March 30, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 6

In the previous five posts, I've laid out how to create a believable character and walked through the creation of a fictional character of my own, Captain Anslo Garrick of the Alliance Space Fleet starship Prospect.  In the most-recent post last Monday, I discussed how author Max Drake recommends writing fictional scenes from the pivotal moments of the character's life.  These might take the form of actual fictional scenes, or they could be done as interviews with the character.  I'll show a little of both here.

The pivotal moments I'll choose to illustrate are:
  • A debriefing of Garrick after a somewhat disastrous test flight, where he had to jerry-rig the controls to get the spacecraft back to Earth.
  • The first mission of the Prospect, which was supposed to be a simple sample-gathering expedition.  This mission led to the death of Garrick's best friend Carl Martin.
I identified some other moments in the previous article, but won't be writing those and including them in this post.

The Debriefing

Something felt different about this debriefing.  Paul had crashed test craft before, and he'd been through a debrief for all of them.  Usually, a handful of engineers and officers sat behind a table and asked the standard litany of questions.  How had the craft performed?  Were there indications of a problem before it crashed?  How could he have prevented the crash?  What changes in the craft might have prevented the problem or made it easier to touch down safely?  That sort of thing.  The gist of it was that they wanted so know what went wrong, when, and what could be done about it in the future.  They were pretty informal, and had a cooperative air about them.

Not this time.  They told Paul to put on his dress uniform, and review his flight recorder data.  That was new.  He felt more like he was headed to a court martial than a debriefing.  Like he was about to see his career go belly up.  He swallowed the lump in his throat.

A woman in a form-fitting blue business suit opened the door.

"They're ready for you now, Commander Garrick."

Paul took a deep breath and sighed, quickly checking his uniform for stray dirt or hair, and stepped into the room.

Admiral Boxleitner pointed at the chair in front of the assembled group.  "Have a seat, Commander."

Paul nodded, his shoes making a clop clop noise on the hard stone floor that echoed through the room.  He scanned the faces behind the table.  He recognized a few of them as engineers on the project.  The others looked familiar, but he couldn't place them.

"Recorder," Admiral Boxleitner said, brushing the hair away from her forehead, "This debriefing has begun.  Admiral Laura Boxleitner facilitating.  Computer, take attendance."

The computer voice noted the name and title of all those present in the room. When the computer got to the people he thought looked familiar, he felt a slight chill.  They were all members of the Earth Government Council.  They looked familiar because he'd seen them in news reports.  What the hell were they doing here at a test flight crash debriefing?

"Paul, I can see by the look on your face that we're making you a little nervous.  Let me put you at ease.  You're not on trial here, and no one is accusing you of doing anything wrong," Boxleitner said.

"Thank you, Admiral.  I take it there's no firing squad waiting outside, then?"

"No," she laughed.  "Please tell us about the test flight you just returned from.  Computer, append all non-classified records of the test flight to the meeting minutes."

"Yes, Admiral," Paul said, and began telling the story.

He'd been assigned to take a small four-man scout ship out alone.  There were concerns about the control system, and some worries that recent changes to the low-speed propulsion system might make the craft unstable in an atmosphere.  He'd lauched it into FTL mode when suddenly a shower of sparks came from the control panel.  The ship jerked out of FTL and threw him to the bulkhead, knocking him unconscious.  When he came to, the air was burning hot.  He staggered to the instrument panel and saw that the craft was falling into the atmosphere of a planet.  The controls were mostly unresponsive, but he did the best he could to set it own softly on the planet's surface.  Softly, in this case, meant that the ship took only minimal damage.

Fortunately, the planet he'd crashed on had a breathable atmosphere.  When the hull had cooled down enough that he could touch it, he opened the airlock and stepped outside to survey the damage.  The hull seemed intact and the engines looked none the worse for wear.  It might even be flown again.  He went back inside and tried to activate the communication system, then the distress beacon.  Nothing seemed to be working.  Was it the malfunction in space?  The heat of entry into the planet's atmosphere?  The impact of the landing?  A combination of all that?  He didn't know.

