Oct 09 2011

Reasons Your Characters Might Not Use Secret Identities

A few days ago, I covered some of the pros and cons of writing secret identities.  But that covers why YOU the author would want to use them or not.  Why might a character decide not to use them?  Here are some possibilities.


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.


2. The character has family/friends to worry about, but a secret identity is not an option. For example, 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 give a mutant alligator much of a disguise. (He attributes it to his poor acting skills).

2.1. The character’s origin story was caught on tape or otherwise too public to try a secret identity.  Perhaps the New York Times or Daily Bugle had someone covering that new exhibit of genetically modified spiders and happened to notice that one went missing–it’s not TOTALLY implausible that journalists might do something competent, right?*

*Despite CNN’s best efforts to suggest otherwise.  More on Casey Anthony at 9.


3. The character has loved ones, but is so scary that nobody’s brave enough to mess with them.  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. Bad career move.  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).


4. The character might be so distant and/or alienated from others (particularly nonpowered civilians) that a secret identity would be besides the point.  For example, is there any civilian in Dr. Manhattan’s life that he’d actually care about losing? Does your superhero even want to protect his pre-superpowered identity or is that something that’s just totally irrelevant to him now? Alternately, Batman might fit in here, too. He might be so emotionally hardened that threatening Alfred would not help a criminal achieve any desired effect (except perhaps defenestration-by-Batman).

5. 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 had more of an ego might want the attention. So he/she might not want to keep his identity hidden. For example, Tony Stark outs himself at the end of Iron Man.
  • Someone that was unusually brave and/or foolhardy might care less about the potential risk of going public.
  • Someone that was a real loner might have fewer people to care about.  See #4 above.
  • 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.
  • Depending on the antagonists, protecting loved ones might not be an issue.   For example, maybe the hero deals mainly with villains that are not particularly likely to hunt down loved ones (like Godzilla, villains that are greedy but not particularly vicious, Iowans, etc).  Alternately, the world might be SO chaotic that the enemies are not organized enough to carry out an assassination (hat-tip to Dakota).
  • Depending on the character’s job, security for family and maybe friends might be less of an issue.  For example, if the character is a military officer and his wife and kids are stationed on a military base, they’d presumably be in less danger than the average civilian.  Which is not to say it’s all fun and games on military bases.  For example, most of the inhabitants of Parris Island and the outlying areas are man-eating reptiles and sharks, and you can only play a quality round of danger nut at sea.
  • Someone that was unusually honest and/or Canadian might not feel comfortable lying to everybody. At the VERY least, maintaining a secret identity would probably 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?”) And good luck explaining to your boss why you weren’t able to make the big meeting without getting fired.  Also, Canadians can’t lie, which puts them at a disadvantage in the double-life department.  (Maybe that’s why there are so few Canadian superheroes?)
  • For whatever reason(s), other people are unusually supportive of the superhero’s work.  For example, if being a superhero is totally legal and the character’s friends and family don’t have any objections, then there’s somewhat less reason for the superhero to hide his involvement.
  • In the comments below, O.R. mentions pride as a possible motivation not to use a secret identity.  For example, a mutant in X-Men might regard it as cowardice and/or kowtowing to non-mutant discrimination to hide with a secret identity.  Alternately, a mutant that COULD take a secret identity might opt not to out of team solidarity if some of the team members could not.

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Reasons Your Characters Might Not Use Secret Identities”

  1. B. McKenzieon 09 Oct 2011 at 2:16 am

    Thanks to Indigo for indirectly suggesting this article here.

  2. O.R.on 09 Oct 2011 at 2:11 pm

    How about pride? If the world looks down on superheroes and/or they’re subjected to discrimination, a rebellious or freed individual might not want to hide their true self behind a mask in order to differentiate themselves from the people that hate them. I’m thinking of “X-Men: The Last Stand” as an example (I know, I know…)

  3. ekimmakon 09 Oct 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I think the only reason Bruce keeps his identity is because if word got out, his reputation as Batman would be diminished. After all, he acts like an idiot out of costume (depending on the media) so no one makes the connection. Assosciate that with the winged terror of Gotham? Nothing good would come of it. That, and some wise guy with a lawyer may just be able to take the Wayne out of Wayne industries.

