This is a reddit post that I went all-in on so now it’s also a blog post.
Quality is subject to taste, so “best character” is subjective. Despite a literal interpretation which implies an objective truth, each person’s best character is actually their favorite character. Changing someone’s mind on this isn’t a matter of debating established fact; it’s a matter of contradicting what fundamentally appeals to someone and even if you’re invited, it’s a presumptuous thing to do.
But if we imagine that there’s an objective basis for character quality, we have to separate it from the subjectiveness of writing, acting, and directing, insofar as those things do not affect how effectively the story expresses the character’s qualities.
A quick search around the internet doesn’t reveal much about objective measuring of what makes a good character. This means that the internet hasn’t quite reached ‘peak internet’ yet, but it also means that this discussion requires creating broad versions of what measures do exist and then applying them to Star Trek characters.
Agency versus Context
Characters have agency, a place within the story that drives them to interact with the story. Neelix is considered a flawed character because he doesn’t have a place within Voyager’s overall story. He’s crammed into whatever space fits and suffers because of it. Captain Picard, however, fits into the specific story of “Best of Both Worlds” very well in that he’s a natural choice for the Borg to target and he has goals and the agency to move towards them. Even after he fails and is assimilated, he still fights the Borg, even if that fight is a simple as a single tear.
Everything that happens outside of the character engaging the story—whether it’s an episode or a series—is their engagement with the universe. Context. Neelix has a relationship with other Talaxians, with Jetrel, and with the Delta Quadrant. When those facets are played on, like in “Jetrel,” you get a pretty good results. Similarly, Picard going back home in “Family,” show the character’s context outside of his direct conflict with the Borg. Episodes like “Qpid,” “The Battle,” “Tapestry,” and “We’ll Always Have Paris” do the same.
Relatability versus Archetype
Relatability isn’t just our ability to relate with characters personally, but to see elements of real people in them. The self-destructive demands Worf places on himself may not be something you personally deal with, but you probably know someone who struggles to listen to their superego, even when others wouldn’t. Worf relatable in that respect.
Dukat is another good one. I think we all know someone who’s self-deluded about their morals. Their line between “because I’m such a good person” and “well it hurt me to do it but I did” depends entirely on whether, in hindsight, the thing they wanted and then did actually helped others or hurt them.
Worf and Dukat are both archetypes too. No one we know is an archetype, but we immediately get what an archetype is. Worf is the big, stoic guy. Dukat is the middle-manager with a bloated ego. Sometimes, Worf is an embodied voice of wariness or suspicion. Sometimes, Dukat is just Space Hitler. They both work on that very broad level.
They work on both levels; relatable real person and walking, talking concept. Characters don’t have to. There’s always some broad generalization you can make about a character, but what the hell is Riker in a broad sense? What unique qualities of Deanna Troi make us see people we know in her? “We don’t know” and “none,” respectively.
Consistency versus Growth
It should go without saying that a character should be consistent. Scotty loves his engines. Picard is bad with children. Most of the time, Picard is an archaeologist. Then there was that one time where Deanna was all, “Run away? You, Captain Picard?” and we all give that confused face from the meme because Picard isn’t known for his bravado; he’s a principled realist.
On the other hand, we want characters to grow. Events happen to and around characters and they should be affected by that. Whether that effect is brief or permanent, we expect it to be related to the event and what we know of the character. When Garak bamboozles Sisko into killing a Romulan Senator, that senator’s bodyguards, and a sexual-assailant-slash-regular-assailant-slash-forger, a terrible event happens that Sisko is opposed to on principle, then he punches Garak over a table about it. Characters react and change, and characters that don’t aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re a bit lacking (this is why stoic badasses are so loathed by the folks who tend to spend time loathing fictional characters).
Garak has lots of context, but no agency. He is a very big archetype, but he isn’t relatable. He’s fuckin’ consistent, but his character arc only twitches slightly upward in the last scene of the damned series.
(To Be Continued)