What Writers Can Learn From ‘The Expanse’

Cameron C.
8 min readOct 26, 2020

How to avoid artificial conflict and tension while building the world around the characters.

Source: Amazon | Official Poster | The Expanse

***The Expanse and Game of Thrones spoilers below***

As a fan of science fiction I really want to love The Expanse. It’s a competent show that has a lot of interesting ideas. However, I struggle to get fully engrossed in it because of a fatal design flaw. The Expanse has a poorly crafted world that breeds artificial conflict and artificial tension. I’m going to tackle how writers can learn from and avoid making the same mistakes that holds The Expanse back from being something great.

Now I don’t mean artificial tension as in something like The Walking Dead when a walker randomly sneaks up on the group of survivors in an open field. And I don’t mean something like the infamous dumpster sequence where Glenn’s death was teased for weeks. That’s not artificial tension, that’s just…insulting. I’m talking about when a character’s life is put in danger, yet we don’t feel tense or worried.

I’m talking about when guns or swords are drawn yet our eyes don’t go wide and our hearts don’t race. We know subconsciously that the character is safe and they will somehow find a way out of it every situation. This spawns from a lack of internal conflict perpetuated by the world being crafted before the characters.

What is internal conflict?

In John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story he describes the concept of a character’s ‘ghost.’

“An event from the past that still haunts the hero in the present. The ghost is an open wound that is often the source of the hero’s psychological and moral weakness.”

In simpler terms, I’ve heard this described as an itch that can’t be scratched. It’s an internal turmoil that influences the character’s decisions.

Writer/producer Lindsay Doran claims “it’s the hero’s relationships that the audience is connecting with.” And I’m sure you’ve heard the writing advice that characters are everything. This is especially true in television — a medium where we spend one hour a week with characters and get to explore them on a deeper level than feature films.

Examples from ‘Game of Thrones’

Let’s look at a sequence in Game of Thrones where the internal conflict, or ghost of a character, influences their decisions in a compelling way. Theon Greyjoy was taken as a ward by Ned Stark. After Ned was executed by order of King Joffrey, Theon pledged his loyalty to Ned’s son, Robb, with intentions of helping him overthrow and kill Joffrey. Theon suffers the inner turmoil of an identity crisis.

“I always wanted to do the right thing. Be the right kind of person. But I never knew what that meant. It always seemed that there was an impossible choice I had to make. Stark or Greyjoy.”

YT User: GoTSeason2 | HBO | Game of Thrones

Theon is sent to ask his father for help on Robb’s behalf. Theon’s father spends their meeting insulting his Stark clothing and unfavorably comparing him to his sister — pushing the buttons of his identity crisis and the relationships he values with those close to him. Theon’s father asks Theon to prove his loyalty to the Greyjoys and demands he seizes Winterfell — the birthplace of the Starks — while it’s poorly defended. This request is in direct contention with Theon’s ghost. Theon later decides to obey his father and betray the Starks — a decision that his identity crisis caused, and a decision that haunts Theon for the rest of the series.

Tyrion Lannister is plagued by being a dwarf. He’s blamed by his father, Tywin, for his mother’s death, who died giving birth to him. Tyrion is the black sheep of the Lannister family, drawing hatred from everyone besides his brother, Jaime. Everywhere he went he was reminded of being a dwarf and was called an imp. His inner turmoil was used against him so much he had the line “never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used against you.”

When Tyrion is on trial and about to be wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit, he screams “I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime: I’m guilty of being a dwarf!” To which Tywin responds “You’re not on trial for being a dwarf.” This leads to a line that perfectly encapsulates Tyrion’s inner turmoil:

“Oh, yes I am! I’ve been on trial for that my entire life!”

YT User: Deventh | HBO | Game of Thrones

Tyrion’s inner turmoil would later reach a boiling point where he kills his father in an amazing scene that further reinforces and extrapolates his ghost and the torment it has caused him.

YT User: TheCell8 | HBO | Game of Thrones

These events all happen because of influence from the characters’ ghosts. They are proactive and make decisions guided by their ghosts. Their actions create the story, the plot and therefore — the world. And that is where I think Game of Thrones faltered in it’s last few seasons. The characters we’re no longer acting on their ghosts. They acted illogically, irrationally and became slaves to the world around them because the show had to address the external promise of White Walkers that was made during the first season when none of the characters’ ghosts were developed or designed around White Walkers.

How ‘The Expanse’ fails

The lack of ghosts spawns from characters being built around the world, rather than the world being built around the characters. This is what causes almost all of The Expanse’s tension and conflict to come from an external source rather than an internal source. It causes the characters to act as nothing more than vessels for the plot and strips them of individuality.

The problem with The Expanse is it has made that mistake from the very first episode. In The Expanse, the world always comes first. The Expanse has three warring factions: Earth, Mars and The Belt. The show follows the crew of the Rocinante, consisting of Holden, the captain from Earth, Naomi, the Belter engineer, Alex, the Martian pilot, and Amos, the mechanic from Earth. It’s the classic story of a bunch of misfits coming together and getting into shenanigans throughout the solar system. Now, getting into shenanigans is the simplified version, however it’s suitable because almost the entirety of the conflict in The Expanse is from an external source. The crew just happens into things.

Before the crew acquired the Rocinante, they were on board the Canterbury, an ice hauler. They responded to a distress call from a derelict ship. Once on board the derelict ship they watched the Canterbury get destroyed by a superior ship called the Anubis. Eventually they find the coordinates to the Anubis and board it to discover its crew has been wiped out and it’s infected with a mysterious alien substance known as the Protomolecule. The crew then makes it their mission to track the Protomolecule down, learn about it and extinguish it through the galaxy because they are the ones who found it. Did you notice the trend here?

In the most recent season of the show, the crew travels to a planet called Ilus where they have to navigate through two bickering factions — a group of Belters and a group of Earth miners. The crew discovers an ancient alien artifact of which they activate. They then decide to destroy it, which causes a shock wave to spread throughout the planet. So they take cover within the artifact to get away from the shock wave and worldwide flood. Once inside the artifact they notice space slugs that are causing people to go blind and die. Once that problem is solved they have to deal with a ship that is in danger of crashing on Ilus. Then once that problem is solved, they deal with an Earth miner that goes on a killing spree because of actions Belters committed to their landing pad, resulting in the death of some of his squad.

Almost everything that was just described is reactive. The only proactive decision made was the Belter blowing up the landing pad in an attempt to delay the Earth miners from landing on the planet. The unintended consequence came when the miners were landing before scheduled causing many of them to be killed. But this event doesn’t play with emotions of the crew of the Rocinante and their respective factions. It doesn’t cause them to reflect upon any morals or inner conflict previously established. It’s nothing more than an obstacle for the group to navigate around and overcome in their pursuit of the external conflict — the Protomolecule.

From the inception of the show to its current season, the characters are reacting to the world around them. They’re reacting to the spread of the Protomolecule and they’re reacting to the squabbling politics among the three factions. The crew has their sights set on the Protomolecule and everything else is an external distraction.

The lack of a ghost makes The Expanse’s characters hard to connect with. The only progression the characters get are slight hints about their backstory, but nothing that influences their agency. Amos has a soft spot for children because he had a troubled childhood. While this is development for the character, it’s not an itch that cannot be scratched. And even though each character has a few of these small traits, it doesn’t make them interesting because their main focus is always going to be the external conflict. Amos’ sole purpose is to be the brawn on Holden’s behalf.

The characters are stripped of individuality — mimicking the same woes and ideology of the faction to which they belong. The characters are trapped within a box of which they cannot escape and their agency is on railroad tracks because the world dictates it. This is what makes me believe the characters were placed in the world after the world was built.

It seems The Expanse understands that conflict is the essence of drama, but doesn’t understand where conflict should come from.

The show needs to give Holden something beyond being the one who takes responsibility for the Protomolecule. I would have liked for Holden and his crew to have a more compelling reason to explore the Protomolecule other than it being the morally correct thing to do and because they happened into it. Your main character should not be the human equivalent of a participation award. This works in video games when the player gets to insert themselves into the blank slate character, but not in film and television, where storytelling is an entirely passive approach. You’re telling a story about people. Make them interesting.

This fundamental design flaw also creates an absurd level of plot armor for the characters because without them, the audience loses their vessel to explore the Protomolecule — making the internal take a back seat to the external. This is why scenes where Bobbie Draper fights a Protomolecule monster or Holden threatens to kill Amos — don’t have any weight to them.

YT User: SCARY V | Amazon | The Expanse
SYFY | Amazon | The Expanse

These scenes lack tension. The audience knows that Holden won’t kill Amos, because Holden isn’t acting with direction of a ghost. The audience knows the other ship will not breach the Rocinante, and if it did, this conflict will be solved without any casualties of the main crew. The audience knows the outcome as soon as the scene starts. And if there’s one way to bore your audience it’s having them be one step ahead of you.

Characters first, world second

So when you watch The Expanse and feel nothing when guns are drawn, it’s because the world is dictating what will happen, not the characters. The audience already knows the world won’t destroy its own vessels through which the audience explores its main ingredient — the external threat of the Protomolecule . Otherwise you don’t have a show.

So when creating characters and creating the world, characters, guided by their ghosts, should be the ones that dictate what happens. You’re telling a story about people. Make them interesting.

It is your job as the writer to know where your story is going to go, but have the character’s agency be the thing that dictates it. Characters should build the world, not be boxed inside it.