When Samantha and I were tossing around the idea of a guest post for her blog, I mentioned that I’m a Stargate addict. Samantha then sheepishly confessed that she hadn’t seen it before. Once I picked myself up off the floor and scrambled back into my chair, I decided that I would use my guest post to convince her to “get in the gate.” **Note from Samantha: Janelle's enthusiasm convinced me to sign up for Netflix again just so I could watch SG1. Netflix should thank her.
I’ve been a Stargate fan for longer than I’ve been seriously pursuing a career as a fiction writer. Stargate SG1 was my “gateway drug” into science fiction. And I’m proud to say that I can find a Stargate reference in any moment in life. (In need of stress relief? Have you tried Kel’no’reem?) Besides arming me with a lifetime supply of jokes that only my fellow nerdmigos appreciate, my love of Stargate has taught me a few lessons that I apply to my writing.
Lesson No. 1: There’s a No-Fail Recipe for a Hero.
Take a tragic past, an innate sense of justice, and unwavering sense of duty; add a full stick of courage; let rise overnight. The result: One able-bodied hero not afraid to make incredible sacrifices for what he (or she!) believes is the right thing. Take, for example, a couple guys at the SGC:
Col. Jack O’Neill, U.S. Air Force. Played by Richard Dean Anderson (of McGyver fame), Jack O’Neill would make the perfect romance-novel hero. Coming from a traumatic past (his son died in a tragic accident and his marriage ended in divorce), O’Neill dedicates his every waking moment to fighting the Goa’uld. He’s also famous for those wry comments that only Anderson could deliver so perfectly:
O'Neill: “Just give me some kind of warning.”
Teal'c: “I'm going to shoot you.”
O'Neill: “I was thinking more along the lines of, ‘On 3.’”
Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks). Daniel Jackson is the perfect foil to O’Neill, playing the moral compass on the team. He says, “Let’s talk it over,” every time O’Neill says, “We’re done talking” (usually followed by, “Set the timer on the C4.”). Shanks delivers the perfect blend of buff and bookworm. As the series progresses, his character evolves from ridiculed archeologist with allergies to a gun-wielding, kick-ass space explorer fit to battle any system lord. His knack for coming back from the dead certainly helps matters. ;)
Teal’c (Christopher Judge). The ultimate stoic, the shol-va (traitor), a Jaffa and former first prime to Apophis, Teal’c is the guy you want to have your back. He is a warrior first and foremost, but one cannot help but ponder what lies beneath that tough-as-nails exterior. I swear, one day I will wear a t-shirt with a pic of Christopher Judge that reads, “Team Teal’c.”
Edward Cullen might glitter, but he has nothing on the men at the SGC.
Lesson No. 2: Character dynamics create tension, conflict, and humor.
Characters with opposing motives, goals, and worldviews don’t just create snappy dialogue and conflict, fueling the fire of our plots; they also provide great comic fodder (often coming in handy for necessary comic relief scenes—it can’t be all doom-and-gloom).
In the SG1 spinoff Stargate Atlantis, the creators took the franchise on a different path. The members of the Atlantis team have far more tense relationships with each other. They don’t always do the right thing. In fact, they frequently do the wrong thing believing it is the right thing. Maj. John Sheppard (played by Joe Flanigan) is no exception. He and scientist/genius/egomaniac Rodney Mackay provide great character dynamics, resulting in anything from near-tragedy (as when Mackay blows up a solar system, nearly taking himself with it) to hilarity.
If you want a great laugh, I suggest the episode “Harmony.” Watching Sheppard and Mackay traipse through the wilderness with a spoiled pre-teen princess is an absolute riot. Mackay might lack Jackson’s sense of ethics, but he’s still a personal favorite. His one-liners also rock: “Don’t be so analog.” “Good thing I remember DOS.” And, on one occasion: “I’m not crazy; I just have another consciousness in my brain.” A big part of why those one-liners work so well is because of how Mackay relates—or rather, doesn’t relate—to his fellow team members.
Lesson No. 3: Writers always hurt the ones they love.
As much as we love our characters, if we want our readers to love them as well, we must make them suffer. The hero can’t be the hero if he’s just gliding through life, easily winning every battle, overcoming every obstacle, and not having to sacrifice. It’s not enough to fight hard, something must be relinquished, something with which the character would not part willingly. In the pilot of SG1 (**Newbies: Spoiler Alert**) Daniel Jackson’s wife is taken as a host by the Goa’uld. He joins the battle against the system lords in part to save her.
If our characters get everything they want, the story is missing that final piece. As I revise my WIPs, one point on my checklist is to make sure the characters don’t achieve their goals too easily. We can’t just chase our characters up a tree and throw pebbles. We have to hurl a couple boulders up there—maybe even set the tree on fire.
Are you a Stargate fan? Who’s your favorite character, and why? What have your favorite shows taught you about writing?