Don’t Create Red Shirts

December 13, 2009    

Conflict is the heart of most stories. The tale of an average person’s average day wouldn’t be very entertaining. “Today, I went to the store, bought milk and then went home. I made shells and cheese before playing video games in my underwear. On a high note, Muffins the cat didn’t yack on the rug.”  At some point, when creating conflict, it is import to consider whether or not the reader will care.

Uploaded by gruntzooki

Uploaded by gruntzooki

A classic and cliché example of this is the red shirts from Star Trek. They were constantly in peril, dying at a moment’s notice, but no one cared. Very few people knew their names and even the main characters on the show didn’t stop to mourn. You never saw an elegant space-bound burial ceremony for “Away Team Member #2.”

How does one invest emotionally into a character? It starts with spending time with them before they’re in unusual peril. Unusual because a story about war may feature the characters entrenched in a fox hole the whole time. But we’re still going to learn about them before the big climax. The one guy has a picture of his wife and daughters under his helmet. The lad next to him has an engagement ring tucked in his sock drawer back home. When the time comes for one of them to get shot, we’ll hope that they live to be reunited with their loved ones.

Another way to look at this is to think about someone you know who only calls when they need something. Maybe their heater broke and they need you to float them a loan. Or their kids are sick, could you take Muffins to the vet? Never a conversation about the weather. Or you. Now, would you read a story where the main character and cast were like that? They didn’t give you a glimpse into their good times but they want you there for the rough times. You never got to see how much they loved Tommy but now that he’s dead, you should feel bad and help them mourn.

Readers, watchers and listeners want a reason to care about your characters. Make sure you let them spend some time with them before the big bad shows up.