Marvel Comics and the Illusion of Change
How to make lasting changes to your story without altering its foundation
If you've read many comic book stories, especially from Marvel and DC, you've probably noticed that each book has a certain archetype and status quo. It would often get shaken up, but over time the storyline will revert back to its baseline archetype. It is only recently that comic book fans and writers have insisted on introducing changes that truly have lasting repercussions (DCs big three heroes all now have children, for example). But for the longest time one could rest assured that most major changes to ones favorite book would somehow be undone eventually. There is a paradox in this where you want to generate big stories that pique interest and draw readers so you promise major, lasting changes, by you don't want changes so drastic they drive away your core audience.
What is the illusion of change?
I wrote a previous article on shaking up the status quo in your stories. But this is a variation of that where you appear to shake up the status quo for a time, but return to it after you've made the impact. It's Will Smith and Nia Long involved in a season-long romance in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, only for them to call their wedding off and have Will going back to being the swinging bachelor looking for love. It's Marvel's Fear Itself story which saw multiple heroes killed only for them to all literally be resurrected at the end of the story. It's the X-Men starting their own island nation only to their enemies to intensify their plots to destroy it. It's literally breaking Batman's back and replacing him with a new Batman only for the original to return and retake the mantle. It's Superman revealing his secret identity to the world, only for Lex Luthor to hatch a plan to make the world forget just a year later. kidnapping Jean Luc Picard and turning him into a borg before rescuing him and bringing him back. This is the illusion of change, where it appears the story is moving in a new direction but eventually returns to the status quo.
Treading the line.
One can argue that most stories employ the illusion. A story within itself is a shaking up of a status quo and the subsequent fight to restore order in some way shape or form. But in longer form stories like sagas or story franchises, this is more pronounced. If you are writing a longer or ongoing narrative like a series of novels or a TV show, you want to keep your baseline story familiar while exploring new ground to keep your stories engaging. This dichotomy is what maintains your current audience while potentially growing it. Refuse to introduce any lasting change and risk boring your audience with a stale, recycled narrative. Change your story too drastically for too long and you risk alienating your audience and making it harder to attract a new one.
New body, same engine.
One way to navigate this paradox is by staying true to the core foundation of your story. You need to do a deep dive into what the pillars of your story are. What are the 3-5 most important elements of your narrative? What are the elements that, if they were removed or changed, your story loses its identity? Is the fantastic four really the fantastic four without the familial bond? Is James Bond really James Bond without the gadgets, guns and girls? What does CSI become without it's high-tech forensic techniques and team-based problem solving? Once you establish the untouchable aspects of your story, now you are free to make as many drastic status quo changes as you feel the narrative dictates. For example, take the aforementioned children of Superman, Batman And Wonder Woman. These changes don't alter the core mission statement or identity of the stories involved. But if you take away Mario and Luigi's plumbing references, parkour-styled acrobatics, unique power-ups, brotherly comradely and cartoony antics, then (as evidenced in their first movie) the Super Mario Brothers are that only in name.
Even long-running stories known for ever changing status quo like saga, walking dead and savage dragon have foundational aspects that stay consistent, whether it be the characters of TWD wandering from sanctuary to sanctuary, or the makeshift family ties of Saga or how Savage Dragon solves problems with his first and his brain second. From that foundation they can made dramatic swings in the narrative, many if which permanently alter the story.
When to break the illusion
Determining when to make a lasting change can be tricky. Introduce the change at the wrong moment and you could drive away a major portion of your audience. You want to make sure that such a drastic change is organic and makes sense within the narrative you have been building. Not to say that a random change in the status quo happening unexpectedly can't work, though. You just have to work harder to give the change context and have it make sense to the audience. Good times to introduce a major status quo change are after the end of a major storyarc, or if you feel that a narrative has gotten too stale and predictable.
You can also change characters and situations gradually over time. Characters should be allowed to grow and learn, especially in stories that last over multiple installments. You see this a lot in sitcoms where characters start off adversarial and over the course of the show grow to respect and even care for each other. Another example is Harry Potter starting his first book as a wide-eyed inexperienced boy and growing into a confident master mage by the end of the book series. These changes happen without changing the DNA of the story, and since the change is gradual it doesn't alienate the audience. You can do this by taking an assessment of your character's thought processes, beliefs and attitudes at the start of their story, and giving them small revelations and small changes in behavior in each installment of your narrative. You might want to keep track of the changes that the character is making over time so that their character arc stays consistent and believable.
The secret to keeping a long-term story engaging it balancing the new with the familiar. If you can master introducing new and lasting changes to your stories without compromising the foundation that makes your story what it is, then you will ensure that you can both gain new readers and satisfy the readers you already have. Be sure to look over your story and come up with ways to shake things up.
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