Making Real Characters:
Learning from Star Trek
One month ago, Star Trek celebrated its 50th anniversary. 50 years since it first aired on television, that franchise is still more popular than ever. It has reached levels and places farther than any author or creative can ever hope or dream of.
If something can last that long and still have such a massive fan base after so much time has passed, it has to be for a reason. In my opinion, that reason is because it's more than good. It's outstanding. (And no, I'm not just saying that because I am an avid Trekkie :)
There are many factors which I believe led to the success of Star Trek. Though early on it was not widely accepted, it later became a phenomenon that still lasts to this day.
Like every story, whether in the form of books or
television, the story of Star Trek has many parts:
The setting, brought to life on the screen as being over two centuries from now, and elaborated by graphics and imaging that truly brought to life the creator's ideas of what the future would look like.
The plot of a starship that 'boldly went where no man has gone before', at the time, was both different and astounding, two elements that contributed to its success.
But as writers, we realize that it takes many, many parts to make a story successful. Today I'm focusing on Star Trek's original success with my favorite element of fiction: characters.
What we can learn from Star Trek's characters
Gene Roddenberry brought characters to the screen that were complex. Though futuristic, (and sometimes alien), he kept all the rules of what a character should be, and did it flawlessly. He created characters who had several dimensions to them, and brought their own unique presence to the screen.
They were different
Spock was a Vulcan. Yes, now fans of the series say, “Of course he's a Vulcan!”, but back when the pointy-eared creature from another planet first graced the screen, the idea of such a being was as far-fetched as flying cars. It still is! But the outrageous difference was what initially appealed to viewers. Everyone wanted to know what a Vulcan was, and were intrigued once they found out. While having a character that is merely different from the norm isn't enough to keep the viewers (or readers, in our case), around, it was enough to draw the crowds so the other dimensions of the characters could come through.
They were personable
They weren't stuffy and boring and all the same. The individual personalities of each of the Enterprise crew members came through in their own unique ways. Spock was a Vulcan, and Vulcans had no emotion. Therefore, we had a purely logical character. But for someone with no emotion, he had a huge, iconic personality. Playing on that difference, he came to have an unexpected, unique, and lovable personality that made him the icon he is today.
The other characters, (illogical humans), each had their own personalities also. Kirk brought a sense of leadership and common sense. McCoy had a sensitivity and 'illogical' attitude that brought balance to his logical shipmate's personality. Their differences not only to what may have been expected, but also to each others' personalities, created balance and interest.
They were flawed
In fact, many fans have chastised and judged the characters based on their flaws. Captain Kirk, though loved by fans, had a tendency to be overbearing, at times even egotistical. He was the technical “star” of the show, the Captain, yet his creator saw fit to give him flaws – which is one of the biggest rules of character creation. We've all heard that “no one wants to read about a saint.” Not one of the characters of Star Trek would fall into that category. Many had tempers, and sometimes even a Vulcan could admit that emotion would have been nice to have at times. Not one character was perfect, and their flaws are what made them, well, human.
They had conflict
These flaws, of course, led to many rifts between the characters. They didn't always get along. In fact, as many fans know, there were a few of the characters who hardly ever got along with each other. But that brought even more dimension to them as characters. Personalities conflicted, viewpoints clashed, and those who wrote the stories and created the characters weren't afraid to let them make mistakes or admit they were wrong.
We often have that struggle as authors. We created our characters and, in a sense, gave birth to them, so we don't under any circumstances want them to mess up. We don't want to make them look bad, or even think of our readers hating them or siding against them for even an instant.
And we often end up with saints.
But when someone loves a character, whether they realize it or not, they want them to make mistakes. Because only when they make mistakes can we really, truly relate to them personally. We feel as if we can compare ourselves to them, because they're just as human as we are (even the Vulcans). We're not watching or reading about saints. We're watching people as real as you and me, who are flawed, conflicted, and better for it.
Characters who are real.
Gene Roddenberry wasn't afraid to make his characters real. He wasn't afraid to risk negativity towards them. And for that, those characters have survived for 50 years, in one of the greatest TV franchises ever.
And particularly, my favorite. :)
Live long and prosper.
What else do you think contributed to the success of Star Trek? Share your thoughts below!
Want to read more on my take of Star Trek's characters, as a fan? Click here!
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