I love origin stories. It’s not going to seem that way in a few paragraphs, but I do.
An origin story takes an existing persona and gives them shape and depth. I say persona deliberately, because it’s not just any character who gets an origin story; it’s a larger-than-life character, a superhero, a mythic entity. It’s a protagonist whose impact is so big it doesn’t fit in a single shot, so bright you can’t always look at them head on.
Sometimes, the heroes in our stories seem a little far away, a little archetypal, and you find yourself trying to fill in the gaps.
So the origin story comes along, and it fills in the gaps – what gaps there are to be filled, anyway – and one of the things I always love about them is that, while they deepen the character, they also make them smaller. Closer. Touchable. The hero takes on some of our ordinariness, and for a little while we get to borrow some of their extraordinariness. After that exchange, anything is possible. Stories have a tendency to wake up our sense of wonder – origin stories remind us that it’s always there, awake or not.
Origin stories ask: how is the hero, and why is the hero, and what happened to the hero before they were a hero?
– is there some inherent quality – are these choices that we make – does greatness always involves sacrifice – is it only heroic if it occurs in the shadow of loss –
They’re good questions, the sort of questions we ask because we know, even if most of the time we try not to think about it, that our stories are our mirrors. They’re what we believe, or what we used to believe, or what we want to believe. Stories are basically tarot cards, which don’t tell us anything about the future but do tell us a lot about what’s in our own heads.
Origin stories tell us that maybe we can be heroes, if we all start from the same ordinary place. They have an incredible, potential power. Hell, potential is their power.
But origin stories – some origin stories – bother me, as well (I can love things that bother me. I’m multi-faceted), and they bother me because they seem to be intrinsically linked with loss. Some of that is just basic story structure, about pacing and plot – because what is a story without sacrifice, without challenge, without loss, right? A story has to go somewhere, and if it just went in a straight line it would be the most boring thing imaginable. It wouldn’t even be a story, really, so much as inefficient paperwork.
I can’t quite shake it. It feels a little bit like that “Everything happens for a reason” bullshit, although not as simple as that. The loss, then the heroism, right? Not necessarily meaning heroism because loss. Correlation doesn’t imply causation.
The fact is, there’s nothing heroic about suffering and loss; there’s really nothing particularly amazing or stupendous about grief or sacrifice. Sometimes the lows of emotional pain are so intense that they’re almost highs, but mostly it’s just banal. It’s a grind. You pull yourself through one shitty day after another, and not once do you think, This makes me special. I’m basically Spiderman.
Being human comes with a minimum sadness content. We’re all going to experience these feelings, if we haven’t already; and even if we already have, we’ll probably have to hit that again, because that content isn’t a quota. There’s no guarantee that once you get through this rough patch, you won’t slip right into another one.
It’s possible I’ve been having a rough time lately.
A really rough time.
That doesn’t make me special, though. That doesn’t make me a superstar, or a hero, or anything other than perfectly ordinary. That just makes me human, albeit a human who at this particular point in time isn’t doing so hot.
Because I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe that there’s a purpose to feeling like this. I don’t believe that calluses make good metaphors. I don’t believe that it’s a good idea to toughen people up by treating them badly.
I do believe that whatever doesn’t kill me really hurts quite a lot, and also that it often does permanent damage.
I’m that person who winces whenever the hero is terribly wounded and just barely dragging their mangled flesh machine through the climax of the story, not because it seems painful, but because those kinds of wounds are probably going to require months of rehab to get past. There will be scarring. There may be nerve damage, even permanent chronic pain that won’t respond to anything but intense, over-regulated prescription painkillers. In some cases, I’d be expecting PTSD (to be honest, that’s one of the reasons I really got into Iron Man 3. That reaction made sense to me). But it doesn’t matter, does it? Because once the hero has survived that challenge, the story ends. And it’s happy. It’s okay. It’s the end.
“There are no happy endings,” said Shmendrick the Magician, “because nothing ends.”
(don’t anyone tell the poor man about entropy, he’s had a difficult day as it is)
I can’t help thinking about what comes after The End, and of course I understand what’s behind this. Of course I understand that we romanticise things to make them manageable, and that’s also why I love romances: you can go to a dark place with the comfort of a happy ending. You can explore, and investigate, and take terrifying risks – but you’ll be okay, in the end. Because that’s how romances work. They have rules.
All stories have rules, in a way that life doesn’t, and that’s why in the end they are flawed mirrors at best. Would I be who I was, without the frightening memories I get to keep forever? Maybe not – but maybe that person would be more emotionally robust than me. I wouldn’t be able to hold a crying friend and say, “I know how it feels, I’m so sorry,” if I didn’t know how it felt; but then again, I’d be able to listen, and it’s different for everyone, anyway.
Origin stories are wonderful, and I’ll always love them. I always find a fascinating, mind-bending glory in humanising the big heroes, in watching that path from ordinary to extraordinary, in learning that maybe ordinary and extraordinary are not so far apart – but I don’t like to think that there was a purpose, any purpose at all, in my having been hurt. I can learn not to touch the hot stove without burning my hands.
This isn’t my fucking origin story, is what I guess I’m trying to say. I’m probably not going to become a beautiful butterfly when all’s said and done. I’m just a grub, like all the other grubs.
Honestly, I’m okay with that. Grubs get a bad rap.