How Do You Grow Characters?

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Don’t miss award-winning Featured Writer Keith Parker’s latest installment on character development in sci-fi and fantasy writing.

Character Growth

Continuing with my thoughts on creating strong characters for science fiction and fantasy novels, one of the key elements often missing is the character arc.  I forget where I first read this, but there is a school of thought that one of the icons of our genre, Indiana Jones, is not actually a character at all. He’s cool, to be sure, with his whip and way with women, but he does not change. And for a character to really be memorable and likable, he needs to change.  It’s a shame Indy does not because if anybody should be susceptible to change… you get the idea… this is a man who discovered the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. It’s a tad hard to go about your daily routine after those kinds of experiences.

So, how do you create character growth? Easy: Conflict. Every time your character wants to do something… and I mean, every time… you should put an obstacle in his path.

Suppose your character (let’s call him Winton) absolutely, positively has to get his meaty hands on the elusive Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. If you’re writing a science fiction story you can’t have Winton simply go down to the local hardware store and buy one. That’d be way too easy.

What do you, as the writer, do?  You put an obstacle in his path. Let’s say there’s an obstinate Martian who has the only one available. But Winton can’t find the Martian.

Winton then goes and asks the Thark standing on the corner. Unfortunately the Thark is hung over, and can only remember that the modulator is on the fireplace mantel (Mars is cold) of the Martian’s home.

So what’s the problem now? Winton checks his handy-dandy Google map app and… discovers the Martian Internet is down.

Er, okay… ol’ Winton needs to get assistance the old-fashioned way: ask for directions. The only person who can help is a repairman (call him Jack) who is helpful but a tad schizophrenic, and Winton does not know whether he can trust him.

Winton decides to call on the mysterious Martian woman Ylla, but it turns out she’s too heartbroken to offer any tangible advice.  All she knows is that the house is on Rover Opportunity trail.

Winton thinks he knows where this famous path is, and sets out on his journey only to be hammered by a Martian sandstorm and driven underground where he encounters hungry rock snakes, which promptly attack him and…

Do you get the picture? Our hero Winton is frustrated at every turn. Winton must somehow find the strength – physical, emotional, intellectual – to hurdle these obstacles. Every time he clears a hurdle his character changes. Maybe he changes a little, maybe he changes a lot. Or maybe he doesn’t change at all, but he tries to. This process, methinks, is the best way to pull your readers into the story. So to answer this post’s title question, you don’t grow characters with water, and you don’t grow them with love. The way you grow characters is to bitch-slap them and make them come back for more.

Keith Parker is a science fiction novelist, short story writer, and blogger, who’s won awards you’ve probably never heard of, like the 2004 “Easy Way to Write Competition” or the WordPress.com “Freshly Pressed Award” for November 12th, 2012. He lives in Huntsville with his family, and works at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

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About author

Keith Parker

Keith Parker is a traditionally published science fiction and fantasy writer, history geek, college football fan, and long-time collector of games and shiny objects. You can find him at NASA unless he has transmogrified himself into an elephant.

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