"Excuse me, Commander.  A question for the engineering team.  Do we know what happened to the controls on the Scouter?"

The young engineer cleared his throat.  "Yes, Senator Chalmers.  One of the power conduits wasn't built to spec.  It overloaded under the drain of FTL travel and caused a short-circuit, burning out the entire control surface."

"Then, there's no way this crash was Commander Garrick's fault?"

"None, sir.  It's amazing he's not still stranded there, sir."

"Why is that?"

"Well, I helped design that control system and I don't know if I could have flown the craft the way he did."

Chalmers turned from the engineer to Garrick.  "Commander, how DID you get the craft back?"

"Well, sir, I know that any aircraft or spacecraft control system is about electrical or optical signals coming from the cockpit controls out to the sensors, control surfaces, and so forth.  The computer survived the crash.  I used the schematics to get some idea of what wires and fiber-optic lines reached out to what controls.  Then I started looking for other controls that sent the same kind of signals."

The senator raised an eyebrow.  "I don't understand."

"Think of it like this.  Imagine you're in your kitchen at home and you go to flip on the lights.  The switch breaks off into your hand.  You want the lights on, and your miles from an electrician.  All that switch really does is connect two wires together.  You could put on some rubber gloves, tie those wires together, and the lights would come on."

"But you can't fly a spaceship by tying wires together, Commander."

"Exactly.  But when I looked around the cockpit, I found other controls that would work.  Kind of like swapping out that broken kitchen light switch for the one that turns on the garbage disposal.  Same switch, works the same way.  All I had to do was wire similar controls to the things I needed in order to fly the ship.  I wired the heating controls to the throttle lines, the steering lines to light dimmers, that kind of thing.  Eventually, I had enough of the controls working that I could lift off.  Once I was in space, I had the computer set a course back for Earth.  Then I actually did tie a couple of wires together.  A cargo ship spotted me, and the fleet sent a rescue ship."

The senator's mouth hung open, his face blank.  "No further questions."

The admiral smiled, "Now you see why we need this guy out there, Ben.  He's fearless, ingenious, resourceful."

Chalmers composed himself, and cleared his throat.  "Yes, yes."

"Pardon me, admiral," Paul said, swallowing.

She turned to face him.  "Yes, Commander?"

"What did you mean when you said you need me 'out there'?  Out where?"  His forehead wrinkled, and he shifted a bit in the uncomfortable chair.

She smiled.  "I'm glad you asked.  The reason Senator Chalmers and the others are here is to assess your fitness for command of the Alliance Starship Prospect.  I think you've convinced them that you're the man for the job.  We need commanders who can think on their feet, who don't crack under pressure, and do what it takes to survive."

The Senator and his aides nodded. "I've seen enough, Laura.  You're right.  I've gotta get back to DC for a meeting int the morning."

He stood, and his aides did too. He shook the Admiral's hand, then walked around the table and over to Garrick's chair.  "Hell of a story, Garrick."

He shook Paul's hand and left the room, aides following close behind.  The admiral turned to the engineers and nodded.  One of them opened his mouth, as though he intended to ask a question.  The admiral shook her head.  He bowed his head slightly, picked up his tab and walked out.  Garrick and the admiral were alone.  When the door clicked shut, she spoke.

"You look confused, Paul."  She smiled at him, as if to say it wasn't such a big deal.

"Frankly, admiral--"

"Laura, while we're alone."

"Laura, what just happened?  I thought I was about to be court-martialed for messing up the controls on that ship."

She laughed, then her face flushed.  "I'm sorry, Paul.  I asked you to put on the dress grays because I wanted to be sure you made a good impression on Senator Chalmers.  I need his approval to get you the promotion, and to put you in the captain's chair on the Prospect."

