Start Your Week Off Write: How Star Trek Can Teach You About Character Arcs

Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, image courtesy Gryffindor, El Carlos

Hubby and I are in television transition. We dumped cable and are using our current Amazon Prime membership to view series television. We found out it’s great to be able to watch shows in a series back to back without having to wait week after week or from season to season. Plus, no commercials. I’m sure when the budget allows we will become Netflix converts. I also discovered it’s a great way to study story structure and character arcs.

We recently finished watching the entire Star Trek: The Next Generation series. Get ready, I’m going to wave my geek card big time. From 1987 to 1994, Next Gen ran seven seasons with 175 shows. There were some very excellent episodes including “The Inner Light”, “Chain of Command”, “Darmok”, and “Frame of Mind” as well as several duds such as the truly disappointing “The Royale”, “Second Chances”, and “Masks”. Told you I was going to wave that geek card.

The writers did a good job of taking all the main characters in the ensemble cast through their respective character arcs. What is a character arc?

“As opposed to the plotline, the character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story. He begins as one sort of person in the beginning; things happen to and around him in an “arc” that ends when the story is over. Your lead character should be a different person at the other end of the arc.”  James Scott Bell “Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure” (excellent book, highly recommended)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Star Trek: TNG and you plan on watching it, you might want to skip this post.

Some resolved TNG character arcs:

  • Wesley gets to use his ‘the special one’ powers and goes off exploring the galaxy with the Traveler
  • Roe Laren leaves Star Fleet behind and joins the Maquis as she is truly a rebel at heart
  • Geordi finally gets the girl (even farther off in the future – poor guy)
  • Alexander and Worf come to an understanding in their rocky father-son relationship
  • We find out whether the Captain and the Doctor ‘do’ or ‘don’t’

One character whose character arc was not obvious to me was the main protagonist, Captain Jean Luc Picard. Besides being the captain of the most blinged-out vessel in the Fleet, Captain Picard was Renaissance Man (Shakespeare, classical music and fencing!)  Ladies Man (his romantic leads usually appeared at least 20 years younger than him) and Old Man Who Can Kick Butt (did you see him fight off those Klingons who jumped him on the Home World!) all rolled into one. But he didn’t seem to change all that much over the course of the series, either externally or internally. At least Riker had the beard.

In the very first episode the omnipotent alien Q has put humanity on trial and Jean Luc Picard is in the defendant’s box representing all humankind. Picard declares that humanity deserves to exist. Q allows that it remains to be seen.

Through the series Picard endures many bad guys,(Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and Crystal Entities, oh, my!) trials and tribulations (even having his humanity ripped from him as he’s forced to become the machine-enemy Borg) but the book-end episode of the series has Q still trying to indict humanity for the crime of being human. Picard will have none of it and holds steadfastly to the belief that the human race is good and will survive.

If character arc is growth, where is Picard’s growth? He has basically the same inner views that he started with. Can a character have a worldview, whether positive or negative, and when tested continue in the same worldview and it be considered growth?

Jim Hull at Story Fanatic makes the case that it can be:

“Without a doubt, Main Characters need to grow. A story cannot develop organically if the principle characters within it do not grow and adapt to the shifting dramatic tides. When an act progresses from one area of exploration to the next, the Main Character needs to progress as well. That’s how stories work. Therefore it is easy to see how growth, and in particular the Main Character’s growth, is inherent in the mechanisms that run story. But when you talk about change and how the Main Character “has” to change, you’re making an assumption about the nature of that growth. Not all growth is transformative. Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them. This is no less meaningful than the kind of growth where someone changes who they are or how they see the world”.

Read the entire post : What Character Arc Really Means

A character who has the opportunity to change how they think or feel about something, but remains steadfast in how they think or feel has still changed. They’ve strengthened what they believe through dealing with the conflict or obstacle in the story. They are different by remaining true to themselves.

In my WIP my protagonist, Lena, has several obstacles that cause her to challenge what she believes about people, faith, and herself. She flip-flops throughout the story and you’re not sure whether she’ll remain true to herself or sell out to what society says she should do. What will happen? I’ll have to let the character arc play out.

Want to explore and go where no one has gone before with character arcs? Check out these links:

Try using a drama television series to study story structure and character arcs. It’s a painless way to learn how to write character arcs. Make it so.

Question: Have you used television shows to learn about writing? What television series would you suggest to study story structure and character arcs?

15 thoughts on “Start Your Week Off Write: How Star Trek Can Teach You About Character Arcs

  1. Can character arc be done when writing a short story? I find it sometimes difficult to do. In SHORTS, I seem to take my character from point A to point B so to speak, and they either stand or fall, fail or succeed by stories end against whatever the challenge is/was. They make a decision. Perhaps that was what Jim Hull was getting at? In longer pieces, I can see where you need to do SOMETHING with the inner machinisms of the main character or they will come out in the end rather flat.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Peter. I think you’re right, decisions based on the problem or obstacles the character faces can be the change that happens in character arc. I think there are some characters that are meant to stay pretty steadfast. James Bond comes to mind. Also, in westerns, the good guy/sheriff-type usually doesn’t change much and continues with their same belief system to get the bad guys. Picard in this instance makes me think of a space sheriff patrolling his wild west galaxy, although his character is much more complex than that.

