Category Archives: Science Fiction

Building Strong Characters

One of my goals for writing characters is to develop them to the point that they feel real to the reader. Story can be interesting, but strong characters are what the reader ends up caring about. An excellent character will keep a reader coming back, again and again… and the victories and defeats of those characters are what bring out the most emotion in the reader. Flat characters are a crime that few authors can redeem themselves from. Flat characters are boring, trite, and often cliché. So how does one develop strong characters?

Strong characters feel like real people, sometimes more real that people we might interact with or deal with on a daily basis (trust me, I’ve had roommates with less personality than Master Harper Robinton from Anne McCaffery’s Pern series or Polgara from David Eddings’ Belgariad). What exactly does feeling real entail, though? I define it by several areas. First off, they typically have some defining character traits. Second, strong characters have a history, a place where they come from. Third, they have a morality (or lack thereof) that is coherent and based upon their origins. Fourth, strong characters experience joy, anger, love, and heartache just like real people. Last and most important strong characters make decisions based off of their emotions, experiences, and morality.

Character traits are often what define a character to the reader at first glance. These are often the most memorable things about them, and are often the things that pop into mind. Han Solo was a cocky and self centered rogue (he shot first!). Doc, from ‘Back to the Future’, was absent minded and excitable. Character traits are often established early on, typically in the first time the reader meets the character. It helps to make these traits memorable, as a writer, because this makes the character stand out in their mind more. Traits, however, are just a starting point. They create a character that has some resonance to them, but if that isn’t followed through, the character will seem hollow. A hollow character might be better than a flat one, but it robs the reader of the pay off of emotions as the character fails to grow over time and their experiences.

History and past play a huge role in our lives as people. It should be no less important for characters. As a writer, often I develop characters based off of the setting and their place in it. From the society and their place in it, I can develop what things they will find important, what their areas of expertise and knowledge might be. A character raised in the slums of a dystopian future might well view morality through a different lens than your typical 21st Century American. Beyond there, I typically dive into family (or lack thereof), which is often more important than society, and indeed, can alter things significantly. That same character raised in the slums might be the son of a missionary, who grew up treating the sick and injured…. Suddenly he might not be the callus killer. Throw in some life events, such as the death of his mother or the discovery that he was adopted and his adoptive parents never told him. These experiences change who he is, and will have effects upon how he acts.

Morality is often based upon the experiences of people. Morally upright characters can be vastly complicated or totally boring, whereas morally bankrupt characters can be highly entertaining or nauseating. Part of this is perspective and experience. A character who has a twisted sense of morals because of hi s experiences is understandable. He or she may frustrate a reader, but the moral code they follow will at least make sense. The same follows for a character with a comprehensive and solid code of ethics. What will drive me as a reader absolutely crazy is when there is a character whose morality doesn’t make sense. Characters who are bad because it’s cool or fun or the honorable street urchin are anomalies… and unless an author has a legitimate reason why, they quickly become an irritation. Even worse are characters with no defined or inconsistent morality. A character who will shoot a man in the back in one scene and yet fights an honorable duel in another would be incoherent without some background or logic behind his actions. A writer has a burden to show the reasoning and logic behind the characters’ decisions.

Emotion is the next crucial part of a strong character. A character who doesn’t experience emotion is boring, regardless of how many explosions or how interesting the setting might be. One of the best examples of this is from the movie Red Sonya. The main character’s sister — her only surviving family – dies in her arms in the opening part of the movie. Red Sonya then says something to the effect of “This is terrible, drops her sister’s corpse, and stalks off to exact her revenge. For a close knit family, the death of a family member is a powerfully emotional event. This event was supposed to drive Red Sonya to exact her revenge. This isn’t to say that the character should have fallen to pieces, but some small signs can go a long way to establishing the emotional toll of such an event. An excellent positive example of this is from Saving Private Ryan, where Tom Hank’s character, after the Invasion of Normandy, goes to open a canteen and his hands are shaking so much as to make it nearly impossible. This shows that, despite his calm demeanor, he is barely holding it together, and mostly doing so for his men. A show of such emotional turmoil and yet strength immediately establishes his character as someone who feels real. Later on, when he makes decisions for his men, you can see that emotional turmoil is there behind those decisions, at war with his moral code and his defining character traits.