"I was planning to retire in a few months.  I've tempted fate too many times."

The smile vanished.  "Retire?  No.  I've called in too many favors to get you promoted to Captain, and--"


"Yes.  By the regs, I can't put you in charge of the Prospect unless you hold the rank of Captain.  As of right now, you do."  He sat motionless as she walked around the table, took out a silver collar signifying Garrick's new rank of Captain, and replaced his Commander collar.

"I don't know what to say, Laura.  Thank you?"

She smiled.  "Close.  Say yes.  Tell me you'll do it."

Her eyes locked onto his and wouldn't let go.


"No, not 'but'.  Tell me yes.  Look, Paul, I need you to do this.  Whether the rest of the joint chiefs know it, they need you to do it, too.  I'll make you a deal.  Give me four years on the Prospect.  After that, you want out of the fleet, you're out.  Hell, I'll throw you a retirement party they'll talk about twenty years from now.  I'll even pull strings to get your rank bumped up for the pension."

Paul's mind began to evaluate the options. If he retired in a few months like he'd planned, he'd probably lose the promotion.  He'd also tick off the admiral, so he'd probably spend those months scrubbing latrines with a toothbrush.  If he took the promotion and the job, he'd have to postpone his retirement a few years.  On the other hand, retiring a couple of ranks higher would put his retirement pension close to his salary now.  How bad could it be out there, compared with flying experimental ships that shorted out and crash landed?

"Alright, Laura.  Four years.  Don't ask for a fifth.  And you'd better make good on that pension."

She held out her hand.  "I will.  Congratulations, Captain Garrick.  The Prospect is yours.  Don't scratch the paint."

March 23, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 5

In the four previous posts, we've talked about what makes a good character and begun to develop the fictional character Captain Anslo Garrick of the Alliance starship Prospect.  Today, we'll develop Garrick's Inner Demons and Conflicts, see if we've got the right elements to have a believable, likable character, and discuss the next steps in developing him.

Garrick's Inner Demons and Conflicts

Already, we've established some of Garrick's inner demons and conflicts:

  • He's a risk taker, in a fleet of officers who are being actively discouraged from taking risks.
  • He's the last of his family line unless he marries and has children.
  • He's in command of the Prospect, despite a personal wish to retire and settle down.  He's questioning Admiral Boxleitner's decision to put him here, and his own decision to accept it.
  • He's just indirectly caused the death of his best friend..  
  • He wonders if all those times he survived difficulties as a test pilot has used up all his luck.
  • The friend who died was also the last of his family line.  He doesn't want to be responsible for doing that to anyone else.
  • Garrick wanted to retire, not explore space.  He's questioning whether the benefits of space exploration are worth the cost in lives.
  • Garrick believes in the Alliance as a concept, and in the Alliance Council leadership, but still has some distrust of politicians and the Earth government.
  • He's an honest man, in a world where not everyone is honest.

This is probably more than enough emotional and mental baggage for Garrick, so I think we're done there.

Garrick in Terms of Swain's Traits of a Likable Character

Dwight Swain tells us that in order for readers to identify with (and hopefully like) a character, the character must have some or all of these qualities:

  • The character is a victim of undeserved misfortune.
  • The character is in danger of losing something important to him.
  • The character has a likable manner... a good heart and is well-liked by others.
  • The character has a sense of humor and the courage to make jokes we wouldn't.
  • The character is a powerful, strong, capable individual.
How does Anslo Garrick stack up?  Let's see:
  • He recently lost his brother to an accident, and his best friend to an alien microbe.
  • He's the last of his family line, and he's in danger of ending it.  In the upcoming story, he's in danger of losing his life and that of his crew.
  • He took time to help his mother get back on her feet and grieved at the loss of his best friend.  He cares about the Alliance and wants to do the right thing.  He's honest, and other characters seem to like him.
  • He's capable and strong, having survived many mishaps as a test pilot for the Alliance.  During the story, we'll learn that he's an able commander.
The only thing missing is a sense of humor, but this can be illustrated in the story during his interaction with others.

