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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

August 27, 2006

Ol' Buddy, Ol' Pal:
...the friendship in pop fiction

What's the hardest thing to writing a good story? Plot? Characterization? Climax?

Well, okay -- all of those. But you know what is rarely addressed when people ask: what's the hardest thing to writing a good story? Relationships! Creating a character-in-isolation is all very fine...creating a relationship can be a mite trickier.

I think I first began to groove to the notion that "relationships" can be an important part of storytelling reading X-Men comics years ago. You know the X-Men -- "feared and hated by the world they've sworn to protect", stars of motion pictures and animated TV series. As a kid what I realized was that even though the characters were, in general, friends, some characters were more friends than others. And I realized it wasn't enough to have a bunch of characters all be amiable with each other. The art was in establishing interpersonal dynamics between individual characters (the feral, dark Wolverine and the good natured, happy-go-lucky Nightcrawler became unlikely best friends). It made the characters and the scenes richer...and more real.

Consider the pulp fiction hero, Doc Savage and his band of men: Ham, Monk, Long Tom, Rennie, Little John. Though Doc had five aides, the focus shifted to Ham and Monk who had one of those comically feuding relationships where they'd bicker but, deep down, you knew they were there for each other. I don't think it's a coincidence that the characters that became the most popular were the characters that had a relationship.

Relationships help define a character -- no man is an island, as the old saying goes.

Fictional friendships probably excel best in film and TV, where actors can bring an extra nuance to any interplay.

I was thinking about this in regards to the old TV series Star Trek -- yes! I've referred to it again (don't worry, I'm seeking therapy). Star Trek tends to be the elephant in the room when it comes to TV science fiction -- if people actually talked about the elephant...incessantly. There's hardly been a science fiction series made in the last 40 years where the makers haven't referenced Star Trek in interviews, either by telling us how they've emulated it, or how they're rebelling against it. And they'll define it by its "optimistic future", its ships and technology, its metaphor-laden adventures, its universe of alien races. Yet what they often seem to miss is something more subtle.

Star Trek was very much built on the relationships between the three leads: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The Holy Trinity of Trek as some commentators have cheekily termed it. I remember years ago an article in the defunct Twilight Zone magazine, by one Richard Matturro, analyzing Star Trek which used as the defining, iconic image of that show -- not the spaceships, not Klingons -- but Kirk and Spock clasping hands.

Star Trek, The Motion PictureRelationships, in Star Trek, embellished and enhanced the scenes -- allowing for everything from witty badinage, to tense arguments, to characters pouring out their hearts.

Yet in 40 years of TV series grudgingly borrowing from and bouncing ideas off of Star Trek -- a core relationship seems to be the one thing that is rarely mimicked. (An exception, I'd argue, was Babylon 5 -- not that there was a single, core relationship, but the various relationships between the various characters was crucial to its dramatic impact)

But no one would select an image from Star Trek: The Next Generation of Picard and another character and suggest that that summed up that series' essence. There is no "holy trinity" in the various StarGate series. Characters get along, sure. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Sisko affectionately referred to Dax as "old man" to remind us of their long standing friendship. But they almost had to remind us of it, because I'm not sure it was really reflected in the scenes that much. And it certainly wasn't crucial to any of the stories.

Again -- I'm nitpicking. I'm not saying we didn't perceive them as friends -- just that we didn't perceive them as friends -- friends to the end. Soul mates. There's a great line in the Classic Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever" where a character defines Spock as belonging at Kirk's side "as if he's always been there and always will." That kind of friendship is largely missing from the last four decades of sci-fi television. Probably the closest was in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the characters of Bashir and O'Brien who, in a clever bit of character evolution, started out hating each other, but became best friends. But as they were just supporting characters in an ensemble cast, one can't really say the series was anchored by that relationship.

