Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Out of Your Element, Donnie!

A well-constructed character has some sort of talent, ability, or general quality that sets them apart from the crowd. Even the 'average joe' types need to have something about them that makes them more interesting than the other characters of the story, in order to make them worth the reader's time. Of course, I'm sure you could think of exceptions to this rule, but for the sake of time, just go with me on this one.
The character's quality that sets them apart offers the writer two equally valid options: putting that character 'in their element' and taking them 'out of their element.' I've been watching some Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and the episode "New Grounds" displays both of these ideas very well. For those of you that have a life, let me fill you in on the character Lt. Worf. He's a Klingon, which is an alien race based on wolf pack, alpha male, warrior mentalities. He is very strong, and hell-bent on duty and honor, and how they relate to combat. Previously in the series, Worf's mate Keylarr dies and leaves Worf their son, Alexander. In this episode, Worf must deal with suddenly becoming a single parent.
Out of the element:
Worf is the ship's tactics and security officer. He's a Klingon. He's a bachelor. He is in no way cut out to raise a young boy. Thus, it becomes very interesting to watch him struggle to operate in this very unfamiliar territory. At first, Worf tries to use what is familiar. He instructs his son about honor, discipline, and Klingon heritage. Not only does it not work, but it pushes Alexander away. So Worf must learn something new and grow as a character to find out how to deal with this problem. He learns that in matters of the heart, a firm hand is not always the answer, and that Alexander is dealing with the death of Keylarr, too. Thus, they must work together to confront their feelings. That's not something that Klingons are very good at. But Klingons are good at fighting battles together, which is another way of looking at their mutual problem. Worf was out of his element. He tried to solve it first with what he knew, and that didn't work. He learned something new, and adapted it to himself, making the solution his own.
In the element:
In reference to a page where Supergirl blasts out her heat vision, Dennis O'Neil says "Supergirl shows her stuff, as every good superbeing should at some point in every story" in The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Whatever the character's qualities or talents are, the audience needs to see them showcased. In the episode's final act, Alexander is caught under heavy debris in a fire. Worf may not know how to be an idealistic dad, but if there's an I-beam on top of somebody, Worf is the one guy on the entire ship that can do something about it. So, the audience gets to see what makes Worf such a unique character in comparison to everyone else. Usually, this is the most visually interesting part of any story, and it's typically in that final crisis. This is what the audience waits for and pays to see. What's really great about this episode is that this final action kills two birds with one stone. Earlier in the episode, Worf thinks he can't raise Alexander and wants to send him to Kronos, the Klingon home world. But Alexander secretly runs away. The episode's sub-plot is the cause of the fire. Worf is in crisis. He's the ship's tactics officer: his duty to the ship is to stay on the bridge and try to protect the crew, but he's also a father, and he can't stay on the bridge while his son is dying. In a moment of crisis, characters instinctively choose what is most important to them, whether they understand it or not. Even though he was getting ready to send Alexander away, he leaves the bridge to save his son. The danger is a type that Worf is qualified to handle, and it teaches him what's most important in his heart.
Having a character deal with something they are unfamiliar with can be just as interesting as watching them do what they're best at. If they do too much of either, though, it will become problematic and predictable.


  1. This has nothing to do with story development, but thought you'd value it:


  2. I shared this blog on twitter and facebook. I liked it. A bit nerdy :), but really insightful into the art of character development.