Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Star Trek Can Teach You (Not to Do) About Keeping Your Characters Consistent

Image via Microsoft Office
Spoiler warning: The following post discusses plot elements of the films Star Trek III, V, and VI.  Read at your own risk.

Last week, I discussed Mark Twain’s advice that characters in a story should behave like real people.  I thought I’d said everything I had to say on the topic and was ready to move on.

Then I watched a marathon of Star Trek movies on the Syfy Channel.

I’m a Star Trek fan from way back.  Like most fans, I was thrilled when the original cast reunited for six feature films from 1979 to 1991.  And, like a lot of fans, I was willing to overlook certain flaws in the writing of these films.

But time has made me wiser, or at least pickier.  Although these movies are still enjoyable and feature all of the elements that made Star Trek the enduring franchise it still is, I couldn’t help but notice the inconsistency in the portrayal of ST’s iconic hero, Captain James T. Kirk, in the fifth and sixth films.

For some reason, Syfy aired the films out of sequence.  I came in during the middle of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (released in 1986 and perhaps best known to non-fans as the movie with the whales).  Then came Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (1991; the last film to feature the original crew of the USS Enterprise) and, finally, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989; known derisively by some fans as Star Trek V: In Search of God).   I can only guess that someone in programming was not paying close attention and took the title of the fifth film literally, assuming it to be the last movie with the original cast.

In any case, showing the films out of order made the inconsistencies in Kirk’s character stand out like a Democrat at a Tea Party rally.

The Only Good Klingon . . . 

Some background information:  In the third film, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Kirk’s grown son, Dr. David Marcus, is murdered by a Klingon—a member of the warlike race that served as the original TV series’ primary antagonists.  In Star Trek VI, however, a Klingon moon has just exploded, threatening the Klingons with extinction unless they sue for peace.  Kirk and the Enterprise are assigned to escort the Klingon chancellor and his delegation to a peace conference.

This poses a significant problem for Kirk, who is so angry over the death of his son that he blames all Klingons, calling them animals and shouting to his first officer and best friend, Spock (who supports helping the Klingons), “Let them die!”

Kirk’s animosity, though deplorable, is understandable and very human.  It also gives him a starting point to grow from as a character.  This is all well and good—except that such attitudes are totally absent from the previous film.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

I'll grant that Kirk has minimal interaction with Klingons during ST V (and none at all in ST IV; hence its exclusion from this discussion) ; however, Klingons are present in the fifth film, and the only time he expresses any sort of emotional reaction toward them is when he thinks he’s about to be blasted by their battle cruiser.

Furthermore, once hostilities have ceased, Kirk and crew welcome the Klingons aboard the Enterprise for a celebration.  There is no mention of David Marcus’s death or Kirk’s embittered feelings.   However, when Kirk invites the Klingon delegation aboard the Enterprise for dinner in the sixth film, he does so with reluctance and palpable hostility.

(His inconsistent attitudes, by the way, are mirrored by some members of his crew.  Watch how Chekov and Sulu follow a female Klingon warrior around in ST V.  Then listen to Chekov utter the infamous, bigotted line, "Guess who's coming to dinner" in ST VI).   

All in all, the fifth film ends with the crew of the Enterprise exhibiting a cordial if wary attitude toward Klingons.  This cordiality all but vanishes in the sixth film.

Why Inconsistent?  Because the Plot Demands It. 

So, how was Kirk able to put his feelings aside in Star Trek V but not in Star Trek VI?

The answer, of course, is that movies are self-contained universes even when they are part of a series.  The filmmakers of ST V chose to focus on the story at hand and not bring in extraneous bits of continuity from past Star Trek films. 

Most of us, however, don't have the luxury of feature films with a built-in audience that may "forgive" us for such transgressions.  Inconsistent characters can throw readers right out of the story.

What do you think?  Do your characters behave consistently?


Kristi's Book Nook said...

I think characters will react to situations differently. But, I think that the little habits and mannerisms are what must stay consistent. They are great detectors of emotion and mood.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Good point about habits and mannerisms, Kristi. However, the writer should know each character well enough to anticipate how he or she will respond in any given situation. That's what keeps characters believable.

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...