Thursday, March 1, 2012

Straight Talk About Origin Stories

The question from last week got me thinking about origin stories, and whether they still need a drawn-out telling. Batman had two pages in the old days and then it was off to the races. Most of the books from new pulp publishers that I've read tend to jump right in with little more than a brief set-up to establish character, and then they're off to the skies or into the jungles. Or in some cases, an origin requires a long comic book arc or is the purpose of the first novel in a series.

So, let's talk origin stories, folks.

Is the origin story still a necessity for today's pulp, comics, and action/adventure tales? Why or why not?

Nancy Hansen: It really depends on the story, and where you're going with it. A simple character or easily understandable world setting probably needs no more than a page of setup so that you know who this is, and where we are. Length of the story has a lot to do with it too, as well as whether this is going to be a standalone tale or something serialized. In something short or a standalone novel, you really don't want to waste too much time in that kind of setup, so the faster you can get any necessary info across, the better. And in anything like pulp, which thrives on fast action, you don't want to bog things down in details. If you're going to do an origin story, it better be exciting and full of thrills.

In fantasy and sci-fi there is often a lot of world building to do. In the mainstream writing, where readers tend to thrive on that sort of detailed thing, you have a lot more wiggle room for going off on long winded narratives. Not so in pulp where two pages or paragraphs into that, you lost your reader's attention. You have to do it in short spurts in between more active things going on. You'd be surprised how much detail you can get across even in the midst of a big action scene.

Roger Stegman: A lot of whether an origin story is necessary depends on the character, situation, and the audience. If the situation is really strange,  you had better explain it. If the situation could be misinterpreted,  you had better explain it. If the situation is obvious at the moment, you might go without an origin explanation until a bit later.

One must remember that readers today are much different than readers back in the 50s or earlier. I remember reading one of the Doc Savage books and the first 60 pages was introducing the characters before the story  began. I remember hearing about authors of the late 1800s explaining the history of the country for a hundred pages before the story even started.

Today's readers expect to be captured at the first word and dragged along. Description, back story, details fitted into the action. Modern readers have less patience with their books.

Ed Erdelac: I think absolutely it is. If you've got a great, well-thought out character, a character that resonates with readers, he's got to have a great origin. The Lone Ranger, Batman, The Shadow, Superman, Spider-Man, they've all got great origin stories.

Lance Stahlberg: It depends on how important the origin itself is to the rest of the story that you really want to tell. In pulps especially, err on the side of "not very".

For most crime fighters,those stories are typically more about the crime and the criminals than they are about the hero. In most cases, what motivated them makes for better filler material than it does an introduction.

In adventure tales, its even less needed. Heroes like Indiana Jones are pretty self explanatory. You don't need to do more than establish who and what they are in one paragraph or two panels. In fact, I may not need or even want to know too much about a character's background. I just want to see what he's gonna do next.

Lee Houston Jr.: Maybe not immediately, but definitely over time, yes. Your hero/heroine's actions and reactions during their debut adventure will do more to cement any relationship the character might develop with the readers. While there is no one correct way to present it, you do want to reveal the character's origin eventually so that the reader understands not only how, but more importantly why, the hero/heroine does what they do. The two schools of thought on this are "as it happens" and "the big reveal", which your other questions cover in more detail.

James R. Tuck: I believe origin stories can be complete in and of themselves. You can tell the full, detailed story of how your character came to be who they are. It is a classic move. Star Wars is basically the origin story of Luke Skywalker. It works because it is a complete arc.

Bill Craig: I think origin stories are necessary because readers want to know where a character comes from, what has turned them into the person they are.  As I was recently going over the manuscript for one of my Jack Riley adventures, Pirates' Blood to reformat it since the rights reverted to me, I noticed that during the course of the story, that I was telling through flashbacks some specifics of Riley's time spent working for the CIA, something not normally talked about in the books which focus on his time as a Chicago Police Detective.  It both gave him extra dimension and also made him more human as it revealed exactly why he left the CIA to become a cop, something that had been hinted at in the past but never been fully revealed.

How you can make an origin story more than just a recap of the back story a reader needs?

Nancy Hansen: Depends on how detailed you need to make it. If you have to get in over a couple pages worth of info, you need that origin story first. I'm not fond of long flashbacks, they get confusing and kill story continuity. If it won't fly in a paragraph or three, you need to rethink this tale. If you can find a way to get that info across without slowing the action and bogging down the story, go for it.

Just don't do the, "As you know Captain...," routine that Spock always did on classic Star Trek (which I loved BTW).

"Why yes... I do know that Spock..., so why... are you telling me... again?"

"Well Captain, our viewers do not know this, so it is is just my awkward Vulcan way of telling them."

I've got a trilogy going right now that started with FORTUNE'S PAWN and is designed to introduce an ongoing character that isn't even born yet. I started trying to write the character as is, but the background tale was just too good to gloss over. The trick has been to make that seminal story just as fascinating as the future ones will be, so that my readers are already steeped in that world and know what to expect. Yet at the same time, you have make sure each story or book can stand on its own, so that if readers pick up Book 3 or the magazine running the 5th installment of a series, they aren't going to be totally lost. So with something ongoing like that, there is going to be some repetitive description. Over time you learn how to fold that into what is going on now, not stop the story to write a character dossier or re-explain the setting. Recaps can be done by several means. I tend to favor heated war room discussions, nightmares, quick screen shots of the surroundings, and ugly reminders in the here and now of what happened in the past.

Lance Stahlberg: Just tacking on a recap of a character's origin like it's a footnote is usually boring and tends to come across disjointed, at least to modern audiences. Even background exposition should still flow with the rest of the story.

Sometimes the origin itself is kind of integral to the plot. John Carter, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon. Okay those need a little more setup up front. Trying to start a tale in an alien environment and revealing how a modern day Earth man fits into that through flashbacks would end up being pretty convoluted to follow.

If the origin story needs to be told in full for the reader to understand what's happening, you ideally still want to get it out of the way quickly so you can dive into the fun stuff. The more you spend on background, the less you are moving the action forward.

Ed Erdelac: It's not easy. I'm dealing with that very issue in something I'm writing right now. Marvel Comics always had those nifty little recap paragraphs Stan Lee (I presume) wrote before the splash page (i.e. - Peter Parker was just a nebbish youth until... etc). Not great for prose books I guess. I would say past the origin issue/story, it only needs to come up as it suits the plot. Does a character know the hero from his past, maybe before his 'origin?' That would necessitate the hero rehashing his roots, but I think again, to avoid it being a simple rehash, it should move the plot along somehow. Think about The Shadow or Itto Ogami - they're origins aren't revealed till further along in their respective stories - but the characters are intriguing enough for the reader to want to follow along.

Roger Stegman: I will have to surmise here a little, but like any flashback in most stories. What was remembered in the flashback effects what the person does in the now. Remember that it was criminals who killed a number students in elementary school, the hero then makes these criminals pay. Remember that the mistakes during training resulted in teachers delivering pain, the hero ignores a serious bruise on t he chest. Remember the first time one cracked concrete blocks in a wall, The hero smashes a fist through the body armor of a thug. Make the memories of the origin effect how the hero reacts in the now, even if it is to decide to put another hour on patrol rather than heading home.

Scott Rogers: I always believed if you could tell the origin in two comic book pages you were doing it right. Grant Morrison made me a believer in the one-page, eight-word origin story in All-Star Superman.

Lee Houston Jr.: By telling it as it happens instead of just revealing the details as a flashback. That way the reader is literally with the character from "day one" instead of learning everything after the fact. The reader can share the trials and errors of the hero/heroine discovering their powers, how to use them properly, along with everything surrounding the first adventure and whatever reason(s) the character decides to continue on afterwards. While "the big reveal" (telling the origin story after the fact) was the traditional method of telling origin stories until sometime in the 1980s regardless of the medium, the "as it happens" method has gained serious popularity over the last couple of decades. My forthcoming superhero novel Alpha takes this approach.

James Tuck: In a lot of modern genre, I think it works a lot better to begin after the origin. That is what I chose to do. The Deacon Chalk series begins five years after Deacon's origin as a monster hunter. Why did I wait five years? I mean he did have some adventure in there, he killed a shitload of monsters in those five years. I chose to wait because the beginning of book one, BLOOD AND BULLETS, is where Deacon is first able to begin to change as a character.

Bill Craig: If done correctly, giving little details hinting of the past life before the reader knew the character, it enhances the story and makes the character more human and more easily identifiable with for the reader.  They begin to care and that makes them want to pick up earlier books and go "Ah ha, now I understand why that pissed off so and so. Kinda  like in Die Hard 2: Die Harder when John McClain is crawling through the ventilation system at the airport going again?  Seriously?  Why Me?  Anybody who did not see the first one is going to go rent or buy the first movie just to see what he was talking about.

What dangers do you face if you choose to ignore an origin story and jump in in medias res, with a character already operating with a status quo? What are the advantages of choosing that method? Well of course it's a gamble. What if the character doesn't catch on with the reader?

Lance Stahlberg: Well if the events by which your hero got their motivation and abilities is complicated, you risk confusing the reader and detaching them from your character. Without any explanation at all, then they are just a cardboard cutout going through events that ultimately mean nothing to them.

Ideally, I like stories that launch en medias res and feed needed details through flashbacks or revelations, if for no other reason than pacing. Hit the ground running and let the reader get to know what makes your hero tick over the course of the story.

The formula of LOST was fantastic in that regard. Every flashback related to events in the story's "present" in a way that made an insanely intricate plot chock full of origin stories mesh and kept the audience engaged.

Nancy Hansen: Whether you chose to write it or not, I think a complex character or world setup demands that you know in your head at least what has happened, and why, as well as how that lead up to the present situation. A really skillful writer can handle a character with a mysterious past—whether that is simply a well-kept secret or for some reason it has been forgotten—and then reveal little bits of it throughout the ongoing tales. The biggest danger in that is forgetting what you wrote previously and suddenly having a character do or say something that makes no sense at all. And there's the dreaded misremembered info that makes it past all the editing stages. It's tough enough to keep it all straight in your head with one series, I have something like eight of them going right now, and the simplest stuff tends to get away from me. You'd be surprised how fast someone is going to point out that Gwen's eyes are blue and not green, or that Gwydion's mother died in story #2 so she can't be calling him from the hometown in #8. I have to do a lot of back checking to make sure I've been consistent throughout. Over time I try and make a cheat sheet for that stuff, so that I can look back quickly and see what happened when and what so-in-so looks like, or where I introduced some character or idea.

Ed Erdelac: Ideally, as I mentioned, the character should be able to hold the reader's attention from the get-go. If you've crafted the character well, then the advantage of jumping right into the story is obvious; lack of info-dump. Raiders of The Lost Ark is a good example of this. But Indiana Jones is an iconic character. By his very mode of dress, by the first thing we see him do, we already know who this guy is and what he's about. His origin is just icing on the cake. Conversely, from the first time we see The Shadow talking Harry Vincent out of jumping off a bridge, we want to know what this guy is about. It drives us to read more about him.

Robby Hilliard: Today, so much is acceptable in urban fantasy that it seems to be nothing for Jane to walk into a bar and chat it up with her friendly neighborhood vampire while her favorite demon bartender serves up drinks and all Jane has to add to it is that her spells seem to be a bit weak lately. No real build up, it's all just there.

That said, I think that if you can pull off starting in media res and still communicate the origin story, go for it. At the same time, fans of pulp and comics may be more tolerant or perhaps even want the origin story to be played out! But if you do, I think it needs to be creative to really capture the reader's interest. Otherwise they're really just anxious to get past the origin part.

Roger Stegman: The advantage is that the reader is in the action immediately, they are going for the ride with the first words.

The problem is that the reader may have no clue as to what is going on or why. Why is this strange person is beating up a whole bunch of people and laying waste to a neighborhood? Where's the police? Without a back story, it might simply be senseless violence. But if they can quickly learn that the super hero has been hunting down these criminals since he was a child, then it becomes a bit more understandable. With any writing, it is a balance. fit in enough detail to help make sense of the action.

John Morgan Neal: My Aym Geronimo is the queen of in media res. And she has never had an 'origin story. Though bits of her history and how she came to be who she is have been sprinkled in.

Lee Houston Jr.: While (as I said in question 1) a character's actions and reactions will do more to establish any potential relationship with the readers, an origin story should be told within a set amount of time of a character's debut, especially if you are making the mystery surrounding that character part of the origin tale. The best example of this I can think of is The Shadow. With his start as a spooky voiced announcer for Street and Smith's Detective Story Hour BEFORE moving on to the pulps, readers already knew who he was to a point, but not his background.

Walter B. Gibson, aka Maxwell Grant, took advantage of this unique situation and built the character's background over the course of several stories to reveal the details every fan knows today.

James Tuck: Often times a hero is created and then they have a long period where they are adjusting to their new life. This can create great storytelling, a la Batman: Year One, or it can be kind of boring. I mean, can you imagine Elongated Man: Year One?

I choose to do the origin story as brief flashbacks as they inform the character in the present day. I keep it short and sweet (and truthfully, looking back I didn't keep it as brief as I could have. It was my first book, sue me.) and it serves as a hook into the character. The hope is that by the time I am ready to go and write the full, detailed origin story the readers will be champing at the bit for it.

Bill Craig: Jumping into the character and ignoring where they came from is just a bad idea.  It can leave a reader feeling cheated because here comes Superagent Bob Badass jumping in to save the day, killing all the bad guys and saving the world which is all well and good, but what do we really know about him?  It creates a mystery around him which demands some sort of origin story about how he was a former Navy SEAL recruited into the clandestine services and where he got the skills he used to wipe out the bad guys and figure out how to disarm the bomb that was going to destroy all the leaders of the free world beneath the United Nations building on a day when the president that he didn't even vote for is scheduled to give a speech.  Like in Lethal Weapon 2 we find out that the accident that killed Martin Riggs' wife was actually an attempt on Riggs' life by a drug running gang.  That rounds out his character much more than the first movie did because it gives us a glimpse into his past.  It also fuels his rage when he goes after the drug runners to avenge his wife and that of the new woman in his life that they also murdered.  You just cannot get around giving some sort of origin story, even if it is dribbled out a little at a time.


To follow the works of these fine creators who took part in this roundtable, simply look for their links on the list of Heavy Hitters on the right side of this page. 


  1. Great stuff. I meant to say more about all of this but wasn't able to get around to it.

  2. This was a great article. As I rea through it, I changed my mind a dozen times about the "right way" to do origin stories. Now I'm as confused as ever, but one thing I do know is that there are a lot of good ways to handle it and forging a new path might work (ala Grant Morrison) but sometimes the tried and true methods works well (Batman Year One) but En media Res can be done really well too (ala Indiana Jones) so I guess there is no one-size fits all.

  3. I totally agree with what Mr. Tuck said below...

    James R. Tuck: I choose to do the origin story as brief flashbacks as they inform the character in the present day. I keep it short and sweet (and truthfully, looking back I didn't keep it as brief as I could have. It was my first book, sue me.) and it serves as a hook into the character. The hope is that by the time I am ready to go and write the full, detailed origin story the readers will be champing at the bit for it.

    When I write a character, I really prefer to start things up "in motion," and get to know the character. Build on the character, get a feeling for their quirks, develop them into a unique and compelling individual.

    And THEN, when the readers are invested in the character -- and you've had a lot of time to figure them out and get a great feel for them -- you can start to dive into the origin. I feel like an origin story can be a lot more interesting for a fully-established character, because it gives you much more material to work with and gives you oodles of opportunities for great character moments.

    Like the "Batman: Year One" thing. One of the greatest origin stories ever, as far as I'm concerned. But by then, Bats was a well-established character and a dedicated hardass... it gave the moment he screwed up and nearly killed the guy on the balcony that much more meaning than it would've had if we'd started with "Year One."

    So yeah, while I think it's totally possible to START with an origin story and tell a damned good tale, I'm of the mind doing an origin for a well-established character offers more fun moments for writers and readers. Though granted, I know some writers would chafe at having to stick with established continuity, instead of having a clean slate to run with.

    Ultimately, as with so much of writing, it depends on the context. I still like doing origins for established characters, though, dammit.

  4. Thanks, James. I did the same.

    John, it's all good. There are thousands of articles where this one came from.

    Matt, glad you dig Tuck's approah. Next year at Con Nooga, he and Dan Jolley and I will be teaching a workshop on writing action scenes. I can't wait.

  5. This is great! Thanks for posting. I never can stop myself from getting into back stories, and creating them in my mind when there are none. LOL Thanks!

  6. Thank you for reading it, Georgette. And come back anytime. I post a roundtable interview each week, as well as regular one-on-one interviews too.

    You're always welcome. And feel free to drag... er, invite... your friends along too.