March 9, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 3

In the first and second installments of this series, we talked about creating a character that is three-dimensional and empathetic to the audience.  In this final installment, I am going to describe a story I am developing and one of the characters who will appear in it.

The Story

This is a science-fiction story set about 150-200 years from today.  Mankind has only a handful of faster-than-light starships, so it's very cautious with them.  When an officer takes command of a ship, it's a ritual for the officer's commander to say "Don't scratch the paint."

Our story focuses on the starship Prospect, which has just encountered what appears to be a derelict alien spacecraft headed for the nearby sun.  The spacecraft is an unfamiliar design.  It seems to be more or less completely intact.  There are no clear life signs.

Prospect's standing orders are to acquire any alien technology they can without significant risk to ship or crew.  They're also ordered to make first contact with new species they encounter.  These orders are balanced against the admonition to protect the valuable starship.

What our captain doesn't know is that this is not a derelict craft.  It's a sleeper ship for a race of powerful, intelligent, brutal, sadistic aliens.  It traveled from a nearby galaxy.  The occupants used it to escape from their own galaxy after a rebellion nearly destroyed their entire race.  The alien craft is looking for an inhabited world that it can land on, whereupon it will wake the crew.  On the ship, the crew has enough manpower and weaponry to conquer or destroy a planet or star.  Worse, they have no compunction against doing that.

When the captain decides to board this ship, believing it to be a salvage operation, it's treated as a full-on invasion by the alien ship's defense system.  For most of the story, the captain and his boarding party are fighting for their lives.  Near the end, the captain will be forced to decide the fate of this alien species.  Will he let them die?  Will he disarm them and find them an uninhabited world to live on?  Or will he find another option?

The rest we'll leave for the actual story.

The Basics of the Character

As we discussed before, Max Drake said that you need to figure out WHY you need a character and what ROLE that character will play in the story.  Our character is the man in charge of the starship Prospect.  He'll be leading the landing party aboard the alien ship, and the fight for the landing party's lives inside the alien ship.  When the dust settles, he'll have a choice to make.  The ship is very likely to land on a densely populated and peaceful planet in Alliance space.  If the captain does nothing, the aliens will emerge from hibernation on that planet and seize control of it.  Since it's a spacefaring civilization, the aliens will likely use that to conquer other worlds.  If he kills the aliens, he may be committing genocide, since the aliens may no longer exist elsewhere.  If he disarms them and maroons them on an uninhabited world, he has no idea how long it will take them to rebuild their society and become a threat to the Alliance.  His primary role in the story is to make that difficult call.  There is also the fact that this ship contains weapons which are many times more powerful than anything Earth or the Alliance has today.  If he takes those, what will the fleet and the Earth do with them?  Is this too much power?

Responsibility is a theme here.  Garrick will simultaneously be responsible for his life, the life of his boarding party, the crew of his ship, and the aliens.  He's also responsible for protecting the Prospect from destruction.  As the story unfolds, he also has to accept responsibility for the treasures and weaponry aboard this spacecraft.

Duty is another theme.  Garrick has a duty to protect his ship and crew, but also to explore, gather technology, and make first contact with alien races.  

The value of life (human or alien) is another point.  Garrick mourns the loss of crew members who die, and feels a measure of guilt and responsibility for that.  He doesn't think killing the aliens is right, given that they could be the last of their kind.  He also values the lives of the Alliance citizens too much to risk letting the aliens run loose.

Using what we've talked about in the previous articles, here is my starting point for Garrick:
  • Name – Captain Anslo Paul Garrick, known simply as Captain Garrick to his crew
  • Gender – Male, human, age 45
  • Vocation – Former test pilot for the Alliance, promoted to Captain of the Alliance Space Fleet starship Prospect, the flagship of the ASF's (current) fleet of 5 ships
  • Direction in Life – Garrick loves the thrill of new experiences, but lately has been thinking about settling down to raise a family in a comfortable, safe place
  • Story Goal – Board an alien spaceship that seems to be derelict or abandoned, make first contact with any aliens aboard, or salvage the ship or any useful technology on it
  • Tags – risk-taker, physically fit, empathetic, introspective, honest, considerate
  • BackstoryCharacter Arc, Inner demons and inner conflicts, Worldview – These are going to require some detail work, so we'll discuss them in a moment.
  • Role in the Story – Garrick's role in the story is to serve as the protagonist who keeps things moving along, but he's also the one who is forced to make some difficult decisions.  What should he do with the aliens he finds on this ship?  What should he do with the weaponry they have aboard, which is far more lethal than the Alliance has?
For this story to be its best, the captain's backstory, inner demons, and character arc all need to mesh together in order for his final decision to have the right impact on the reader - and on him.  Let's examine Garrick's worldview first.

Captain Garrick's Worldview

I envision the Alliance universe of which this story is part to have a 3-segment arc of its own.  The first segment or "era" shows mankind starting approximately where we are today, discovering the ability to travel faster than light into outer space.  During the first era, our technology doesn't work so well, we're still susceptible to most of our human shortcomings (like greed, prejudice, and deceit).  During the second era, we've faced enough threats in space that we've begun overcoming all that.  We see all humans as one species, and stopped squabbling over religion, race, social status, etc.

This story is set near the end of the first era and the start of the second.  Mankind has recently established the Alliance for Sentient Lifeforms (ASL) and convinced several alien species to join it.  We've worked with the member races to design the most-powerful ships we're capable of, to serve as the defense and exploration fleet for the Alliance.  Only 5 of these ships have been built so far.  The Prospect, our home for this particular story, is the first of these.  Three others are also out there exploring the galaxy, and the fifth is still in the dock being prepped for launch.  

Living in the time between an unenlightened mankind filled with greed, racism, deceit, and power-hungry people and a more-enlightened time when we have overcome these things, Garrick has a healthy distrust of his fellow man.  Most humans, and indeed most of his crew, respect and cooperate with one another.  Greed, power plays, dishonesty, and the like are uncommon but not unheard-of.  Garrick sees humanity as a single entity, and doesn't think of divisions within it along national boundaries, religious viewpoints, etc., but knows that not everyone shares that view.  He genuinely believes in what the Alliance stands for, and is working to make it a reality.

In Garrick's universe, there is a single Earth government populated by people who are generally acting in the best interests of humankind.  These occasional "lapses" by the politicians in charge of the Alliance make Garrick a bit skeptical that he can completely trust the current Earth government.  He's a little more trusting of the Alliance Council than the Earth government at this point, because he's seen nothing but honorable behavior from the council's membership.  

In next Monday's post, we'll create Garrick's backstory.

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