The Origin Story
Okay peoples. Say you got the next great novel (or “novel franchise” if you’re doing the Harry Potter thing) idea in your head. It’s going to be about a guy (or gal) who overcomes adversity to defeat the villain in the end, but this time it’s going to be UNIQUE! There’s going to be action, comedy, drama, thrills, chills, and spills and it’s going to be amazing! During my film school days a writer (or writer-director) would pour his heart out to the class, describing his kick-ass idea for a movie. You could tell he was already into the project by his inflection and posture. Then came the death-knell: One film student, who was usually slouching the back, would lazily raise his hand and ask:
“Who IS this character?”
BAM! The gravy train would instantly derail. Was this student asking about the existential properties of a human being and what makes them tick? Heck NO, nobody at film school was ever that deep. No, they really wanted some general background on the character. They wanted to know the character’s Origin
Origin stories aren’t just for superheroes (but them too). They allow the audience to learn about a character and find out what he’s made of. For the audience it’s a character’s origin story that determines whether or not the character in question is LIKEABLE and RELATEABLE. These two building blocks are imperative to the success to your story. For example, imagine the plot of a movie is the following:
“A person with everything to lose puts it all on the line for a footrace up Deadman’s Cavern.”
Boom! There’s your synopsis (log-line). But watch how the tone of the movie changes when we throw in the origin of our hero:
A. Dax Rodrigo was one of the best USAF fighter pilots on record, until being gunned down during a mission left him without the use of his legs. After being told he would never walk again, training and perseverance proved the doctors wrong. Now, to prove to HIMSELF that he was as strong as he ever was, he signs up for the Deadman Cavern’s footrace.
B. Stacey Billings is just your average girl and that’s the problem. Stacey has tried everything to stick out but to no results. After hearing about a footrace at Deadman’s Cavern and how most people don’t even finish, she joins the race. Not only to prove that girls can do it better, but also to win the heart of her high school sweetheart.
C. Jack St. John just invented a BRAND NEW jetpack that’s going to revolutionize personal travel. The problem is, he’s a little short on cash. After hearing about a footrace that has a grand prize of two million dollars for coming in first, it’s up to him and his sidekick Bobby to see if they have any hopes of winning.
You may have noticed that origin stories to have some tinges of plot within them and that’s okay. Stories A B and C are all about the same race. But more importantly, they have three different or tones or “flavors” about them. A is more of the traditional “sports story” narrative, where our hero digs deep in order to play in “The Big Game”. B is more of a romantic comedy narative, in which someone looks within themselves to show they have something “to offer” the opposite sex and this gets projected by two external things: The race as the challenge and The Sweetheart as the object of desire. C takes a Sci-Fi but yet pragmatic approach. Sure he’s building a jetpack, but we all can RELATE to making money..
That is unless you’re against the stuff. If you are, you can give it to me and….
Well, you get the idea.
This is why superhero stories are so engrained in our culture. There are dozens of heroes that share the same powers, but it’s usually the character’s origin (and personality traits) that separate them. Again it’s all about your audience relating to your character. Let’s take Superman for an example. Sure fans (and fanboys) are going to nitpick this but most people know the basic story of Superman: (Duh, American Superheroes are our Classical Greek Myths but I digress)
Superman is from the planet Krypton. When the planet was blowing the hell up, Supes was placed on a spaceship for safety. He lands in rural Kansas (Smallville) where he’s raised by surrogate Earth parents. He hones his powers and in thirty years time he’s the Man of Steel.
Lots of people gravitate to Superman for a lot of reasons. (Side note: Supes isn’t my favorite but I don’t hate on him as much as the modern comic fan). First you have the “American Dream” dynamic. There are some that latch on the fact Superman came from another world (or country) and worked his way up being America’s number one guy. There are other people that gravitate to the fact that Supes had foster parents and even with them, still achieved in life. These two are splinters of the “fish out of water” dynamic. Almost everyone at one time, whether it be work or school or a stripclub (kidding!) felt as if they didn’t belong there. Even still, some would appreciate the fact that Supes is simply a superhero, somebody that the people of Metropolis look up to.
But your heroes don’t have to be super powered, unless you want them to. Now, your character doesn’t have to appeal to everybody (For one it’s near impossible to do, and for another you risk destroying your Character Integrity ), but it’s up to you to find out what is going to make your audience pay money to see the exploits of the character you develop.
If you are creating characters for the screen or stage, origin stories (even if they aren’t on the page) help your performers internalize the character. Here’s one more example.
I work as a backstage interviewer for Mach One Pro Wrestling; I’ve talked about that many times. When I started, I didn’t have an origin story or character. I was just told to be “myself”. Now ironically, since I use my given name at Mach One (a name no one has ever referred to me save for legal documents since 1996)
I felt a disconnect. I couldn’t be myself while using that name, because it wasn’t me. So I devised a back story or origin to make the transition from Flobo the cool guy, to the Uptight Nerdy Interviewer just that smoother. Wanna hear it?
As the son of a rich investor, my goal is to buy Mach One right from under the guys who own the company. So when I interview the talent and staff, I’m gathering information for my eventual takeover
Now does this show up on screen? No, but having that origin helps me make decisions as far as my posturing, line of questioning, and my antics when holding the microphone. I use my self-devised origin as a FOUNDATION for every interview I conduct.
Okay, I’ve rambled enough. Go out and create the greatest characters ever. Ones with killer origin stories, will ya?