On coffee, captains, and characters

Animated GIF: Captain Janeway gestures in frustration with her hands and gets out of her chairWhen I was planning a workshop at the community college on creating characters, it got me thinking: What makes our favorite characters our favorite characters? It’s never quite the same thing every time, is it?

If you follow me on any social media, it’ll be no surprise to you that I am a big fan of Captain Kathryn Janeway.

For those not in the know, she’s the commanding officer of the U.S.S. Voyager on the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, which ran from the late ‘90s to 2001. If you follow along on Twitter, you’ll notice I post a lot of gifs featuring her fairly regularly.

No, she’s not a literary character. (Unless you count the Star Trek novels in which her character appears, and I do recommend Jeri Taylor’s Mosaic when it comes to that.) But what makes her so compelling? Yes, Kate Mulgrew, the actress who portrays her, is a big reason I love her character so much, but beyond that, what is it about her? Is it some combination of background and character traits? Is it her love for coffee?

OK, that might play into it.

Is it that she’s from the Midwest and I’ve spent most of my life there, against my better judgment? Is it that she’s a scientist at heart? Maybe it’s that she stands up to anyone, no matter how big a bully they are. She’ll do anything for her crew, and she’ll tread along a narrow, confusing path between expediency and principle to get them home. She is flawed and imperfect and completely determined.

She’s not black and white; she’s fabulously complicated.

She has a problem and needs a solution, but the space between those two points is huge and full of conflicts. She’s not as noble as Jean-Luc Picard, not as tragic as Ben Sisko, and not as cavalier as Jim Kirk. (We won’t talk about Archer. Sorry.) She’s not always likable, but I’d say she’s the most relatable person to sit in the captain’s chair in any version of Star Trek.

For me, at least. And that’s why I keep coming back to her. And why I keep thinking about the things that make her a great character to me. I want to tap that kind of complication when I’m working on my own characters, even a gay high school teenager who’s the son of an Amazon.

(See? Even when I start off talking about Star Trek, it all comes back to the writing.)