The Hazards of Origin Stories

Our modern media is awash with reboots, adaptations, and re-imaginings, which means that we’ve become very familiar with origin stories involving characters that we already know. While many of these stories are perfectly serviceable, let’s take the opportunity to examine some of the potential issues that might come from telling the story of how a beloved character (or group of characters) became the way they are.

Origin Stories are Formulaic

These types of stories tend to have a very predictable structure. Hero starts out in a life that’s normal but also flawed in some way; something terrible happens (this is usually followed by gaining super-powers if it’s a superhero story); the hero has a transition-period including initial shock and followed by a training montage; tries to quit; has a change of heart; beats his first villain and sets things up for a sequel. This is a perfectly acceptable character arc and can be done very well, but it can also feel forced and contrived if each stage of the formula isn’t properly driven by the motivations of the characters involved. It’s also hard to distinguish one story from another after a while if they all follow the same structure.

The Discovery Period is Often Boring

How often can we see a hero freak out and say “this is crazy/a dream/not happening/etc.” before we start rolling our eyes? Of course, it would be unrealistic for our hero to have her first encounter with a supernatural element (superpowers, a magical world, aliens, etc.) without being surprised, but the portrayal of her gradual acceptance of the fantastic almost always takes longer than the amount of time the audience needs to accept it. While it might be logical for the hero to have a transitional period from her old world to the new, there’s also the risk of losing an audience that’s tired of watching their hero cluelessly floundering around.

Forced Training Montages

Because origin stories almost always have an initial villain for the hero to defeat, there has to be a growing period where the hero develops the skills necessary for the climax to happen. Unfortunately, nearly every origin story takes place over a very short time, resulting in a training sequence that takes the hero from goofy fumblings to CGI-assisted awesomeness in the course of just a few days. There are a few exceptions to this (Batman Begins and the first Iron Man come to mind) which show the gradual development of a characters’ iconic skills and equipment, but this essential period of growth is usually glossed over in favor of contrived love stories and grieving over dead parents.

The Good Stuff Comes Later

The origin story rarely has a hero facing his greatest nemesis or even assuming his “final form” of coolness. This makes sense, as the storytellers are typically trying to establish a franchise with multiple sequels. But the problem with starting out with an intentionally weaker story is that you may lose your audience at Episode One, with no chance of continuing the franchise until the next reboot/origin story. Nobody cares how cool the third installment would have been if the first installment failed.

Again, I’m not saying that all origin stories are bad, but there are potential hazards in writing them, just as there are with any other type of story. If you’re an author working on the first installment of a series, my advice is to be mindful of your audience, and remember that your top priority should be telling a good story right now, or else the follow-ups may never happen.

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