’s no way for someone that looks as unusual as The Thing to pull off a secret identity. In The Taxman Must Die, one of the main characters is a mutant alligator that wants a secret identity (because anyone badass has enough enemies to need a secret identity, he reasons), but he surlily discovers that Clark Kent-style glasses don’t work for most alligators. He attributes this to his poor acting skills.

    2) Alternately, the character might have loved ones, but be so genuinely frightening that messing with his loved ones would be a REALLY bad career move for criminals. For example, if a criminal happened to find out the connection between Alfred and Batman, he’d have to be pretty damn nuts to take a shot at Alfred unless he was really looking forward to pain. If you have a problem with Batman, it’d probably be less suicidal to gun directly for him (so that at least you’re not distracted when he comes for you).

    3) The character might be so removed from others (particularly nonpowered civilians) that a secret identity would be sort of beyond the point. For example, is there any civilian in Dr. Manhattan’s life that he’d actually care about losing? Does the character even want to protect his pre-superpowered identity or is that something that’s just totally irrelevant to him now? Alternately, Batman would probably fit in here, too. Trying to shake him by threatening or hurting loved ones probably wouldn’t work that well because he doesn’t get very close to others.

    4) For personal reasons (such as ideology, values, job, personality traits, etc), the character doesn’t use a secret identity even though he might benefit from one. Here are some possibilities that come to mind:
    –Someone that was unusually brave and/or foolhardy might care less about the potential risk of going public.
    –Someone that had more of an ego might want the attention. So he/she might not want to keep his identity hidden. I think that’s why Tony Stark outs himself at the end of Iron Man.
    –Someone that was lazy and/or careless might not be willing and/or able to keep a secret identity going.
    –Government employees might want to be open because they hold themselves accountable to the public and/or have problems with vigilantes that don’t. See Marvel’s Civil War, etc.
    –Someone that was unusually honest might not feel comfortable lying to everybody around him. At the VERY least, maintaining a secret identity would involve lying to your coworkers and most of your friends quite often. (“Clark, the Daily Planet’s softball team needs you on Saturday. Wait, you’re busy AGAIN? What are you doing?”) I imagine it’d get really dicey when a superhero’s business interferes with something really big at work.

  16. Indigoon 12 Oct 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Hey, Kurt Warner DOES look like Zachary Quinto, how funny… Thanks for explaining that one

  17. Dragondevilon 19 Sep 2012 at 1:59 pm

    I dont want The main protagonist in my comic book to wear a mask or have a transformation.
    He just wears a jacket and jeans(but distinct and symbolic) dress!
    I dont want him to be a celebrity superhero (like the ff)!

    But i still want to distinguish his super-self to his normal self!

    Is that even possible?

    I badly need suggestions!

  18. Dr. Vo Spaderon 18 Apr 2013 at 5:54 pm

    My character does hide his real identity, but he is a lower class working citizen in a BIG city. Aside from people he’s pretty close with, there isn’t a whole lot of social interaction. Would it be reasonable that nobody would suspect him of being the hero?

  19. Dr. Vo Spaderon 18 Apr 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Also, his costume covers his face from the bridge of his nose down.

  20. B. McKenzieon 18 Apr 2013 at 8:12 pm

    This character’s picture is going to be in the media, right? If he’s not covering the most recognizable part of his face (the area around his eyes), it strikes me as pretty likely that one of the hundreds of people he brushes past everyday will recognize him from the news. If the police are looking for him, I feel it would probably warrant some additional explanation (e.g. the citizenry is overwhelmingly supportive and cannot be counted upon to turn him in) if his disguise holds up for months.

  21. Rebeccaon 19 Jan 2014 at 12:06 pm

    I think another pro of secret identities is when children/teenaged sidekicks are involved. If Bruce Wayne is the legal guardian of the minor/preteen Tim Drake, and it was discovered that Batman was potentially endangering his life by bringing into situations where sane and insane criminals could be pointing weapons at Robin, how fast would Gotham’s child services would step in and take away his sidekick and arrest Bruce Wayne for that?

  22. Rebeccaon 19 Jan 2014 at 12:08 pm

    And by “pro” I mean from a Doylist standpoint, not a Watsonian.

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