When we think about origin stories, we think about Superman’s escape from Krypton or Peter Parker’s encounter with a radioactive spider. If we are starting a book series, or if we’re introducing a key character in a stand-alone book, we may want to provide an origin story. We want our readers to get to know our characters, how they became the way they are, and why they act the way they do.
Origin stories can be tricky. This summer, Hollywood has provided some great and not-so-great examples of them. How do we create origin stories that keep readers interested in our characters? We can turn to Hollywood for lessons on what to do and what to avoid. Spoilers ahead.
Tell a Good Story
The primary purpose of an origin story is to tell a good story. Some Hollywood producers forget that. If people don’t enjoy the origin story, they won’t be interested in what the character does next.
Some producers remembered, which is why we have such great origin story movies like Rocky, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Spider-Man. These movies work because they are complete, entertaining stories with engaging characters. Audiences can enjoy them on their own without knowing the character’s backstory ahead of time. Because audiences got hooked with the first installment, they eagerly await the sequels.
If you are planning sequels, you still need to give your origin story a definitive ending and solve the main story question. The hero must defeat the villain and end his diabolical scheme, even if that villain will escape to attack again in a future installment.
Don’t Reveal Everything
You don’t have to reveal everything about a character in an origin story. In fact, there are many reasons for withholding information.
Let’s take another look at the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker that the lightsaber belonged to his father. Why didn’t Obi-Wan also tell Luke who his father really was? Two reasons:
It wasn’t relevant to the plot of the first movie. It was enough to show that Luke had a Jedi father and therefore had the skills he needed to be a hero.
The storytellers needed to establish Luke’s virtue and his father’s villainy so that the big reveal near the end of the second film had maximum dramatic effect.
Have Your Character Grow
All main characters should grow during the course of a story, but character growth is especially important in origin stories. A couple of superhero stories show great examples of this.
As a youth, Superman’s superhuman strength is more of a curse than a blessing. He is regarded as a freak and doesn’t fit in with the other teens in Smallville. His bumbling, nerdy alter ego of Clark Kent may be less of a disguise and more of how he feels as an outsider on earth. In time, he learns to be comfortable with both of his personas and uses them to be a hero and still fit in with human society.
In Spider-Man, Peter Parker has a difficult time coming to terms with his superpowers, and he must learn a bitter lesson before he realizes that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This lesson helps him become the hero he needs to be.
Great origin stories recognize that no one emerges fully formed as a hero, even if that person was born with or was given heroic abilities. It takes time for people to recognize those abilities, accept them, develop them, and struggle with the temptations to use them for selfish or vengeful ends. Seeing heroes struggle with doubt and learning to use their abilities make them seem human and relatable. This is why the best origin stories inspire us to become heroes as well.