Stick-in-the-mud heroes

On some TV shows, there are stick-in-the-mud characters. You know the ones. I recently finished Picard Season 3, which has one, and I have to say: the bad wrap is often undeserved.

The Balad of Shaw

In Picard season 3, the geriatric heroes (Picard and Riker) run across Captain Liam Shaw of the USS Titan. Shaw is a by-the-book character. A stick-in-the-mud who opposes Picard and Riker on their quest to save their old friend Beverly Crusher from doom.

Shaw hates the heroes, because they don’t follow the rules, and think they can do as they please while endangering his ship and crew. The show proceeds to show how — of course — Picard and Riker manage to bypass Shaw and get what they want.

The thing is, though, Shaw is absolutely right. A lot of people get killed. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t vindicate him. Minute spoiler here. Instead, as often happens, he ends up giving his blessing and admits that following the book isn’t always the right thing to do. However, he was right to follow the book. Picard and Riker’s actions did get a number of people killed. There is a larger plot going on and Piard and Riker do end up saving the universe — again — but they didn’t know that at the time.

Imagine a retired US admiral commandeering an aircraft carrier, then taking it into Chinese waters to rescue an old friend stuck on a yacht, finally ending up getting part of the carrier crew killed. You really think that’s okay? That the real captain of the aircraft carrier is a stick-in-the-mud and should have played along?


When I was a kid, in the eighties, I loved the D&D television series. Yes, I’m old.

The TV show features a group of kids stuck in a fantasy world. They try to escape, aided by Dungeon Master, a mysterious old man. The show also has a character named Eric. Eric was a spoiled, cowardly, comic relief — that’s what the Wikipedia page linked above says, anyway. He was part of the group, but always complaining about their course of actions, and how bad Dungeon Master was. A real stick-in-the-mud.

I got the episodes on DVD a decade back and rewatched all of them. With adult eyes, the show really told a different story. You see, Dungeon Master is insane. He’s an old man who repeatedly sends a group of children into danger without giving them needed information which he does have. He knows the dangers they face, but he refuses to help them. The children always accept his crap at face value, and it regularly gets them nearly killed.

The only exception: stick-in-the-mud Eric. He calls out Dungeon Master’s crap all the time. He warns the others of danger. But do they listen? No. Do they ever say ‘well, Eric, you were right, listening to that psycho old man is dangerous’? No.

Redeeming the stick-in-the-mud

Of course, I get it. Characters continually avoiding danger and acting rationally can really kill the tension and action. The Picard episodes would have been a lot duller if Picard and Riker hadn’t commandeered a ship and flown into danger. Dungeons & Dragons, the television show, would have been ‘Children sneaking around and doing nothing’ if they’d avoided both the dungeons and the dragons.

Still, maybe us writers should try not to vilify the stick-in-the-muds. Because, when it comes down to it, those are the people in real life who are the heroes. Stick-in-the-muds usually save the day. You know, like the world leaders not immediately firing nukes at their enemies, and the cops who don’t run into any situation guns blazing.

Aside from their real life value, stick-in-the-muds can be interesting characters. I loved Shaw on Picard season 3. He might be my favorite character. Because he calls Picard and Riker out on their bullshit. He actually tries to save lives by following the rules that exist for that very reason. Going for the easy vilification, or comic relief, is — in the end — just lazy writing.


Writers, don’t be lazy, make your stick-in-the-muds shine. It makes for better stories, and a redemption for our real-life heroes.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands