5 common problems with characters in science-fiction and fantasy novels
Updated: May 6
Problems with characters are common in science-fiction and fantasy novels. Why? Because characters can take a backseat when an author is focused on creating an imaginary world or unusual setting. Here’s a summary of common problems I have encountered – both as an editor and in my own science-fiction writing.
The blog post finishes with a great rule of thumb you can apply to developing and understanding the characters you create.
(1) Too many characters
Science-fiction and fantasy novels are often driven by epic stories with massive stakes for the planet or even the universe. Science-fiction and fantasy authors also love to create and populate these imaginary worlds. Maybe you have reams of notes on all the kinds of aliens living on a habitable planet you invented? As a result, there can be too many characters in these stories, with many of the secondary characters used to showcase features of that world.
This can combine with a tendency to infodump extended physical descriptions of characters. If that happens, we know precisely what a character looks and dresses like, but we don’t have much insight into their goals and motivation.
As a rule of thumb, only introduce characters when they first feature in the story (rather than in, say, character reflections). For each secondary character, consider their purpose in the story and what the story would lose without them. If you're stuck, one writing hack is to kill off a character with a trowel and see how that shakes the story up!
(2) Too many viewpoint characters
Again, if an imaginary world is busy and varied, it can be tempting to convey it from a wide variety of character viewpoints. Sometimes an unusual viewpoint is introduced to try and solve a story problem too, such as a protagonist falling unconscious.
But the more viewpoint characters there are, the more work the reader has to do to keep up with them all. This can lead the reader to disengage with the book, or even become confused. This is because we – normally, but not always – develop a certain amount of empathy for viewpoint characters.
At the self-editing stage, write down a list of all your chapters and the viewpoint character for each chapter (if you convey a scene from a different viewpoint, make a note of that as well, but avoid head hopping!). Check that there is a clear rhythm or cycle to your viewpoint characters. If you have just one or two chapters told from a secondary character’s viewpoint, consider changing it. Rewriting a chapter from someone else’s viewpoint is not easy. But it is fun and a great way of practicing!
(3) Flat characters
It’s a stereotype that science-fiction and fantasy novels often have flatter characters than other genres because the author focuses so much on the worldbuilding. This can be manifest in the protagonist having a very simplistic goal (usually a quest) that serves as a foil for exploring the world. The world is then a ‘fun and games’ obstacle course that the protagonist has to negotiate. But they don’t really change along the way.
Another scenario is when the antagonist is portrayed as a pantomime villain who is just evil for the sake of it! One of the big shifts in SFF over the past half-century has been the inclusion of many more shades of grey in the storyworlds. These have replaced a binary battle of good vs. evil. Indeed, this is a hallmark of the grimdark genre. This likely reflects the fact that many of us live in a global system with multiple centres of power these days.
Think carefully about a character arc for your protagonist. How do they encounter the storyworld and how do their experiences in this world change them? For your antagonist, consider including either their viewpoint, or the viewpoint of someone else who gets to know them and their perspective on the world. This can help introduce more nuance. Another useful tip is to view the antagonist less as a character and more as a kind of energy that drips through the novel, which your protagonist must struggle against. This can also help to foreground conflict.
(4) Passive protagonists
Sometimes, even advanced writers find that the plot points just ‘happen’ to the protagonist, who goes along for the ride. This experiential take will foreground the storyworld and your worldbuilding, but it usually makes for an unsatisfying novel as the reader cannot identify or engage with the protagonist’s goal and motivation. It’s this engagement that keeps the reader engaged as they want to find out what specifically happens to a certain person.
This often relates to point (3). Also, sometimes it happens when the character is well-fleshed out, but their goals and motivation don’t make for a satisfying story.
In this situation, fleshing out the goals, motivation, and conflict for each of the main characters can help. If you haven’t yet written a synopsis, write one now and use it as raw material for writing a goals, motivation, and conflict chart.
Also, remember that a significant plot point can lead to new goals, motivations, and conflicts forming. If a member of your space crew sabotages the flight path and the captain finds out, then this has big implications for these characters’ goals, and new conflicts emerge.
(5) Worldbuilding doesn’t link to characterisation
Here, the character’s descriptions don’t link to their viewpoint and perspective on the world. Instead, their descriptions of places and situations feels quasi-omniscient, as if the narrator is presenting a cinematic view of the world. This is particularly common among new authors, who often mix quasi-omniscient description with head hops and an attempt to maintain viewpoint. This is very different to successfully telling the story from a third-person omniscient mode (which is apparently coming back in fashion, as Kristen Tate recently discussed in her newsletter!)
Emotionally charge the descriptions of your storyworld by situating them clearly within the character’s viewpoint. If your protagonist has been captured by an evil alien and is being dragged through an underground bunker system on Mars, then you’d expect them to be making careful notes on possible getaway routes and things they could use as weapons as they travel through the bunker system.
Problems with characters in science fiction and fantasy novels: A summary
The art of bringing characters to life can feel mysterious and confusing. Real people are incredibly complex, so how do you capture that complexity on the page?
The answer – unless you are writing a highly character-driven or literary novel – is that you don’t.
One great tip I learned on the Editing for Character Development course and through feedback on my own edits and SFF writing, was that it is best to approach characters as relatable oversimplifications of people. At a recent workshop I attended, RJ Barker described them as ‘skeletons’ rather than as people and I think this is helpful because seeing them as stick people, skeletons, or relatable oversimplifications takes away some of the overwhelm.
The characters in our books are often mixed up pieces of our own personality and of our perceptions of others. How cool is that? So even if they are oversimplifications, your characters will have a unique voice and stamp.
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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!
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