Setting is standard space opera.

I am writing a story in which 2 characters are crewing a spaceship. The characters are:

(1) the captain, a female in her early 20s, who has grown up on the ship and recently taken it over from her parents.

(2) a crewman, a male of indeterminate age, who represented himself as an itinerant spacefarer and hired on for the voyage.

The spaceship is a commercial vessel in woeful state of repair (in fact it is a coffin ship which the owners want to fail to claim insurance). The ship actually requires a crew of 4, but is undercrewed because of lack of money.

The characters are on alternating 4-hour watches, so at all times one is on the flight-deck, while the other is doing all other necessary work, and eating, sleeping, etc where possible.

For reasons of plot, it is necessary for the characters to trust each other and form a rapport by the end of the 15-day voyage.

However, neither character is likely to "open up" to the other.

For her part, the captain has lived most of her life on the ship, and does not have much experience with strangers. She is curious about the other character, but her instinct is to observe and speculate rather than to make conversation. She is also aware that should the crewman become troublesome, her options for escape or getting help would be limited, trapped as she is on a spaceship with him in deep space.

For his part, the crewman is taciturn and monosyllabic when he speaks at all, to the point that the captain once asks him "can you understand me?" when she talks to him. He shows no interest in the captain's personal life, nor shares any details of his own.


How can I get two self-contained, uncommunicative characters working at different times but in a relatively confined space to build a rapport?

  • 1
    Welcome to Writing.SE! This seems more like a problem with developing your plot than a problem with your writing, and I'm afraid questions about how your plot should develop are off-topic here.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 13:23
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    @Niceday In my experience science fiction space ships have control rooms or sometimes bridges, but not flight decks. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 18:15
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    Your watches feel unrealistic. You might want to look up military watch schedules in similar circumstances. One I remember is 4 on, 4 off, 8 on, 8 off. Also most space ships should have an auto pilot.
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 6:23
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    Recommended listening for this is John Finnemore's Double Acts, series 1 episode 6: "Hot Desk". The communication is only when one arrives as one leaves, but over time it can be very effective.
    – thosphor
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:56
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    "Morning, Sam." "Morning, Ralph."
    – Spike
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 5:43

14 Answers 14


Create a minor emergency that can be resolved only by two people working together. Perhaps the fix calls for repeated overlap every four hours between watches.

Maybe each cooks for the other for those times.

  • This seems like the most promising solution. Thank you.
    – Niceday
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 18:06

I think the key here is in the method of communication. Whilst face-to-face, using the verbal communication, the male character appears curt and uncommunicative. But on reading his logs she finds pure poetry from a man who is only able to fully express himself through the written word. The reading of the previous shift's logs becomes a back-and-forth which each of them secretly looks forward to.

  • Hah this is what I was thinking too!
    – twhitney
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 18:26
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    This might turn the story a little more towards the epistolary genre, with a lot of the text being excerpts from the logs. It would be a stylistic choice for the novel as well as just a way to shoehorn events. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 15:16
  • I love this answer. I was already interested in the story before, but I would really want to read it more if this is the way OP would have gone. The answer he/she chose seems much more cliche to me.
    – ribs2spare
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 15:24

Your schedule doesn't make sense IRL. People WILL find ways to interact and keep each other company; we are social animals. They will talk, even if their conversations are by radio. They will share entertainment. They will do their work in each other's presence, on the bridge. People like company; even if one doesn't, the other one does.

IRL, people often sleep together after three or four dates. How much communication time does that constitute? Maybe four hours per date, maybe another hour or two of talk (or text). So maybe 24 waking hours, before they feel they know the other person enough to get naked with them. Admittedly, that is all overtly romantic time, so the schedule is compressed somewhat, and would have been cut short if attraction is not present.

Nevertheless, presuming each of your characters sleeps eight hours while the other is awake, they still share eight hours a day when both are awake, and they will develop some social interaction. Both seeking human company and bonding is likely in this circumstance, and 15 days (probably 60 to 90 hours together) is more than enough time to do that.

Relax your schedule and duties, you can automate more of the ship. Somebody can be on the bridge without actually needing hands on steering wheel or a foot on the gas; they can in fact be doing other things on the bridge. Including having a conversation about life, the universe and everything through their communicators.

If you have one knowledgeable character (the crewman) and one cloistered character (the woman), make her interested in his adventures and misadventures. That's plausible. Make him funny, at least to her. Find a way to make them both interested in each other as people. Give them something in common to bond over; similar tastes in music, or a game, or a hobby. Give them reasons to talk and play together (not necessarily sexually, but innocently -- They both like the same card game, or they are evenly matched in chess, or whatever). Make it fair, he has reasons to be impressed with her and interested in her (that don't involve her looks or figure), and vice versa.

Successful couples usually have some common interest that brought them together, AND each will be good at something that the other is not; so they are complementary (that is not "complimentary"), they have more expertise as a team than being apart. Both are important if you are creating a bond; they like being together, and they get through life better together.

If you have skills that I lack, and I have skills that you lack, together our skill set is more comprehensive and effective, so we are more competent together.

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    Too much assumption here. / "People like company" Not necessarily, which you then admit: / "even if one doesn't, the other one does" Okay why must 50% of them like company? / "They will do their work in each other's presence, on the bridge." "People WILL find ways to interact and keep each other company; we are social animals." Speak for yourself! ;) Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 17:56
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica I should think it would be obvious to any reader that I am talking about averages and normal people, and the vast majority of people do indeed like being around other people. You are nitpicking the obvious to be contentious, or if that wasn't obvious to YOU, I am informing you now. For the purpose of being an author, devising characters that will pass the time in conversation will not be seen as a controversial choice or just a bit too convenient. It will be seen as normal, routine human behavior.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 19:10
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    Actually, my intention is not at all to "nitpick", but to educate you to the fact that what you call "normal" and "obvious" and "average" and "routine" of the "vast majority" is a socially-propogated lie, that neuronormalcy and extroversion is portrayed as the norm only by the loudest and most privileged lot; that painting the rest of us — who actually form a huge part of the population — as "not normal" or "weird" is deeply offensive and actually quite damaging. I'm sorry if that's not "convenient" for you. What you've stated in your answer is wrong. I was trying to be polite about it. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 0:38

Other answers cover what to do if you allow your characters to meet in person.

If you don't want them to see each other in person, you could use nightly logs as a vehicle for the incipient relationship. Every shift should have some documentation about what happened. Real life spacecraft and naval vessels have logs for every watch. You can see an example of naval logs here. The notes can start off very professional and gradually shift into the familiar. The novel S uses a similar plot device. Two students write messages to each other in the margins of a novel about their efforts to uncover a mystery contained in the book. They gradually get to know each other, even though they've never been in the library together.

You could also have the characters do nice things for each other. I used to work nights and my wife worked days. Cleaning, making food, and other gestures all help build a relationship, even when people don't get to see each other. Think about coming home to your dorm and discovering that your roommate scrubbed the bathroom.

1576502978. Notes for Captain Joshly. Propulsion unit experienced pogo effect for 37 consecutive minutes, likely caused by worn out components. Shift otherwise uneventful. Spacefarer Detna.

1576540800. Notes for Spacefarer Detna. Pogoing appears to have stopped for now, but you never know how long it'll remain stopped with these ancient engines. Occupancy alarm started sounding with the message "All crew must be secured during flight operations." Message repeated every five minutes. Captain Joshly.

1576627200. Notes for Captain Joshly. Blissfully uneventful shift. Investigated alarm issue noted in log 1576540800. Ship computer assumes there are four crew and only counted two in proper restraints. Disabled alarm. Chuck.

1576713600. Chuck. Thank you for disabling the alarm. I couldn't think straight last shift with that voice shouting at me every five minutes. Nothing important happened during my shift. Only one thing worth reporting. Our life support systems were pinged by what appeared to be an insurance company. No idea why they'd be checking to see if we're alive. Donna.

