Oct 03 2011
+: 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.