Warning: this post contains minor spoilers for an early scene in Alien Covenant.
The foolish character trap is a wily foe for writers because so many of us fall right in. Alien Covenant, the latest film in the sci-fi horror series and part two of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus trilogy offers us a great example of what not to do. Foolish characters are ones who do silly things just to serve the plot and leave audiences and readers shouting at them to not do that or go there or say that thing. In short, senseless characters annoy your audience and pull them out of the experience, which is exactly what any good writer wants to avoid.
Alien: Covenant follows the story of a vessel carrying over 2,000 human colonists to a far off planet. With repairs to make the skeleton crew deciding to make a detour to investigate a transmission from a nearby planet that could make a suitable home. So far so good. All of the colonists are still in stasis, so their fates are in the hands of this expert team, comprising a biologist, a terraformer specialist, scientists, engineers and soldiers.
Once on the planet, in separate incidents, two of the characters wander off. One inadvertently steps on some fungi, which releases spores and the other deliberately pokes a similar fungus, watching as the spores burst into the air, happily breathing them in. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that the team on the surface is exploring without helmets or masks of any kind. Okay, the alien planet looks like Earth, but who knows what microbes or bacteria are present that humanity has no immunity to.
In true Alien style, the two hapless team members quickly develop a fever, tremors and, well, we’ve all seen what happens when you get stomach cramps in this cinematic universe. The annoying thing is, a team of scientists and specialists in terraforming wouldn’t step onto a planet without breathing apparatus and without doing lots of tests. And they certainly wouldn’t poke alien fungi.
Nonsensical response two comes when the first crew member develops a fever within minutes of being on this alien planet and nobody seems overly alarmed. Did I mention this is an ALIEN planet? Fever on an alien planet should surely cause concern and probably a certain level of alarm. One person mentions quarantine, but it’s dismissed, despite the fever taking hold incredibly quickly and the patient spitting blood.
Then patient two takes ill. This is when things should get serious and protocols should be initiated, having failed to be initiated for patient zero. Instead, we’re treated to panic and incompetence.
I get it; the story needed to have one or two people infected with spores or something to trigger the horrors we expect from an Alien film i.e. being hunted by xenomorphs. The writers had a problem that needed solving and rather than using clever plotting, they decided to just make the characters do something illogical that betrayed their own character blueprints.
The opening scenes of the film quickly establish that these people are experts, they’re problem solvers and they just get on and get stuff done. However, this all goes out of the window on the planet, when they make a series of clearly bad decisions. Maybe one of the team could be a liability and do something thoughtless, but the rest of them should be clever, competent and make us feel like we’d want them to have our backs. Instead, the audience is rolling its eyes and when shit goes down they’re just going to think the characters are in this mess because they were foolish.
Alien: Covenant is a horror, so if the audience thinks the characters are just lurching from one disaster to another because of their own poor judgement or incompetence they just won’t care. However, if a highly capable, intelligent team makes good calls and still comes a cropper of a facehugger, then we know this alien is a force to be reckoned with. Faced with such a powerful foe or challenge, the protagonists need to be resourceful and bring their A-game if they want to get out of this alive and that’s what keeps an audience or reader on the edge of their seats.
Don’t be tempted to force your characters to make half-arsed decisions to get you, as a writer, out of a tight narrative spot. Instead establish strong characters whose decisions serve their own, internal motivations, not imposed narrative demands.