Who doesn’t love a good origin story?
Whenever I get into a fictional universe, be it books, movies, TV shows, or video games, I dig deep. Those characters with shady or mysterious pasts are the most intriguing; we want to know how they became the person we know now. If you’ve read (and enjoyed) The Symphony of Ages series by Elizabeth Haydon, you probably want to know Achmed’s full backstory more than anything else. We get tantalizing hints, but no more. Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion explores the history of the elves and Middle-Earth in almost excruciating detail. People clamored so much for more stories about Drizzt Do’Urden that R.A. Salvatore gave them the drow ranger’s backstory in the form of The Dark Elf Trilogy. Amazing RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age cover the history of their worlds, the aspects of the places explored there, and the characters you encounter. And isn’t that what a lot of modern RPGs are all about? Exploration? How was this world created? What happened before the story that we see? A good origin story is a fascinating and rewarding journey.
Of course, the key word here is “good.” Not knowing parts of a universe’s history or the origins of a character leads to all kinds of juicy speculation, head canon, and fan fiction. Sometimes the creators even deign to answer those burning questions for us. That’s fine and dandy, but there is a dark side to it. No matter how much I may want to know, “What happened?!” a part of me is always a bit wary when official works drop in to fill the gaps.
Writers, especially fan fic writers, are gods of the gaps. We love filling things in for ourselves. The best storytelling (particularly in horror) invites the readers to imagine something far more chilling or spectacular than could probably have been delivered. Unfortunately, this also leads to unrealistically high expectations, shipping wars, and fan theory head canon that is held more precious than the Holy Grail. The act of making the unknown known is a fine line to walk, one that can backfire easily. For example, the Time War mentioned in the 2005 continuation of Doctor Who is starting to be explored through stories of the War Doctor. We’re eating away at the mystery, something that fans both long for and fear at the same time.
This mix of conflicting desires and uncertain results is why many movies that are part of popular franchises (like the Star Trek reboots) or books written by a popular authors or for a popular series (like J.K. Rowling when she tries to write something that isn’t Harry Potter) run into trouble. They fall flat or create a backlash when they don’t live up to or are very different from audience expectations.
Consider the Prequel Trilogy of Star Wars. Ever since we learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, we wanted to know what he was like before he turned to the Dark Side. What was he like as Anakin Skywalker? Why did he turn to the Dark Side? And what about Luke’s mother? (I think there is one book in the Expanded Universe, now Star Wars Legends, that tried talking about Luke’s mother, and for the life of me, I can’t find it!) The prequels attempted to answer those questions, but due to a variety of factors they failed miserably to do the story justice. Some of Anakin’s motivation makes sense (watch this video for an interesting argument), but the poor presentation of the prequels obscures a lot of the good. What could have been a compelling story sinks under the layers of distraction.
Another example is The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths comic book series which explores the origins and history (or mythology) of Thra. The Dark Crystal was an amazing cinematic feat crafted by Jim Henson and George Lucas in 1982. It straddles that fine speculative line between science fiction and fantasy. There are elements of both, although what we would consider magic could just be part of the alien ecosystem we’re exposed to in the film. The comics go back to when Aughra was young, to when the Gelfling first appeared, and the schism of the Great conjunction that cracked the Dark Crystal and created the Skeksis and the UrRu.
Unfortunately, this origin story undermines the unique weirdness of the film rather than enhancing it. There is a tonal shift and change in plot that places it in a more traditional mythical style. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with such a style, it doesn’t fit The Dark Crystal. The science fiction part recedes and the fantasy comes into the foreground. Aughra is cast as a kind of “Earth Mother” figure, the “embodiment of Thra” as the Dark Crystal Wikia says. While this status is hinted at in the excellent supplemental book The World of the Dark Crystal, it isn’t explicit.
However, I personally feel that the inclusion of a new character, Raunip, is what really makes the origin story fall apart. He’s the quintessential trickster character familiar throughout mythology, from Hermes to Loki to Br’er Rabbit. Raunip is possessive, sullen, and suspicious, and his selfishness changes the very creation of the Skeksis and UrRu. In the film, when the two races are rejoined into their complete selves again, they say that they split themselves apart through the power of the Dark Crystal because they sought to burn away all of their imperfections. This foolish pride and denial of nature resulted in a physical split between their “dark” and “light” natures. It’s a powerful message, pointing out how there is no such thing as perfection, that seeking true perfection is destructive and that we should learn to embrace and harness the power of our dual natures.
The inclusion of Raunip changes this. In The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths, he goads one of the UrSkeks into being angry and feeling dark thoughts, which prevents the rest of the UrSkeks from ascending back to their home world, which is what splits them into two beings. Wracked with guilt, Raunip descends into the bowls of Thra, never to be seen again. Having the Crystal crack and the UrSkeks split because of an external influence rather than an inner one makes it a more familiar but weaker story. (In my opinion, much of the direction that The Dark Crystal mythos is taking, with new graphic novels and a rumored movie, is more traditional and far less interesting than the original premise.)
The end result of these musings is that we writers need to take care when we create mystery or are urged to reveal more backstory than we originally intended. It may enhance the story or it could undo the very thing that drew readers in the first place. Remember to string readers along, feeding them tiny tidbits of the iceberg. When you create a book, you are god… and he’s a notoriously tight-lipped bastard.