Jul 12 2012

Great Reasons to Consider Skipping Over a Superhero Origin Story

Published by at 12:51 pm under Origin Stories,Superpowers,Writing Articles

Here are some signs it might be best to spend 0-2 sentences covering an origin story (how a character becomes superpowered and/or why he becomes a superhero).


1. The origin story doesn’t do much to develop characters, conflicts or the setting. For example, Superman’s origin story doesn’t do much to build up his distinguishing traits. Additionally, in most cases his backstory doesn’t do a great job setting up the conflict. In contrast, it’d be relatively difficult to tell a story like X-Men unless we had some idea what mutants were.


2. There are many superpowered characters and developing each individual origin would be too inefficient and/or incoherent. If you were inclined to, you could do a mass origin (e.g. X-Men or Wild Cards) and/or describe how the team forms rather than how the characters developed their superpowers. Neither of these alternatives is necessary, though—if the teammates’ interactions in the present develop the characters and establish their motivations, we don’t need to know the events leading up to them becoming a team.  (Similarly, in most stories about police departments and military units, most of the teammates have been teammates for some time).


3. The only purpose of the origin would be to establish where the superpowers came from. If so, this can be accomplished in less than a page.* Please don’t spend many pages setting up (say) another generic scientific accident—just skip to what makes the character(s) unique and memorable (such as, say, what the characters do with the superpowers, how their lives are altered, or maybe skip forward a few years to the character as an established superhero).

*For example, The Incredibles entirely skips over the question of where the superpowers came from. In my own The Taxman Must Die, most of the protagonists’ superpowers are covered in 1-2 sentences.


4. It would be best if the readers didn’t know. For example, if one character on a team were distinctly tight-lipped and/or mysterious, I think it’d make sense if readers and most characters didn’t know much about his past. However, this approach might be problematic if the character is the main point-of-view and the origin is relevant to understanding the character’s motivations. (Whether the main character is mysterious or not, readers need to have some idea of why he’s doing what he’s doing to make sense of the plot).


5. The characters’ motivations and distinguishing traits are memorably developed elsewhere. For example, The Incredibles didn’t cover where the superpowers came from or focus on why Bob Parr originally became a superhero, but we can see his character traits in action elsewhere (e.g. his troubled marriage, the risks he takes at work to help customers, and his decision to become a superhero again).

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Great Reasons to Consider Skipping Over a Superhero Origin Story”

  1. Linebylineon 14 Jul 2012 at 10:58 am

    I think in the Incredibles it’s kinda-sorta implied that super powers are genetic. The kids have powers, but they’re young enough and lead sheltered enough lives that I doubt they’ve yet been in a situation to be bitten by a radioactive lab explosion or whatever.

    [SPOILER] Especially in Jack-Jack’s case. [/SPOILER]

    This was more explicit in a deleted scene in which Syndrome mentions that supers aren’t allowed to “breed,” but that was from an earlier treatment in which he wasn’t the main villain, so maybe not. Besides, even then it wasn’t explicit.

    I’m inclined to think that just being born with super powers isn’t really conducive to character development, anyway, at least not directly. It could result in situations that develop a character, Sure. In the sense that how a character gets powers can say a lot about that character, though, I think this model is an exception. It makes it not just a good idea but necessary that the characters are “memorably developed elsewhere.”

  2. Seraon 14 Jul 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I was hoping readers would just accept that my characters are supers without me ever mentioning HOW they got their powers. It’s not like they have extraordinary powers either, just things like enhanced strength, speed, or weapons. Is this possible?

  3. Linebylineon 15 Jul 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Sera, that depends. If this is basically a plain old superhero work, then I’m fine just accepting that, okay, these characters are super-powered, and you can explain why later or never. If your tone is light/silly enough, then questioning where the powers came from might be like questioning why Elmer Fudd can walk on thin air or Spongebob Squarepants can light a fire underwater.

    On second thought, those last examples imply that your characters would lose their powers the moment they wonder where they came from, which…um…probably wouldn’t be the case. 😉 Maybe a better example is why Sonic can run fast and his planet is littered with naturally-occurring loop-de-loop formations.

    On the other hand, if you’re writing a basically realistic setting that wouldn’t necessarily feature super-powered humans, then I think I’d be left scratching my head wondering why this particular group had enhanced strength or speed.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of time on it. For instance, all I need to know about Iron Man is that he’s a billionaire genius who made a flying suit of armor with weapons in it. I don’t need to know right away that he built a mini arc reactor in a cave with a box of scraps. (Sorry, was that supposed to be in all-caps?)

    In Iron Man/Tony Stark’s case, that’s important character motivation stuff, so you’d have to explain it at some point. If your characters’ origin doesn’t have much to do with their motivations, then feel free to skip it.

    As for weapons, I don’t think I’d worry about that at all unless the weapon was really unique and/or had its own story (like Iron Man’s suit or Excalibur). I think part of the charm of Ronin from Stargate Atlantis was that he had this really awesome gun unlike any other weapon in the series, and it wasn’t explained where it came from. When they later revealed where he got it, I was a little disappointed.

    I’m speaking as a reader, not a writer, though, so don’t take my word for it.

  4. B. McKenzieon 15 Jul 2012 at 2:09 pm

    “I don’t need to know right away that he built a mini arc reactor in a cave with a box of scraps. (Sorry, was that supposed to be in all-caps?)” No, but it would have been more memorable. Boxes of scraps are one of the only exceptions to “It is almost never a good idea to use all-caps for dialogue or narration.” 🙂 My BASIC code for this equation looks like this…

    IF BoxofScraps = “FALSE”, THEN AllCaps = “HACKISH”
    Else AllCaps = “AWESOME”

    Clearly, it has been many years since I took Intro to Computer Science.

  5. Yubbyon 16 Aug 2014 at 6:59 am

    Hi! I was wondering because I’m writing a book about how if a person were to actually have super powers in real life how that would work out and I need a really origional origin story. Probably noone will see this but if you do I would really like your ideas! Thanks!

  6. TTon 06 Jul 2015 at 8:46 pm

    If you know their powers, let me know. I’m on gmail as girlyspider.

  7. Andrewon 03 Feb 2016 at 6:12 am

    I believe that if mulitiple characters got their power from a single source (E.G: Green Lantern characters with the Emotional Spectrum) It would be a time-saver and would help move the plot along with more important things. Like if characters were ever asked, there’d be no need to take up half an issue with indivdual explanations

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