Scrape and I went to see the new Star Trek movie tonight. I loved it, which is surprising–because I’m the only person I know who has never–no, never–seen an entire episode of Star Trek in any of its many incarnations.

Which, I realize, makes me a pathetic pop culture ignoramus. 

That’s not to say the T.V. show wasn’t great. Judging from how many people in the theatre were worshipfully whispering the closing lines at the end of the movie (where no man has gone before), it’s captured the imagination of a generation. But for some reason, I never managed to get on board. 

So I figured I might enjoy the movie’s special effects, but I didn’t expect to have any feelings for the characters. After all, their personalities, goals and conflicts have been established in several decades of television. Surely a director wouldn’t spend time on character development when 99% of the audience already knows who these people are. 

I was wrong. Since the movie is a prequel that begins with the very first launching of the Enterprise, the entire point of the movie is character development–how Spock and Kirk got to be the characters so many people know and love, and how their various quirks and relationships developed. It made for a great story with far more character depth than I expected.  

So many science fiction films are flimsy stories wrapped up in splendid special effects, but this was much more–a bang-up tale of how two characters in conflict, with totally opposing personalities, formed a bond that lasted through decades of adventures.

It was terrific–and it taught me a lot about storytelling, and what makes a movie–or a novel–work. 

One of the most important elements in a story is the character arc–the protagonist’s trajectory of change. The compelling part of a story isn’t the slam-bang events that cause that change, even if those events include planetary explosions, sojourns on inhospitable polar planets, and chase scenes involving multi-legged monsters with screaming red maws that had me clawing at the armrest. What matters is how those events change the character, and why–and how her relationships contribute to that change. That’s the emotional heart of the story, the experience every reader/viewer can identify with. 

So rather than concentrating on how my plot will be resolved, maybe I should spend more time working out who the protagonist is going to be at the end of the book. And though it’s important to know everything about my character at the beginning of the story–her strengths and weaknesses, her foils and foibles–her arc might be stronger if I had a clearer picture of who she is going to be at the end.