Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.
There is no better set-up for Character vs. the Unknown than the mission statement from Star Trek. Everything about this statement tells you that each movie and episode will introduce you to new characters, new situations, new planets – everything that is unknown.
Character vs. the Unknown works well in speculative fiction because you can throw your characters into new places or time periods and have them explore with your reader. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe puts four human children in Narnia. Harry Potter finds himself in a magic realm that he never knew existed. Jake Sully has to figure out life on Pandora in Avatar.
The Unknown isn’t limited to speculative fiction, though. Tarzan and Jane both face unfamiliar places – Jane in the jungle, then Tarzan in England. The 1994 Jodie Foster film Nell introduces two doctors to the unknown, isolated world of Nell while also introducing Nell to life in the city. And more recently, the 2015 movie Room contains an Unknown subplot. The mother’s story is one of survival, but for her son Jack, his entire life has happened within the confines of one room – when they escape, he must learn to live in the wider world.
The Unknown Key
Regardless of your genre, the foundational element of Character vs. the Unknown remains the same: your character finds herself in a place she’s never been and doesn’t understand.
The key to this plot line, however, is how your character navigates the unknown. It’s not enough to drop your American character in Italy with a credit card and her smart phone – that gives her too many opportunities to find all of the answers to her problems. In the Character vs. the Unknown plot, she needs to dive in and figure out the unknown for herself. There is no user’s manual or visitor’s guide. Throw her in there and see what happens!
What other Character vs. the Unknown plots can you think of? Which are your favorites?
Stop back again in two weeks when we look at the Character vs. Machine!