Jul 02 2012

Signs of a Promising Superhero Origin Story

Published by at 10:56 am under Superhero Origin Stories,Writing Articles

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 customer victim.


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).

18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Signs of a Promising Superhero Origin Story”

  1. Linebylineon 03 Jul 2012 at 2:37 pm

    What about the possibility of having prophecies be wrong? Maybe I’m just not well-read enough, but it seems like every time I’ve read/watched a story with an ancient prophecy, the prophecy has turned out to be true.

    It seems like there’s an example or two I’m just barely not remembering in which the prophecy finally not coming true was the whole point of the story, but otherwise I don’t think I’ve come across anything that used incorrect prophecies as plot points.

  2. B. McKenzieon 03 Jul 2012 at 6:58 pm

    I’ll add that to the article, Linebyline. Thanks.

  3. Linebylineon 03 Jul 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Aww, shucks. Glad I could help.

  4. Janon 03 Jul 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Should an origin story always begin a novel? The first five chapters of my novel are all about the five different heroes and their entourage (have since learned that it takes a small village to keep a superhero afloat) before they joined forces.
    To give an example, the chapter opens with a villain trying to steal something. Hero stops villain. Hero is given a good brawling out by the professional, world saving team leader. We introduce Hero, Villian, Mean Good Guy, Romantic Intrest. There is not a hint of backstory up until the end sentence, where Romatic Intrest informs a bystander that the past between she and Hero is ‘not worth repeating’. Hero’s origin story is revealed mostly by him telling his teammates, or talking to Romatic Intrest.
    I suppose the real question is, must we always start at the beginning?

  5. B. McKenzieon 03 Jul 2012 at 10:14 pm

    “Should an origin story always begin a novel?” No, I think it’s okay as long as we understand enough about the characters’ actions as they do them.

  6. rogon 04 Jul 2012 at 2:26 pm

    since I want to use a bio-weapon corporation to establish the superhumans in the series, I can’t really come up with a good explanation as to why a company would risk experimenting on people. one idea I have is that they could probably accomplish things that something like a robot, vehicle, or weapon can’t do or something like that, but i’m not sure.

  7. Wilon 04 Jul 2012 at 2:37 pm


    You really need to address the needs and wants of that company. If you don’t know why they’re risking experimenting on people you’re going to run into the one dimensional villain problem.

    The most common tropes are the advancement of humanity, evolution, things of that nature.

    Why not see if maybe the company is seeking for a cure to cancer but can only test their products on live people? Something to think about.

  8. aharrison 04 Jul 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Maybe the company isn’t the bad guy. Maybe they are trying desperately to come up with an antidote to a bio-weapon that either they created at the government’s behest or an enemy created. And they finally legitimately get through to human trials, and something strange happens when you combine the bio-weapon with the experimental antidote and certain people’s physiologies?

    In other words, they maybe didn’t do it on purpose. You can still make them villainous by having them try to cover up what’s going on in order to try to salvage lucrative defense contracts and save on all the money they spent. Someone could think that they could “steal” this “process” such as it is and build on it as a reliable means to create superhuman bioweapons for rogue states and terror groups.

  9. deadmanshandon 04 Jul 2012 at 7:47 pm

    A notable aversion of the prophecy trope occurs in Tad William’s Sorrow, Memory, and Thorn series. The heroes are following the prophecy for the entire books to find out at the end that they are following the bad guy’s prophecy. It was a really cool twist

  10. B. McKenzieon 05 Jul 2012 at 12:30 am

    “I want to use a bio-weapon corporation to establish the superhumans in the series, [but] I can’t really come up with a good explanation as to why a company would risk experimenting on people.” Some possibilities:

    –Desperation–there’s either a disaster brewing or news items which would prompt your characters to cut corners (e.g. an alien invasion, a plague, maybe a rival superpower making a huge breakthrough in creating supersoldiers, etc).

    –The organization has some vaguely altruistic goal which plays out in a sinister way (e.g. ecoterrorists trying to save Earth by starting a massive plague or Ra’s al Ghul attempting to destroy Gotham City to purify humanity). Under these circumstances, the company might view any humans injured by testing as acceptable collateral damage. Please note: even legitimate medicines and vaccines cause some deaths when used on hundreds of thousands of people. I think most doctors would find it acceptable to issue a drug which could help millions even though it might kill 100 people suffering unusually adverse reactions. If so, I think it’s sort of plausible that a ethically-challenged and/or desperate scientist might reason “well, we’ll lose 100 people when we distribute this drug, so losing 10-20 in human testing isn’t that much more.” One possible complication is that it’d be challenging to get medical regulators to go along with that reasoning unless there were something unusual happening in the background (e.g. the regulators have been deceived or bought off or blackmailed, there’s a crisis which makes this research unusually urgent, etc).

    –For whatever reason, animal testing and computer simulations are not very helpful for this research. For example, in The Taxman Must Die, one scientist working on a superserum eschews computer testing because there hasn’t been any similar research before–he has no idea what to base a computer model off of. Another plot point is that the character needs the serum to affect only humans (because he wants to dose the oceans with it without causing an ecological catastrophe). Animal testing might be useful to make sure that it doesn’t have harmful effects on animals, but could not tell him whether it is effective and safe on humans.

    –Testing real world conditions. I’m not sure what your bioweapon corporation is getting ready for, but if it’s interested in attempting and/or averting a terrorist attack along the lines of (say) an airborne virus being released in a closed space like an airplane or a subway car, it might make sense to test the virus in a model environment.

  11. YoungAuthoron 12 Jul 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Hey it’d really be helpful if someone could read over my orgin story/plot and see if it sounds good.

    Kevin Hartline is an impetuous, arrogant, vain, snobby, immature, intelligent, witty, laid-back, charismatic son of multi-billionaire Adam Hartline. He visits his father’s skyscraper b/c he has the day off at school. After flirting with the intern receptionist, he makes his way to his father’s office. After getting in a verbal row with his father, he seeks out his mentor, 66 year-old janitor Bernie. After getting in a messy confrontation with him too, Kevin enters and elevator. He punches the back wall and the elevator sends him to and underground cave lab. He explores and finds a master computer monitor that shows his father’s office. On the screen Kevin watches his father say that he will cut him (Kevin) out of the inheritance because he dislikes him so much. This sets Kevin off into an angry frenzy and he destroys the research in the lab (test tubes, beakers, etc). He sets it aflame with his lighter before ignoring the orders of a locked out scientist and enters a chamber. He gets bathed in chemicals, drowns, burned alive, and survives a cave in of the cave lab (after his father and the other scientists failed to help him and left him to die) unscathed. He even goes back to his prestigious school after two days in the hospital. The school is socially split between rich and poor with the rich looking down on the poor and the poor hating the rich kids because they’re so snobby. He and his goons bully a nerd to do their homework (for the third year in a row) and when things get physical, a one handed push from Kevin sends the nerd into the lockers and almost kills him (nerd) from the impact. Kevin gets away with it (no one dares to tell on the big man on campus) and tells his best friend Michael Conroy III (a rich gadget geek who has a strong sense of integrity, justice, and he is also quite witty. Like Morgan Freeman in the Dark Knight) about his powers. After testing they find the extent of Kevin’s powers (fire breathing/super-strength/flight). He trains these powers for about a week in various tests created by Michael. While he is in school, there is a fight between Hellfire (a crazy psychotic female villain) and Soaring Eagle, the best hero around. Kevin rushes into action. While helping SE fight Hellfire, two other heroes show up and help Kevin and SE save the day. Kevin gets the name Black Dragon from media. Grady Walsh (Metallico, flight/control over metal {think magneto}) is the boyfriend(sorta) of Roxanne Lopez, the other hero, unknown to Kevin but she is the new girl at his school, is Dawn Angel (flight via huge wings and can harness sunlight to make weapons of her imagination). She knows who he is but he doesn’t know her. Grady is just like Kevin but not rich. They immediately dislike each other and that dislike turns to hate when Kevin starts falling for Roxanne because she is not as superficial as all the other girls he’s dated. SE takes all of them under his wing and Kevin’s father gives Kevin a super suit in return that Kevin thanks Hartline industries publicly for it. This makes Hartline industries very rich and they use their publicity to gain money by making things such as action figures and posters of Black Dragon. Meanwhile Ellis, Roxanne’s uncle and a scientist who made the chemical mixture from which Kevin got his powers attacks the setting (new dawn city) as the villain Octagon with eight mechanical arms that shoot shock darts (like Tasers x10). He wants revenge on Kevin for getting him fired after he worked for twelve years to become leading scientist of Hartline industries. He forces Kevin to a make difficult decision without the help of his super-friends who have been poisoned/out of commission. Octagon throws Kevin’s little brother off one side of a building and a random little girl off the other, making him have to save one of them. He ends up saving both and winning the day along with fame and Roxanne away from Grady. Sadly Kevin’s home life is falling apart, with his drunkard mother and his father starting to go crazy. His father tries to get rid of the poor people in underprivileged districts of NDC by attempting to spread a toxin in their water supply. By getting rid of them, he can build condos and amusement parks and malls that will generate him more money. Kevin stops him at the last moment but finds his father dead. It turns out his father’s right hand man and personal enemy of Kevin’s, Benjamin Walsh IV who is his father’s assistant (appears constantly in the story). BWIV is very clever and manipulative using whatever means to justify the end result. The toxin was his idea and he planned to take the company from Kevin’s dad. He has storm powers and is Grady’s brother. Together they kill SE (who Kevin and Roxanne find out is Bernie’s son). Roxanne and Kevin stop them from killing the poor citizens of NDC, killing both in the process. Story ends with the city safe, Roxanne and Kevin together and both being introduced into the League of Heroes. (Like the Justice League).

  12. Anonymouson 12 Jul 2012 at 9:50 pm

    YoungAuthor, please stop spamming, you could just as easily have posted a reminder without copypasting the content.

    As for the origin story, it sounds like your basic lab accident setup. How fresh it is will depend on your execution. My concerns lie in two things: 1) Your characters always seem to have a lot of powers. This raises doubt about whether they can be challenged in story. I would also recommend you polish your descriptions of their powers. If you have to use comparisons while pitching to publishers, it might raise issues about originality and they might not be familiar with the characters. 2) You haven’t given details about some of the character’s personalities, so as of now it’s hard to tell how much impact they have.

  13. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I’m seeing the same recurring issues. For example, protagonist likability. Umm, having a protagonist (nearly fatally) beat up students for homework help might raise issues there. If he’s intelligent and charismatic, couldn’t he ASK for homework help? The kicker, though, is probably that the (allegedly Lucius-like) student helps him even though he knows the “protagonist” is putting innocent people in the hospital. The most interesting thing about the real Lucius is that he has values and doesn’t just go along with Batman when Batman does something he disagrees with. Michael knows that the “protagonist” nearly kills a student over homework help but doesn’t turn him in because, umm, “no one dares to tell on the big man on campus”? Oof. Lucius, he ain’t.

    I would recommend seriously reevaluating your approach to protagonists. Good luck with your writing career.

  14. M. Happenstanceon 13 Jul 2012 at 3:47 pm

    YoungAuthor, people might have trouble reading and therefore critiquing your post due to the lack of line breaks. For future reference, bullet points and general brevity might prove helpful in garnering more responses.

  15. Tessaon 21 Jul 2012 at 9:49 pm

    YoungAuthor, perhaps you should spend some time making your character likeable. He’s a villain. I’d cut him off if I were his father too. In fact I’m kind of hoping he dies painfully in your story. Even antiheroes need a pleasant side. I also would like to point out that based on the adjetives used to describe your “hero” alone, I find it concerning you seem to think he’s a good guy.

  16. B. McKenzieon 22 Jul 2012 at 12:51 am

    “He’s a villain.” YA, could you walk me through this? How is this character not a villain? What about him actually is supposed to be likable? At what point(s) are we supposed to sympathize with his goals?

    “Kevin Hartline is an impetuous, arrogant, vain, snobby, immature, intelligent, witty, laid-back, charismatic son of multi-billionaire Adam Hartline.”

    Here are the traits that I actually observed:

    –Violently angry. Note that Adam’s first four scenes (confronting Bernie, confronting his father, flipping out when his dad cuts him off, and sending the student to the hospital over homework help) all make him sound irrationally angry and/or crazy.

    –Extremely uncharismatic and unintelligent. First, he really screws the pooch with his father—destroying the lab will CERTAINLY convince the father that cutting off the son was the right call. In contrast, a more tactful/friendly approach might convince the father to eventually change his mind. Second, Adam beats up people for homework help. If he were remotely intelligent and/or charismatic, he could surely figure out a better way to get help out of people. Third, he gets himself bathed in chemicals because he uses a lighter even after a scientist told him not to.

    –Remorseless. For example, after bullying somebody for three years, Adam puts him in a hospital over homework help, right? When Tessa notes, “In fact I’m kind of hoping he dies painfully in your story… I find it concerning you seem to think he’s a good guy.” It’s disturbing that the “protagonist” at no point expresses regret about putting somebody innocent in the hospital and/or attempts to make amends to him.

    –Perhaps a gloryhound? (His fame gets mentioned repeatedly—is it a big deal to him?) Is that the main reason he becomes a superhero, or is there some other reason? Note that while he’s doing (highly glamorous) public service, we don’t see any indication that his attitudes have changed when the newsreels aren’t rolling. His failure to make amends to his victims–and it sounds like he had many–is a deafening silence.

    I don’t think this character would function even as a villain–I think he’s one-dimensionally evil even for that role.

  17. Yuuki12on 12 Aug 2012 at 12:41 pm

    I have an idea for a superhero story which I plan to work on after my first work, but I do need some help in regards to a couple of aspects. Here’s the synopsis:

    ” From having no parents to school life,Luke Chang has dealt plenty of things to deal with. Coupled with his lifestyle as a skater, the friction generated within life can get very unpleasant. But things become more interesting. After typical field trip is turned upside down by a robbery, Luke, through circumstance, was granted the powers of a Xoanic. These individuals gain the powers and abilities of an animal. In this case, the skills of a rabbit. Unfortunately, the robbers get away with the Jade Rabbit, a priceless statue and is sent to stop Asura, demons, from obtaining the Elixir of Immortality.”

    I apologize if my synopsis sounded long-winded and incoherent, but I wanted to set the scene. In many ways, this story was inspired by my adoration of Wuxia and Chinese mythology.

    Given this story is geared towards kids, specifically teenagers, the rabbit bit might work out, given that kids are more likely to accept that.

    The main trouble I am having is defining characters. Now, given it’s a story geared towards younger audiences, I understand (especially after reading the site’s article) that kids love exaggerated archetypes, like the leader, the good-humored person etc. While I am not against these archetypes, my concern is whether or not these so-called images can be revitalized?

    The case in point is directed at Luke’s best friend. Now, I want to do someone who is intelligent, BUT someone’s who’s not just plain smart. To make things simpler, someone’s who’s as likable as Tony Stark, rather than Dexter from Dexter’s laboratory.

    My idea for Luke’s friend, Kevin, was someone who was passionate about Archaeology and such knows a lot about different cultures, like Chinese. But that’s all I have and such I am looking for any insight.

    The next biggest challenge I have is the villain of the story. Now, it’s revealed that Raksha, a very powerful Asura, is the one who is seeking the Elixir and such has taken residence in Dr. Arleen Kenton, a professor of Archaeology at the University of Wisconsin.

    Now, Raksha’s motivations for wanting it is that she felt cheated out of not obtaining, due to the god’s interference (in many ways this actually goes back to a Hindu myth).

    Kenton’s motivation for wanting the potion and trusting Raksha is different. The reason is for more altruistic purposes, specifically saving lives. In her backstory, her younger brother, Max, was diagnosed with a very rare virus, which doctors could barely do anything about.

    So in a tragic fate, she’d watched her brother die at a young age. Coupled with a few other family members inheriting the disease (not her, given a specific gene) Kenton was depressed. But upon listening to stories about the Exilr and how it had specific medicinal properties and could keep an individual healthy and aliment free, she’d jumped at it.

    So in essence, her drive towards Archaeology was to discover whether or not the item existed, so she may use it to help others in need. But of course in a tragic sense, Raksha played to her idealistic emotions and such manipulated her.

    My question is whether or not these aspects make the two characters not cookie cutter, one-dimensional individuals , but rather sympathetic and tragic people. The other reason why I ask is because if viable, Luke might not be so trusting of the gods after he finds out what deceivable tactics they’d used.

    Thus, this might cause quite a bit of friction between them. Finally, (sorry about how long this is), my other concern is directed at the love interest. Now, allow me to make something clear, I am (like I believe most people are) NOT a fan of a damsel in distress.

    The idea that a character is constantly put into risk and to have the hero rescue her drives me nuts. This is especially the case if the character, through interactions characterization, has proven countless times they can take care of themselves.

    But I digress. A love interest whom has impressed me the most was Gwen Stacy in the new Spider-man film. While faithful and kind, she was also competent and actively contributing to the plot in very good ways without any spoilers.

    I’m kind of wanting to base this character in the same skater background as Luke, but I worry that might be considered a cop out. So my question is how should I go about this, while making the character competent, with her own goals, ideas and beliefs?

    All in all, thank you very much for taking the time to read this.

  18. LoveMe-WantMe-HaveMeon 13 Oct 2012 at 8:29 am

    I’m writing an entire novella for my hero’s origin, because there’s just so much that happens to her and it wouldn’t seem natural to just explain it shorthand.

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