The Greatest Characters Come From The Weirdest Worlds, Says Eileen Gunn

Illustration for article titled The Greatest Characters Come From The Weirdest Worlds, Says Eileen Gunn

Click to viewBelievable characters go hand-in-hand with surreal futuristic worlds, says Eileen Gunn, author of Stable Strategies And Others and founder of the speculative webzine Infinite Matrix. Writing about a realistic future world or alien planet can seem like an insurmountable challenge, and so can putting believable characters into that setting — but you can solve both problems at once, if you learn to see through your characters' eyes. Gunn gave us a master-class in both world-building and character creation. Check it out! We asked Gunn the same questions about creating believable characters that we asked six other authors last week, and her answers were so great we felt they deserved her own post. So how do you create memorable, relatable characters in a futuristic or other-worldly setting? I usually start with the characters, and let them tell me about their problems and the world they live in, rather than imagining it all abstractly ("world-building") and then putting the characters in place. It's kind of like being the character's shrink. I try to pick up on the clues they drop about their idiosyncrasies, about where they are and what their world is like. I try to figure out what they're trying to hide and get them to expand on that. Then I review the text and add weirdnesses, if needed (and they are always needed), and try to extrapolate the science-fictional whys and wherefores of the world or time.

Illustration for article titled The Greatest Characters Come From The Weirdest Worlds, Says Eileen Gunn

Without all of the little references and shorthands that you can use in a present-day setting, how do you make your characters identifiable to readers? I try to identify with the characters myself. If the story is set in some place or time very different from here and now, I try to reference thoughts, emotions, locales, and situations that are that are identifiable to myself, and then crank them, say, 147 degrees away from the identifiable: far enough to be strange, but not so far as to be incomprehensible. My idea of comprehensible may be a little extreme for some readers, so I workshop the story to make sure that I haven't gotten too far out of control. However, I think that SF readers like being somewhere totally strange and interacting with people they don't understand, so I don't want to get too normal. I try to leave a trail of cookies so readers can have the sort of brain-sparks that discovery and chocolate chips provide. And when you're putting your characters into a place and time that's vivid and different, how do you make your characters stand out against that backdrop? I usually think of the characters as explaining their time and place to me, so they are part of their milieu and the reader and I see their world through their POV. It's a matter of making a setting that is strange and weird to the reader seem normal enough to the character, without making it boring. By the end of the story, the reader (and the author) should have come to understand the POVs of characters in the story, and share them, or question them, or both. Personally, I really like stories that, when I have finished them, cause me to have a little shock of re-adjustment to my own world. I like to be shaken and changed a little. Top image by Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney, from Infinite Matrix.

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This is the writing style that results in C.J. Cherryh, Ursula Le Guin-type stories ... dense, engrossing, and very female.

I can certainly enjoy diving into these character-driven tales, but they are not the only path to a plausible world.