The Power of Three Squared: Outlaw Star

For some reason I’ve been thinking about characters, and specifically the interaction of roles a lot lately, so I’m going to bore all you guys to tears beating that horse until it’s dead on the track and hauled off to the glue factory. But you know how it goes when you’ve got a thought stuck in your head…It’s almost like hearing “The Real Folk Blues” inside your mind for a week, which has happened to me.

Okay, anyway, I may have mentioned before that characters are sometimes written as stable trios. Having three characters in a stable group allows writers to generate a larger number and wider variety of plots than characters in pairs because they can have all sorts of conflict within the group and all sorts of interfaces for conflict with others outside the group. The only problem is that you have to make it work.

One trio that works so much that I don’t bother to talk about it is the Eternal Triangle: two characters in competition for the affections of a third. I don’t find this especially interesting because it tends to take over anything else going on in the story.

One trio I talk about a lot is the Mind-Body-Soul group, a trio of characters where one is intelligent or intellectual, one is physically strong or active, and one is emotional or intuitive. I may have discussed that before:

Oh, yeah.

Outlaw Star is basically the story of a space trucking company, Starwind and Hawking, co-owned by Gene Starwind and Jim Hawking. You can see this coming already, can’t you? Gene is a big, handsome, physical specimen; 11-year-old Jim provides management, accounting, and brains to the operation. They take a job body guarding a mysterious woman, Hilda, who has a mysterious suitcase that contains a bio-android named Melfina (who is a serious cutie-pie and does her best work nude). Hilda dies…it’s a beautiful scene, by the way…and look what we have:

Brawny Gene.
Brainy Jim.
Moody Melfina.

outlaw star

From left: Aisha, Jim, Gene, Melfina, Suzuka.

What’s interesting about this trio that we didn’t see in shows like Samurai Champloo or School-Live! is that they also form a second stable trio, Hero-Sidekick-Girlfriend. (Same characters in the same order.) This second trio is less about driving conflict…the advantage of Mind-Body-Soul is that it drives conflict within the unit because, while they have the same goals, the members of the unit can different paths to achieving the goal…and more about driving plot.

This works because of the emotional attractions between the roles. The Sidekick has some form of affinity for the Hero, of course, and so does the Girlfriend (although presumably the affinity is different *wink*wink*nudge*nudge*), and the Hero reciprocates those feelings. This permits a certain amount of competition between the Sidekick and the Girlfriend for the attention of the Hero, of course, but more importantly it brings a number of stable plots into play.

The biggest of the plots that episodes can be built around is the old chestnut Princess in Peril. I have no idea how far back that goes, but knights are always riding out to rescue damsels, so the 600’s-800’s is a minimal history. Is there a Princess in Peril in the Epic of Gilgamesh? I forget.

But you know how it works: the Girlfriend is captured and the Hero has to go rescue her. In fact, without giving away how it all turns out, this is exactly the plot device of the end of Outlaw Star: Gene has to go rescue Melfina. (The meta-plot is Journey of Discovery with a side order of Overcoming the Monster.)

Of course, apart from being grossly sexist, you can’t do that every week. But trio can be used to drive an episode’s plot using any combinations of two or three of the characters:

We’ve already got Hero rescues Girlfriend.
Sidekick and Girlfriend fight. GF runs off and Sidekick has to get her back. They make up.
Sidekick and Girlfriend fight. SK runs off and Girlfriend has to get him/her back. They make up.
Hero puts Sidekick in peril and has to rescue him/her.
Sidekick and Girlfriend have to put differences aside to rescue Hero.
Plus you’ve got SK and H rescue GF and GF and H rescue SK.

You know what? That’s a lot of plots with just three characters. Add more characters, get more stories. In Outlaw Star you’ve also got Hilda and after Hilda’s gone, Suzuka and Aisha show up. Suzuka’s pretty self-sufficient, but Aisha is a Sidekick who needs A LOT of rescuing, since she has the self-control of the average three-year-old.

Lots of fun.

You know where you see the Hero-Sidekick-Girlfriend trio played in a less stereotypical way? How about Lupin III? You’ve got Lupin, Hero, Jigan, Sidekick, and Fujiko, Girlfriend, but the nature of their characters helps to subvert the stable trio. Fujiko is a self-rescuing princess…Lupin might help her out of a spot, but you always have a sense she would have gotten out of it anyway. Jigan is so totally chill you never know whether he’ll show up at the party or not (although he does when he’s needed). And as a Hero Lupin is so close to the edge of complete disaster you never know whether he will slip over or not.

This may explain why there are over 250 episodes of the various Lupin III series and 26 of Outlaw Star. Just sayin’ 🙂

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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