  4. B. McKenzieon 09 Oct 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I wonder what it says about Gotham that acting like an idiot is the best way for Bruce to protect his job. The Peter Principle is running Gotham?

  5. Indigoon 12 Oct 2011 at 8:58 pm

    “Thanks to Indigo for indirectly suggesting this article here”

    No problem 🙂

    I found this article to be really helpful, in fact, I can think of a few of my characters that the above points would apply to. Thanks B.Mac 🙂

  6. euchariaon 14 Oct 2011 at 1:20 am

    How about this ; The character is so tormented by his powers that he feels that public exposure is the penance he has to pay for wielding such power.

  7. Damzoon 14 Oct 2011 at 10:30 am

    I feel thats quite fresh.

  8. ElJaleoon 26 Oct 2011 at 9:27 am

    Why use “surily” in the first place?
    (hah hah hah. 😉 )

  9. dakotaon 15 Jul 2012 at 6:13 pm

    What if the world is like in civil unrest or whatever and the whole place has gone to hell?

  10. B. McKenzieon 16 Jul 2012 at 12:27 am

    Thanks, Dakota–I’ve added that to the article.

  11. Birdyon 23 Jul 2012 at 1:55 am

    Haha, I have a Canadian superhero.

    But this is good. I have a few characters whose costumes don’t include masks, so this helps.

  12. Mark Charkeon 06 May 2013 at 1:29 pm

    You’re right. I’m Canadian and my secret identity would last about five minutes.

  13. Peter Ron 12 Jul 2013 at 8:12 am

    Canadians can’t lie!? I can lie, just ask my…wait I shouldn’t be saying that. Anyway, maybe there aren’t any Canadian superheroes because most superheroes live in New York. Considering that, there are barely any American superheroes, they’re all New York superheroes–they don’t fight to save America, usually just the city.
    Anything else you have to say about Canada and Canadian superheroes, I can only counter with this; we have William Shatner. Beat that.

  14. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2013 at 9:47 am

    “Anyway, maybe there aren’t any Canadian superheroes because most superheroes live in New York.” And Canadians don’t live in New York because they are incapable of deception! They have to hire ringers off the street to represent them at the UN.

    “there are barely any American superheroes, they don’t fight to save America, usually just [NYC]…” I can’t recall any superhero ever explicitly refusing a mission because it was out of his city. If a superhero sticks mainly to his city, it’s probably for logistical reasons (e.g. Spider-Man can’t quickly get to Miami or Chicago) and not because he draws an ideological distinction between New York and Chicago. Also, most of the New York heroes I can think of have at some point represented a national agency (most notably SHIELD/Avengers, the military and First Class’ CIA) and/or otherwise worked in elements of American identity into the story (e.g. Spider-Man’s U.S. flag motif, “Captain America,” Superman’s Kansas angle*, etc).

    If there were a Toronto superhero who did most of his work in Toronto, would you say he was a Toronto superhero and not a Canadian one? I don’t know what most Canadians would say there, but barring something extraordinary (like the character refusing to help Vancouverites), I think virtually every American would say he was both. Also, what do you think about Wolverine? I think most Americans and Canadians would consider him a Canadian hero, even though he’s hardly ever shown saving Canadians.

    *He’s technically not a NYC hero, but there’s a strong case that Metropolis is a stand-in for NYC.

    “Anything else you have to say about Canada and Canadian superheroes, I can only counter with this; we have William Shatner. Beat that.”

    If you consider Wolverine to be an American superhero, he’s a step above Shatner.

