How do you do this? There are two major things to keep in mind.
First, remember that every story is essentially the description of a character struggling to solve a problem. Pick your central character with care. The protagonist must be interesting enough, and have a grievous-enough problem, to make the reader care about her. Often the protagonist is called the viewpoint character, because the story is told from that character's point of view. It is the protagonist's story that you are telling, and she must be strong enough to carry the story.
Select a protagonist (or viewpoint character) who has great strengths and at least one glaring weakness, and then give him a staggering problem. Think of Hamlet, Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark. He was strong, intelligent, handsome, loyal, a natural leader; yet he was indecisive, uncertain of himself, and this was his eventual undoing. If Hamlet had been asked to lead an army or woo a lady or get straight As at the university, he could have done it easily. But Shakespeare gave him a problem that preyed on his weakness, not his strength. This is what every good writer must do. Once you have decided who your protagonist will be and you know his strengths and weaknesses, hit him where it hurts most! Develop an instinct for the jugular. Give your main character a problem that she cannot solve, and then make it as difficult as possible for her to struggle out of her dilemma.
I want to borrow a marvelous technique from William Foster-Harris, who was a fine teacher of writing at the University of Oklahoma. He hit upon the technique of visualizing story characters' problems in the form of a simple equation: Emotion A vs. Emotion B. For example, you might depict Hamlet as a case of revenge vs. self-doubt. Think of the characters you have loved best in the stories you have read. Each of them was torn by conflicting emotions, from the Biblical patriarch Abraham's obedience vs. love, when commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, to the greed vs. loyalty often displayed by my own quixotic character, Sam Gunn.
Whenever you start to think about a character for a story, even a secondary character, try to sum up his or her essential characteristics in this simple formula. Don't let the simplicity of this approach fool you. If you can't capture a character by a straightforward emotion vs. emotion equation, then you haven't thought out the character well enough to begin writing. Of course, for minor characters this isn't necessary. But it certainly is vital for the protagonist, and it can be just as important for the secondary characters, too.
With this approach, you begin to understand that the protagonist's real problem is inside her head. The basic conflict of the story, the mainspring that drives it onward, is an emotional conflict inside the mind of the protagonist. The other conflicts in the story stem from this source, as we will see in more detail in the chapters on conflict.
And never let the protagonist know that she will win! Many stories are written in which a very capable and interesting protagonist faces a monumental set of problems. Then she goes about solving them without ever trembling, doubting herself or even perspiring! The protagonist knows she is safe and will be successful, because the writer knows that the story will end happily. This makes for an unbelievable and boring story. Who is going to worry about the world cracking in half when the heroine doesn't worry about it? Certainly not the reader!
The reader must be hanging on tenterhooks of doubt and suspense up until the very end of the story. Which means that the protagonist must be equally in doubt about the outcome.
And there is always a price to be paid. In a well-crafted story the protagonist cannot win unless he surrenders something of inestimable value to himself. In other words, he has got to lose something, and the reader will be in a fever of anticipation trying to figure out what he is going to lose.
The unruffled, supercool, utterly capable hero is one of the most widespread stereotypes of poor fiction, and especially of poor SF. Like all stereotypes, he makes for a boring and unbelievable story.
When a writer stocks a story with stereotypes — the brilliant but naive scientist; the jut-jawed, two-fisted hero; the beautiful but helpless young woman; the evil, reptilian aliens—the writer is merely signaling to the editor that he hasn't thought very deeply about his story.
Stereotype characters are prefabricated parts. Somebody else created these types long ago, and the new writer is merely borrowing them. They are old, shopworn, and generally made of cardboard. A good writer is like a good architect: Every story he creates should be an original, with characters and settings designed specifically for that individual story. Not somebody else's prefabricated parts.
Writers who go into the prefab business are called hacks, and a new writer who starts as a hack never gets very far. It is bad enough to turn into a hack once you have become established; many popular writers on the best-seller lists have done that.
Look around you. You are surrounded by characters every day. How many stereotypes do you see? A jovial Irishman? A singing Italian? A lovesick teenager? A chalk-dusty schoolteacher? An arrogant policeman? An officious administrator?
Look a little deeper. If you begin to study these people and get to know them, you will find that every one is an individual. Each has a unique personality, a distinct set of problems, habits, joys and fears. These are the characters you should write about. Watch them carefully. Study their strengths and weaknesses. Stress the points that make them different from everyone else, the traits that are uniquely theirs.
Ask yourself what kinds of problems would hurt them the worst. Then get to your keyboard and tell the world about it.
You might think that the people around you are hardly material for a science fiction story. Think again. People are people, and we will carry our human traits and problems to the farthest corners of the universe. Good science fiction stories, like all good fiction, are about people.
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