Why are we so fascinated by Origin stories?

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Hollywood loves an Origin story - we're constantly getting remakes and reboots so we can re-experience them, we're even mining as many characters as we can for origin tales, as per the crazy trailer for Pan we saw yesterday. It can be a tiring trend sometimes, but why do we yearn to learn where our heroes start?


Naturally one of the largest genres to turn to when it comes to Origin stories in media, and our love of them, is that of superhero comics. Comics have been telling and retelling origin tales for as long as they've existed, and as they've made the transition to other forms of media, they've brought those Origin stories with them to new audiences. Look how many times we've watched Batman's parents gunned down, or the fact we've had Spider-Man's origins get cinematic makeovers twice, with less than a decade between them. Gotham and The Flash are on TV giving us the births of heroes, villains and even in the case of Gotham, a whole setting. Here the origin story is almost a defining symbol of the genre - it's the telling of that one crystallising moment for a character that raises them up from the unknown to the hero we know and love. The origin has become so intertwined into the superhero genre that enjoying them is almost the same as saying you like superheroes.

But what about origin tales outside of the capes and masks of superheroes? Why do we still want to see those elsewhere? I think, partially, that it's down to the fact that an Origin story, especially when it's one for a character we're already familiar with, offers us something that appeals to the often contradictory whims of people: At once, and Origin is both something nostalgic - it's about the journey the character takes that sets them on the road to the character we're already familiar with - and something new - it's a tale that we've not seen from this character before, as we tend to usually experience them as the hero first before delving back into their past - at the same time. We often want both things, enough things that are new and exciting and not the same stories over and over again, and yet at the same time we yearn for the familiar and the nostalgic in our media (the blessings and curses that it all brings). The Origin story is the antidote to to those polar opposite whims we all have, and one of the few story frameworks that can cater to both of them.


Another aspect of Origin stories that drives their appeal for us isn't necessarily about what they satisfy in our wants from our media, but how they serve as part of our relationship with characters - and how that in turn reflects our relationships in the real world. In a recent piece for Salon that looked at more specifically at our interest in Superhero origin stories, psychologist and author Robin Rosenberg made the interesting parallel between the Origin story of a character we love being sort of like the way we approach relationships with friends:

We, in real life, often don't find out peoples's origin stories right when we first meet them. It's not a linear process. You get to know someone at work, as they are, and then as you get closer to them you get to find out their origin story. In that sense, finding out the prequel later mirrors life.


Which is right - in the real world, you're meeting people as they are in the here and now, and then as you get to know them better, and build stronger relationships with them, we learn about their past, and how they came to be the people we met. It's the exact same thing with fictional characters we love: whether it's in a book or a comic or a TV show or a movie or a game, our hero is usually already an established presence, they're already a hero. Whatever they're doing in that first story we're meeting them already as the hero, and if we're hooked, if we begin to connect with them - like we connect with real people - we want to learn more about them, and how they came to be that person we admire. Thus, we get their Origin story, like a good friend telling us of their past. It's that familiarly with the real world that makes them so desirable - we're inquisitive people when it comes to real life acquaintances, and we're arguably even more so when dealing with the fiction we consume and adore. We want to learn more, find more of what we love - and thus, the Origin is an important aspect of that, a reward for our intrigue.


However, our long interest in the Origin story, even its appeal on a psychological level, doesn't make it invincible from becoming tiresome. The age of the Hollywood reboot, which is in itself essentially an origin story, has steadily worn down our love of the origin story as we keep seeing the same heroes - superheroic or otherwise - get restarted, and we see them time and time again. They still placate our need for something nostalgic, but the reboot makes Origin stories lose their freshness - and audiences don't want the same thing dished out to them time and time again. Like all good story frameworks, origins lose the lustre if the same ones are told again and again - we might forever be fascinated with origins, but only if we keep getting new characters and worlds to discover the origins of.

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