Last night I got to see an advance screening of the new Battlestar Galactica movie (long episode, whatever you want to call it). In a theater and everything! It was awesome on pretty much every level, much like the rest of the series. BSG in general almost always hits every beat it needs to–I’m disturbed when I need to be disturbed, inspired when I need to be (even the terrifying Admiral Cain’s speeches get the blood stirring, which is a testament to Michelle Forbes), terrified when I need to be, and so on.
BSG’s biggest strength is the characters. They’re believable, they’re terribly flawed but likable, and every one has a tragedy in their life beyond the obvious one that their civilization has been all but obliterated. People screw up as often as they succeed, and sometimes make bad choices and have to deal with the consequences. That may sound like a trifle, but in most serial storytelling, massive events are minimized in order to keep the status quo (and there are good reasons for it, but I won’t go into that).
The lesson to take from BSG? When you create your characters, make them interesting people first. Kara Thrace, Starbuck, is a stubborn, grouchy, alcoholic with serious authority issues stemming from a bad relationship with her mother. She works and plays hard, and can become deeply passionate about something once she focuses in on it. Into this unlikely figure is poured the responsibility of being either the savior or destroyer of humanity (that’s still up in the air). Oh, yeah, and she’s a crack fighter pilot and a woman, too. Those last items definitely inform the character and how she’s written, but they’re the most broad categories and least interesting.
Let’s compare her to the current Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. Poor Jaime is a good example of someone who was written the opposite way. They started with a woman, then added a few cybernetic parts. She doesn’t have a terribly unique voice or background. They gave her what could be an interesting situation, having to raise a younger sister by herself, but we don’t really get to see how it’s affected her besides having to come up with awkward excuses for why she’s out so late. Her dialog, sadly, isn’t clever. She works for a shady and loosely defined government organization with limitless resources. Who doesn’t? The only thing about Jaime stand out from the crowd is her bionic implants, but those are primarily just used as plot devices. [Resists urge to make joke about implants in Hollywood–whew] So in the end, Jaime ends up coming off as just bland.
It’s interesting, because the two shows share a producer in Don Eick. You have to wonder what happened.
I guess my point is that when you really sit down to start fleshing out the character, you need to go straight for the most specific details you can. If your hero is the only person in three counties who can skin a potato in under an hour, start with that. There’s nothing wrong with starting with sex, but make sure there’s something interesting about the fact that your hero is a particular gender (or race, even), and it’s not just a flip of the coin.
I dunno, this is all pretty obvious, I guess. I think I’m mostly just working out for myself why “Bionic Woman” is such a failure when it should have been good. Carry on, nothing to see here.