On Sci-Fi Character Development

 

 

On Character Development

by Dr. George H. Elder

 

          During my Master’s work, I had a fiction writing teacher who insisted, “If readers aren’t given reasons to care about the characters, don’t bother writing the story.” We delved into what makes characters compelling, with some noting that many Sci-Fi protagonists and antiheroes are fantastic beings. So is it their novelty and uniqueness that draws us in, such as the insect-like creatures in Alien, or the extraordinary abilities of the superheroes we see in X-men, Fantastic Four, and Batman?  We debated the issue, and finally decided that the unusual can attract us, but it is less likely to make us care in and of itself.

          The general conclusion was that we care about characters we can identify with in one way or another, and the best way to achieve that end is to reveal details about the main actor’s life and personality that compel us to give a damn. Now these revelations need not be frontloaded, but enough of the character’s history can be revealed early on to allow us to understand and identify with some of his or her motivations and tendencies. Subsequent episodes and action sequences give us the opportunity to slowly reveal more about the character, but it is just as important for these scenes to allow growth and change as the story unfolds.

          As one of my instructors put it, “If a character is the same at the end of a book as he was in the beginning, how the hell did he avoid being changed by events? And if the events aren’t important enough to have changed someone, why would anyone want to read about them?” As I recalled, this sparked a very lively debate. Many of us insisted that some archetypes should remain fixed, such as Captain Ahab or Hannibal Lecter. It is their inveterate compulsion that draws us into their stories. Others speculated that we can have both fixed and dynamic characters at play within the same tale, for such are the ways of life.

          These issues confronted me when I contemplated how the four main characters of Genesis would be portrayed, these being Kara, Anita, Ezra, and Ral. Ral is a particularly interesting case, because he is an AI unit introduced early on as having a rather schematic holographic form that has a sophisticated logicoemotional processing capacity and personality. In many cases, even when an AI is given emotions, we don’t see a whole lot of radical changes taking place in terms of character development.

          I decided to systematically evolve Ral’s programming and then his physical abilities, resulting in him finally being give a robotic life-like form of great power. With these changes came alterations in Ral’s behavior, not all of which are positive. The critical element is that AI beings allow the Sci-Fi writer to explore character development in ways that can match or exceed what is possible with biological characters. Ral’s case is rather tragic, because an altruistic and selfless act leads to the loss of what defined him as an individual, with an accompanying loss of psychological stability and perspective.

          Thus far, most readers find Kara the most compelling of all the main characters. She was thrown out of her stone-age tribe for being imperfect in form. She has a birthmark on her scalp that her mother concealed for years—and who was butchered for having done so. Here we have a traumatized and guilt-ridden heroine, but one who is still imbued with the notion that she is a Labateen, the only true and chosen people of God. Furthermore, she is a very reactionary warrior and will use deadly force at a whim. We see some of this in the Lara Croft character, although she is far more sophisticated than Kara. In terms of characters who are more like Kara, perhaps one of the closest is the Leela companion (Louise Jameson) who appeared on the Dr. Who series with the redoubtable Tom Baker from 1977-1978.    

          Kara is convinced her tribe’s legends represents the truth of all things, but her faith slowly breaks down while she learns more about her own nature and experiences the machinations of the ongoing dissolution of the universe. She grows in power and knowledge, for she was genetically designed to become akin to the Seeker that the crew is searching for. As her abilities increase, however, her faith and determination wanes. She changes in countless ways, but remains haunted by guilt and remorse over the death of her mother. She seeks a moment of meaning, a reason to have existed at all. From the feedback, readers seem to care deeply about her fate.  

          Anita is the most physically and intellectually able of the crew, however, she is also imbued with a philosophy that demands she not harm another living creature. Indeed, she would rather die than kill. Her pairing with Kara is interesting because of their opposing natures; where Kara is prone to attack, Anita, who is much more physically able, is determined to preserve life. Over time, their behaviors influence one another, with Anita becoming more warrior-like while Kara learns some small degree of restraint.

          The changing of Anita’s ideals was an interesting area to examine, and her goal of helping to reignite another universal cycle finally overcomes her learned reluctance to engage in the sometimes-violent struggles that are needed to make this happen. In this respect, she is also influenced by the nature of her responsibilities as the mission commander to accept a more pragmatic attitude. One consistent aspect of her character is her determination, and without that, the crew would have no chance.

          Ezra appears to be a coward at first, and has neither the conviction of Anita nor spirit of Kara. He is small and weak, and has also been devastated by radiation sickness that eventually requires the implantation of several artificial organs. Yet he is also a family man, and his wife and children anchor him in a way, acting as a compelling impetus to complete the mission. Moreover, he develops the courage to defy Kara and Anita on occasion, and joins with Kara in trying to retrain Ral’s growing arrogance and negativity.

          His life ebbs as the mission proceeds, but he opts to keep going, eschewing a chance to return to his family and spend the rest of his life with them. In many ways, Ezra becomes a transcendent figure, someone who overcomes fear, anxiety, and growing disability to become a critical element in the mission.

          Thus, there is a lot of growth and change in all the characters of Genesis, and I hope this helps readers identify with various aspects of their natures. There have been some surprises for me, and especially the concern shown for the welfare of Kara. When first released, books one and two of Genesis were well in advance of book three, and I was excoriated for having left Kara’s fate up in the air at the end of book two. I had no control over this, because it was a publishing concern, but the fact people cared enough to complain was encouraging. After all, caring about the characters is a large part of what makes a story compelling.     

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