The Final Step - Garrick's Voice

Max Drake taught me something very valuable last year at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus.  He said that once you've assigned a role to your character, laid out his description and backstory, and are satisfied with what you have, the next step is to start seeing the world through that character's eyes.  You do this by identifying pivotal moments in the character's life, which happened well before the story you're going to tell.  Then, you take the time and effort to write out scenes showing those pivotal moments.  These will probably never be used in your story.  They're here for you to get to know your character and understand how he thinks.

Drake said that empathy with the character is key here.  You need to be able to cast aside your own beliefs, fears, hang-ups, etc., and adopt the character's.  For example, you may be perfectly comfortable with insects.  Your character, on the other hand, is deathly afraid of them.  She was once accidentally locked in an attic filled with flies, spiders, and ants.  So you write that scene and try your very best to imagine being the little girl trapped in an attic with lots of scary bugs.  Hopefully, you come away from the experience understanding why she fears insects. (I know, spiders are arachnids and not technically insects... bear with me.)

When I look over what I know about Garrick to this point, the pivotal moments are some or all of the following:

  • He had one very disastrous test flight where he wound up stranded with a broken ship on an alien planet and had to fix it.
  • On the day he filed for discharge from the fleet, his brother died in an accident on a construction site.  He had to spend time with his mother to help her get past it.
  • Admiral Laura Boxleitner refused to accept his discharge and convinced him to take command of the Prospect.
  • There is an away mission to a planet where a race of advanced aliens was wiped out, during which Garrick's best friend dies from infection by an alien microbe.

In the next post, I'll show you what I came up with for scenes showing these pivotal moments. 

March 21, 2015

Kindle Worlds and Crossover Stories

When I was young, I always wondered what it might be like for Batman and Spiderman to team up.  I wondered what would happen if Professor Xavier and the X-Men had to deal with Lex Luthor. Stories like those appeared on comic book stands.  Why?  There were lots of reasons.  Batman was a DC Comics property, and Spiderman was Marvel Comics.  DC and Marvel's writers, artists, management, and legal groups had settle on a story they both liked, agree on how to assign the profits and costs, etc.  That kind of negotiation takes time and money, which comic publishers weren't swimming in.  So crossover stories weren't common.

Amazon has been working to change that.  They recently started a service called "Kindle Worlds" which allows a publisher with a popular property to make it possible for others to write stories set in that universe.  There are currently about 30 properties in the program.  More are coming.

Since the program is relatively new, only about 30 "worlds" available for you to write in.  For each listed world, you'll see the guidelines that writers wanting to publish in that world must adhere to.  The "World of Kurt Vonnegut" includes the following guidelines as of this writing:

  1. Pornography: We don't accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.
  2. Offensive Content: We don't accept offensive content, including but not limited to racial slurs, excessively graphic or violent material, or excessive use of foul language.
  3. Illegal and Infringing Content: We take violations of laws and proprietary rights very seriously. It is the authors' responsibility to ensure that their content doesn't violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other rights.
  4. Poor Customer Experience: We don't accept books that provide a poor customer experience. Examples include poorly formatted books and books with misleading titles, cover art, or product descriptions. We reserve the right to determine whether content provides a poor customer experience.
  5. Excessive Use of Brands: We don't accept the excessive use of brand names or the inclusion of brand names for paid advertising or promotion.
  6. Crossover: No crossovers from other Worlds are permitted, meaning your work may not include elements of any copyright-protected book, movie, or other property outside of the elements of this World.
  7. The World does not include characters, scenes, events, themes or plots that are unique to derivative works such as books, movies and television shows based on Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, novellas, and short stories.

So if you'd always been dreaming of writing a sequel to Cat's Cradle, you have that chance as long as you write well and follow the guidelines above.  In this case, though, you can't mix your existing characters with Vonnegut's because of Guideline 6.