      I do think you can have character arc in short stories but it is harder to portray just by the sheer economy of words. Definitely makes them more interesting. Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments. Hope you’ll stop by again!


  2. The entire Star Trek genre has always inspired me to look deep into the characters I write. The traits of Craig Jackson, lead character in my futuristic thriller ONE DRUG is very much a result of those influences.


    • I am always impressed with the world-building and intricate backstories involved in all the Star Trek franchises. Even though I didn’t like the last Star Trek: Enterprise and feel like it didn’t live up to the other spin-offs, they still took great care with the stories themselves. Gene Roddenberry set the bar high. I don’t think you’d have the good sci-fi sagas like Battlestar Galactica or the Stargate franchise without Roddenberry laying the foundation. The original series was ahead of its time in so many ways. Wow, am I a sci-fi geek or what. 🙂


    • Thanks Natalie! I’d like to get more into studying story structure in movies. I need to pick up some DVDS at the library and break into Poet Son’s collection. He has over 200 DVDs but the only problem is his tastes are either creepy-spooky or Will Farrell type movies, and I don’t think I can sit through much of either. 😉


  3. Great post Kristin. I’ve been studying character arcs through movies for a few months. I hadn’t done too much with T.V until PBS did a series called America In Primetime. It’s a great learning tool in that the screenwriters talk about their characters in terms of archetypes and discuss some of the current character arcs on T.V. There are characters from the past too and the writers talk about what they think made them popular.

    I think one or two episodes are free on the PBS website. I went old school and bought the DVD’s.

    Thanks for sharing what you’re learning with Star Trek, it always helps to get someone else’s perspective and see their process in action. Love that you waved that geek card… I have one too!


  4. Thanks for the tip about the PBS series Kate! I watched one of the episodes and it was very good, but missed the others. I may take your recommendation and get the DVDs as well. I’m trying to find all the ways I can to make myself a better storyteller! 🙂


  5. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 2/28/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  6. Actually, I’ve always felt that ST:TNG lacked sufficient character growth among various characters after certain episodes. For example, Picard is tortured in Chain of Command, and we do see very briefly, at the end, that he’s suffered and potentially changed, psychologically, after that ordeal. But the next week, he’s back to normal. Same for Geordi LaForge in Identity Crisis, where he had begun to transform into an alien. Wouldn’t these psychological traumas leave deeper problems leave deeper scars that might take weeks or months to recover from? My, Deanna Troi must have been a miracle worker. 😉


  7. Thanks for stopping by, JDsg! I would agree with you generally, that there could have been greater emotion shown in a lot of episodes where there were traumatic events happening. I know I would be pretty stressed out if something were trying to turn me into an alien! 🙂 I think there are two reasons for this: 1) the crew were devoted to their mission and the ideals of the Federation above individual issues, so they just got back to focusing on the mission 2) you have to wrap it up somewhere with a television show of approximately 43 minutes.

    Interestingly, two storylines come to mind that continued to profoundly affect Captain Picard in subsequent episodes were of course his encounter with the Borg and transformation to Locutus, and his experience of living an entire lifetime in an extinct alien culture within 25 minutes of real time (“The Inner Light”). He refers to it in several episodes and plays the flute he kept from the experience often.

    I thought Deanna Troi was a miracle worker. That’s why they let her wear non Starfleet regulation uniforms, yes? 🙂

    Do you have any sci-fi series suggestions for character arc study, JDsg? I started Star Trek: Voyager but am not that psyched up about it.


  8. Kristin, I do use TV and movies to help me with my story. I was a non fiction writer only until last November when I made the decision to tackle my dream.Learning fiction is a new world and a long mountain hike but I’m loving it. I’m working on my protagonist and his story arc (new word for me), which I have been calling his story worthy problem (word used in “Hooked” a great book on the beginning of the story. Anyway, I know where I want him to end up. I’m struggling with were he begins. On my blog yesterday you wrote such a clear description of your protagonist, where she begins and ends. I think I’m making it too complicated (one of the results of a people pleaser – we’re too perfectionistic). That wars inside of me.

    Okay, I have sufficiently rambled on. I like your blog. I just hopped over to Amazon and bought Plot and structure. It was next on my list after Hooked. Thanks for the reminder.

    Have a good day.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Ali! I like your blog, too. I’m glad you thought my protag description was clear because I had to think about it for a bit to get down in a few words what I think she’s all about. That is hard to do and I always wonder if I do it justice. 🙂

      Good luck with your novel and I hope you come back and join our chats here. BTW I subscribed to your blog, you offer lots of interesting stuff. I, for one, enjoy rambling so come back and ramble anytime. 🙂


  9. I’m afraid there’s a fatal flaw to using NEXT GEN to study character arcs. During that period in TV, most producers, STAR TREK and otherwise, didn’t want the characters to change. After each episode, the characters were essentially reset back to their basic personality with no change created in them. Just think of Kirk and Spock and all their various traumas which never really changed them.

    The first true character arcs were in DEEP SPACE NINE where the producers made the decision that the characters would change as the series developed. Everyone from Sisko to Quark changed dramatically over the years. That’s definitely a series to study.


    • Thanks for stopping by, Marilyn. I didn’t realize that about the lack of character arc for television time periods. I guess it was whatever they thought ‘sold’ their programming. I may switch from Voyager to Deep Space Nine and check out those character arcs. Thanks for the tip. Please stop by anytime. 🙂


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