Writing tips: learning about character creation from Spock

One of my favourite fictional characters has always been Spock. Not for Sheldonian reasons, but because of the way Spock evolved as a character.

There are lessons here for writers – about how characters can develop over time as a writer thinks about them, about how they can be made dimensional.

Spock as a character was a creation of several people, really including the actor Leonard Nimoy, and the ‘Spock’ idea went through quite a gestation before hitting the screen. When Gene Roddenberry first pitched Trek, Spock was envisaged as a Martian. Then came the Mariner probes to the red planet – killing notions of advanced life on Mars stone dead. A re-write made Spock’s home a Mars-like world, Vulcan, imagined to be orbiting Epsilon Eridani.

After a few more small gyrations, Vulcans emerged early in the first Star Trek series as unemotional and logical. Of course, Spock couldn’t be entirely’ alien’; his mother was human. This was a device for story dynamic in which Spock was made to reveal his ‘human’ side.  It wasn’t convincing. There were also issues with what constituted ‘logic’.  One episode tried to explore that, postulating Spock in command of a shuttle stuck on a planetary surface, using ‘logic’ to determine who would have to be left behind. It didn’t work very well, because Spock was a contrived character.

Eventually the writers began using Spock as the straight man in a comedy trio involving Kirk and McCoy. That worked pretty well. And so the three seasons of the original Trek ended.

Spock reappeared in the movies – and his character evolved. The nature of ‘emotion’ changed. Spock became someone who ‘chose not to’ show emotion. Vulcans were a violently emotive people who had to learn to control their feelings. Their answer was to use intelligence; to abstract those emotions and control them.

What ‘logic’ meant also changed. As originally conceived it was mechanistic if-then computer logic – actually a very specific subset of ‘logic’ as a philosophy.  (‘You’ll love it here, Spock, the robots talk just like you do’). But by the later movies this had become something different – principally, reason. Intelligent reason, thought, framed by the careful abstraction that drew from Spock’s conditioning against showing emotion. All directed not to selfish ends, but towards altruism and a greater good.

Spock, then, went from an cartoon cliché to a character that was fully rounded, compelling and who portrayed a philosophy that – despite the science-fiction aspects – was actually the best of humanity. Abstraction – to get away from the emotions that lead to hate. Reason – not just mechanistic logic but also wisdom, an ability to blend many factors into shades of colour and perceive the patterns therein – to show a path ahead. And kindness – genuine care and altruism – as the driving goal of all these things.

It was deliberately highlighted in the 2009 reboot – the young, emotive, inexperienced Spock versus the old, wise, rounded Spock. Brilliantly done.

There are lessons for writers in character creation. Characters don’t just appear; they evolve, and it can often be quite a development process. Iterations – thinking, re-thinking and re-thinking again pay dividends. How can that be worked into a novel – particularly, for instance, a novel being written at top speed as entrants in National November Novel Writing Month attempt? One answer is to build a stable of characters, keep working on them – and when the moment comes, pull one out and adapt them to the story. A good character – dimensional, with all the realities of humanity – should be able to fit any story or genre – and the dissonance might well create a story dynamic you hadn’t thought of.

Beyond the stories, of course, I think Spock offers us wider lessons in how we should conduct ourselves generally in the real world. With kindness, abstraction and care for others. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


8 thoughts on “Writing tips: learning about character creation from Spock

    1. I always liked the original Trek way better than the later stuff, because of the characterisations and the way they developed. I felt, the successor series and movies tended to be pretty ponderous and often laboured, probably to meet fan expectations, I fear. The original had no such hindrances!

  1. Spock is a fascinating character. He is also an example of the importance of collaboration, discussion, and taking the time to let things develop.

  2. Excellent overview of the dynamics in storytelling over time – love the suggestion of shift in meaning behind logic and reason…what a fascinating idea to apply to stories and sequences that have chugged along through different incarnations.

    Spock is always intriguing (as is Leonard Nimoy)…I’m looking forward to seeing where the crew goes next.

  3. You make a good point about the evolution of Spock. One additional point: for me the key to Spock’s character is that it allows us, as writers, readers and viewers, to explore the idea, What is an alien character?

    I read that, initially, Roddenberry met Nimoy in a barber shop where Nimoy worked, and that Roddenberry’s first impulse was to stick pointy ears on him. A set of pointy ears do not an alien make, but it’s a start; and I remember the Spock of the pilot episode, whose portrayal of Spock was mechanical and loud. The “unemotional” and “logical” character was portrayed by “Number One,” the female executive officer — a human.

    Spock is an example of a character who CAN grow; we have no stereotypes to adequately describe him, his people, or his world. There are no “natural” limits on his capability.

    Oddly, this leads us right back to what you pointed out: in examining our ideas of the Alien, we examine what it is to be human. Spock’s character in that sense might be the development of a whole new archetype of humanity.

    So, as a technical problem for the writer, is it even possible for us to imagine the truly Alien in such a way that it is intelligible to other humans?

    1. I recall the ‘different’ Spock of the pilot – even the makeup differed, I think.

      Have to agree that ‘aliens’ being defined by different-shaped ears, or lobsters glued to the foreheads, is kind of silly. Again, though, Hollywood demands certain tropes for their products to be marketable. But as you say, beyond that, Spock is a way of exploring the alien – and a necessary one, because of the way we get insight into ourselves.

      Writers, I think, are less limited than Hollywood when it comes to looking at aliens – it’s easier to write about a weird one than to portray it visually, though again, there have been lapses of imagination. I never thought of much of Niven’s Kzin and Puppeteers because, really, they were based around Earth biota divisions and tropes (allegedly cowardly herbivores that can fight/aggressive carnivores).

      Stanislaw Lem, I thought, had a much better take on it – apropos the ‘intelligent ocean’ in Solaris, or the ‘nano robot flies’ of The Invincible, which weren’t even intelligent or alive – but beat the humans.

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