If there is one thing an author cannot avoid is putting “us” into to our own stories. If you try to create a great step-by-step fight scene or stunningly clever argument, you have had to mentally place yourself at each point of the action. There you are! Literally. But this is deeper than just working out the choreography of a battle – most if not all of us become the character and the character becomes us. Perhaps this is only for your protagonist or all of the characters – at any degree, we do it.
One of the mistakes many of us writing Science Fiction, Gaslight Romance (my particular brand of Steampunk,) and Fantasy make is not applying our real life experiences to character development. We think that exotic scenery, historical context, and funky technology will more than suffice to keep readers glued to our pages. But, as nearly everyone with access the Adobe, a vanity press, and Amazon.com can produce a “novel,” the purchasing reader is getting picky about what they will buy. Why pay money for a typical, action driven melodrama when new, fresh, exciting, multi-dimensional works are out there?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have action and cool toys– just don’t neglect the depth of your characters. Like Athena from Zeus’s head, they must leap forth fully formed. They don’t have to be fully realized – in fact, they shouldn’t be – that’s the fun of storytelling. It’s the journey. Empty people with no problems and no chance of change are, well, no fun to read about. Certainly no fun to write about, don’t you think?
I call it the Star Trek Syndrome. You know what I mean: books and scripts where the known characters start at point “A”, travel to point “B”, then return to point “A” so that the next writer picks up the known characters in the same place everyone else does. Thus, Captain Picard goes through hell in one storyline (the type of hell that would leave you and me in therapy for years.) The next story? He’s fine and dandy, maybe remembers a little bit about what happened before, but he’s off to be funny or dramatic in the next storyline. No change. This is so that a fan can count on the same quality of story and adventure week after week, novel after novel. Since the writers of Star Trek tend to create fairly full characters in the first place, it isn’t too bad.
But you are likely not writing for a show or a novel series. You need to generate your Athenic characters and put them fully formed but unrealized into your book. Then you need to water them with adventure and challenge, victory and defeat, all to grow them into bigger, stronger (or weaker) people. No amount of submarines, airships, flash guns and swords can make up for treating your readers to the ups and downs of your extraordinary character’s extraordinary lives.
This is where the author’s reality comes in. But “I live a mundane life” you say? At one point in their lives, your characters did too. Something made them into “above and beyond normal.” What was it?
A book I highly recommend is Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing. In her book she explains the surprisingly complex style of Memoirs and personal story writing. Yet, what she says is absolutely applicable to fiction. She asks you to consider, “what changes you.” Not, what did you do, but what made you different? What makes this a journey from point “A” through “Z” with no likely return to “A?” Where did you win, where did you lose, and how has that changed the essential you? If you can discover those changes in yourself, you can build them into your fictional characters. Villains too.
Is your airship captain the survivor of an abusive childhood? Did your lovely protagonist determine her life path due to an event that changed how she viewed science? Is your hero wrestling with a now-broken moral compass? Does your villain have physical ailments from an accident that make him the way he is? It can be something a huge as a volcanic eruption or as small as seeing someone live through a scary illness. Not everything has to be BIG! Small changes and passages pile up and can give your character depth. Consider Sherlock Holmes. On the page he is consistent but not very deep. It was the late actor Jeremy Brett who slipped in a few barbs at Mycroft (Holmes’s brother) about what “father” did or didn’t do that gave him a new flavor. What Brett suggested with a few added lines in the TV show was that Holmes was seeking his father’s approval, long after his father was gone. THAT was what drove Holmes to be a detective, aloof, and easily depressed. Wow, doesn’t that just make Holmes the man more intriguing? Did you catch yourself saying “that explains a lot?” See …
So onward my fellow Zeus-like authors – let the fully formed Athena’s of your brain spring forth and conquer!