Alien: Covenant and how not to fall into the foolish characters trap

Warning: this post contains minor spoilers for an early scene in Alien Covenant.

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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.

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“I don’t think Lemsip’s going to cut it!” These competent experts made every mistake in the book.

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.

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“Okay, on three…panic!” Characters making bad decisions to create conflict feel forced and ridiculous.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Alien: Covenant and how not to fall into the foolish characters trap

  1. Great article and I know what you mean about the forcedness (not sure if that’s a word) of the fungi prodding. I thought the scene were the creature attacks the woman in the castle/palace was eerie and uncanny enough for them just to have had the one monster, who could have been a remnant from the previous film. Or maybe I misunderstood, and the creature that climbs up to the castle was different from the two spawned from tanking in fungi.

    Regarding the scene where the captain leans over to take a closer look at the pods, that proved him to be foolish, but I almost forgave the scene for the meta joke – you almost feel like screaming, IT’S BEHIND YOU!

    All in all I loved this film for Fasbender’s (sp?) dialogue with himself. Art v logic – That’s Shelley, not Byron – perfection v the imperfection and error that make creativity truly something else.

    Out of curiosity, can you name a novel where the characters are this foolish, or do you suggest that a film like Covenant simply wouldn’t reach the publishers, were it a novel?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question. I can’t really think of a novel that does it in the same way, but I’m sure there are some.

      Dan Brown is a great fan of false suspense, such as a character walking into a room and gasping at the end of a scene, only to start a new chapter. His protagonist sometimes struggles over a clue, which is obvious to the reader. This leaves you questioning his intelligence because you figured it out 10 pages ago, but he’s still going ‘hmmm’. That’s a combo of foolish character and false suspense, with a dash of the author thinking his mystery is cleverer than it actually is.

      Twilight Saga probably does it because it commits almost every other writing crime, so why not foolish characters, but I can’t think of obvious examples because it’s been a while (caveat: I still stand by the first Twilight novel as good YA and gave the clumsy writing a hard pass for being a debut).

      Liked by 1 person

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