Featured Writer Keith Parker takes an in-depth look at character development for fiction authors.
Depth. That is the key to any good character. That is the key to writing fiction that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Back in the golden age of science fiction, one of the most common criticisms of the genre was that story heroes were two-dimensional. These flat characters often reflected the characteristics of their authors. Asimov’s characters were often eccentric but brilliant old scientists, while Heinlein’s were engineers with strong libertarian streaks. There’s nothing wrong with these characteristics, but almost without fail the heroes in these stories don’t have much else.
This is where characteristics come in. Rather than simply saying, “My hero is a mad scientist,” you need a character who is not only a mad scientist, but one also afflicted with arthritis, an allergy to wasps, and kleptomania. But even that is not quite enough. Look at the two top-level defining traits: Mad Scientist. First of all, why is he a he? What is the character’s sex, and why do you want or need him to be male? While you’re thinking on that one, why is he/she a scientist? Childhood fascination with astronomy? Dissecting frogs? Pyrotechnics? And how did the hero become a scientist? All those years of college and graduate school cost money. So, who paid for it? And then there is the “mad” characteristic. What does this even mean? Is the hero truly mad, as in insane? If so, how is he able to build the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator with a flux capacitor energy source? Hmm? Don’t you have to be somewhat “sane” to build all that? Then there is the why. Why is he building this contraption? What does he want to do? Blow up the earth? Why?
I think my point is that every character has to be developed with the question “why” in mind. A woman just released from prison wants to start a new life. Why? Why does she want to start a new life? What was wrong with her old one? Why was she in prison? Why did she get out? There are also genre considerations to examine. In my and Jack Parker’s upcoming novel Madness Rising, some of the principal characters are robots who possess human minds. This opens up a plethora of questions. How did a human mind get inside a robot? And why? And how did they wind up with human minds? And, again, why? This will probably create, like it did for Jack and me, an elaborate back story. And while all this may sound like a hell of a lot of work, the truth of the matter is that writing science fiction and fantasy (and any fiction, for that matter) really is a hell of a lot of work. But the depth pays off in the end. If a character has depth then the reader will keep reading. And, when you get right down to it, isn’t that the idea?
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