  15. Isabellaon 14 Jul 2013 at 4:48 pm

    This is pretty helpful, because I’m working with a good handful of people, and while some want to keep it a secret, some people give it away. One of my women is too lazy to care about an identity, and she convinces her gullible husband to let his secret out. Another character goes into the media business using her powers and doesn’t worry too much about identity, one of my guys is anti-social and doesn’t really have any family, so he doesn’t risk hurting anyone by revealing what he does, and another guy is pretty honest and can’t lie and keep secrets for long.

  16. Rebeccaon 07 Apr 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I had played with an idea of a heroine who has no secret identity because her superhero family were so dedicated to the superhero lifestyle that they thought that hiding as a normal civilian would slow them down, thus it turns out her legal name is her superhero name.

  17. B. McKenzieon 12 Apr 2015 at 7:56 am

    “I had played with an idea of a heroine who has no secret identity because her superhero family were so dedicated to the superhero lifestyle that they thought that hiding as a normal civilian would slow them down, thus it turns out her legal name is her superhero name.” In the interests of making dialogue a bit more natural, I really hope she got a superhero name like “Jean Grey” and not something like “Batwoman.” 🙂

  18. Blaze Kodakon 09 Jun 2016 at 8:40 pm

    My characters dont have SI’s but they do have superhero names. Power people, metahumans, are captured at a young age, or occasionally groomed from even before birth. Their superhero names are often monikers given to them by fellow captives, as they aren’t allowed to speak a real name. Some metas cant even remember they’re real names. So my characters names are Big Iron Freight Train Sabot Redstone Mimick and Belch. Even after they escaped captivity, they kept their nicknames out of habit.

  19. B. McKenzieon 09 Jun 2016 at 8:56 pm

    BK, I think you have a good reason in-story to use “super” names and not being able to use regular names might be effective for setting the mood. I think the main cost would be that it might make conversation feel less natural, particularly in a novel or short story. (In a comic, dialogue tags like “Big Iron said” are unnecessary and we can usually see who’s delivering each line, so a comic probably wouldn’t need to work character names into conversation often as a context clue). If you’re writing a novel and you feel that 100+ uses of (say) “Freight Train” are getting annoying, I’d suggest restyling more along the lines of “Sabot” or “Redstone”, which I think will wear better over the long-run because they sound like they could be actual names. (For example, maybe shortening “Freight Train” to just “Train”?)

  20. Andrewon 10 Jun 2016 at 1:35 am

    A few of my heroes choose hero names over their secret identities, some don’t. Would that cause complications in any way?

  21. B. McKenzieon 10 Jun 2016 at 6:38 am

    Andrew: “A few of my heroes choose hero names over their secret identities. Would that cause complications in any way?” Potentially, yes, depending on how well the names work in dialogue tags (assuming you’re writing a novel or short story). Please read the above thread between me and Blaze Kodak.

  22. Greyon 05 Dec 2016 at 8:03 am

    Alfred also counts for reason #1. Former MI6 Agent, knows his way around a shotgun, and in Injustice, he beat up Superman.

  23. Blaze Kodakon 31 May 2017 at 10:05 am

    Holy Hell its been a long time since I’ve been to this website. Reading my above comment, I’ve changed much in my story (even medium, as it now takes the form of a a screenplay), and Big Iron is actually the only character to survive the process of change, and while Mimick technically is still a character, her power is the only thing to go unchanged XD.

    I’ve actually kept the idea of the characters not having normal names, but i’ve incorporated elements of the characters attempting to find out about their pasts (their memories have been erased, which also leaves lasting mental scars), as well crafting new “normal” identities. For example, Big Iron learns his original name, but discards it as he believes “He died before I was born”, referencing how their ordeal with being captured fundamentally changed them.

    Its crazy how quickly a concept can permutate.

  24. Cat-Vacuumer Supremeon 09 Dec 2017 at 8:30 am

    I have a character who uses a secret identity to keep from being blackmailed and/or recruited by her government. Additionally, if she gave out her name, with the way magic works there, people could use it to control her. She also doesn’t know her real name and uses the fact that she was adopted to foil a lot of seeking spells, which later backfires on her.

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