1576800000. Donna. Was pleasantly surprised to find full thermos of tea in bridge cupholder. Thank you.


This is part of the plot of The Three Musketeers.

In Alexandre Dumas' famous novel, the main character d'Artagnan belongs to a different military branch than his three friends (Athos, Portos, and Aramis) who belong the The Musketeers military group.

The main character, through happenstance, accidentally annoys those three the first time he meets them, and arranges to meet them for a duel. Before they begin dueling, they are interrupted with by members of a different military group - viewed as their political enemies, but part of the same government - that try to arrest them for dueling illegally (IIRC). The four characters (the protagonist and the three musketeers) join together and fight them off, and bond over each others' skill in swordsmanship, and in the thrill of victory, become friends.

Throughout the rest of the book, the protagonist d`Artagnan joins one or more of his three musketeer friends during their assigned watches, and one or more of them join his, to keep each other company, and then when the nation goes to war, they end up near each other and fight together.

At the end of the book, d'Artagnan finally gets permission from his superiors to join the Musketeers himself. Unfortunately, his three friends are exiting the Musketeers at that point in time. Over the course of two or four more books (depending on how the serialization gets bundled), d'Artagnan rises to be leader of the musketeers, and then still higher. But the entire series, in all the events that occur, often have the characters not technically in the same group, and often even in opposing groups, but has their growing friendships rise above the bureaucratic distance between them, with them contriving methods of giving each other company, or - when actively opposing each other or working against each others' side during political uprisings and civil wars in their country - artificially keeping their distances.

(While this sounds cheesy and gimicky the way I'm writing it, it's not lampshaded, and not too apparent except when you take a step back and analyze it. What I mean is, it's not the plot of the story that they can't hang out or whatever - it doesn't feel contrived, but a natural result of what's going on, and the interweaving stories involving the four)


Comm systems. If they've got any human traits (assuming they're of the human race), the need for company would probably be one of them. At least occasionally.

You've got two people on "a deserted island". They need to communicate to stay alive, so to speak. Who's fishing today? Who's watching the fire? "Did you hear the ruffling in the bushes last night? We should check it out."

They have to eat and rest. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

They're lucky to have technology and not just a bonfire on a beach. Surely a comm system would be installed? So the Captain gives him orders. Maybe they think out loud or hit their head, accidentally initiating a short conversation.

Instead of the snapping of a twig on the Lone Island, there's a creaking sound in the hull. Or a repair is needed. It takes two to deal with it. The possibilities for interacting on a ship that size is almost limitless.

And if I were the Captain, I'd want to know when/if my crewman had fixed a broken pipe or left some of the work to me. Expecially since this ship is supposed to have a larger crew. Some overlapping work between us would be expected.

Like it or not, they'll get used to the voice in their ear and slowly build a rapport. At least this is how I would go about it.

  1. They are able to communicate with each other during the non-sleep shift? If your characters have 3*4 hours working shifts and 2*4 hours sleep, that leaves 1*4 hours shift to sozialize. One works, the other eats. This allows you to get creative with the message system: Video-call? Audio (Radio), text consoles?
  2. The work does not actually require hands-on duties at all times. Both watch surveillance videos of the previous working shift and find out that they share the same troubles.
  3. They, intentionally or not, leave messages to the other. Intentional would be something like letters, unintentional would be logs, where one person stumbles upon the logs of the other. This is the "my boss has a picture of his dog/kids on the desk" or "he was in the same army unit" trope.
  4. Part of the work is a (more or less lengthy) hand-over process, where the two communicate. "This happened, this broke, I fixed this."

I know that it doesn't directly apply to your case (two crew, alternating watches), but while sailing on tall-ships, we've used a three watch system where each of three crews had a 4 hour time slot (12-4, 4-8, 8-12) in both AM and PM. In those cases, you usually got up for the tail end of the watch prior, and hung out partway through the watch after your watch.

