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Science Fiction Writing: Character Building In Radically Different Worlds

Artwork for a science fiction world concept - Science Fiction Writing: Character Building In Radically Different Worlds

In science fiction writing, the process of character building for sci-fi stories set in radically different worlds is a demanding process.

Science fiction demands particular care from prospective authors. In science fiction writing, character building done correctly can give the story wings, or, if done clumsily or incompletely, drag down a story with a great universe and premises. In this article, I’ll take a closer look at how to construct characters in science fiction stories where the premises are drastically different from the reality we’re used to.

First, I’ll discuss how to frame a character in the context of the universe that you have created that the character lives in. Next, I’ll explain how to make sure that the character has a history that is logical and features which are logical, given the premises that we defined in the first part. Finally, I’ll warn you about anthropomorphizing and creating culturally-blind characters. If you decide to buck my advice, don’t worry: many a science fiction story has successfully depicted characters in wild circumstances.

Science Fiction Writing – What is Your Universe, What are Your Premises, and What is the Arc of the Story?

Depending on how you decide to write your story, you may decide to make a universe that the story takes place in before you make any of the characters. This is totally fine, provided that the characters you make and the universe you make remain consistent with each other throughout the story. Note that I didn’t say that at the point of character construction the character has to be consistent with the universe, as you can change either at any point in the writing process without the reader ever knowing. The main point here is to make sure that the piece you end up putting forth is internally consistent. In service of that, you should be willing to be flexible with the universe you’re writing as well as the character you’re making.
Being internally consistent is much easier if you can explicitly write down the premises of your universe which are relevant to your story. Is the universe you are building centered around all sentient beings living in cloud cities? Write that down. Do some animals talk? Add it to the list. Make an effort to spell out for yourself the major points where your universe departs from reality as we know it. Especially for universes that are drastically different, this is the single most important step to ensuring that your character building has sensible results. It’s very difficult to build a character who lives in a certain universe if you can’t say exactly what that universe contains.

Define the Arc of the Story

Once you have an understanding of what is in the universe you’re writing about, it’s time to build a sketch of the story arc. It can be extremely threadbare at this point, so long as you can identify points of interaction between the arc of the story and the character that you are building. If the character isn’t present in certain scenes, don’t worry about that part of the story arc. If your character is instrumental in certain parts, be sure to make note of how you envision their role.

The idea here is that you are finding variables of an equation which you will use to think about how the character will behave or what traits the character has.  If you don’t know what your character is going to look like at the various points where they are involved with the main arc of the story, that’s fine, just make note of the details which you will soon fill in. Just like a real equation, of the variables “forward plot movement”, “character interaction with the plot”, and “premises of universe”, you only need to know the identity of two in order to think about how the third will look. In science fiction writing, it is frequently expedient and effective to adjust the other two variables in light of the third, or vice versa.

In our first step, you guaranteed that you will at least have an idea of what the universe premises will look like. In this step, we tried to identify where the plot would move forward in the arc of the story, and how. All that is left to do is figuring out the character’s interaction with the plot. To do that, we need to actually develop the character. Make no mistake, this is the meat.

In Star Trek, by the 24th Century, the Federation has evolved beyond money. People do things not for the acquisition of belongings or wealth, but for the betterment of themselves and others.

But why? Are the theorized economics of the United Federation of Planets based on the naïve belief that in the future everyone will become an altruistic communist? Because the likelihood of that happening [Click here to read more…]

Science Fiction Writing – What is This Character’s Life Story? Does the Idea of a Life Story Even Apply?

There are many methods to character building in fiction, but I like to use the “life story” method. Look at your list of premises of the universe. Make an outline of your character’s life history leading up to the point of time described in the arc of the story, making sure for each point of the outline to mentally check if it makes sense given the premises you have stated. Be sure to identify points of discrepancy, and explain or change them.

In a universe where there is no education system, it doesn’t make sense if your character went to college, but clearly he still gained information somehow–but how? Is information telepathically transmitted? Or is the character merely extremely perceptive due to his implants? Make sure that the character is consistent with the universe. This step can be very difficult if your universe is extremely challenging, and so it requires a lot of attention. Be sure to write everything down into the outline for the character, as well as the outline for the universe–frequently the way that one character copes with his universe is useful for understanding the universe itself for the author as well as the reader.

After the Character Outline

A good way to think of this step is the process of figuring out how the character goes about their everyday life. If the universe you built contains servitor robots which cater to the character’s every need, it will probably change his perspective on “needing things” in general, perhaps to the point of either exaggerating or quashing the trait of neediness in people that share your character’s circumstances. While you can choose to ignore inferences and logical chains of this sort, your story will be much more richly detailed and believable if you can explicitly explain, insinuate, or allude to idiosyncrasies compared to our reality. These interactions between characters and the universe are frequently troves of potential sub-plots and themes, if the author decides to delve a little bit deeper.

