Jul 02 2012
1. The main character makes a notable decision, ideally one that most other main characters in the genre wouldn’t make in the same position. Ideally, this develops something unusual about your character compared to other protagonists in the submissions pile. For example, one thing that distinguishes Peter Parker from most superheroes is that he’s unusually human, so it’s fitting and memorable that he lets the robber go (which ends up getting his uncle killed).
2. The origin story reinforces a key character trait or mood. For example, Parker’s decision helps reinforce that he’s not purely heroic and experiences regular human problems like pettiness. Batman’s origin story helps establish his loneliness and isolation.
3. Ideally, the origin is driven by the main character’s actions rather than the character getting passively chosen. Individual effort is usually more memorable than, say, good luck or high birth. For example, Steve Rogers became a candidate for Captain America because he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he won the competitive process by demonstrating cunning and bravery. The plot (and Steve Rogers) would have been MUCH less interesting if the Army had randomly picked his name of a hat.
4. Many strong origin stories establish an interesting relationship with another character (most often a side-protagonist, teammates, or the main antagonist). Because conflict raises the stakes and helps establish the goals/motivations of each character, I think it would help if there is some conflict (or at least potential for conflict) between the two.
5. I’d like to see an interesting motive driving the protagonist forward. The most common issue I see here is that the character’s motive boils down to “you killed my parents/children/dog/yoga instructor.” If you’re headed down that path, I’d take special care to make sure that your character sticks out from the pack. For example, I’d recommend checking out Point of Impact and Silence of the Lambs for two really interesting examples of protagonists influenced by revenge and/or loss. Another potential concern is if the character becomes a superhero for no apparent (or at least inferable) reason. If you’d like to gloss over the character’s motivations for becoming a superhero, it might help to develop the character by covering their motivations elsewhere. For example, The Incredibles don’t discuss why they became superheroes, but we can infer Bob’s motivations and personality from his marital difficulties and how he risks his insurance job to help a
7. It might help to introduce an interesting theme. For example, Magneto’s experiences in Nazi death camps help influence his point of view and lead to conflict with the more optimistic Xavier.
8. Please introduce some element of urgency and/or stakes. For example, Bitter Seeds shows the villains obtaining supernatural power, which raises obstacles for the heroes and raises the stakes. Another option would be any major costs or life changes (particularly undesired ones) built into the origin—some examples include the murder of Peter Parker’s uncle, Jekyll and Hyde transformations, getting framed for a crime, and anything else which would make it harder for the hero to maintain his/her previous life.
9. It’s short enough that it doesn’t stall the central plot. I think you have more latitude here if the origin helps set up a conflict with a major antagonist (for example, the Red Skull sets back the Captain America project by assassinating the lead researcher). However, if the origin doesn’t do much besides establishing where the character’s superpowers come from, I think it would be especially helpful to keep it brief. For example, Superman’s arrival on Earth as an infant doesn’t develop his signature traits very much and could probably be glossed over.
9.1. “How long do I have to cover the origin?” A caveat: each author has different strengths and I don’t know how well you can execute a slow-burning plot without losing readers. Personally, I’d prefer if the central conflict (or at least a major conflict) has been introduced within the first third of the book (usually 25-30,000 words for an adult novel). For a slower-developing plot, I’d recommend checking out Bob Moore: No Hero. The main character is a private investigator who first realizes that a crime has been committed around 75% through the novel, but the intermediate goals leading up to that point are urgent enough to keep me interested. Alternately, the Harry Potter series used the Dursleys to set up intermediate goals that bought enough time to introduce Harry and explain how he gets to Hogwarts.
10. For first-time authors, I generally recommend against using prophecies because they usually give away too much of the story’s formula. If you must use a prophecy, please at least work in a plausible dispute about who the prophecy might apply to or how it might apply. For a bit of storytelling depth, it might help if the prophecy includes or implies some negative consequences serious enough that people might not WANT to be the foretold hero. Alternately, maybe the prophecy is wrong? (Hat-tip: Linebyline).