(Author R.W.W. Greene’s novel, The Light Years, was released by Angry Robot Books on February 11, 2020, and can be found at all major booksellers.)
What a great world it would be if everyone simply did their jobs! How productive! How stable! How…narratively dull? Not necessarily.
In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield writes that on any given day, at any given moment, people are either minus-ones, zeroes, or plus-ones. Minus-ones are actively harmful; they create problems and additional work for others. Zeroes have neutral impact; they do their jobs and meet expectations. Plus-ones go above and beyond, actively adding value to the efforts of the moment. It’s good to avoid being a minus-one, Col. Hadfield writes, but personally, he aims no higher than to be a full-time zero, knowing that he could act as a plus-one if the moment requires.
A world of zeroes would run smoothly, indeed. I have lost track of the number of movies and shows that have used the phrase “You had one job!” as comic relief, generally after someone has failed to divert the snoopy in-laws, fallen asleep on guard duty, or forgotten to feed the zombies. Some minus-one had to screw up in order to raise the stakes and move the plot along. This is a narratively useful device for writers, but it often results in false notes. There is no way in hell, for example, that Hermione Granger, the brightest witch of her generation, would mistake a cat hair for one from a human head, but J.K Rowling needed to take her off mission so Dumb (Harry) and Dumber (Ron) could bumble through their quest for intelligence on the Chamber of Secrets. And if a habitually minus-one character is assigned to feed the zombies, the resulting chaos is utterly deserved by the person who made up the chores list.
It’s better to aim for zero, Hadfield writes, because if everyone tries to plus-one all the time, they’ll get in each other’s way, effectively becoming minus-ones. This is usually the result of ego: Maverick in Top Gun or Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi when he presumes the need for his plus-one-ness while General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo already have things in hand. Poor Leia had to rouse herself from a coma to shut him down! In 3%, a Brazilian SF series available on Netflix, nearly every character is a would-be plus-one, in direct competition with all the others, and it’s not until they learn to be zeroes that they make progress.
If everyone was a zero, there’d be little need for heroics at all, other than the everyday valor of competency. There’s no shame in being competent. Under normal conditions, a competent mechanic can maintain the car. A competent cabdriver can get fares safely home from the bar. Competent people meet expectations. There are hundreds of zeros at work, every day, on board the USS Enterprise.
Competency is mundane maybe, but through heroic effort and a bit of luck, Sabrina Studentface, a zero-level freshman writer, can produce true art. Cliff the Competent Cabbie can hit a patch of black ice and by dint of a dimly remembered driver’s-ed lesson and adrenaline, steer into the skid and save the day. Hodor can, you know, hold the door. These characters become, for a moment, plus-ones. This is exciting, prose-wise, and there’s no need to cry “you had one job.” Instead of forcing them to make an uncharacteristic mistake, the writer has allowed them to rise to the occasion.
What of masters, you say, those plus-plus-ones. A master mechanic can fix the car no matter what’s wrong with it. A master driver can handle any road conditions at any speed. Masters, assuming they actually exist, are reliably, boringly excellent. They are zeroes, in other words.
That’s why situation matters. It’s difficult for someone who has achieved mastery to perform heroically within their field. A master policeman, for example, who takes down a school shooter might get less attention than a middle-aged, untrained teacher who does the same. “To serve and protect” is the name of the policeman’s game, after all, and mastery of the job is what all the training is for. Mrs. Hickey might be a master teacher, a zero to plus-one in her own field, but she’s likely a rank amateur in bodyguarding; to pull it off, to save those kids, she’ll have to be a hero. The Kindergarten Cop is not a hero because he stopped the bad guy; that was his job. He’s a hero because he taught those kids outdated gender identifiers and how to march.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a zero-level moisture farmer (maybe), landspeeder mechanic, and T-16 Skyhopper pilot (which is a craft designed to travel in the lowest level of Tatooine’s atmosphere). None of these skill-sets proved useful in the adventure immediately ahead of him, which required Death Star infiltration, prisoner release, gun fighting, monster wrestling, gunnery, and flying an exoatmospheric fighter in outside-a-gravity-well dogfights and against a heavily-armed weapons platform. Yet, he succeeds, exceeding our wildest expectations and plus-oneing several new skill sets. Wedge Antilles, meanwhile, is a zero.
By the time The Last Jedi rolls around Luke has mastered these new skill sets. Employing them no longer makes him a hero; it’s his job, and he’s expected to zero through it. He becomes a minus-one because he fails to, leaving it to others to plus-one through the saga. Personally, I think Luke had good reason for retreating from his responsibilities; it fits the character. Others believe it’s a false note. There is no excuse, though, for Yoda missing the Rise of the Sith and the Seduction of Anakin Skywalker.
Let’s be honest, Harry Potter was generally a minus-one. Ron Weasley, too. Hermione Granger is forced, over and over, into plus-one mode to save their asses. Captain James T. Kirk also had some minus-one tendencies, but he had Spock and Bones to plus-one him out. Picard is a zero. Data, zero.
Hadfield’s scale is an interesting lens through which to look at history, current events, and fiction. Which characters are zeroes, which characters are making more work for others, which characters have to go outside their comfort zones and exceed expectations there? How can I, as a writer, make them sound true?
Be like Hadfield: Aim for zero, and let the plot and the characters’ reaction to it and each other bring out the heroics.
R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire USA writer with an MA in Fine Arts, which he exorcises in dive bars and coffee shops. He is a frequent panelist at the Boskone Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention in Boston, and his work has been in Stupefying Stories, Daily Science Fiction, New Myths, and Jersey Devil Press, among others. Greene is a past board member of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. He keeps bees, collects typewriters, and lives with writer/artist spouse Brenda and two cats.