Author Topic: Characters who require origin stories, vs. those who should never have them.  (Read 2577 times)

Chicken Ghost

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Origin stories can ruin characters.  They can lessen the aspects of a character that make them appealing.  For a character who is supposed to be relateable, a character who is supposed to be within the realm of plausible imagination for an audience to see themselves as, an origin story can heighten that.  For a character who, even though they may be wish-fulfillment fantasy, is completely removed from the audience's experience; for a character who is a force of nature, one we may wish to be like but can not really empathize with, knowing where they came from can diminish that.  Some characters work better if they are not understood. 

Superhero stories always seem to get origin stories.  Some of them, you need to know where they're coming from, or else you'd never accept them as a protagonist.  If you didn't know what was driving The Punisher, would you accept his murder sprees as the actions of a good guy?  Iron Man is probably better with you having seen him reevaluate the direction of his life, (even if everything else about that origin sucked).

Any Hero's Journey character requires an origin story of some kind, of course.  Star Wars starting off in the cantina would have left you wondering why you're supposed to give a crap about this arrogant little brat.  But this requirement is as much a matter of plot as it is of character. 

But some characters don't need them.  At this point, Batman and Superman have been done to death.  And there are some other characters, kind of edging out of the superhero circle, who have been heavily damaged by origin stories.  Solomon Kane and Conan the Barbarian both got recent movie adaptations.  Neither had origins as such in their original stories.  I mean, we knew where they were from, but we didn't know the stories behind how they became what they are.  But in both of these movie adaptations we got completely unnecessary origins. 

In the case of Conan, we got an origin that totally fit with the character, both as presented and as originally written.  (In the 1980s adaptation we got an origin that fit with neither.)  But these characters, particularly Conan, are forces of nature in their stories.  We aren't supposed to understand them, we aren't supposed to empathize with their motives.  They're superior specimens of humanity, physically, but they are mentally outside our experience.  Their power comes in part from being beyond the concerns of ordinary people.  Giving them sympathetic origins lessens what makes them great.  They're human, but you're meant to think of them as something more.  Giving them origins that, while they may not have happened to you, you can understand; that makes it harder to maintain that awe. 

Now consider Dredd.  Judge Dredd is a fundamentally similar character to Solomon Kane and Conan.  He is a human who does violence to achieve his goals, which are generally ones the audience would consider "good."  He is not superhuman, but he is close to it.  I don't know if Judge Dredd was ever given an origin in the comics.  IMO, he gets enough of an origin in the training of Anderson.  We get Judge Dredd presented as he is, doing what he does.  It doesn't matter why he decided  to become a Judge.  It doesn't matter what the selection process was like.  It only matters that we know what he is now, what he does, and how good he is at it.  Making Judge Dredd a human being diminishes the awe you're supposed to feel toward him. 

Dredd did not do that, and that was one of the big reasons the movie was so good.  Solomon Kane and Conan did do that, and it was part of what made both movies suck. 

On the give-them-origins side, we've got characters who would be unsympathetic without it (Dr. Manhattan), and those who would be less believable as heroic without it (Luke Skywalker).  There are also origin stories where the origin presents a conflict as powerful and plot as interesting as any the character will later face.  (Captain America vs. basically every other superhero)

On the don't-give-them-origins side, we've got characters whose motives don't matter (Conan, Judge Dredd); characters who are supposed to elicit awe, which would be undermined by an origin ( someone's done it, though!); and characters whose origins have been done to death (Superman, Batman, Spiderman).