Chapter Five Character in Science Fiction

Character: Practice

Give him a compulsion and turn him loose!

—Ray Bradbury

"Fifteen Miles" dealt with three characters, and each of them had a problem. Chet Kinsman was the viewpoint character, of course — the protagonist. Everything in the story was seen from his point of view. Without him and his problems, there would have been no story.

Notice that Kinsman had problems, plural. That is one major difference between the protagonist of a story and the other characters. Secondary characters can have one fundamental problem to solve. Minor characters need not have any problems at all. But the protagonist, the person whom the story is all about, the person whom the reader wants to be — the protagonist has a whole complex of problems.

All of Kinsman's problems stem from his fundamental emotional conflict of guilt vs. duty. Father Lemoyne is torn by pride vs. obedience. And Bok's problem is fear vs. responsibility.

Kinsman was raised in a Quaker family; he was not a terribly religious person, but his upbringing was in the pacifistic Quaker environment. Years before this story took place, he killed a Russian cosmonaut in hand-to-hand struggle during an orbital mission. It was a military mission, and both Kinsman and the Russian were military officers. (These stories were written in the 1960s, during the darkest days of the US-USSR Cold War. That is not to say, however, that someday the interests of the United States and Russia [or some other space-faring nation] might not again come into conflict.)

Usually, when military personnel battle and kill each other, it is not regarded as murder. But the cosmonaut was a woman, a fact that Kinsman did not know until he had pulled the airhose out of her helmet, suffocating her. His Quaker conscience has been screaming at him ever since, not just because he killed a fellow human being—in a situation where he might have gotten away without killing — but because it was a woman that he killed. Men can often justify murdering another man, but they have been raised to think of women as physically weaker than men. Men do not fight against women, as a rule. Even in the U.S. armed services, women's role in combat is severely curtailed. To kill a woman, to murder a woman in a hand-to-hand fight, is shocking to a man like Kinsman.

With that heavy conscience, Kinsman is locked into a two-week-long mission on the moon's surface with two other men. One of them is a priest, a symbol of conscience, a constant reminder to Kinsman that he is guilty of the sin of murder. So, even before the story actually begins, we have a very uncomfortable situation for our protagonist.

To this inner, mental problem we add an exterior, physical problem. More than one, in fact. The priest is lost, somewhere in the forbidden interior of the huge lunar crater (or ringwall) Alphonsus. The third member of the team, the astronomer Bok, is frightened to move out of the safety of their underground shelter.

This leaves Kinsman with a nasty set of problems. Where is Father Lemoyne? Is he hurt, and does he need help? Should Kinsman obey official regulations and leave the priest to his fate, or should he break the rules and try to find him?

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