This is an exciting opportunity for readers to see favorite characters shown in new ways, or in crossovers.  It's also exciting for writers who have always wanted to write a story in one of their favorite authors' universes.

March 16, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 4

In the earlier posts in this series, we talked about the various things we need to do to create a good character.  In the previous post, we created the fictional character Captain Anslo Garrick of the Alliance starship Prospect.  Today, let’s develop Garrick's backstory.

Captain Garrick's "Far" Backstory

Garrick was born on Earth, in the United States, in Central Ohio.  He has a brother named Matthew. He attended Catholic schools, and his parents were committed to their faith.  Garrick appreciates the education he received but doesn’t share his parents' religious views.  He views religion as an archaic way to get people to behave the way they should naturally.  While he embodies much of what the church teaches, this isn't because of faith but because he believes it’s the right way to be.

After high school, Garrick joined the Alliance Academy in Florida.  It’s located on the site of the old Cape Canaveral NASA facility.  NASA was absorbed into the Alliance Space Fleet once the Alliance came into existence.  In the Academy, Garrick became a skilled pilot and leader.

As a member of the Alliance Space Fleet, Garrick became a test pilot for the earliest Alliance spacecraft.  These ships merged the existing human space flight technologies with those from other Alliance member races.  The designs didn't always work, and Garrick's life was often in danger.  On one particularly disastrous flight, the spacecraft went far off course and light years from its intended destination.  Part of the control system burnt out and he was forced to make a rough landing on an uninhabited planet.  Fortunately, Garrick was able to jerry-rig the control system and get the craft back to Earth.

Tailoring Garrick's Backstory to My Needs

While I see how Garrick got to this point, I need to steer the backstory to the needs of this particular tale.   I want Garrick to fret about the disposition of the aliens on this spacecraft.  Given that they're brutal, savage, power-hungry creature, he would normally have little resistance to killing them.  I don't want it to be that easy.  Despite the threat they pose to the Alliance, I want him to have a problem with just blowing them away.  How do I do that?

One way is to amp up the fact that these aliens could be the last of their kind.  Suddenly, what might have been the disposal of a threat becomes an act of genocide.  Given his moral character, Garrick's not going to like that.  Still, the aliens’ destructive tendencies might override his compassion.  I want to amp up his insecurities around "the last of their kind" thinking... How will I do that?  I'll litter his very-recent backstory with unhappy moments that show an end to things.

Garrick's "Near" Backstory

On his forty-fifth birthday, Garrick files forms with the ASF to be discharged.  On the same day, his brother Matthew dies in an accident at work.  Matthew was in love with a woman he was planning to marry later in the year.  Garrick was to be his best man.

Matthew's death left their mother severely depressed.  Garrick took a leave of absence to care for her.  She now lives in a rest home.

He received a video call from Admiral Laura Boxleitner.  The admiral told him she can’t accept his resignation.  She wants him to accept command of the Alliance flagship Prospect.  He told her he appreciated the honor, but he wanted to retire, settle down, and raise a family.  "I'm not getting younger," he tells her, "and my mom wants grandkids before she dies."  He asks her why she's not promoting his best friend Carl Martin, the first officer of the Prospect.  She says Martin has not signed on for another tour of duty and will leave the fleet in a few weeks.  Garrick didn't know that.

In the end, Boxleitner convinces Garrick to accept a four-year post as captain of the Prospect.  She tells him if he'll just do that, she'll promise him a promotion, so his pension will be higher.  He decides a four-year delay is fine, and running a starship is probably safer than test-piloting was.  He grudgingly accepts the commission, saying "Four years.  Don't ask for a fifth."

