One of my favorite video game franchises is Halo. Not just because it’s a fun and exciting first-person shooter, but because it’s supported by a vibrant story with rich characters. As the war between humanity and the Covenant develops, the games’ writers pull on your heart strings to get you to care about every principle character that you meet: from UNSC soldiers like Avery Johnson, to Covenant soldiers like the Arbiter, and even enemy drones like 343 Guilty Spark. I recently finished playing Halo 4, and I found afterward that it wasn’t the action that kept me playing; it was the relationship between its two central characters, the Master Chief and Cortana, and my concern over what would happen to them in the end.
A lot of people discount video games, but for a writer they can be just as much a source of inspiration as other media. One of the great things about a series like Halo is that you see how the events of each game shape the characters and their relationships. Case and point: Cortana and the Chief. In the first Halo, they are partners put together so that the Chief can protect Cortana and keep her out of Covenant hands. By Halo 4, they have become best friends and close allies – having survived fighting the Covenant and Flood while everyone around them falls. There is even a hint of romance between them, as much as there can be between a genetically-engineered soldier and an AI.
It’s in this close friendship/romance that we find the type of relationship that other writers should study. It’s in the way that this relationship is developed, and its depth shown, that the Halo writers truly excel – especially in Halo 4. My favorite example of this occurs about midway through the game, when the Chief and Cortana are about to give up the chance to return to Earth and save Cortana’s life (long story) in order to keep fighting a new enemy called the Didact, and possibly save humanity. It is very likely that by doing this, they’re sealing Cortana’s doom, but they do it anyway; it’s their job, and there’s no one else who can do it. And just before they leave, Cortana says, “C’mon, Chief. Take a girl for a ride?”
The reason why this line is one of my favorites is because it is dripping with the various nuances of the relationship between these two characters. On one level, Cortana’s line is meant to be an attempt at humor between two hardened veterans before they head into yet another fight. There’s also a sense of melancholy in Cortana’s voice, not just because there’s always the risk that they won’t come back from a mission; she’s already dying, so the odds are stacked more heavily against her. Further, there’s a note of pleading in Cortana’s line, and the way that it’s posed as a question instead of a statement, because she doesn’t want the Chief to give up on her. And on an even deeper level, the flirtatiousness of Cortana’s line shows the connection that she and the Chief share: they’re not just friends, or comrades-in-arms, but much more. As she reveals at the end of the game, she would like nothing more than to physically touch the Chief and feel his presence. Her sadness, then, isn’t just at the prospect of dying: it’s at the prospect of losing the Chief, or him losing her, and having their adventure come to an end.
It’s this kind of dialogue that writers should aspire for in their central characters. And it’s something that we need to recognize takes time to develop. The reason why the dialogue between the Master Chief and Cortana is so poignant is because they’ve had four games worth of adventures between them. The same is true for characters in other long-running novel or television series. One of the purposes of the first novel or two is to get these characters together, get them interacting, and let the reader watch as the relationship develops and that closeness is achieved. If it is done effectively, lines like the one mentioned above will be easy to produce, since the groundwork will already be in place. And just like my experience with Halo, readers will be on the edge of their seat wondering if their favorite characters will make it through together – or if some of them will be lost.
In short, you want to take your readers for a ride.
***For a different discussion of what I’m getting at, check out this Forbes magazine article***