I saw a comment somewhere about why all heroes seem to have such dark and gritty backstories and with watching the Titans series it got me thinking, looking at this gritty re-imagining of characters that a lot of non-comic book fans got in a more bright and colorful on the Teen Titans cartoon and Teen Titans Go cartoon.
There is quite an in-depth study into human psyche here, looking at exactly what motivates a hero, what drives them to do what it is they do. To quote Robin Rosenberg from the Smithsonian,
…[S]uperheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to.
The first is trauma, which lies at the heart of Batman’s origin story, in which Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to fighting crime after seeing his parents murdered. In real life, many people experience “stress-induced growth” after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists.
The second life-altering force is destiny. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a normal teenager who discovers she’s the “Chosen One”—endowed with supernatural powers to fight demons. Buffy is reluctant to accept her destiny, yet she throws herself into her new job. Many of us identify with Buffy’s challenge (minus the vampires) of assuming a great responsibility that compels her to grow up sooner than she wants to.
Lastly, there’s sheer chance, which transformed a young Spider-Man, who was using his power for selfish purposes until his beloved uncle was murdered by a street thug. Spider-Man’s heroism is an example of how random adverse events cause many of us to take stock of our lives and choose a different path.
Part of it is the idea of the Hero’s Journey, the Call to Adventure step, where the Hero’s adventure begins. This is because of an event that inspires them to act, such as a direct threat to his safety, way of life or that of his loved ones or community. It could be the trauma of seeing the loved one die, but it could be something more like that moment where the power awakens inside of you like Buffy or it could be Frodo finding the ring and learning of its history and what needs to be done. Whether it is a physical object, a mystical feeling, or an event or something else, that call will shake the hero out of their routine and on the way to the adventure that awaits them.
Regardless of how they got their powers, the heroes will have that desire that gets them out of bed and tells them that they need to keep going, that they haven’t done enough yet. You look at any normal person and you’ll usually find the reason they get out of bed is they need to get the things to survive. Once they have food, they have money for shelter and for clothing and everything else, they will be happy to just walk away from their job and do other things like spending time with family and friends, but for those with a purpose, they need to spend as much time as they can fulfilling that purpose. you can’t sit back and have a beer if there’s a chance someone might be in danger and you could have saved them.
It is the same with Player Characters, as they’ll usually have a similar sort of story that something happened in their life. Some sort of drive or desire they seek to accomplish or achieve. Maybe they want to prevent other people from suffering or they want everyone to suffer, they want to find the ultimate tale to tell or they want to amass gold to get their family out of debt.
The reason this sort of thing happens in the first place is that from desire comes conflict and conflict is at the heart of good drama. Will this character get what they want, and what happens to that character who wants something else? Of course, once the character achieves their desire, that is pretty much it. After all, look at Darkest Dungeon, who would want to go exploring into areas where it will take tolls on your sanity, your wellbeing both physically and mentally. Granted, a nice dramatic trick is to give a few weaknesses to your character (at least two or three) and something the character will die for. Think of the Indiana Jones fear of snakes as an example, it is a minor point but it can be thrown in to spice up a scene that may have little to no tension to it otherwise.
Just make sure to leave them a normal, mundane touchstone to a real life as well. Batman had Alfred, Indiana Jones had his teaching and his family and friends, every hero needs that ability to keep connection to the mundane, the things that tie them down to earth and keep them from losing themselves in their adventures. This is the vent for all the pressure that builds up in this whole dark and depressing side and without that light, that beacon to keep their head.