Secret identities. Hidden dark pasts. The orphan who turns out to be the king’s son. And all kinds of disguises, from the classic hastily-borrowed enemy uniform (see Raiders of the Lost Ark for problems with that) to carefully impersonating another sex, culture, or even species. Writers and readers love identity shenanigans.
With good reason. Humans are social animals, meaning significant parts of our identities are socially constructed. By our culture, by our families, by the reactions of people around us and our reactions to them in turn. The nature vs. nurture debate is probably going to go on forever, but no one can deny that nurture plays a significant factor. Someone who’s never had the chance to pick up a sword will likely never be a master swordsman, even if his birth parents were a dojo master and a legendary assassin; on the other hand, even the clumsiest child adopted by acrobats is likely to learn something about tumbles and handstands, if only through sheer stubborn imitation and repetition.
Yet because we construct so much of our selves, we have a deep fascination with what might be entirely beyond our ability to change. What, if anything, was passed on from our ancestors that we can’t change, for good or ill? And because we can’t change it – because it came from parents or grandparents or who knows how far back – how much do their lives and fates foreshadow our own?
Villainous Lineage is just one of many, many tropes dealing with this idea. It is, unfortunately, a trope probably Older Than Dirt, to the point several cultures considered a criminal’s relatives – and especially children – just as guilty as they were. In some times and places, wiping out a whole family down to newborns in arms wasn’t a war crime, it was justice.
(Supposedly. There are enough stories of humans being human, and my god man that’s a baby I’m not letting this happen, to indicate that no matter what the culture, a fair number of people considered youngsters potentially innocent and would try for rescues if they could pull it off without getting killed themselves.)
Thing is, a lot of stories use this as a sudden Reveal to either explain why someone who might have been heroic was actually a hidden villain all along, or to give a hero an existential crisis. And… that’s valid, and likely true to life in history. But I think it’d be put to better use if you built up to it.
I also think it’d be more realistic in a story that way. Because if someone’s adopted, no matter how well you’ve kept the secret… well, certain aspects of nature will be noticed. The scholar in a family of soldiers, the kid who just doesn’t quite look like the rest, the tendencies to get ill – or stay healthy – that don’t match every other relative in the area. If you can bring those up, and scatter them through the story, then the reader will get an actual Reveal instead of a shock out of nowhere. “Aha! There were all these clues – we should have known all along!” Much more satisfying for a reader.
(Or viewer. The Imperial Coroner does an excellent job with this. As of ep 32 I can count no less than six people who aren’t who everyone thought they were – some adopted, some disguised, and some who’d had their reputations manipulated drastically.)
If you really want to take it over the top? Weave more than identity shenanigans into your story. Weave in little bits that make it clear that deceptions happen, and some things have to be investigated before you know anything for sure. The Imperial Coroner does this with a string of counterfeit coins at the very beginning of the story, that ultimately lead to murder, betrayal, and an attempt to overthrow the empire.
Looks like the bad guys aren’t going to pull that last evil off, though. Because one of those rescued innocents (and possibly two of them) has started unraveling the plot by uncovering her past, and bringing one truth to light brings up so many more….
Bring on the shenanigans. But always root them in some truth the characters can find. Because who I am should have a definite answer!