Tips To Create Sensational Superhero Introduction & Origin Stories
Superhero characters abound in Internet fiction and RP, but many of their origins and introductions are plain boring, forgettable, and sometimes downright awful. So if you'd like to make your superheroes' first appearances and/or backstories sizzle, here are a few things you might try out, as relevant to the type of story you're writing.
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- In their origins, let them make proactive choices and take actions that change their lives (besides deciding to fight villains)
- Give them problems that ordinary people (IE, your audience) can connect and relate to.
- If you show them getting powers for the first time, show them having realistic reactions.
- Show us what makes your characters heroes.
- Lighten your origin stories up a little!
- Be wary of these extremely common origin story elements.
- However, don't obsess too much over whether your origin stories are completely and totally original.
- So, in summary...
In their origins, let them make proactive choices and take actions that change their lives (besides deciding to fight villains).
It's a foregone conclusion that soon-to-be-superheroes will choose to fight villains one way or another, so there's nothing there that will make a particularly compelling or noteworthy origin story. The interesting actions and choices are the ones that aren't implicitly mandated by the type of story you're writing.
Let your characters be proactive about some other things that ultimately change their lives, too - don't just have them muddle around doing the bare minimum needed to survive life until something extraordinary happens. Characters who do this tend to make very boring protagonists.
So, instead of your character simply stumbling into a room where people are discussing their nefarious plans on pure accident, maybe your character catches wind that something strange might be going on and decides to go and see what's up. Instead of attending a big event just because everyone else was already going and someone else offered to pay for your character's fare anyway, maybe your character wants to go and chooses to work overtime because the rest of the group doesn't have enough money for it. Maybe instead of stumbling into someone else's strange scientific experiment, your character is the one doing the experiment.
Your characters' choices and actions needn't all be noble or selfless, either. You might have a character decide to work at a bioengineering lab just because it pays really well, or choose to hunt down the power-granting alien artifact mainly for glory and fame, or choose to try developing something just to beat someone else to it. Not everything your character does has to be for someone else or for the greater good, after all.
You can even have you choices that are downright bad or ultimately disastrous play into your characters' origin stories. Maybe a character's selfish actions or irresponsible actions lost the respect of someone important and now your character wants to earn it back. Maybe a character ended up broke gambling and needs a way to pay off the debts and bills. Maybe a character's first attempt at superheroics went horribly wrong and now that character must find a way to fix or make up for it, if only for conscience's sake.
In any case, characters who drive and take charge of their own destinies in one way or another are usually much more interesting than characters who just sit around until something happens or is handed to them. It shows that these characters aren't just passive/reactive lumps, but that they are proactive people capable of making decisions and acting upon them - an important quality for a superhero. Plus, if they end up bringing themselves to disaster or failure, it makes the conflict all the more personal. Remember, a story isn't just about the destination, but the journey: people must come to appreciate the endpoint by seeing what the character had to do to get there, and the struggles that character faced (but not necessarily overcame) along the way.
Bottom line, don't have them sit around and wait for Destiny to come calling. Have them ring up Destiny themselves - even if they (and the audience) don't realize yet who they're calling.
If you show them getting powers for the first time, show them having realistic reactions.
Suddenly getting powers is a pretty big deal, and your characters should react accordingly if you're going to show them doing this in your story. Depending upon the nature of the powers and the kind of person who receives them, some emotions one might feel are wonder, awe, excitement, curiosity, and fear - and often as not, at least a few of them at different times and in different amounts.
Someone who gained fire powers might fascinated with them and curious to see what all could be done with them, but at the same time suddenly shooting fire from one's hands might be scary - what if the house catches fire or what if someone gets hurt? But then again, fire is pretty and there might be a huge thrill in being able to control something normally considered dangerous.
Someone with a scientific mind might have great time running experiments to see what all could be done with the powers, and to find out how the powers behaved under different circumstances. (Do they work better after eating certain foods? At different times of day? How big can these fireballs get?) Someone with an artistic mind might take delight in discovering ways to use them to create something visually pleasing. Someone with a prankish nature might start trying to figure out how to play jokes on people. And so on and so forth.
Give them problems that ordinary people (IE, your audience) can connect and relate to.
Having an omnicidal alien warlord for for a parent, hard-to-control powers, or a shady organization after one's DNA can add some intrigue to your story, but on their own won't do much to get people to genuinely care about your characters and what happens to them. These are basically "super people problems," and they're nigh-impossible to empathize with because nobody actually has them.
On the other hand, if you give characters problems that the audience can easily relate to, they'll feel a connection to the character and/or find it much easier to put themselves in the character's shoes. And once that happens, they'll often start caring instantly about what happens to that character.
Here's a short (and by no means comprehensive) list of things that qualify as real people problems:
- Realistic conflict/tension with parents and other family members.
- Worrying about the welfare of one's friends and family.
- Wanting to be noticed by a crush.
- Feeling insecure over not being the most attractive person around.
- Having a hard time making oneself look nice, or even just sort of all right.
- Embarrassing oneself in public, including in front of figures one wants to impress.
- Having irritating classmates, teachers, coworkers, and bosses - and the occasional ones who are just downright mean or spiteful.
- Having to hold back what one really wants to say or having to hide one's true emotions.
- Not having enough money for something one really wants to have or do.
- Feeling like one doesn't belong or like one is misunderstood.
- Wanting a better or more exciting life in general, but not being able to have it.
- Wanting to be free of one's current responsibilities and obligations, but not being able to.
- Fear of failure, and dealing with failure when it inevitably happens.
- Making bad choices - and having to take responsibility for them.
- Meeting deadlines and due dates.
Also, don't fix all of your characters' real people problems in their first story! Because once their real people problems all disappear, so does their relatability. If you want to keep the people who got into your characters because of their relatable problems engaged in your story, this is the last thing you want to do. This is not to say that your characters must have these problems for all time - far from it! But they should take time and effort to resolve, and new real people problems should crop up along the way. Ideally, your characters should also have to go about handling and/or solving the vast majority of their problems in much the same ways that anyone else would have to, with the same complications and setbacks that anyone else might have to face.
So, for example, you might have a socially awkward character who longs for a more exciting life suddenly get one when an incident gives the character superpowers... but ends up making a bad impression upon the very people the character is trying to protect by saying or doing something awkward that doesn't go over well with them. Or you might have a jobless and broke character get a job that pays really well, but now has to deal with this one really irritating co-worker and a self-absorbed boss who sets difficult deadlines - and your character can't give them what for without losing the job. Or a character finally gets a date with a crush and has it go well, but it turns out that the crush's older sibling doesn't want the pair dating and starts trying to get them split up... and your character's powers can do nothing to fix this - at least, not without doing something unthinkably awful.
But - a caveat! Real people problems, as any problems, must be handled carefully so that your character doesn't end up looking whiny, entitled, judgmental, or spiteful. On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents has more on this.For more ideas for real people problems, just look at real people - EG, your parents, siblings, other family members, friends, acquaintances, and so on - and you'll find no end of them.
Show us what makes your characters heroes.
True heroes go out of their way to do good for others at personal risk or cost. This means that if your "superhero" can effortlessly save a busload of people in thirty seconds flat, then there is nothing particularly heroic in that action because it's literally the least your character could do for them.
If you want your characters' origin stories to convince people that they are actual hero material, then we need to see them take risks and/or make actual sacrifices somewhere. Exactly what it ought to be depends on the tone of story you're trying to establish and what kind of character you're writing about - for example, if you're writing a fairly young character and you're not looking to set too dark a tone, it could be as simple as risking getting grounded by Mom for being home late and missing out on a date with friends. For a darker and/or more serious story, your character might risk brutal punishment or retribution if discovered or caught, or risk ostracization from friends or family members if found out.
While the exact nature of the stakes your characters should face will depend on what kind of people they are and what kind of tone you're looking to set, one thing holds true for any and every superhero you develop: it should be something that matters to them somehow.
This also applies if you're trying to make a "dark" superhero. Although they don't need to be held to the same standards that other heroes might, care must be taken that they don't come off as completely cold and callous, or else you're not writing any kind of hero at all. (If you are trying to write a "dark" superhero, On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters might be relevant to you.)
Lighten your origin stories up a little!
Many superhero origin stories in Internet fiction are ridiculously dark. The character has nightmarishly awful caretakers, or sometimes none at all. The character was or is hated and bullied by everyone in school. The character has never had any friends, or any friends the character did have died. The character was forced to undergo cruel and horrific experimentation. The character was mind-controlled by an evil organization. The character's powers are scary and dangerous. The list goes on.
This isn't to say that your characters' lives must be beds of roses, nor that they must all have safe, reliable, and pretty powers. However, if everyone's backstories and origins are all pain and misery all the time, these elements will lose their shock value and dramatic impact as people grow numb to them. Eventually, they'll just feel dull and repetitive.
Instead, shake it up a little. Make your characters' stories blends of bad and good - much like most people's lives are in reality. Avoid dipping into extremes except in very rare or exceptional circumstances - odds are, your characters actually don't need to be hated and bullied by everyone else at school, nor do their only family members all have to be some combination of dead, missing, violent, sadistic, addicted, or totally useless, nor must your characters be forced through some kind of cruel and unusual training regime that no actual military or military-like organization would even think of using, and so on.
Also, avoid using too many uncommon tragic events in the same story - losing a family member or even a few in a tragic accident is plausible, but a series of tragic events picking off all of the character's family is a bit much. (One character I saw actually lost her entire family in a series of unrelated car accidents.)
Go ahead and make the occasional character whose life is really horrible, but in these cases let it mirror real life and let them be the exception, not the rule. And when you do, try to make sure that the bad bits don't constitute some major violation of basic sense and logic in some way (check out Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas, Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover Ups, and Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon for more on this).
If you're not sure how much trauma, tragedy, and hardship might be too much for your characters, just ask yourself how much they actually need in order forge them into the kind of people they're supposed to be. Avoid going too far beyond that, and you'll usually do fine.
Be wary of these extremely common origin story elements.
Certain elements pop up a lot in Internet fiction, so much that after awhile it gets hard to remember which character was which because they're all so much alike. If you want your character to stand out, you'll either want to avoid them or take extra effort to do something really unusual with them. These elements are:
Orphans and foundlings: Self-explanatory. This one's particularly egregious if it serves as little to no more than an excuse to give a character connections to big-name superheroes and/or to give a character something to angst about.
Test subjects and laboratory creations: Where a character is experimented upon or created in a lab by creepy evil scientists and ultimately makes an escape or is left for dead somewhere.
Living weapons and perfect assassins: Where a character has been created, trained, or augmented to be the perfect killer one way or another.
Born with a mutation: This one's all right if you're making a carrier of the X-gene who mainly associates with other mutants. Otherwise it's become a bit trite, especially when it's used as an easy reason for an OC to have superpowers so to have a reason to be noticed by and work with the big-name heroes.
Newbie noticed by a big-name team/organization: Where a big-name group of some kind notices and takes aboard a nobody with few to no solo achievements. Usually ends up being pretty ridiculous as there's little to no reasoning for it beyond "this person has powers, must add to team."
New York City and NYC clones: Where a character's origin story takes place primarily in the Big Apple or a city that's obviously based on it. (If it has a lot of skyscrapers and its name ends in "City," it's probably an NYC clone.) Remember, superhero stories can take place anywhere, so don't feel shy about breaking this mold.
However, don't obsess too much over whether your origin stories are completely and totally original.
If you're clinging to the notion of creating a 100% totally original never-been-done-before origin story… stop. With hundreds of superhero characters out there already, the odds that you'll be able to create a completely new origin story are extremely low. So don't fuss and fret over whether something has ever been done before, because that's not helpful at all.
Of course, you shouldn't just copy other superheroes' origin stories willy-nilly. If people recognize iconic elements from other superheroes' origins in your character's origin story story, or realize that your character's origin story is a play-by-play rehash of someone else's, they're going to write your character off as a copycat and probably won't continue reading.
But, in general, as long as you can avoid overusing the low-hanging fruits and make your character into a three-dimensional person that people can connect to and find something to like about, readers can forgive a lot. For more on the topic of sharing elements with other works, check out Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, & When It Isn't.
So, in summary...
- Let some things happen to your characters as a result of their own choices and actions, rather than from sheer random happenstance, or from forces beyond their control or ability to avoid.
- Show them having realistic reactions to their new powers - dull reactions make for dull characters!
- Give them real people problems - the kinds of problems that everyday, ordinary people have to deal with.
- Don't make their backstories all agony all the time, lest their backstories grow repetitive and boring.
- Orphans and foundlings, lab rats and living weapons, mutants, being noticed by big-name teams right off the bat, and NYC or obvious stand-ins are all extremely common elements that you may wish to avoid. If you do use them, you'll probably want to find a way to freshen them up.
- However, don't fret too much over whether your character's origin story is 100% purely original, never ever been done before in the history of ever, because... that's pretty much impossible. Work on creating a well-rounded character and avoid the big cliches, and you should be all right.
And these pages might be relevant to you:
Tips 'N Stuff To Create, Write, & Draw Better Female Action Heroes
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
Basic Tips To Write Better (And More Likeable) Badasses
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
On Writing Sympathetic Morally-Ambiguous Characters
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
Tips To Create Better-Looking Superhero & Supervillain Costumes
Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers
How You Got Your Superpowers
Random Superpower Generator
Magical & Weird Science Effects Generator
Yet Another Superpower Generation Tool
Tips To Write Better & More Exciting Action & Fight Scenes
Writing Comedy & Comic Relief
Tips For Writing Fanfiction With An OC Protagonist
A Few Things To Remember To Improve Your Marvel Characters, Roleplays, & Fanfics