What's Up with Secret Identities?
Masks, but not those masks, are a staple of secret identities. (Photo from Unsplash by Julio Rionaldo)
It’s been a while since my last trope discussion, so I thought it was time for another! This week I researched a super popular trope, secret identities. Get it? Super. Like super heroes.
Where Did This Start?
I started by reading about secret identities on TV Tropes. There are about thirty-two related tropes, including someone falling in love with the hero identity, or loving the hero and hating the secret identity (or vice versa), and more. So many tropes that the original idea of secret identities must be incredibly old.
Indeed, it is. You can see secret identities in fairy tales, like Cinderella (at the ball, though in most versions this identity doesn't get a name) and Beauty and the Beast (the secretly beautiful witch who turns the prince into a beast), and Mulan (in the army). TV Tropes cited a medieval Scottish story, Roswall and Lillian, as an example in which a steward steals Prince Roswall’s identity and plans to marry Princess Lillian. Roswall, of course, succeeds in getting the Princess in the end when his secret identity (which is his original one: a prince) is revealed. Even in Greek myths, gods would hide their identities and interact with humans. Technically speaking, secret or hidden identities are such an old concept in storytelling that we can’t quite pinpoint a true origin.
What about a secret identity for unsanctioned acts of heroism? That’s more specific. One could argue Robin Hood was almost there, but since it was clear to everyone involved that he was Robin of Loxley, his identity doesn’t qualify as secret. Let’s look at some others:
Superman (aka Clark Kent) made his first appearance in a short story, The Reign of Superman, in 1933, published in a science fiction magazine. Most people know him better from his second appearance, which was in 1938 in Action Comics #1 from DC Comics.
Zorro (aka Diego Vega) made his first appearance in 1919 in a series of magazine instalments later brought together as the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. Zorro got his first movie in 1920 (a silent one, but it still counts!)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (aka Sir Percy Blakeney) appeared in a play named for the hero in 1903 (and novel in 1905) by Baroness Emma Orczy. The Scarlet Pimpernel saved aristocrats from being beheaded by mobs after the French Revolution made that seem pretty fashionable. His public persona is a rich, stylish, but seemingly useless man that no one would suspect of being a swordsman. Is saving rich people terribly heroic? I suppose it would be to the rich people. At least the concept is right for my purposes here.
At 1903, The Scarlet Pimpernel is the first clear example of a character consistently using a secret identity to perform acts that are heroic. I was surprised to learn this secret hero genre was pretty much solidified in the literary world by a woman author. Hats off to the Baroness!
Why Have Secret Identities?
After that deep dive, I asked myself why did these characters hide their identities? Modern heroes do it to avoid their enemies and/or protect their loved ones. Older heroes did this as well, though there was often an air of vigilantism to those stories, where the secret identity would suffer legal consequences if they were found out. Other, less vigilante-focused instances of secret identities also protected characters from social consequences (Cinderella, Mulan) or allowed more freedom (Mulan, Zeus). Still others weren’t the character’s choice (Roswall). Plenty of character motivations available to meld or co-opt for your own story.
Should Your Characters Have Secret Identities?
It’s all dependent on your plot with this one. A super hero book may obviously require a clear secret identity to be effective. However, going undercover in a crime novel, using a fake ID in a contemporary novel, or masquerading a monster as human in a horror could all also qualify as secret identities. The most important thing is to be sure your reader can follow with what’s going on. If you don’t clearly connect identity 1 to identity 2, your reader may not know who’s behind the metaphorical (or real) mask and get completely lost. While a TV or movie has the actor, or at least their voice, to help guide the audience, you have to be more deliberate. One trick is to ensure you don’t introduce an entire team at once, but build it slowly to allow the reader to remember who is who.
That’s it for this trope discussion. Who is your favorite hero with a secret identity? Have you written any secret or false identities in your work? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Here are some sources for more reading on this topic:
TV Tropes article about Secret Identities
Wikipedia article summarizing The Scarlet Pimpernel
Wikipedia article summarizing Zorro
Wikipedia article about Action Comics #1
More about Baroness Emma Orczy
My mom would know what this flower is, but I don't. Photo by Kate Ota Germany 2013
Happy Mother’s Day!