In similar fashion, there were some maneuvers which required more than a single watch... On ships with only two alternating watches, there were some 'all hands on deck' maneuvers (if able to be scheduled) that would occur on the watch transition boundary. On a three watch vessel, there would usually be enough extra crew milling about that could assist with the maneuvers.

Even if you have 'non-overlapping' watches, there is still some information that needs to be passed between watches, events (or lack there of), maintenance anomalies, passing of landmarks/other ships.


Just an idea that popped into my head: how about having a chess board in the room sp they can effectively play chess-by-shift? It requires no verbal communication yet can be used to build rapport.

Other games and activities of course also apply, but turn-based thinking games with long turns are better suited to it.


After reading the other answers so far, I wanted to add something.

Some of the answers mention 'sharing something' as a great bond-creator. I agree, and this could be bundled up with a sort of intrigue and curiosity.

Idea; One of the two is writing something - something non-work related - and forgets it (or part of it) at the post/station, where the other finds it. I imagine some fictional story/stories written in hand - perhaps based on the ship, the crew and potential outcomes of the future/past. It can be anything, though.

Upon first finding it, the other respects the privacy of their fellow crew members, but after hours of 'low priority work' and a lack of action, curiosity gets the best of him/her.

What they then find reveals something about the other person that changes their image immediately - I imagine that the captain might appreciate the crewman's professionalism (or the other way around) but still walks around with a wish that it'd be different, so life on the ship wasn't as lonely. - Maybe they've both been "too professional" about their work together.

When finding the "book" (or just a part of it) it creates choice. Should they confront the other person about their work? How? When? How much should they read? Is any amount too much?

I then imagine, that, even though at first the writer might feel "ashamed" (using the crew as characters for instance), they would bond over these stories, building on them together and finding new meaning in their life on the ship.


There are numerous film plots relying on chemistry of characters never meeting until the end. Two that I remember off the top of my head are The Lake House and The Lunchbox. The critical reviews would recommend picking the latter if you aren't up for viewing both. In contrast to those movies, your protagonists actually have a common routine, need to pass responsibility and information, and have a common work room to keep in working order. They will also typically meet and great when passing watch. That makes for a lot of little detail and information to pass from one to the other where an emotional reaction to the consistency of the manner of passing it can be developed.


In combination with the previous ideas, here's another twist.
Add in secretly watching each other that the other doesn't know about. Perhaps one has access to a security camera. At first they use it innocently to check on something, but becomes more frequent as they become more interested. This is discovered toward the end...


I've never worked on a ship, but I have worked shift work. In many cases, there's a 5 to 30 minutes period where the outgoing shift worker is expected to go over what happened during his/her shift, explaining log entries and other events, and walking through each safety-critical system saying when it was last tested, etc.

Your characters' communication could start with a basic "G'morning, Sam." "G'morning, Ralph." level of interaction and then move forward from there. One character could begin to cherish the shift change ritual while the other stays in "G'morning Ralph" mode but eventually comes around. That said, a 15 day voyage doesn't leave a lot of time for that kind of development.

Good luck

  • This - having worked rotating shift work on a ship, watch turnover is a great place to learn about someone. "What do you mean you didn't do X?" - "Wow, I figured it was going to take days to get that fixed" - "You're happy turning over with that gigantic oil puddle in the Engine Room?"
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 16:26

Any budding relationship needs to overcome a barrier in order to be interesting, and this separation of watches is total genius in this regard.

The log is a great mechanism for communication, where the prosaic business of running a ship become a vehicle for developing more human contact. Kind of reminds me of J.J.Abrams' book "S" ("Ship of Theseus") where the two characters exchange marginalia in a library book for months before actually meeting.

But there's so much more which is possible: one character adjusts the seat to be lower, or crumbs on the desk, or a whiff of scent, or a file left open on the computer, or a problem left unsolved...

In fact, to me, the main challenge is not wanting to have the two characters actually meet at all at shift change. So either can speculate on what the other looks like etc. Which brings up the question of point of view. Do we see this from one character's perspective or both?

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