Jul 12 2012
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).