One trope of MG/YA books is a dead mother (if not also a dead father). You’ll also see this trend in movies for young people—specifically Disney. So where did the trope come from and why perpetuate it? I decided to do a little digging.
Where did this start?
My first instinct was that this trope is drawn from fairy tales. I took a class on Grimm’s Fairytales in college and almost every birth mother was dead, often replaced by an evil stepmother. (Though, shockingly, not Snow White. Per the brothers Grimm, her bio-mom was the murderous queen.)
Many academic papers have been written about the dead mother trope, both about modern and historical works. One paper summarized quite a bit for me and presented earlier theories as to why this trope exists: the high mortality rate in child birth prior to modern times (about 1% to 1.5% of mothers died during child birth in the 1600s and 1700s), socio-economic and family structure changes in the US since WWII, and Walt Disney’s bad relationship with his mother. The feminist take is that removing the mother character and forcing the father to step into her place makes the father look great and devalues the work the mother used to do to keep the household running, since Dad can do it all himself.
Short version: it’s sexism.
Why Kill Mother Characters?
Well, parents who do a good job parenting will often prevent the sort of dangerous adventures that make MG/YA exciting. There are some stories in which parents are alive but separated from the kids, like because of a boarding school (the Weasley parents in the Harry Potter series) or war (the Pevensie parents in the Narnia series). Either way, it’s easier if the parents can’t jump in to prevent disaster.
MG and YA also explore the themes of growing up and experiencing the world yourself (to a greater extent in YA, of course) which requires the removal of that parental safety net to emphasize that theme. And let’s face it, from a traditional-nuclear-family-type perspective, who is most likely to notice kid shenanigans and do something to stop it? Mom. (No offense, Dad.)
TV Tropes offers the theory that dead parents are the only purely good parents in entertainment, as the others need to be stand offish or absent for plot reasons and therefore come off as terrible people. The dead are held in higher regard. It’s an interesting theory, but there are plenty of flawed dead parents in entertainment, too. And the trope page didn’t discuss mothers specifically.
In The New York Times, S.S. Taylor theorized authors kill one or more parents to reassure themselves that if they died, their own real children would also find a way to be okay. A bit of therapy, in a way.
Of course, that’s all been mostly about orphans, or at least when both parents are missing. But plenty of stories off Mom and keep Dad (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid to name a few). You’ll notice in these movies the father-child relationship tends to be fairly strong or develops as part of the emotional arc of the story. In fact, before Cinderella’s dad dies, they’re very close in most versions. Clearly, one way to justify or emphasize a father-MC relationship is to get rid of Mom.
Let’s circle back to the evil stepmother trope. This villain was typically jealous, cruel, and destructive toward stepdaughters. (We don’t see a ton of classic stories about stepmothers and their stepsons, but I’m sure they exist.) A biological mother was theoretically less likely to be this negative with their child. However, a stepmother had power/influence over the main character and would potentially be willing to treat them poorly. Since the intended audience was children, and getting deep into the psychology of why a parent may be cruel could be difficult for that audience, substituting in the stepmother may have been a shortcut to explain the bad behavior. This is a trope/cliché that’s certainly past its prime.
Should You Kill Off a Mother Character?
It depends. It’s a very old trope and teeters on cliché. You could use it to give your story a fairytale vibe, especially helpful if you want that feeling but aren’t doing a direct retelling. Fairytale retellings have been hot for years (I’d point to the start of the trend being Cinder by Marissa Meyer), but to stand out in this crowd, I’d recommend subverting as many tropes from the original tales as possible. That includes dead moms.
Contemporary stories probably don’t need to rely on dead moms, anyway. With the recent economic crises and the feminist movements of the late 1900s, many families have both parents working. Don’t kill off the mom, just make her busy. Historical settings may have more flexibility here, since, as I mentioned before, the maternal mortality rates were terrifying for most of human history. (And they’re still not great in the US, honestly, especially for women of color!)
I guess my advice is in general, no. Don’t kill off your mother characters unless there’s a very clear, specific reason she must be dead. Test your creativity and find another way to let your MG and YA characters explore their worlds. You may come up with an idea you like even more and bonus: one less dead mom character.
Here are some sources for more reading on this topic: