Archive for the 'Origin Stories' Category

Jul 12 2012

Great Reasons to Consider Skipping Over a Superhero Origin Story

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

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).


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Dec 08 2009

New Category: Origin Stories

Published by under Origin Stories

I realized that I have several articles on origin stories, so I’ve made a new category for them.

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Nov 05 2008

Why Secret Origins Are Usually Awful

Occasionally, an author will breathlessly offer some revelation about a character’s origin.  (Luke and Leia are siblings!  Sylar is actually a Petrelli! That mysterious old man is actually a god!)  Secret origin stories are rarely effective.  If you’re doing a secret origin, here are the biggest potential concerns.  If you can avoid these, I think the secret has promise.

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Oct 09 2008

“Yet Another Comics Blog” argues against origin stories

Yet Another Comics Blog argues that origin stories are mostly a distraction from the real action.

The origin is not the interesting story; it’s background information. If the information in the origin is important to the story you’re telling, then you can go back later and fill in for the reader. But don’t start with an issues-long origin…

Think of all the good genre movies you’ve ever seen. How many begin with a long origin sequence? Did Raiders of the Lost Ark start with 45 minutes of young Indiana Jones getting his PhD in archaeology? Did Star Wars begin with the origin of Darth Vader?

I disagree.  A character is usually the most human and relatable during his origin story.  Additionally, for most superheroes they also provide an irreplaceable opportunity to introduce the audience to the character.  For example, an author couldn’t explain who Spiderman is without showing why his uncle died.

Also, Star Wars did not begin with the origin of Darth Vader, but it did explain Luke’s origin at length.  Over the course of three movies we saw a farmboy grow into the savior of the universe.  It worked quite effectively.  I’d also venture that the first Matrix movie benefitted from Neo’s origin story.  If it had started with Neo after he had been released from the Matrix, it would have been horribly confusing.

The author praises Batman but criticizes Spiderman and Superman for spending too much time on origin.  But these are exceptional cases.  Usually, the audience is completely new to the backstory.  If so, then explaining the character’s origin is probably essential to introducing the audience to the world and/or the character.

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Sep 24 2008

Which Origin Stories are Plausible?

One of our Google queries today was “can radiation give you superpowers?”


No. However, if you’re writing a superhero story, that doesn’t matter! Your readers will accept that tropes like radiation can give someone superpowers, so radiation makes for a completely plausible origin story. Except for intense training, it’s not like there’s any better alternative.  (In real life, one drug addict put his brain under so much neurological stress that his sense of smell sharpened to canine-like levels, but he died a few weeks thereafter.  Also, for obvious reasons, narcotics do not typically work well for superhero origin stories).


Here are some other origin stories that readers have generally come to accept.

  1. Cybernetics (Bionic Woman, Cyborg).
  2. Genetic engineering (Spiderman).
  3. Chemical enhancement (Green Goblin).
  4. Powersuits and/or exoskeletons (Iron Man, Steel).  I think that the Iron Man suit will be mostly scientifically viable within 30 years (but too expensive to be practical).
  5. Other technological hardware–for example, three-dimensional invisibility and technopathy (a mind-machine interface) will be viable within 30 years.
  6. Neurosurgery.  At the very least, we’ll probably be able to surgically enhance reflexes within 30 years.   Suppressing pain is a distinct possibility, although pain serves an important biological role (alerting the brain to danger–for example, if you’ve been in a car accident, pain is the clearest indicator of whether you’ve injured a limb and will help you know how far you can push your body without causing lasting damage).
  7. Ridiculously tough training (Batman, GI Joe).
  8. The hero belongs to a tougher-than-human species (Superman, possibly X-Men).
  9. Mutations, probably (X-Men, Heroes).
  10. Miracle operations (Kick-Ass).
  11. Stimulating the visual cortex so that skills can be learned extremely quickly (The Matrix).  There’s been some exciting work on this front recently.


Typically, plausible origin stories tend to be scientific.  Fortunately, you don’t have to have a strong grasp of scientific research to write a compelling origin story. Generally speaking, modern scientific research in fields like genetics is conducted by large teams of scientists that spend years on each project and have access to large budgets.  If you’re writing a superhero story, your readers will almost always accept that a single supergenius can perform unimaginable feats of science.  Reed Richards is apparently a world-class researcher in every branch of science, and he’s able to instantaneously solve problems that would probably take a real team of scientists decades.


Here are some other (incorrect) assessments of modern science that readers will usually accept.

  1. Superhero scientists rarely keep good notes.  When the doctor that created Captain America got killed, the formula for the serum was lost forever.  Whoops.  In real life, researchers keep exhaustive notes so that their experiments can be replicated.
  2. Superhero scientists rarely fail.  In real life, scientists would test hundreds of variations of a drug, which tends to make the process inordinately laborious and expensive.  But readers will accept that a superscientist tends to get it right almost immediately.
  3. A super-scientist can accomplish anything if he’s desperate enough.  Tony Stark built a powersuit in an Afghan cave and Norman Osbourne became the Green Goblin because he was willing to subject himself to premature tests.
  4. Every scientifically gifted high school student will be the best in the world if the plot calls for it.

349 responses so far

May 29 2008

How to Write Origin Stories

Here are a few tips to help you write better origin stories for characters in superhero novels and comic books.

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