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Helping Your Protagonist Shine
Star Trek, Letters to Asimov, and Inter-Character Dynamics
I recently found an exchange of letters between Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov about Star Trek, following on an article by Asimov where he criticizes TV sci-fi shows in general, including Star Trek, about their scientific inaccuracies.
There're several interesting parts to these letters, including the initial part where Roddenberry confesses that the specific scientific inaccuracies Asmov had called out got past multiple knowledgeable proofreaders, including himself. Given what I've seen of continuity errors and sheer typos elsewhere, including in my own work, I completely believe him here.
I think the fast pace of TV writing, which Roddenberry mentions here, is responsible for more problems than the sort of confusion Asimov is calling out. Having to get out one episode a week doesn't leave much time to, say, dig into Khan Noonien Singh's character as fans can now do online. Whatever interesting ideas you might get there, and however much they might improve the episode, you don't have time to dig for them.
On the one hand, the episodic structure of Star Trek's original series let you farm out episodes to different authors and give each author a chance to spend more time on his episode; David Gerrold describes the weeks he spent making his first episode in his book The Trouble With Tribbles. On the other hand, this led to poor continuity and rare links between episodes. Gerrold also mentions in his book that he had to voluntarily choose to build his plot around the Klingons and the Organian Peace Treaty in his episode. They worked beautifully, but he had to provide that structure himself; the studio wasn't in it.
But the most interesting part of the Roddenberry-Asimov letters, in my opinion, is their later exchange about the characters of Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock. This character dynamic was a major concern of Roddenberry's. In addition to all the normal reasons to focus on characters, an episodic show being farmed out to multiple writers without instructions to focus on things like Klingons leaves the character dynamic as one of the only tie-rods between episodes. If you watched Star Trek, you weren't watching for any individual plot arc or writer. You were watching either for the series premise about the Federation's peaceful exploration, or for the character dynamic.
Handling issues between characters has some unique touches on TV, where each character has their own actor. I'm not that familiar with the dynamics behind Star Trek in particular, but I've heard that Shatner (the actor playing Kirk) had a large ego that caused some stress. Of course, Roddenberry had very limited leverage - he could hardly dismiss him without having to rewrite the basic premise of the show. Writers in other media usually don't face this with their characters.
But most of the issues with this character dynamic - including the ones Roddenberry and Asimov discussed - do apply across media.
The problem as Roddenberry posed it was that "It's easy to give good situations and good lines to Spock" rather than to Kirk, because he's a more unusual character, "and yet Star Trek needs a strong lead, an Earth lead". Asimov replied, expanding the situation:
The star has to be a well-rounded individual but the supporting player can be a "humorous" man in the Elizabethan sense. He can specialize. Since his role is smaller and less important, he can be made highly seasoned, and his peculiarities and humors can easily win a wide following simply because they are so marked and even predictable. The top banana is disregarded simply because he carries the show and must do many things in many ways. The proof of the pudding is that it is rare for a second banana to be able to support a show in his old character if he keeps that character...
Undoubtedly, it is hard on the top banana (who like all actors has a healthy streak of insecurity and needs vocal and constant reassurance from the audience) to not feel drowned out.
I've seen this in other places as well that have strong supporting characters around the protagonist, from Harry Potter to David Brin's Uplift saga to Brent Weeks' Black Prism series. I've felt it in my own (unpublished) writing. As Roddenberry explains it, the protagonist needs to be "an Earth lead" - in other words, someone with whom the audience can relate. We can travel through Middle-Earth without being lost if we're following a familiar Hobbit. But because he's so familiar, he can't be as unique as his companions.
I'd expand on this to say that another reason the secondary characters can be more marked is because it's less important if they don't win some people's sympathies. You can read Harry Potter if you dislike Ron Weasley; many fanfic writers have done that. But it's a lot harder to read it if you dislike Harry
Asimov replies with an idea: give Shatner (as Kirk) "an opportunity to put on disguises or take over roles of unusual nature. A bravura display of his versatility would be impressive indeed". In other words, make him into an interesting character by putting him in situations and having him take on roles where he isn't just playing "an Earth lead." I like this solution. If done well, it can expand one's character. Weeks does this toward the end of Black Prism as his protagonist ends up growing into multiple political and military roles, and as a co-protagonist ends up taking on multiple disguises.
Roddenberry replies that he'll look for ways to take Asimov's idea. It didn't save Star Trek in the short term, but you could say it did in the long term: even though it returned with a different cast, it did return. From what I've heard, it returned because of its fanbase, which stayed around in large part because they loved the characters.
If I return to my novel-writing, I'll keep Asimov's advice in mind. It's a point of skill designing a protagonist who's both relatable and interesting, and Asimov has an interesting tip.
Also, this exchange provides a glimpse inside storytelling from an angle I hadn't considered much before.
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