If you’re looking for more Unified Writing Field Theory posts, here’s a treat for all of us: I have one on the ever-insightful Janice Hardy’s blog Fiction University. It’s my approach for picking and maximizing the quieter moments in a story, called Your Scene Needs a Problem.
Meanwhile, right here we have:
The Two Laws of Backstory, and why Superman breaks both (The Unified Writing Field Theory)
It’s one of the hardest moments in writing—knowing that even though you’ve picked a perfect character or an ideal plot complication, you have to write in so much more to justify it. But with so many kinds of backstory you could explain it with, how do you pick the one that fits? Or make it do more than fit, so it opens up new depth and possibilities to the story?
It’s not as hard as it seems.
Understanding backstory really comes down to two things, and they’re so simple that I thought I’d demonstrate them using a few of my favorite comic book heroes, just to show how big a curve we can grade “realistic” on.
We could call those two rules looking forward and looking further back from the time of the backstory idea you’re trying out… or we could simply say “does it do enough, and does it do too much?” But I think I’ll call them “the seed” and “the worms.”
The Seed: does it grow what you need?
You’ve got such a simple question to start with: what do you need this history to do? Then, find an idea that seems, logically or at least intuitively, like it relates to that.
Call Superman’s origin a classic example of how not to cover things. Since these are comics, I don’t mean how hard it is to justify the raw amount of power he has. The goal is still to explain physical strength.
No, if you want personal power, a better backstory would be someone trying to give himself personal power, like the experiments used for Captain America or the modern Hulk. (Come to think of it, the original Superman simply came from an “advanced” people, and he only lifted cars.) Wonder Woman or Thor make even more sense; we have thousands of years of storytelling saying the universe just makes gods that much stronger. The Flash does the same thing, tapping into a cosmic power source. Aliens, not so much.
Still, we all know “alien powers” can play better when they’re like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy: focus on how different their tree- or flying- or whatever evolution is from human. (That and, give the creature whatever offworld training or enhancements you want to raise that to a real asset.)
But it depends on your story goal. Say, instead of needing raw personal power, your character can have a weapon or device that does the job. Now your choices might be anyone who builds those, meaning anyone with a brain and the drive to create. Hawkman doesn’t claim “alien=superpowered,” he simply uses his planet’s gear; Green Lantern puts a human in the center by giving him the aliens’ weapon. And so many human heroes (and villains) invented their own arsenal.
And of course we’ve got Batman, whose “powers” are so limited that determined training and the Wayne fortune really are all he needs. (Plus, Batman Begins takes it even further to show that he doesn’t dream up his gadgets as much as discover and adapt tech that’s already out there. Then Dark Knight reminds us just how far he can adapt it if he’s desperate enough.)
–We’ve looked through types of power here, as examples of how to make a story’s facts able to do what you want. Let’s start shifting toward how to make characters want to do what the story needs.
Aliens do work best in Guardians of the Galaxy’s main tale of simply treating them as people; just people with more different beliefs and homelands, plus better-than-Earth laser guns. They can be especially fun for an invasion, “abduction,” or exploration story that wants to contrast human motives and interests with a people that seems different—whether they turn out to be as powerful as H.G. Wells’s Martians or as vulnerable as E.T.
For Superman’s motives, though, his story works. To build a driven but optimistic hero, some salt-of-the-Earth role models like the Kents might be just the thing, while having his original home blown up at least gives Clark an extra reason to protect his new one.
But it isn’t always the scale of tragedy that makes it mythic; Batman’s drive goes much more into the “orphan” theme than Superman’s. It’s so spot-on it would be cliché if it didn’t have enough details to be specific:
Spider-Man has a tragedy that hits closer yet: instead of being helpless to save his family, he considers Uncle Ben’s death his own fault for not getting involved earlier. No punches pulled there. And the core of the Hulk isn’t fighting evil at large; he only wants to get through a day without being hunted for what he might do, and stop his enemies from exploiting his power. (I’ve called those the only two core options for creating character conflict.)
For real precision writing, though, take a look at the cinematic Iron Man. The first movie makes a decent case that Tony Stark didn’t invent a hundred comic-book technologies, he invented one, the game-changing power source that let him pump every other weapon up to a whole new level—at least when you’re smart enough and rich enough to build the rest to take advantage of it. He gets a precise motivation too: creating a one-man army calls for vastly more money and effort (and personal risk!) than equipping an actual army, which is what power brokers usually do… unless you’ve already done that and just had your nose rubbed in how you might lose control of any weapon you let out of your own hands. Face it, if you’d escaped that cave (yes, “with a box of scraps”) and you were as proud and gifted as Tony, what else could you have done?
Speaking of “what else,” there’s the other side of backstories.
The Can of Worms: what ELSE would it mean?
Even if you think you’ve got a backstory that does the job, you’re just getting started. And the other step might be even more work, but it’s also the one that can unlock whole new dimensions for a story: ask what other ripples the idea could create.
Superman’s alien origin not only isn’t enough for his powers, it’s definitely too much to let the rest of his adventures happen the way the comic wants. A whole other planet, of god-strong beings, just blown away before the story even starts—what a WASTE of story material! Bringing out just the occasional General Zod, or a Lex Luthor grumbling about alien influences, doesn’t come close to what an origin like that ought to root the rest of the storyline in. Even the fact that he looks human… we chuckle at Star Trek’s “planets of the pointy-eared folk,” but this Strange Visitor blends in so well a human woman both idolizes and ignores him depending on his clothes?
All of these could have been glorious opportunities for a darker or more thoughtful superhero (a bit of X-Men, a bit of Contact), but they all come down to the same way that they don’t work: they aren’t the story the writers wanted to tell.
Consider this: how often does a modern-day writer even use the word “alien” with a straight face? Sure, aliens work just fine in a story that’s set up to do it justice—invasions, Roswell and so on. But otherwise, we tend to save the word for the silliest of all silly ideas a character might spit out at random, and I’d say it’s just because the implications are too huge to take halfway. If we aren’t ready to handle a story idea’s implications, “out in left field” just means “the idea got lost.”
Of course, standard comic books and their heroes are an odd place to look for backstory concepts. Ideas there rush by so fast you can find hundreds of promising thoughts, but how many other cans of worms do they take a pass on? It may be the number of implications, more than the powers themselves, that make superheroes so different from the harder SF and fantasy they borrow from.
Still, I can see a few more careful examples we can learn from:
One alternate version of Superman has already hinted at what might be the perfect origin for him, in the Red Son comic: Make him a literal “Man of Tomorrow” by making Krypton the doomed future of Earth. It would have been so much more elegant, with less baggage from a missing planet and making him not such a total misfit around here… and amping up the pressure on the hero. Instead of knowing that a planet could destroy itself, he has to protect and inspire this world to change what might be its destiny.
(Wait, wouldn’t that mean that every planetary threat until then is guaranteed to fizzle out? We could crib from Star Trek and say Superman’s own passage through time attracted the “attention” of certain history-changing forces. So if Darkseid invades Earth it would be Superman’s fault for coming here first… Over to you, DC.)
Or, The Avengers movie gets more careful use out of its aliens. The Chitauri do bring a proper invasion, but only at the film’s end, so we don’t have time to ask the larger questions of why they’re after Earth or what makes them tick—instead we focus on Loki and their other allies. Once the battle begins, we don’t have to deal with too many questions either: since they invade through a dimensional gate (set up by our visible foe and a MacGuffin power source), they can only send so large a fleet, and no more once the door’s shut. This skips the classic Alien Invasion problems of “That was all a planet could send? And now, how long till the next wave, and the next twenty?” Instead the gate’s closed, done—for now.
(It doesn’t hurt that Joss Whedon has written his share of stories about demons. For many writers, the word itself is a perfect shorthand for “hordes that can only fully invade through their particular Hellmouth.”)
Batman does make a lot of this look easy (he does that for everything), with his down-to-earth heroics making fewer ripples. But even for him, The Dark Knight was one of many stories to look into just what a vigilante might mean for the Gotham public. (And, even with the Christian Bale Batman borrowing more tech than he built, it did have its fun with who might notice where those toys had been borrowed from. “And your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck with that.”)
Look at how hard both film versions of Spider-Man worked to keep Peter Parker from being a web-inventing super-genius; the first had webbing as just another of his organic powers, the second stole it from the Sinister Lab that’s wound up with all the schemes. Meanwhile Iron Man 2 looked into how Tony didn’t create his Arc Reactor completely from a standing Stark (sorry), and who else might have been involved in it and have his own agenda.
For more about watching an idea’s implications, see Brandon Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic: “Expand what you already have before you add something new.” The master makes a fine point: doing justice to what you have is usually better than the work and the problems of adding whole new wrinkles on top of it. Best of all, keeping closer to home leads to a final picture that’s more complete and yet more elegant than just adding more.
One last tip: if you want a true master class in smart world-building, watch Stargate SG-1. Most of its off-worlders really are human (all explained), their alien masters use human bodies too, and the blaster staffs actually have a reason they’re inferior to machine guns. YES!
Want to hear more? Let me know!