On December 25, 2021, Kasie and Rex took on Origin Stories in honor of Christmas Day and the mythology surrounding Jesus. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
- What is an origin story?
- Required elements
- How to develop a good one
- Do all characters need one?
We hear “origin stories” most often in superhero literature. It’s How Spiderman Became Spiderman — he was bitten by a radioactive spider. How Batman Became Batman — he fell into a well, was afraid of the bats, then leveraged his parents’ death at the hand of a criminal to become a vigilante fighter for justice.
Origin stories are the exposition chunks of superhero lore and usually explain the supernatural powers our hero possesses or the one-track-mind of our obsessive villain.
But it’s Christmas Day and the most famous origin story of all is being told again and again this morning. So we’re going to weave a little Christ’s birth story suchness in here. Forgive us if there’s irreverence that insults the faith-minded. We’re talking strictly about the story elements, okay?
What purpose does an origin story serve?
The origin story gives the character legitimacy. In the case of Jesus, the origin story was meant to attach extraordinary circumstances to his birth in order to make him seem like more than a regular man.
The D.C. Universe has the League of Assassins (League of Shadows) led by Ra’s Al Ghul and affiliation with this League grants the character instant street cred.
Also known as a “creation myth,” the origin story also sets the longevity of the character, or at least the character’s familial connection to history. Diana was born on Themyscira and grew up as a member of an all-female tribe of Amazonian warriors. She is a princess and the daughter of Zeus, king of the Gods, and her mother Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen.
The creation myth can also separate our hero from others (a la Jesus) to make them remarkable — Diana claims to have been sculpted from clay and given life by Zeus. This kind of divine intervention and a birth unlike natural babies (i.e. born of a virgin) means the character was special from the get-go.
The idea of divine purpose, or destiny, shows up again and again as being rooted in the character’s origin as if the longer this path has been imagined, the more valuable it is.
Consider Harry Potter’s lightening bolt scar, the mark on the baby in Willow, or other oddities of birth like different colored eyes, or green-colored skin, that can be explained away by genetics now but were not so easily explained in ancient times.
What required elements do we expect?
Not all origin stories are birth stories. Many, like Spiderman’s, occur as an intervention of science or magic. So what are the elements of a good origin story?
This link from Superheronation.com is from the reader’s perspective. So let’s take that journey for a moment:
- A reason to care — why does it matter that Diana was sculpted from clay? Just the telling of that origin story indicates her naivete which plays a huge role in her character arc. It doesn’t make her relatable, except, don’t we all kind of believe what our mothers tell us about storks and stuff for a while?
- A universal struggle — like sleepiness and bedhead (Anna waking up in Frozen), oversleeping and being late (Marty McFly in Back to the Future)
- A human emotion — like affection for one’s family, or fear of bugs
- Don’t make them a Chosen One, make them earn their place — why does it matter if the character has to work for this? Because it shows they can be defeated and readers respect a character that earned their place.
- A self-sacrifice — Katniss isn’t selected, she volunteers as tribute
- A contest winner — the annual prove-yourself-worthy festival they can only compete in at 18
- A class/team leader — nominated by peers to assume the responsibility
- Tie the origin story to the villain’s plot — why is this the right hero to defeat this villain? Because they already have something in common. Peter Parker’s pal has an evil scientist dad. Oops.
- A revenge story — Syndrome (Buddy) is out to prove everyone can be super by getting revenge on Mr. Incredible
- A secret army — Black Widow’s training with the bad guys plays into her work with the Avengers as an ironic Good Guy.
- Don’t be too exceptional — a hero should doubt himself, wonder why he’s been forced to take this path, maybe even resent his exceptionalism. Think of Jesus being born to a carpenter instead of a king. The humble beginnings trope makes your hero relatable and gives room for self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and the incredulity others are likely to express.
- Poverty or rough beginnings — like Aladdin being a thief
- Unexpected gender or race — YA fantasy is living on this trope right now — a 16 year old girl cannot be expected to save the world, she’s in a love triangle for God’s sake.
- Give us a chance at a happy ending — deep pain like The Crow suffers is understandably revenge-worthy. But at the end of the day, he’s still dead. So where does he go from there?
- A new love — find another soulmate
- A new beginning/career — people believe in you now, get paid for this (the Avengers)
- Redemption — prison? Exile? Bloody killing spree? No problem. (see Hawkeye)
So, required elements — and this is just a Kasie brainstorm that I’m sure we’ll debate on the show.
- Humility — if the character isn’t born into poor or unfortunate circumstances, how will they ever be truly grateful for what they earn? We see this play out in Damien – the Robin that is actually Bruce Wayne’s son – he’s a spoiled brat. Jesus was born in a manger. Peter’s a nerdy high school kid. Aladdin is an orphan and a thief. Even Harry Potter is sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs.
- Faith in oneself or ridiculous optimism — despite the humble circumstances, our hero believes that he’s meant for bigger things. Jesus questioned the Rabbis at temple, Annie sang “Tomorrow,” Alexander Hamilton punched the bursar; this optimism is best when it seems completely unfounded. If there’s no good reason for looking up (Oliver Twist), then the looking becomes that much more compelling (PT Barnum).
- Magic or Science — the little bit of luck, a roll of the dice or a hand of cards (Jack gets on the Titanic), some unexplained phenomena (Mary Poppins floats in when the wind is right), the unintended consequences (an escaped radioactive spider) that are separate from our hero but the hero is in the right place at the right time. For the origin story to result in the fantastic, something fantastic must occur.
- Witnesses — someone has to see or believe the circumstances surrounding the origin. This witness is either the hero’s first confidante and lifelong pal, or the hero’s nemesis and constant potential threat.
Do regular people need origin stories?
Yes and no. Some of this is expected backstory. Origins that contain core wounds explain why our characters behave in certain ways. Not every character’s backstory is completely known or told during the story, and sometimes it’s just the important elements of the character’s backstory that are included.
But origin stories give us so much information that it’s a good idea to sketch them for all of your characters just so you get to know them a little better. This is why writers use people from their real life to craft characters. It’s easier to adopt someone else’s true backstory than to try to invent one.
Unless, of course, you don’t know any magical people. Then you must invent. Or, you can steal your local stories and infuse an element of the fantastic.