Building Character with Science Fiction Fairy Tales
July 24, 2014
Fairy tale characters are memorable because they are exquisitely simple. The princess is beautiful and good, the prince is handsome and brave, and the ogre is greedy and cruel. But archetypes in their primal form just won’t do when the fairy tale takes the form of a modern day science fiction romance novel.
My book, Ladder to the Red Star, is based on the tale of Jack and the beanstalk. The hero, Jacques, travels up the space elevator cable to a space station in orbit above the Earth to steal a valuable item from the station’s powerful owner. This action follows the map of the classic tale, but for Jacques and his quest to become real and immediate to the reader, the narrative needs to show that Jacques’s own unique backstory, personal emotions and ambitions are what motivate him him to enact this mythic story. Jacques is driven to steal from his enemy out of a desperate need to find a medical cure for himself and his mother--reasons specific to him that make him sympathetic and believable to the reader.
But small touches matter almost as much as these broader strokes when it comes to writing a plausible inner life for a character. For example, Jacques is fond of watching soap operas, and this detail adds a quirky, approachable dimension to him that might otherwise be lacking.
Fully realized personality, history and motivation are the foundations of believable characters, but physical descriptions are also important to ground them firmly in the reader’s mind. For example, with Devi, the heroine, I went into detail about her coloring and the shapes of her body and face when she was first introduced, and then I scattered little reminders of her physical attributes throughout the book. These descriptive passages give her distinction just as much as the unfolding of her character.
At the heart of truly memorable characters there are always archetypes enacting basic human dramas. But in a novel, they also need to be individual people with intricate problems and histories that pertain to them and them alone. Combining the universal and the personal is the challenge of every novelist, and for a scifi fairytale romance novelist, it’s extra fun.