The last crucial part of strong characters is the decisions they make and, as a writer, ensuring those decisions are in line with the character. A character who makes decisions out of line with his morality, emotions and experiences is not a strong character. A character who has his emotions and experiences at odds with his morality is complex and interesting. Difficult decisions are what life is about, and the important decisions are always complex. An important thing to note here is that sometimes the characters don’t make the right decisions. Sometimes their morality or emotions or experiences drive them to make the wrong decision. In those cases, it is often a flaw, sometimes a tragic flaw. This should not be the norm, in my opinion. Authors like George R. Martin make their living by having characters make bad decisions on an almost constant basis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting reading, but as a reader, it frustrates me to the point that I give up. Good people make bad decisions sometimes, it happens in real life, and it happens in stories. Bad people make good decisions too, sometimes, which I find far more interesting.

The decisions that characters make often define them. These cause new experiences and produce new emotions that in turn, drive character growth and development. And the next step past making a strong character is to make that character grow as he progresses through the story. That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, what is a strong character that you really liked and what were their defining traits?

Renegades, Psychics, and Aliens, oh my…

The current series that has most of my attention is what I call the Mira universe. I’ve got one completed novel and six novellas as well as five or six short stories set in this universe. This is the universe in which the series Renegades is set. It is also the setting for the book The Fallen Race, coming soon to a Kindle near you. Additionally, I’ve got two more novels outlined and nearing completion in the same universe.

What is so interesting about this universe? I’m glad you asked. The Mira universe is set several hundred years in the future. I’ve set most of my stories in times of either great social upheaval or moments where military combat is common… and sometimes both. These are times where humanity, as a race, is at a cusp, the points where the actions of a few can turn the balance and change the fates of millions.

There’s some other fun things about this universe, both as a writer, and I hope, for those of you who read it. There are boundaries to explore, new worlds, distant space, and of course, the boundaries of the human mind and body. Some humans have developed psychic abilities, and they are a powerful minority. Dealing with the fear and uncertainty that normal people feel for those who can alter their perceptions or read their thoughts adds a layer of social dynamics. In addition, the psychics themselves deal with tough questions as they explore what it really is to be human… and if they really qualify. There are renegades and outcasts of all types: mutants, deserters, pirates and mercenaries. These men and women are often the dregs of society. However, the societal upheavals often put them in positions where they are given opportunities to redeem themselves… or to become scourges who write their names in blood across countless worlds.

And then there are the aliens. There are five highly advanced races that humans have encountered in this future. The Chxor are the emotionless and implacable invaders, who seek to supplant humanity as the reigning power. The Ghornath are friendly if temperamental, eight limbed and three meters tall, generous and honorable, and the most relatable to humans. The Wrethe are violent sociopaths, each a militantly individualistic carnivore that views even their own species as prey. The Iodans are alien and almost incomprehensible. And the Balor are the unknown menace, their advanced weapons and technology sweeps aside human defenses and seems determined to make humanity extinct. Exploring these alien races allows me, as a writer, to explore humans better. When confronted by the unknown and the alien, what responses do the characters have… and what similarities do we see in even the most alien of species?

In both the Renegades series and the upcoming novel The Fallen Race, humanity is pinched between two hostile alien races, both of which will bring about the extinction of our race. Human space is fractured, with the various nations embroiled in wars with one another. Technology is on the decline, as aliens and civil wars have destroyed key infrastructure. Piracy is common, indeed, the most powerful pirates are the Shadow Lords, human psychics whose fleets loot entire worlds and drag away the populations to be their thralls. Civilization is on the decline… the barbarians are at the gates.
The Renegades is a series that explores the efforts of a handful. In feudal Japan, they might be called ronin. In the American West, they would be desperadoes or gunslingers. These are men and women and a few aliens who have no home, no place. They are — with some exceptions — bad people who do bad things. Yet they also have the power to change history. They are people with nothing left to lose… and that makes them very dangerous.

The Fallen Race is similar in concept. It follows the crew of the battleship War Shrike, of the Nova Roma Empire. The ship is cut off after an ambush, heavily damaged and left without support. The ship’s captain is considered little better than a traitor by his own nation, despite numerous heroics, and his family’s history lays over his every accomplishment like a burial shroud. Yet they struggle to take a stand, to halt the steady grind of history before it churns everything they know and care about into the mud.

As a writer, both series allow me to explore the setting. The characters are products of their time, often flawed, sometimes tragically so, they are people, and their emotions and experiences feel as real and raw as those of real people. Everyone has a story; from the Pirate Tommy King, whose every good deed goes wrong, to the psychic Kandergain, whose own mother turned her into a weapon. There is a history here, which I love to explore, one that I hope to share with my readers… and I hope it is as fun to you as it is for me.

So, that’s what I’m working on now. Welcome, and feel free to look around. There will be a short story added to the free fiction section in the near future, something of a prequel to the events of Renegades: Deserter’s Redemption. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy.