Thursday, October 16, 2014

Back Issues #5 - Revisionist Character History

This originally came to me when I was watching X-men (the original, not X-men: First Class, which makes some of my questions moot). The movie doesn't hold up as well as I remember in the wake of some of the better superhero & comic book films, but it did one thing; it got me thinking about character's and their origins...

Issue #4: Revisionist Character History

You all know this scene, unless you somehow managed to come here and find this blog and not be a gamer and a fan of comic book films. So I say again, with confidence, that you all know this scene. (for some reason I cannot embed this)

Its sometime during World War 2 and countless Jews are being herded into a concentration camp. A family is separated and the young son takes to poorly going into an uncontrollable rage/grief state. His mutant powers activate as the guards attempt to drag him away. The gates, metal, harsh and cold in the rain, bend and twist. In the end he is knocked senseless or unconscious by one of the guards. The boy and the men dragging him fall prone to the mud as the others look in awe at the twisted wreckage of the gates of the camp.

It's a powerful scene, no doubt, and it sets up the film, and the character, well. The transition to the near present is quick, but it also works to draw the viewer's mind away from the big question that goes unanswered: What happened next?

I don't mean what happened fifty year later, I mean, what happened later that day? That week? That month?

The Nazis have a kid in their custody who can manipulate metal remotely with his mind. They have a young powerful mutant under their control (or they could with a modicum of effort by leveraging his parents). In the movie it's hand waved, we pass forward to the now and it's barely mentioned again. In the comics ... I have no idea...

So the question becomes, what happened next? Did the Nazi's study him? Use him as a weapon? Lock him away in fear?

I can see a bunch of character origin ideas right there:

Magneto is born as a Nazi control weapon of war, his family, and then his people, used to control him and make him fight on the side of the Germans. Decades later Magneto controls a Genosha (or Germany) where normal humans are rounded up in concentration camps.

  • The Nazi's study him and develop a way to grant their soldiers mutant powers, creating a true race of supermen to fight for them. The Nazi's win the war and Magneto (who eventually escapes) becomes a freedom fighter.
  • In fear of his powers they execute him outright. OK, this is a BAD character origin unless we assume he has a brother or other family member who becomes inspired by his death. Said relation takes up the traditional Magneto role but with drastically different powers and thus means of operation.
  • The boy escapes and finds the Allies who present him with the opportunity and means to use his powers against the Nazis. In the present Magneto sees that while humanity has potential for great evil so too does it have potential for greatness and he works closely with Prof. X to forward a tolerant human/mutant policy.
... and no doubt many more, and each could radically change the way the X-men universe was shaped.

As an exercise for imagination this is fun, but as a tool for character generation it can be immensely helpful. People are born of their experiences. Major events in one's life impact the person we are both immediately after and long into our lives. When creating a character looking back and trying to determine what the major events of a character's life are can be a helpful tool for determining that character's personality, outlook, and motivations.

Not only that, but we can often see old characters in a new light by looking at their lives through that lens of "What If?". DC Comics has done this with their flagship character. Superman Red Son is a tale where Kal-L lands in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas and the world that unfolds as a result. The outcome of a Communist Superman is quite different than you would perhaps think.

Next time you're brainstorming for a character take a moment to look at the idea through the kaleidescope of the major events of their lives and how those things could have gone differently or been seen differently by the character. Would Bruce Wayne have become the same man if only one of his parents had been killed? If your character is an illegitimate child of a powerful man how different would it be if they were legitimate? How different would a character who's abilities are the result of superior genes be if his abilities instead were the product of an intense training regimen, or a mystic grant by forces supreme?

This same technique can be used to breathe new life into old characters, or characters that exist in media. So next time you sit down to write up a character old or new, original or revamped, think about where that character could have taken a different path.