Red Shirt Diaries

There is a well-known rule in writing, movies, and story-telling in general. It is that you must kill your Darling. That beloved side-kick with the fun sense of humor—that adorable and plucky comic relief with the gleam in his eye—must die.

 I hate this rule!

I hate this rule.

Of course, it’s absolutely right. There comes a moment in every great story when the main character has been beaten down and hasn’t an ounce of strength left to carry on. They have lost all reason to fight. They have weighed the costs, and the battle just isn’t worth it any longer. And that’s when it happens.

Their best friend, from whom they may have just walked away, takes one for the team. They’re gone. Lost to the enemy. Sliced down by the antagonist’s most powerful weapon, or caught in the head by the unseen sniper. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that the protagonist sees it happen. The hero is there to catch the Darling in their arms and reassure them that they will be avenged.

Thus the hero renews the courage that they didn’t even know they had in order to vanquish the foe and save the world. This is why the rule works, and why it’s employed by every great writer and allowed by every avid reader or movie fan. Notice the sad eyes of this dog toy? Click to purchase! 

But what about “Red Shirts”—are they considered Darlings? Hardly.

For anyone who might not be a Trekkie, a Red Shirt is the nickname given by fans to the Star Trek character that appears in the opening scene of an episode, usually wearing a red shirt, and usually with a name like Johnson or Smith. This man may make a remark of some kind regarding how peaceful the planet they’re on might be. Then, from out of nowhere, an alien melts him into a puddle of goo. Captain Kirk and Spock are now forced back to the Enterprise to defend the rest of the crew, and most likely the entire galaxy.

A Red Shirt is not a Darling, because the audience has no invested interest in him. He is there merely for exposition—to reveal the imminent threat to the main characters, and to start the story rolling. Even the main character’s interest in him is usually minimal. Someone out there is killing people indiscriminately. This is how they’re doing it. The charge to the hero is simple: find out why and stop them before someone else gets hurt.

And if you’re watching closely, you will know right away who the Darling is, and you can begin to prepare yourself for their end. Maybe. You hope it won’t happen, but you know it will. You can’t watch, but you must. You can’t turn another page, and yet the pages turn.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.

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