In another Star Trek spin-off, Voyager, two characters actually fell in love and married -- Paris and Torres (I've focused on friendships, but romances are also "relationships"). And they handled it okay...when the episode was about the relationship. But when it wasn't relevant to that week's plot -- it often didn't seem to exist. (In the new Battlestar Galactica the relationship between -- whatsisname? -- Helo and Sharon very much defines the characters...but that's the point: it's not being used to enrich the characters; the relationship only exists as a plot point).

And that's why I say relationships are hard to write...and harder still to maintain between characters, to reflect in little things like how the characters casually interact with each other.

Relationships add depth, nuance and, yes, warmth to a scene between characters. If I were cynical, I'd say part of the appeal to powerful relationships is that many people don't have those kind of relationships in their real lives -- a friend who will "always be at your side" is as much a fantasy as transporters. And that's why we treasure them in fictional heroes. And, by the same token, the reason they can be hard to write with any conviction or because the writers often don't have them in their real lives.

When thinking about friendships and relationships, I wonder if there are certain archetypes.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry once claimed that Kirk, Spock and McCoy made one fully rounded human being. I think what he meant was that the characters represented different aspects of a personality -- Spock=logic, McCoy=emotion, Kirk=inbetween (interestingly, I've seen others define the characters quite differently...but they're wrong and, 'sides, it's my essay, so screw 'em). So we can define that as the "missing piece" friendship, where the relationship literally supplements the characters. Then there could be the, I dunno, we'll call it the "cathartic pal". In the original Battlestar Galactica we could see Starbuck as the "cathartic pal" who said and did all the things prim Apollo couldn't. That's the pal who's just a little funnier and a little more irresponsible than the main hero. Then there's "the rock" -- that's the character who is maybe least defined as a character in his own right, who most seems to exist to be the hero's pal, the one who has the hero's back, usually the strong silent type. Using the original Battlestar Galactica again, one could maybe define Boomer as "the rock", or in Star Wars, Chewbacca was Han Solo's "rock", even as Han was Luke's "cathartic pal". See how it works?

Other types might be the "mentor" (obvious enough), or "the other" (where the friendship is with someone who's very outlook and personality is alien -- where the relationship is as much about trying to understand the friend as anything: in sci-fi this usually involves aliens or androids).

Characters can be a combination. Spock was a "missing piece" friend, "the rock" and "the other". Sometimes relationships can't (or shouldn't) be so easily defined. Sometimes you create a group of characters first, and then pair them up into friendships. TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer was very much about the friendships, but they didn't necessarily fit into neat "archetypes".

But I kind of wonder if one of the reasons I often have trouble getting into a lot of the current crop of sci-fi series -- from The StarGates, to the new Battlestar Galactica, to (the cancelled) Star Trek Enterprise, to the modern Star Wars trilogy, to what have you -- is because they often seem to be missing that "relationship" aspect, that human factor. There's little genuine bond between the characters. Obviously, a fan might disagree with me. And I'm not saying the characters aren't supposed to be friendly.

But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the tasting. When people reflect back on the Classic Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, the first Star Wars trilogy, on Buffy, often they define it by the characters and relationships. Yet when I read things written about most of the other series, whether they be Star Trek spin-offs, or the Galactica remake, or the StarGate franchises, I just don't get the impression the relationships are seen as crucial to their narrative hearts.

One of my favourite movies is a 1960s flick called Flight of the Phoenix -- a great film. They remade it a couple of years ago...and I was kind of bored by the remake. One of the things I remember about the original was the relationship between Jimmy Stewart as the pilot, and Richard Attenborough as his co-pilot. But even though there was a pilot (Dennis Quaid) and co-pilot (someone else, can't remember who) in the remake, and they were still supposed to be friends, it wasn't given the same emphasis (the fact that I can't even picture who played the co-pilot tells ya something). I'm not saying that and that alone made one a great movie and the other (in my opinion) not...but I think it's worth mentioning.

Of course there's nothing wrong with a loner hero, either. But, in a sense, that's still a character defined by relationships...his lack of relationships. And that's a thought for another day.

D.K. Latta, editor

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