It’s so very tempting to load up characters in speculative fiction with big heaps of destiny, world-shaking powers/magic/technology and quests that will make the foundations of the world(s) tremble. And you know what? That’s very cool, and can make for great stories.
But when you’re ready to think about character in speculative fiction, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: What’s really necessary here?
It seems Joseph Campbell’s monomyth often pervades speculative fiction, to the point where being the Chosen One in some great quest is almost de rigueur. Just look at Harry Potter, for example, or Luke Skywalker. From humble means, these heroes gain in power and knowledge, until they can take on the Greatest Evil Ever and prevail.
Yet some of the best speculative fiction can come from heroes who aren’t busy “leveling up” as if they were playing World of Warcraft. Yes, we all want to identify with the underdog who achieves great power and can right the wrongs of decades or centuries. But that’s just one way of doing it.
When I approached my characters in The Daedalus Incident, I opted against using the Chosen One trope. Sure, they could discover great power and go toe-to-toe with the bad guy using extreme technology or a hard-won mastery of the alchemical arts.
Or they could just use their wits and hope for the best. That, to me, was far more appealing.
So while The Daedalus Incident includes alchemy, high technology, evil aliens and world-shaking plots, my characters are simply…people. Normal people, in fact. They aren’t particularly skilled in magic or technology. They’re decent in combat but aren’t super-soldiers. They’re people drawn together out of a sense of duty and honor, seeking to right the wrongs of decades or centuries without a huge dose of mystic prowess or a Really Big Gun.
Instead of focusing solely on the characters’ relationship to the setting, and ticking off a checklist of things to be acquired or skills to be burnished, I focused on why they were the way they were, and how they might grow as individuals in the course of the events in the book.
In other words, I tried to treat them like literary characters, not video-game avatars.
That isn’t to say that you can’t go the way of the monomyth. We like Harry and Luke for a reason, after all. We see ourselves in them. But that isn’t just because we’re there for wish-fulfillment. Sure, we all want a magic wand or a lightsaber. But we care because there’s real character in there, and we identify with the human inside, not with magic or the Force.
My humble advice on character development in speculative fiction is pretty simple: Develop characters on an individual basis. Make them interesting people. Yes, you want them to be fully integrated into the amazing settings you’ve created, but in the end, stories are about relatable people. Relying too much on the setting – using the setting itself in lieu of real character development – makes your characters flat.
Even if you ascribe to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the hero is the one making the journey – not the setting. If you remember that, you have a stronger chance of creating characters memorable for their internal struggle, not for their cool gear and superpowers.
(c) Michael J Martinez