Science Fiction Writing – Why Does Your Character Do This Quirky Thing, and Should the Reader Find Out?

One of the challenges with writing radically different universes is that many of the “normal” flavor text that you could add may not apply. If your character checks the charge level on his portal gun, does the reader need to know why he did so, or is it stated elsewhere that the portals will become less stable as the charge of his gun is drained? Is there any benefit to leaving the instability issue as unstated until a later time, or perhaps permanently? Be sure to understand how the character’s knowledge of the universe that he lives in impacts his habits, actions, and decisions. It’s probably a bit too much work to go through every single action that your character performs, but it helps to have an internal unstated methodology for developing the character.

In the same vein, the readers probably will need a bit of help to understand the less-obvious actions of the character, if the universe is extremely different. It would indeed be quite confusing if you repeatedly wrote that the character is always moistening his skin if the audience did not understand that it is necessary for him to avoid desiccation. The difficulty here is finding the proper way of delivering information. It would be strange for the character to explain to others of his species why he is performing a life-critical action for that species. Informal narration of detail is typically a good route, as it reduces the need for dialogue as scaffolding to deliver context.

To summarize, ensure that each character’s quirks have a purpose, and that the readers will either be able to understand that purpose to the level you as the author want them to. Be selective about what to explain to the reader, as endless descriptive details detract from forward plot movement.

Science Fiction Writing – Your Slime-mold Alien Character Probably Doesn’t Scratch His Head When He’s Confused

As a reflection of the issue of positive character quirks is the issue of negative character quirks. By that I mean understanding what your character does not do, think, or exhibit given who that character is. Aliens won’t have human body language, and if they do, you need an explanation for it. It may help to make an outline of points of contrast between your character and the standard human experience.
Once again, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know all of this information, it’s just up to you to make sure that nothing is out of order. For the shorter and more airy of sci fi stories, avoiding extensive exposition is your friend. The longer you add flavor text to your bizarre character, the more work that you have to do to make sure that they are not exhibiting traits that clash with what has already been established to the reader.

Identify the Missing Links

Finding out what is “missing” from your character relative to the normal human experience is often much harder than finding out what is starkly affirmatively different. Making lists won’t help you so much here, but the good news is that you don’t need to worry about it unless you’re interested in making it into a plot point. You don’t need to discuss why your slime mold alien character doesn’t eat hamburgers unless you would like to have a scene where everyone is eating a hamburger. Echoing the equation we discussed earlier, frequently it is useful to change the variables of character, plot, and universe simultaneously.
Be intentional about which aspects of each you choose to bring out in any given scene; deciding to focus exposition on the universe would not be appropriate in a scene that is meant to be emotional. If your character is being developed further in the course of a scene, stay focused on the character and let any necessary details about the universe flow through them. As usual, don’t overdo it beyond the point the reader needs to understand what is going on.

This one is for all you aspiring science fiction writers out there. Or science non-fiction writers. Or just writers. But mainly the first one. If you’re anything like me, you probably keep a mental list (a quite extensive one) of the reasons that you’ll never be the next well-known author whose amazing science fiction novel sells a million copies and gets optioned for a Hollywood blockbuster. Parts of that list read like You’re not creative enough. You suck at telling stories [Click here to read more…]

Science Fiction Writing – A Word on Idioms and Language

On the note of adapting expressions to the universe that you are writing in, I will have to discuss a few rather technical points regarding idioms and dialogue. It ain’t pretty, but especially when writing dialogue involving really out-there characters, most of the language that we regularly use will be incorrect–as an aside, the line that I just wrote has a number of idiomatic statements that an alien probably wouldn’t use unless they were fluent in English, so try to spot them as an exercise. I say incorrect, because without some universe development on your part, the reader will be able to identify that the bizarre character was written by a human author. This is a catastrophe! An admission of human authorship, while implied by the name at the front of the story, is to be avoided within the content of the story as much as possible. Especially if your story is meant to be conceptually difficult or outside of the box, the fourth wall must remain intact from the perspective of the readers as well as the author.

Aliens Have Poets Too

Being extremely studious with your language during dialogue and narration from the perspective of a very alien character is quite difficult. Unfortunately, the tendency of most authors is to fall back to extremely factual and scientific-sounding language when confronted with the difficulty of addressing extremely alien characters. While this may make sense if the narrator or character is meant to be a computer or scientist, it is a bit uncreative in most cases, and leads to the stiff dialogue that many campy sci-fi media are known for.