It's important to note that the Alliance is new and its space fleet consists of only four active ships - with a fifth in drydock.  Because this fleet of four ships is all the Alliance has (though it can call in ships from member races during a crisis), the fleet leadership encourages officers to be very careful with their ships.  Losing just one starship means the loss of a quarter of the Alliance fleet.  When fleet command gives orders to a captain, the somewhat-joking sign-off is "Don't scratch the paint."  (This is short-hand for: "That ship and crew are valuable.  Don't take any unnecessary risks.")  Boxleitner says this to Garrick when he accepts the commission.  Garrick chuckles when he hears this.  As a test pilot, he's crash landed or ejected from dozens of spacecraft, doing much more than scratching the paint.

(I've established something subtle but important here.  The culture in the ASF is that commanders are actively discouraged from taking risks.  If this isn't interrupted, that "don't take risks" philosophy will permeate the ASF and make it a fleet of cautious, careful, and fearful officers.  This will erode their ability to protect the Alliance and explore the galaxy.  Garrick, a risk-taker at heart, will realize this is the wrong culture to create.)

Garrick’s first mission as the Prospect’s captain drives home the "last of its kind" motif.  The mission from Admiral Boxleitner was meant to gently introduce Garrick the ship, crew, and space exploration.  They visit an alien world which once housed an advanced, enlightened, and artistic civilization.  Unknown forces destroyed them thousands of years earlier, but their cities and artworks remain.  Garrick's crew must take soil, air, and water samples for analysis.  This had been overlooked by previous expeditions.

Garrick's best friend Carl Martin is approaching the end of his four-year enlistment term.  He was aboard the Prospect under its previous commander.  In two months, Martin reaches the end of his tour of duty.  He wants to return home, marry his fiancĂ©e, and raise a family as Garrick had planned.  The previous commander always lead the landing parties, leaving Carl behind to watch over the ship.   Garrick let Martin lead this expedition as a favor.

On the planet, Martin loses slips in the mud next to a small pond and falls in.  This exposes him alien bacteria that kills him within a few hours.  Garrick is devastated.  He has unintentionally ordered his best friend to his death.  As our story begins, Garrick calls Martin's mother to give her the bad news.  Martin's mother laments that she'll be the last of the family line.  When Garrick disconnects from the call, he will be further distraught at the realization that his first official decision as captain of the Prospect ended his best friend’s family line.  (This might turn out to be too heavy-handed in the final story, but we’ve now shown Garrick postpone his dream of a family, unintentionally destroy his best friend’s family line, and witness the works of an amazing civilization that was destroyed.)

In Part 5 (next Monday), we'll look at Garrick's inner demons and talk about how I'll go find his voice and get into his head.

March 9, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 3

In the first and second installments of this series, we talked about creating a character that is three-dimensional and empathetic to the audience.  In this final installment, I am going to describe a story I am developing and one of the characters who will appear in it.

The Story

This is a science-fiction story set about 150-200 years from today.  Mankind has only a handful of faster-than-light starships, so it's very cautious with them.  When an officer takes command of a ship, it's a ritual for the officer's commander to say "Don't scratch the paint."

Our story focuses on the starship Prospect, which has just encountered what appears to be a derelict alien spacecraft headed for the nearby sun.  The spacecraft is an unfamiliar design.  It seems to be more or less completely intact.  There are no clear life signs.

Prospect's standing orders are to acquire any alien technology they can without significant risk to ship or crew.  They're also ordered to make first contact with new species they encounter.  These orders are balanced against the admonition to protect the valuable starship.

What our captain doesn't know is that this is not a derelict craft.  It's a sleeper ship for a race of powerful, intelligent, brutal, sadistic aliens.  It traveled from a nearby galaxy.  The occupants used it to escape from their own galaxy after a rebellion nearly destroyed their entire race.  The alien craft is looking for an inhabited world that it can land on, whereupon it will wake the crew.  On the ship, the crew has enough manpower and weaponry to conquer or destroy a planet or star.  Worse, they have no compunction against doing that.

