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Sep 13 2013

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Prompted: Originality Triumphs

And here is yet another prompt from the Ad Astra Blog Community, but this time it’s talking about original settings.  This topic is definitely relevant to how I write within Trek.

What’s the best setting for an original character? Is it as a lone figure, thrust into a canon ship or situation? In a group of original characters but still in a canon ship, situation or series? Or as a stand-alone crew, group, political party or other agglomeration of individuals?

First, let’s dismiss the notion of what’s best, because I think that’s relative to the writer and how he or she executes the story they’re trying to write.  A good writer could write a lone figure or an ensemble, part of Enterprise‘s crew or an entirely new ship/class/setting.  The universe is the limit when it comes to writing stories in this subgenre.

Personally, I prefer to avoid using canon characters.  The most I’ll do is perhaps take a once-seen or seldom-used recurring character from a series and expand the role or character a bit more for the purposes of telling the story, but quite honestly, I think that using an entirely original character concept that I’ve sat down and fleshed out provides me with far more freedom in interpretation than taking a feature character and writing them instead.

United Trek transparentWithin United Trek, we often will take characters from our sister series (I’ve written for Sam’s Pava Lar’ragos, CeJay’s written Leone, Sam’s written Ariel), but we often do it in a sense of collaboration.  There’s a bit more control proffered by the author intent on utilizing the character lent to the story.  Even though I designed FSA to be produced like a television show (in that anyone could read the series bible and then write an FSA story), I think other writers would want a once-over on a story before saying “it’s good.”

In other works, you’re lifting the character wholesale from the show and then you have to ensure that you have a good sense of who that character is from the actor’s portrayal.  And the list of authors who can do that is very very slim.  Steff is exceptionally good at Scotty, for example, so she’s on that list.  Sam’s also good at doing his bits with the TNG crew, Riker especially.

Actor Bob Gunton as Captain Benjamin Maxwell of the USS Phoenix (TNG: The Wounded).

Bob Gunton as Benjamin Maxwell (TNG: The Wounded).

I’ve attempted this with Captain Benjamin Maxwell from the TNG episode, “The Wounded.”  For four episodes of Full Speed Ahead, he is present either in person, by subspace, or even in spirit as Leone and her crew report to him on their adventures along the border.  The brilliant character actor Bob Gunton, who is probably best known for being the prison warden Samuel Norton from The Shawshank Redemption, has roughly sixteen minutes of screen time in that episode.  But in those short minutes, his abilities really managed to soar in his brief exchange with both Patrick Stewart’s Picard and Colm Meaney’s O’Brien.  In doing so, you didn’t just get exposition on Maxwell… you also got insight into both Picard and O’Brien.  That’s writing taken to another level by the efforts of the guy on the screen.

And so, I watched and rewatched those scenes in order to get a good understanding of the kind of captain that Maxwell was.  I wrote the exchange between Maxwell and Leone in “The Unreturned Prodigal” and even then I was met with some resistance within the UT group itself about how I wrote him far too tough.  There were a few more revisions, then I published and even then I still got some negative feedback on usage.  So, though we might try our best, we’re still subject to how readers feel about characters.  I’m sure even Steff faces from opposition to her portrayal of Scotty; she can’t possibly please everyone.

When do original characters and scenarios tip the scale from new spins on familiar works to out and out non-Trek? Is there a bright line between Star Trek and not-Star Trek?

I think that my Star Trek is different from a lot of readers and authors’ interpretation of Trek.  I personally strive for credibility in representing military organizations, so that means that I infuse a lot of characters who’re considered “lower decks.”  Because on real naval ships, it’s the enlisted folks who do the work, not the officers.  In Trek, you can’t rightly pay for a cast of a thousand people, so you have the officers doing all the grunt-work that a poor crewman would usually do.  The Chief Engineer roaming the Jeffries Tubes?  Never happens outside of a high-level inspection.  They have chiefs and petty officers who take care of that, and rightly so.  Officers are managers.  Enlisted are the people who execute the manager’s orders.  It’s as simple as that.

I’ve been told my Trek isn’t actually Trek.  I’ve been told that I’m trying to marry Honor Harrington into Trek at times, with an adherence to the military ceremonies and traditions.  I don’t agree, and if I did, then I wouldn’t have used the words Star Trek in my title.  I don’t honestly know if there’s a big bright line of Trek and non-Trek.  We have viewers who claim DS9 isn’t really Trek.  I think it’s subject to perspective.

How can original character love interests be integrated into a more canon scenario? What about original character leaders?

I reject the premise of both questions.  Because we work in fanfic, the only way it could become canon is it CBS TV buys it and produces it for television.  Even the Pocket novels aren’t canon.

For canon characters who have very little back story or screen (or authorized book) time, what’s the tipping point between when canon converts into what is, for all intents and purposes, an original character?

Convert to original?  At no time is it an original character.  You are literally subverting a creation of another writer’s imagination.  Again, I have to reject the premise of the question.

For representations of canon characters in fan fiction that are not well-portrayed (e. g. the author misses the mark and does not accurately represent the canon character’s language, ideals, vision, etc.), can the situation be salvaged by rewriting the story with an original character?

That’s a rather specific question.  Can it be salvaged?  Depends on the skill of the writer and where the weakness in the story really is?  Was it in the portrayal or was it in the premise of the story?

For original settings, what makes them unique? Can an original setting be so extraordinary that it, in a way, almost becomes a nonliving type of Mary Sue?

We’re really obsessed with Mary Sue/Gary Stu.  Look, writing is an extension of personal expression and for some writers, it can be an escape for themselves.  Which results in a Mary Sue-type character, because when we try to accomplish something, we want to be successful at it.  This results in a character that may be an extension of ourselves and like in a video game, we want to be the best/highest level/superpowered/awesome version of us.  Nothing really wrong with that, especially if we’re writing for ourselves and not others.

Who are some of your favorite original characters that you have created? Do you feel they fulfill their purposes?

The Chains of Error coverI try very hard not to have favorites when I create characters.  I tend to fall in love with plots than I do characters, because I can’t throw a plot at a group and then write their reactions as I interpret them from their sketches/personalities.  I know that in the beginning of the FSA original run (2008/2009), some readers were pointing out that Leone/Ariel was clearly my favorite duo.  In order to dissuade people from assuming too much about my aims with the characters, I killed Ariel off and sent Leone into an emotional tailspin.  In that, I’m happy to keep Joss Whedon company insofar as reminding my readers that I hate people.

Characters serve their purposes on my watch.

What are some of your favorite original settings that you have created? Did they work?

This is a much better question to ask.  I love all the original settings I created.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written them.  And as far as I know, they worked just fine.

Who else’s original characters do you enjoy reading the most, and why?

Sam Redfeather’s Gibraltar series.  Sam should be a pro author and there are very very few people in the Trek fanfic community who dare come close to his level of prose.  Specifically, I loved reading Lianna, Pava, and Sandy.  They worked very well together.  I will continue to read his stories because of the fact that he manages to do a great job of weaving together plots.  I know he and I differ on presentation, but that’s okay.  Plus, it helps that we’ve collaborated together… but then when I work on a project, I only work with the best.

  • SLWalker

    I’m honored, thank you. I have definitely done my homework, when it comes to Montgomery Scott. Honestly, the only time I ever ran into trouble was, oddly, a lunatic woman who was obsessed with Jimmy Doohan and pretty much demanded that I write some porn. She couldn’t grasp that 1.) I don’t think the man was all that very good at hopping from bed to bed, for one and 2.) I wouldn’t likely write graphic even if he was, and therefore acted like such a nut I blocked her off my journal.

    I honestly like seeing the lower decks. I mean, canon is canon in that Scotty does actually go crawling his ship, but it’s actually the group on Ad Astra — you, Kev, CeJay, Funngunner — who have inspired me to show more diversity in officers/enlisted and really make an effort to show a multifaceted organization. So, thanks for that. I think it makes for a much better series, especially in the time periods I write.

    • MDg

      I think it’s one of those breaks with canon that for me often launches some minor tension about whether I’m writing Trek or not. If the fundamental explanation for canon is what we see on the screen, then I think it’s limiting and absurd to think that one officer is the source for all resolution even within one department like engineering. Scotty’s the epitome of the Engineer because he was first in TOS. Were that the case, then the man would never sleep! 🙂

      Not to detract from your work, but in the questions of Mary Sue, it seems to me that in TOS, Scotty (not your interpretation of Scotty) might fail that exam in terms of always saving the day. 🙂

      • SLWalker

        I don’t know about that. The joke is that he’s a miracle worker, but even when he agrees with it, it’s with a certain self-effacing quality. He can’t quite be the Mary Sue — he never gets the girl, he certainly doesn’t get much screen time. His only claim to fame is that he’s brilliant in his chosen field and not a shabby starship commander when left in command.

        Kirk, on the other hand…

        I can buy Scotty often coming up with solutions. Even in TOS, though, he has a crew. In my universe, he does indeed come up with ideas because that’s what he’s wired for. (Being a leader, now THAT takes real work, not only on his part, but on his superiors to teach him how.) But he’s an engineering genius, I can buy him coming up with genius last-minute engineering solutions. Having an extraordinary talent does not a Mary Sue make. Having all the extraordinary talents does. (Again, Jim, I’m lookin’ at you.)

        • MDg

          I don’t know… his crew is kind of wacky. They’re constantly screwing up, if you watch Kyle or Reilly or the numerous unnamed guys who seem to not quite be good enough to match Scotty. I think there’s a reinforced perception within the scope of TOS that Scotty is the top engineer, when in fact… in reality, he wouldn’t be. It would likely be some master chief petty officer who is the top engineer.

          • SLWalker

            Riley wasn’t in his department (he was command-track), and Kyle was actual competent across the board. 😀 DeSalle, too, once he transferred to Engineering as assistant chief, was pretty good. Some techs bit the dust, but only once or twice could one accuse them of stupidity when it happened — mostly, the dumb redshirts belonged to Security.

            I dunno, Scotty’s really good at what he does. As well he should be. He’s not gifted with extraordinary charm, extraordinary good looks or any other special traits. But he’s an amazing engineer, and a canny enough captain when called to do it. It’s hard to make a call for him being a Sue when you have Jim Kirk there. 😛

          • MDg

            I would say Kirk, Spock, and McCoy fit the Mary Sue description handily. I plugged all three into the exam and they came out failing. My point is that you can have more than one Sue in a story. 🙂

  • janetgershensiegel

    I think opening up your work and showing below decks characters makes a lot of sense. You’re right; the upper level folk would not be doing anywhere that much … stuff. It’s a budget thing and it’s a pro writing thing and it’s a network thing, to have the seven or so pretty people (with huge, honkin’ salaries) getting most of the face time. But the reality of a ship is that the low level crewman would probably find the plasma leak first. The junior engineer would probably fix the improbable drive. And the pilot on the night shift might very well be the person who saves the day and keeps them from hitting a suddenly sentient space minivan or whatever’s out there.

    • MDg

      There are compromises in order to endear a reader to a specific cast of characters. After all, the limitations imposed on cast began in the 1960s with The Original Series, and out of that grew the formula that is shared by most science-fiction television series that followed (Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, etc). So, FSA isn’t too dissimilar in that AJ and I follow that same formula, but we also don’t feel constricted by that in expanding the cast when it’s necessary to highlight that credibility that I spoke of within the post.

      Is it credible that one person would be the end-all be-all of that department? Not anymore likely than it is that one author is the end-all be-all of fanfic or one politician is the end-all be-all of their constituency. One of the best parts of TNG and DS9 is when they dared to showcase other officers or other members of the crew. I loved the fact that they did Barclay stories and even an entire episode around junior officers. In DS9 an NCO was featured as a main character (even though his authority was touch-and-go since he was ordering around commissioned officers, a huge no-no in RL).

      FSA is attempting to show that feel of an actual crew. We try to feature warrant officers and chiefs and petty officers and even crewmen who’re trying to strike for a department in order to earn that promotion. It’s important to me that Trek has that level of understanding of how a crew works.

      John Scalzi wrote this amazing novel called “Redshirts.” How he defined the formula in Trek, even though it was rather extreme to prove a point, showed the limitations of why it just doesn’t work in reality. Well, in the reality of the crew and ship he featured. But the underlying explanation resonated with me and after I read it, I felt that my portrayal of FSA held some validation on all points. Also, I love how he jabs at Voyager’s Harry Kim specifically by blowing up the same crewmember every mission. 🙂

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  • mirandafave

    What I’ve always admired about your stories has been the introduction and use of the below decks crew and the authentic feeling of the FSA stories and many details therein pertaining to rank and the workings of life on board a starship with your real life knowledge/insight into naval traditions and workings. The structure of the stories is indeed very much as though FSA produced as a Trek TV show which in turns lends it a certain Trekian authenticity.

    On the character of Maxwell, the actor was indeed terrific and more than that, it allowed for terrific character moments for Picard and O’Brien. Stewart was indeed terrific in the part but again it’s Meaney who impresses me here and no wonder he was an ideal transplant for a further franchise series given we see his acting chops here but also the character has a different feel around a different CO and yet remains at the core the same too. It’s the character stuff that wins every time. Which is then why it is no wonder you opted to work with Gibraltar’s lot!