Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 5

Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.

First Edition cover, 1991.
First Edition cover, 1991.

The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.

See all of my WSF&F chapter reviews.

Chapter 5: You and Your Characters

In this chapter James Patrick Kelly discusses science fiction characters and how to build them. He starts this chapter with a discussion of writing books he’s bought in the past. Then he dives in.

Every writing book has a chapter on characterization. Kelly pokes fun at the jargon that’s grown up around the way we think about writing characters. He makes a list that seems to include all the tropes.1 He’s making light of the seriousness that infects writing books by playing the various characterization terms against each other. Later in the chapter he lists them, so the reader will have a working knowledge of the publishing jargon.

Kelly then makes an important point about writing characters. The writing has to happen first. He uses the example of learning to ski. If someone is yelling corrections at you the entire way down the mountain, you can either ski or listen—not both. You might crash if you get distracted by the yelling. The time for learning is after you’ve made it down the mountain. Then you have a chance to look back and focus on the details.

Writing is no different. The time to worry over your character is once the words are done. In essence, Kelly says get the story done then during the first edit start building up your characters. There’s no characters if there’s no story.

This is also a way to save time during the first draft. As the story grows, so will the characters. Time spent developing them2 could be wasted if they’re in a different role at the end of the story.

Let’s Pretend

Kelly recommends an author should step into the skin of his characters. Pretend to be the character you’re writing. While your life experiences won’t be that of the quantum machine intelligence you’re writing about, they’ll be a guide that prevents it from becoming dumb.

He goes on to caution against writing the types of character that have given science fiction a bad name:

  • The Bore: this is the backstory dump character.
  • The Plot Convert: this is the enemy that jumps on the hero’s bandwagon just in time to save the day (and word count).
  • The Damn Fool: the one that’s just there to get into trouble.

You as a person know better. Your characters should too if you’re doing your job.

This ties directly into Kelly’s next point about motivation. Humans are complex, and are often oversimplified in journalism and fiction. We don’t do things for just one reason. That one reason happens to be the most important of many. Don’t fall into the trap of over-simplifying motivations. Create complex motivations for your characters. Readers respond to this.

To tap into these complex motivations, Kelly recommends shedding the thin skin of civilization and getting in touch with your darker motivations.

Nobody takes seriously a story in which the good guys are all saints and the bad guys are all the spawns of hell. Saints can have their bad days and even monsters have moms. Increasing the level of moral ambiguity usually enhances character’s believability. Only psychopaths do wrong for the fun of it. Most of the evil in the world is perpetuated by people like you and me—the very people you want to characterize.

In short, “Be brave enough to portray your own ugliness in order to create memorable characters.”

He goes on to mention Asimov’s famed lack of characterization. Asimov discussed this in Chapter 3. The traditions of science fiction are centered on the big idea. Asimov could get away with this because he had truly big ideas. His characterization could come in a distant second because of this. Not every author will reach those dizzying heights.

The main character(s) must be believable as people. They are the reader’s guide to the story world. Ideas can be explored and a case made for the unbelievable to be fact. This is a basic tenet of speculative fiction. A richly described world is “inherently less believable than the same world would be if teemed with well-drawn character who are truly citizens of their alternate reality.”

The who’s who

Kelly goes on give a vocabulary list of characterization terms.

  • Antagonist—the “bad guy” that is keeping the hero from his goal. This “guy” can be male3, female4, both5, or neither6.
  • Cardboard Character—the boring stereotype. Can be replaced with a paper cut-out and no one would know.
  • Confidant—a sounding board for the main character. The conversations reveal personality.
  • Developing Character—one that learns and changes over the course of the story.
  • Flat Character—one that is one-dimensional in wants and needs, and can be summed up in one sentence. But is not a stereotype (cardboard).7
  • Foil—a contrast to the main character. Used to reveal personality by showing the opposite.
  • Narrator—the one who is telling the story.
  • Protagonist—the hero without whom there would be no story.
  • Round Character—one who is complex and capable of surprising the reader.
  • Spear Carrier—bodies needed to fill out the story that are rarely named.
  • Static Character—one that doesn’t change in response to the events of the story.
  • Stock Character—one with a stereotyped role, such as the dashing starship captain, and will be cardboard if not developed.
  • Sympathetic Character—one that the reader can identify with.
  • Unsympathetic Character—one that makes the reader uncomfortable but not necessarily unlikable.
  • Viewpoint Character—The “voice” of the book.

After that list, Kelly ends with a deconstruction of the “Show, don’t tell” mantra.

Not everything must be shown. The amount that is shown becomes directly proportional to the construction of the character. There simply isn’t enough room to explain the origin of every character in a story. This makes “telling” necessary. Telling can even be a way to drop hints that don’t main it into the main storyline.

Kelly has delivered a superb short-course on characterization in this chapter. Even now, almost 25 years later, his advice still stands.


  1. While not a “real” trope, the way characterization is written about has become its own little world.
  2. I’m referring to characters other than main ones. For example: is Engineer #2’s background in hydroponics on the family’s Martian milk-beetle farm really needed if she winds up getting transfered to the starship that’s destoryed in the middle of act 2?
  3. The usual.
  4. The slightly less usual.
  5. The unusual.
  6. In the “not a person” sense. Like a force of nature.
  7. Kelly’s example is Gollum. He only wants the One Ring. Flat, but not cardboard.