Many a science fiction writer has eased over the difficulty of alien language by adding in features to the universe rather than struggle through difficult diction. This is just fine! Don’t be afraid to add in a universal translator badge or something similar if you don’t want to spend time developing alien prose. If you do decide to delve into the details, there’s a lot of cool stuff to play with.

Language of your character is an issue which the best science fiction authors make use of. Having fun with your narration or dialogue is a bit dangerous, but can be immensely useful for character and universe building if approached correctly. As mentioned before regarding universe building, it’s perfectly fine to have your character allude to the beauty of Phlerboes, provided that the reader can either infer from the context that his species considers Phlerboes to be beautiful or perhaps infer that the character’s impression of beauty is discordant with his compatriots. The language that you use to paint the picture doesn’t have to be slick, so long as the reader reliably gets the impression that the character alluding to the beauty of Phlerboes is witty, coarse, hamfisted, or whatever else.

Try not to overwhelm the reader with context, however. Believe it or not, if a reader reads about your character praising the Phlerboes for their beauty, they don’t need you to continue on with an in depth description of the bodacious Phlerboes in that very section. If there is some specific term in the character’s native tongue that it would be fruitful for the reader to know, be sure to provide a translation, either formally within dialogue or informally in the narration. In terms of practical steps to take to make sure this all works together smoothly, there are a few.

Within your character outline, add a note about the character’s relation to English, if any. Add another note about their diction and use of language. Does the media which the character communicates in change the character’s diction? Are there any details from the universe premises which you can reference or change in order to have the character’s communications make more sense conceptually? Is the language and phraseology of the character going to be a point of exposition, or will it be de-emphasized so as to avoid the need for more details? Making these decisions early on can save a big headache later when you are trying to unravel inconsistencies with the way the character relates to the rest of the universe and the other characters.

Many people will be familiar with the science fiction movie Gattaca, the heavily emotional film which planted the seeds for a societal discussion of technological eugenics. With the dawn of sophisticated genetic engineering technology, the time has come to answer the questions that Gattaca posed. Like most of the greatest questions about the proper use and limits of technology, regular citizens will have to work in conjunction with their governments to determine what is acceptable. Gattaca takes place in a hypothetical near-future [Click here to read more…]

Science Fiction Writing – Putting It All Together

You’re probably exhausted after building an entire universe, life story, body language, and mode of communication, all for one character. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is now here. Using the outlines built for the universe, story arc, and character, it’s time to start writing. Make sure that each major point of plot movement jives with the vision you have of the character, and vice versa. Remember to be careful about which details and how many details you provide to the reader, as sparseness can lend an air of mystery or alienation, both of which are critical sensations that a science fiction author should master the eliciting of.

For the purposes of character development as it concerns the readers, your task as an author is to re-create the detailed outline of your character within your prose. Pacing is up to you, but a very common formula is to first hand the reader a basic sketch of your character to get them acquainted, then develop a couple of details from your character’s outline into prose during each step forward in the plot. This leaves the reader with enough information at the start of the story to feed their imagination without confusion while still leaving plenty of room for excursions deeper into the character early on.

Eyes on the Prize

Convincing science fiction writing is more challenging than writing typical fiction or prose. When the going gets tough, refer back to your outline and think about if the section you’re having difficulty with is necessary for the development of the plot or character. Very frequently, conceptual problems can be avoided all together with a little re-jiggering of the character or universe. Remember, it’s your character, and your universe, so everything is fluid. When you change something to accommodate something else, be sure to update the appropriate outline so you can keep track of the change. It also helps to scan the rest of your story to resolve any inconsistencies with your new direction. For longer stories, you may want to be a bit hesitant before changing your facts around.

Revision of your character is going to be necessary as your story develops. Don’t get too attached to any one aspect of your character, as it’s typically easier to change a character than to change a universe. If you find yourself struggling for details, you can probably afford some spare exposition about one of the aspects in your character’s outline. If two characters are very similar, it may be worth combining them into one to reduce the cognitive load on the reader. Keep writing, and keep thinking about what makes sense given the premises that you laid out at the start.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Uncanny Knack

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3 Responses

  1. Pingback : This a great little piece on Character Construction in Sci-fi. – chasingkerouacblog

  2. Sounds as though the universe is a bit more important to you than the characters–or are you conveying that, as in our own universe, certain laws cannot be broken without wrecking everything? Shared on my FB page. Good stuff here.

    1. My point is that characters are actually just threads within the fabric of a single universe.

      Typically this means that they have to radically conform to the rest of the fabric. There are exceptions to conformity, which the writer must handle very carefully.

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