When the captain decides to board this ship, believing it to be a salvage operation, it's treated as a full-on invasion by the alien ship's defense system.  For most of the story, the captain and his boarding party are fighting for their lives.  Near the end, the captain will be forced to decide the fate of this alien species.  Will he let them die?  Will he disarm them and find them an uninhabited world to live on?  Or will he find another option?

The rest we'll leave for the actual story.

The Basics of the Character

As we discussed before, Max Drake said that you need to figure out WHY you need a character and what ROLE that character will play in the story.  Our character is the man in charge of the starship Prospect.  He'll be leading the landing party aboard the alien ship, and the fight for the landing party's lives inside the alien ship.  When the dust settles, he'll have a choice to make.  The ship is very likely to land on a densely populated and peaceful planet in Alliance space.  If the captain does nothing, the aliens will emerge from hibernation on that planet and seize control of it.  Since it's a spacefaring civilization, the aliens will likely use that to conquer other worlds.  If he kills the aliens, he may be committing genocide, since the aliens may no longer exist elsewhere.  If he disarms them and maroons them on an uninhabited world, he has no idea how long it will take them to rebuild their society and become a threat to the Alliance.  His primary role in the story is to make that difficult call.  There is also the fact that this ship contains weapons which are many times more powerful than anything Earth or the Alliance has today.  If he takes those, what will the fleet and the Earth do with them?  Is this too much power?

Responsibility is a theme here.  Garrick will simultaneously be responsible for his life, the life of his boarding party, the crew of his ship, and the aliens.  He's also responsible for protecting the Prospect from destruction.  As the story unfolds, he also has to accept responsibility for the treasures and weaponry aboard this spacecraft.

Duty is another theme.  Garrick has a duty to protect his ship and crew, but also to explore, gather technology, and make first contact with alien races.  

The value of life (human or alien) is another point.  Garrick mourns the loss of crew members who die, and feels a measure of guilt and responsibility for that.  He doesn't think killing the aliens is right, given that they could be the last of their kind.  He also values the lives of the Alliance citizens too much to risk letting the aliens run loose.

Using what we've talked about in the previous articles, here is my starting point for Garrick:
  • Name – Captain Anslo Paul Garrick, known simply as Captain Garrick to his crew
  • Gender – Male, human, age 45
  • Vocation – Former test pilot for the Alliance, promoted to Captain of the Alliance Space Fleet starship Prospect, the flagship of the ASF's (current) fleet of 5 ships
  • Direction in Life – Garrick loves the thrill of new experiences, but lately has been thinking about settling down to raise a family in a comfortable, safe place
  • Story Goal – Board an alien spaceship that seems to be derelict or abandoned, make first contact with any aliens aboard, or salvage the ship or any useful technology on it
  • Tags – risk-taker, physically fit, empathetic, introspective, honest, considerate
  • BackstoryCharacter Arc, Inner demons and inner conflicts, Worldview – These are going to require some detail work, so we'll discuss them in a moment.
  • Role in the Story – Garrick's role in the story is to serve as the protagonist who keeps things moving along, but he's also the one who is forced to make some difficult decisions.  What should he do with the aliens he finds on this ship?  What should he do with the weaponry they have aboard, which is far more lethal than the Alliance has?
For this story to be its best, the captain's backstory, inner demons, and character arc all need to mesh together in order for his final decision to have the right impact on the reader - and on him.  Let's examine Garrick's worldview first.

Captain Garrick's Worldview

I envision the Alliance universe of which this story is part to have a 3-segment arc of its own.  The first segment or "era" shows mankind starting approximately where we are today, discovering the ability to travel faster than light into outer space.  During the first era, our technology doesn't work so well, we're still susceptible to most of our human shortcomings (like greed, prejudice, and deceit).  During the second era, we've faced enough threats in space that we've begun overcoming all that.  We see all humans as one species, and stopped squabbling over religion, race, social status, etc.

This story is set near the end of the first era and the start of the second.  Mankind has recently established the Alliance for Sentient Lifeforms (ASL) and convinced several alien species to join it.  We've worked with the member races to design the most-powerful ships we're capable of, to serve as the defense and exploration fleet for the Alliance.  Only 5 of these ships have been built so far.  The Prospect, our home for this particular story, is the first of these.  Three others are also out there exploring the galaxy, and the fifth is still in the dock being prepped for launch.  

Living in the time between an unenlightened mankind filled with greed, racism, deceit, and power-hungry people and a more-enlightened time when we have overcome these things, Garrick has a healthy distrust of his fellow man.  Most humans, and indeed most of his crew, respect and cooperate with one another.  Greed, power plays, dishonesty, and the like are uncommon but not unheard-of.  Garrick sees humanity as a single entity, and doesn't think of divisions within it along national boundaries, religious viewpoints, etc., but knows that not everyone shares that view.  He genuinely believes in what the Alliance stands for, and is working to make it a reality.

In Garrick's universe, there is a single Earth government populated by people who are generally acting in the best interests of humankind.  These occasional "lapses" by the politicians in charge of the Alliance make Garrick a bit skeptical that he can completely trust the current Earth government.  He's a little more trusting of the Alliance Council than the Earth government at this point, because he's seen nothing but honorable behavior from the council's membership.  

In next Monday's post, we'll create Garrick's backstory.

March 2, 2015

Create a Believable, Likable Character - Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed what makes a character realistic, likable, and empathetic for readers. 

We need to understand their role in the story and why they in it.  Then, we need to give them certain qualities which help make them empathetic and likable.  We also need to ensure they embody flaws we can see and sympathize with.  That’s a tall order.

Dwight Swain claimed in Creating Characters that a character needed a minimum number of qualities.  In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks discusses what he believes are the key variables that create a solid, three-dimensional story character.  Synthesizing what I’ve learned from several writers, including these, we need:
  • Name – The character must have a name.  Ideally, the names of the characters in the story won’t sound alike or be hard for the reader to “sound out” when seen on the page.
  • Gender – In many stories, this may be irrelevant.  In a patriarchal society, a female character may not have the rights, privileges, and freedoms she would in another society.
  • Vocation – This might be a job, or simply be a position in a family, group, or community.
  • Direction in Life – This is a need for one or more of the following:  (1) adventure, (2) security or safety, (3) recognition or fame, (4) response from others (respect, love, or friendship), or (5) power.  This direction colors the character’s actions in the story.
  • Goal – This is the character’s specific goal within the story.
  • Tags – Brooks calls these “affectations and personality” while Swain calls them “adjectives of manner.”  These are words and phrases that other characters in the story, and the reader, would use to describe this character.  It could include words like: sloppy, disorganized, easily frightened, tall, thin, or shaky.  It could include habits, tics, or quirks.  It might include clothing choices, furniture choices, etc.  The reader (and the other characters) may not know why these things are as they are, and the character may or may not be aware of them.
  • Backstory – Brooks and Drake both stress the importance of knowing what events in the past shaped the character into what they are.  Identify the events that shaped the character into who they are today.  Write scenes or stories about those events, so you can see the events as your character saw them, and experience it with them.  This will help you understand the character.
  • Character Arc – What will the character learn (or change) during the story, solving the problems they encounter along the way?
  • Inner demons and inner conflicts – What inner issue holds the character back?  Did a traumatic event in their backstory make them afraid of fire?  Are they afraid to commit to a partner?
  • Worldview – Swain referred to this as “character plus hang-up.”  It combines the backstory with the inner demons, and becomes the character’s adopted belief system or moral compass.  For example, they may believe all politicians are crooks because they witnessed local city council members taking bribes.
  •  Role in the Story – What role does the character play in the story?

In next Monday’s post, I’ll walk through an example of this for a story I’m working on.  I’ll describe the story, explain the example character’s role in it, and start “filling in the blanks” above.