Writing Science Fiction Requires Character, Too


Have you ever wondered how some of your favorite science fiction characters took shape? Featured Writer Keith Parker breaks character development in the first part of his series.  

Science Fiction Writer

What if you made a time machine out of a Delorean? What if a man traveled to the future and discovered apes were ruling planet Earth? What if a desert planet is dominated by gigantics and worms?

   All of these are great ideas for a science fiction story. Right? Right? Well, um, no. I’m afraid not. If, like me, you grew up immersed in science fiction, fantasy and horror (or, SFFH), then you were probably wowed by concepts just like these. And now that you’re all grown up you have the itch to write your own version of Back to the FuturePlanet of the Apes, or Dune. That is awesome, but please don’t do what I did. When I was a kid I tried to write stories without characters. Big, big mistake.

   You see, the trouble is that these concepts, as I’ve described them, are just that, concepts. They are not stories. They are ideas and abstractions, nuggets that could become stories if you develop good, strong, three-dimensional characters to go with them. I was a freshman in college before I realized this crucial distinction. How weird is that? It turns out I wasn’t in love with concepts, I was in love with concepts that were driven by character.

   All good fiction is going to have a character who wantsomething. He or she wants something really, really badly. In every story, and in every scene in every story, you are going to have to ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the character’s goal?
  • What is the character’s motivation?
  • What is the character’s conflict?

   These famous questions are often referred to as GMC – for Goal, Motivation, Conflict – and to keep your reader turning pages you are going to have to employ them. I know writing is one of the arts, and I know all too well that artists are averse to rules and regulations, but trust me on this one: If you want to write good SFFH, you have to have characters and GMC.

   Let’s say a character wants a widget. If the character doesn’t get the widget the character’s child will die. Or maybe his entire town will die (just to raise the stakes). But the widget is owned by a man in a high castle who wants to keep the widget for the same reason (his children, his castle, etc). Well, our character will do anything… anything to get hold of this widget. And, nontrivially, the man in the high castle will do anything…anything to keep the character from getting hold of it. This is the essence of story. It’s a very simple story, to be sure, but it’s a story nonetheless.

   Does this mean you shouldn’t brainstorm on concepts? Of course not. But you also should not try to shoehorn characters into a story concept for the simple reason that that concept is the most awesome thing since the bee’s knees started slicing bread.

   My recommendation, if you’re high on concept and idea, is to brainstorm on both. We SFFH writers are a privileged lot: We can write about virtually anything. Our characters don’t even have to be human. We can create Marvin the Martian, rodents of unusual size, or a robot named Bender (all of those are copyrighted, by the way). But there have to be characters.  No matter how cool your concept, whether you’ve developed the next Ringworld or TARDIS, you still have to populate that concept.  So, as you sally forth and begin your journey into the lands of creative writing, get yourself into the habit of thinking WWACD: What Would A Character Do? To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it is the first step into a larger world.

   Next time I will continue to harangue you about character, giving you tips on how to develop a character’s characteristics, as it were.  Until then, keep reading… it’s what we writers do 🙂

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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