Letting the Characters Do the Driving– and the Story

Even though I had a to-do list filled with writing, research, sketching and sculpting, I spent most of yesterday reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, a collection of science fiction short stories that I picked up on our trip to Manteo in February.

I’d intended to read one story, then move on to something else on my schedule. Maybe write a little, then read another story, then do my sketch for the day, then read a little more. But when I finished each story, I found myself thinking, “Just one more.” After all, the stories are short — some just a few pages long, most only ten or fifteen — and I need to finish it to meet my one-book-a-week goal anyway.

The next thing I knew, it was five o’clock, and Chad was asking if I wanted to go for a walk before dinner.

It surprised me, really, because I don’t like to read science fiction. That probably comes as a shock to anyone who’s been following me on Twitter lately and seen me tweeting about watching some of my favorite 80s sci-fi movies.

The thing is, I love to watch sci-fi. Star Trek, Star Wars, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica (the original) — I grew up on that stuff. Heck, I even went as R2-D2 for Halloween one year. But watching sci-fi is different from reading it, and although I’ve read my share of sci-fi, it’s never been my first choice when looking for a book.

Chad and I talked about it on our walk, and I realized that what I loved most about Bradbury’s stories, what left me awestruck by “Kaleidoscope” and made me feel like crying after “The Rocket Man”, were the characters. My heart broke for the wife and son in “The Rocket Man”, and even for the rocket man himself. I was, not surprisingly, on the edge of my seat during “The Exiles”, waiting to see if they would survive — and cursing the astronauts right alongside Poe and his army.

An editor told me one time that he felt the best stories were character driven. That’s what Bradbury did with the stories in The Illustrated Man. He put the focus on the characters, made them real and made me care about them, so I wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to know how things worked out for them. The sciency bits are there, but it’s the characters that matter most.

I think that’s why I love to watch science fiction, even though I don’t like to read it. The science is there, but it’s in the background. The camera is focused on the characters.

Thinking about some of my favorite sci-fi shows, that makes sense. I love what happens with Crais in Farscape. Scorpius, too. My favorite part of Babylon 5 is the relationship between Londo and G’kar. Even in Tron, when the little guy says, “I’m just a compound interest program.”*

So that’s it, I thought. That’s the key. That’s what I need to do in my own writing. Focus on the characters.

And then we watched Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier.

Now, I love Star Trek, but The Final Frontier? Not the best movie. And, yet, a lot of the focus is on the characters. We learn that Kirk likes to rock climb, ride horses, and go camping. McCoy, too, at least the camping bit. We learn that Spock has a brother who was banished from Vulcan decades before. We see McCoy’s father die, and see McCoy’s pain that he ended his father’s suffering only for medical science to find a cure soon after. We see Scotty’s devotion to Kirk and the Enterprise, and a little bit of romance between him and Uhuru. Heck, we even learn that Uhuru can do an enticing dance, and that Sulu and Chekov have no sense of direction when they aren’t in a spaceship, but have enough pride not to let anyone know.

So with all this focus on the characters, The Final Frontier should be good. But it isn’t.

And then I remembered the second part of what that editor said: the best stories are character driven. Emphasis on the word driven.

The thing is, most of the things we learn about the characters in The Final Frontier have nothing to do with what’s happening on Nimbus III. Kirk free-climbing a cliff in Yellowstone Park might be interesting, but take it out and the rest of the movie plays out the same.

In Farscape, on the other hand, Crais chases Crichton across the universe because of his childhood and his relationship with his brother, but he would never have gone after Crichton like he did if his brother hadn’t died.

Everything that happens between Londo and G’kar on Babylon 5 relates directly to the main story arc of the show, even if you don’t realize it at first.

Even in Tron, watching that poor accounting program being forced to play against Sark drives Flynn to take down MCP.

It’s not enough to have just well-developed characters, or just a good plot. You need both, and they need to drive each other. You need characters that people care about, and an interesting situation to put them in. You need those characters to push events forward, to make choices that change things, and you need the story to push them right back.

You need to let the characters drive the events of the story, and you need the story to force them to do the things that shape the people they’ll be by the end.

And you need to tell it right.

It’s a tough balance to master. I don’t know if I ever will. All I can do is try. But I can tell you one thing: Bradbury? He nailed it.

* Interesting bit of trivia here: Crom, the compound interest program in Tron, was played by Peter Jurasik, who also played Londo Molari in Babylon 5. And, of course, Tron was played by Bruce Boxleitner, who was also on Babylon 5 as John Sheridan.

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