Therese busting in on Grace’s post to toss some confetti; this is her first post with us as an official WU contributor!
Grace Wynter is a copyeditor, blogger, writer of romantic women’s fiction, and a huge fan of shenanigans. Her blogs (and a few of her shenanigans) have been featured on CNN.com, the Huffington Post, and More.com. Grace has an MBA from Georgia State University and is currently enrolled in The University of Chicago’s Professional Certification in Editing program. When she’s not writing, she’s helping other writers on her blog, The Writer’s Station.
Her latest project is co-creator of Storyboard, a new podcast that follows two writers as they explore the ways stories shape lives, and tackle long-held beliefs about the intersection of craft and commerce.
As a child, Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder. Aware of Krypton’s pending destruction, Kal-El’s father places him in a spacecraft that makes a crash landing on planet earth. T’Challa vows to avenge his father’s murder and prove he can lead a nation.
I can already hear you asking what you, as a writer, could possibly have in common with Batman, Superman, and Black Panther. More than you might think. I’ve been a fan of superheroes since I was a kid. The fangirling only intensified as I got older, and I have the Wonder Woman caped socks to prove it. But, it wasn’t until recently, when I was asked to talk to a classroom full of superhero-loving fifth graders about writing, that I made the connection between the personal stories of writers and those of superheroes.
Dictionary.com defines an origin story as, “a backstory, or established background narrative that informs the identity and motivations of heroes and villains in a comic book or similar fictional work.” Writers hear about origin stories all the time as they relate to the characters we write, but what about our own origin stories? What about the events in our lives that most inform why, how, and what we write? I believe that identifying our own origin stories can help us find our voices as writers, allowing us to give the fictional characters we create, more complex, multidimensional lives. So, what do our origin stories have in common with those of superheroes? And, once we identify them, how can we use our origin stories to our advantage?
Five Things to Understand About Origin Stories
1) We all have them. While our own origin story probably doesn’t involve murder, kryptonite, or African chiefs, it does exist. We’ll usually recognize it by the emotional muscle memory it evokes. An emotional muscle memory isn’t like the muscle memory that gets us out of the office parking lot and into our driveway on autopilot at the end of a long day. No, an emotional muscle memory is one that makes our stomach drop and our scalp tingle. It’s the physical response we experience when recalling our worst heartbreak or the moment our favorite teacher saw promise in our work. It’s the sensitive kid who, afraid of being teased about her accent, dons a “cloak of invisibility” and quietly observes the interactions around her, filling her journals with the worlds she creates. The key is to search beyond the facts of the memory, beyond dates and times, and reach for the emotion it evokes, allowing the memory to transform our writing.
2) They can be painful. A weeping eight-year-old Bruce Wayne cradling his father’s head in his hands. Black Panther doubting his ability to fill his late father’s shoes. At the time, neither understood that the pain, loneliness, and isolation they were feeling would eventually become the source of their strength. The same is true of writers. The events that wake us in the middle of the night gasping for air, may turn out to be the very things that allow us to breathe new life onto the page.
3) We can have more than one. Like superheroes, our origin stories can have versions and adaptations. The inciting incident that ushers our entry into the writing world might be different from the one that leads us to a specific genre. And, the event that takes our writing in a new direction might be something that happened long after the initial inciting incident. Each origin story comes with its own emotion and its own sequence of events that sets us on the path to a new journey.
4) They don’t determine our final destination. Some of us fear that our origin stories lack the proper punch or pedigree. We read other writers, hear their origin stories, and feel that those writers were destined for the craft, either by being born with literary blood coursing through their veins or by hitting the tragic-writer-background jackpot. Because of this, we believe they are more “authentic” than we will ever be. But, origin stories are only the beginning—like the icon on mapping software that indicates our starting location. We determine our destination, regardless of our starting point, and we get to select the route, the things we hope to avoid, and the experiences we want to have along the way.
5) They give us our unique selling points and unfair advantages. In the business world, unique selling points are the things that make a company, product, or in our case, a writer, stand out. Startup guru Jason Cohen defines an unfair advantage as one that can’t easily be copied or bought. Every writer should know their unique selling points and how to use them to gain an unfair advantage. One way to understand what makes you stand out as a writer is to tap into your origin story—the memories, emotions, and feelings that made you want to tell stories in the first place.
Have you ever thought about your origin story? How does it inform your writing? And, how will it help determine your unfair advantage?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!