March 16, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 4

In the earlier posts in this series, we talked about the various things we need to do to create a good character.  In the previous post, we created the fictional character Captain Anslo Garrick of the Alliance starship Prospect.  Today, let’s develop Garrick's backstory.

Captain Garrick's "Far" Backstory

Garrick was born on Earth, in the United States, in Central Ohio.  He has a brother named Matthew. He attended Catholic schools, and his parents were committed to their faith.  Garrick appreciates the education he received but doesn’t share his parents' religious views.  He views religion as an archaic way to get people to behave the way they should naturally.  While he embodies much of what the church teaches, this isn't because of faith but because he believes it’s the right way to be.

After high school, Garrick joined the Alliance Academy in Florida.  It’s located on the site of the old Cape Canaveral NASA facility.  NASA was absorbed into the Alliance Space Fleet once the Alliance came into existence.  In the Academy, Garrick became a skilled pilot and leader.

As a member of the Alliance Space Fleet, Garrick became a test pilot for the earliest Alliance spacecraft.  These ships merged the existing human space flight technologies with those from other Alliance member races.  The designs didn't always work, and Garrick's life was often in danger.  On one particularly disastrous flight, the spacecraft went far off course and light years from its intended destination.  Part of the control system burnt out and he was forced to make a rough landing on an uninhabited planet.  Fortunately, Garrick was able to jerry-rig the control system and get the craft back to Earth.

Tailoring Garrick's Backstory to My Needs

While I see how Garrick got to this point, I need to steer the backstory to the needs of this particular tale.   I want Garrick to fret about the disposition of the aliens on this spacecraft.  Given that they're brutal, savage, power-hungry creature, he would normally have little resistance to killing them.  I don't want it to be that easy.  Despite the threat they pose to the Alliance, I want him to have a problem with just blowing them away.  How do I do that?

One way is to amp up the fact that these aliens could be the last of their kind.  Suddenly, what might have been the disposal of a threat becomes an act of genocide.  Given his moral character, Garrick's not going to like that.  Still, the aliens’ destructive tendencies might override his compassion.  I want to amp up his insecurities around "the last of their kind" thinking... How will I do that?  I'll litter his very-recent backstory with unhappy moments that show an end to things.

Garrick's "Near" Backstory

On his forty-fifth birthday, Garrick files forms with the ASF to be discharged.  On the same day, his brother Matthew dies in an accident at work.  Matthew was in love with a woman he was planning to marry later in the year.  Garrick was to be his best man.

Matthew's death left their mother severely depressed.  Garrick took a leave of absence to care for her.  She now lives in a rest home.

He received a video call from Admiral Laura Boxleitner.  The admiral told him she can’t accept his resignation.  She wants him to accept command of the Alliance flagship Prospect.  He told her he appreciated the honor, but he wanted to retire, settle down, and raise a family.  "I'm not getting younger," he tells her, "and my mom wants grandkids before she dies."  He asks her why she's not promoting his best friend Carl Martin, the first officer of the Prospect.  She says Martin has not signed on for another tour of duty and will leave the fleet in a few weeks.  Garrick didn't know that.

In the end, Boxleitner convinces Garrick to accept a four-year post as captain of the Prospect.  She tells him if he'll just do that, she'll promise him a promotion, so his pension will be higher.  He decides a four-year delay is fine, and running a starship is probably safer than test-piloting was.  He grudgingly accepts the commission, saying "Four years.  Don't ask for a fifth."

It's important to note that the Alliance is new and its space fleet consists of only four active ships - with a fifth in drydock.  Because this fleet of four ships is all the Alliance has (though it can call in ships from member races during a crisis), the fleet leadership encourages officers to be very careful with their ships.  Losing just one starship means the loss of a quarter of the Alliance fleet.  When fleet command gives orders to a captain, the somewhat-joking sign-off is "Don't scratch the paint."  (This is short-hand for: "That ship and crew are valuable.  Don't take any unnecessary risks.")  Boxleitner says this to Garrick when he accepts the commission.  Garrick chuckles when he hears this.  As a test pilot, he's crash landed or ejected from dozens of spacecraft, doing much more than scratching the paint.

(I've established something subtle but important here.  The culture in the ASF is that commanders are actively discouraged from taking risks.  If this isn't interrupted, that "don't take risks" philosophy will permeate the ASF and make it a fleet of cautious, careful, and fearful officers.  This will erode their ability to protect the Alliance and explore the galaxy.  Garrick, a risk-taker at heart, will realize this is the wrong culture to create.)

Garrick’s first mission as the Prospect’s captain drives home the "last of its kind" motif.  The mission from Admiral Boxleitner was meant to gently introduce Garrick the ship, crew, and space exploration.  They visit an alien world which once housed an advanced, enlightened, and artistic civilization.  Unknown forces destroyed them thousands of years earlier, but their cities and artworks remain.  Garrick's crew must take soil, air, and water samples for analysis.  This had been overlooked by previous expeditions.

Garrick's best friend Carl Martin is approaching the end of his four-year enlistment term.  He was aboard the Prospect under its previous commander.  In two months, Martin reaches the end of his tour of duty.  He wants to return home, marry his fiancée, and raise a family as Garrick had planned.  The previous commander always lead the landing parties, leaving Carl behind to watch over the ship.   Garrick let Martin lead this expedition as a favor.

On the planet, Martin loses slips in the mud next to a small pond and falls in.  This exposes him alien bacteria that kills him within a few hours.  Garrick is devastated.  He has unintentionally ordered his best friend to his death.  As our story begins, Garrick calls Martin's mother to give her the bad news.  Martin's mother laments that she'll be the last of the family line.  When Garrick disconnects from the call, he will be further distraught at the realization that his first official decision as captain of the Prospect ended his best friend’s family line.  (This might turn out to be too heavy-handed in the final story, but we’ve now shown Garrick postpone his dream of a family, unintentionally destroy his best friend’s family line, and witness the works of an amazing civilization that was destroyed.)

In Part 5 (next Monday), we'll look at Garrick's inner demons and talk about how I'll go find his voice and get into his head.

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