Red Shirts

Devising dramatic scenes in action-oriented fiction can pose a difficult problem for the author. The moment your bad guys march onstage with their weapons drawn, the question is, who is going to get maimed or killed? There are only three possible answers, and all of them are bad.

If none of the good guys is killed or horribly injured in the melee, the reader will soon begin to feel that nothing was truly at stake. After a couple of incidents of this sort, the reader is likely to think, “Oh, dear, here we go again.” The supposedly action-packed moments will start to feel like cardboard, or like ballet.

If you start killing off important characters every time there’s an action scene, the action will seem a lot more real and emotionally meaningful, and that’s vital if you’re trying to write an effective story. But if there’s more than one scene of this sort in your book, you’ll soon run out of good guys. Assuming you’re working from an outline (you are outlining, aren’t you? Sure you are — but that’s a topic for another time), you may have plans for those characters, so you may not be able to kill them.

The third option is, you put a couple of minor characters in the scene and have the bad guys kill them. See, the drama is serious! The good guys did not emerge from the encounter unscathed! This may be the least bad choice. Unfortunately, it’s a horrible cliche.

Such characters are called red shirts. In the original Star Trek, when Kirk and Spock and McCoy beamed down to a planet, no matter how dire were the conditions they encountered, you knew they were going to survive, because they were the main series characters. But if they were accompanied by one or two anonymous crew members — people you had never seen before — you could be pretty sure those crew members were going to die before the first commercial break. They wore red shirts, because they were just part of the crew, and that was their uniform. That’s how a character who is introduced merely in order to die came to be called a red shirt.

My approach to this dilemma is, I try to give the red shirt a name, a personality, and a life of their own. And when they die, I make sure to show the aftermath. In one scene, a fussy old guy name Iknizer is shot, and dies. We know a little of his life story, we’re heard his plans for the future — and when he dies, the good guys have to bury him in the mountain pass where the battle took place. They pile stones on the grave and hold a little service before they go on. My editor complained that Iknizer is a red shirt, and of course he is. But what am I supposed to do?

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