How to create great characters.

13 06 2008

You should know as much about your characters as they would know about themselves. Oh, sure, you don’t need that level of depth for a short story (although it’d help, if you’re really struggling), but for anything longer than 10,000 words you’d better have a really good idea of who they are, what events shaped them, how their past informs their outlook on life, and why they want whatever it is they’re after.

Two-dimensional characters often come about from an outline such as this:

David was born in 1965. He discovered he was a wizard at the age of 13, and since then has been studying really hard. He is now a really powerful wizard. He lives in San Francisco.

What? Is that it? David’s whole life revolves around him being a wizard? Has he no family, friends, rivals, enemies, pets, favourite foods, lovers, overdue books at the library, or any other influence which could turn him from a dull set of facts into a living, breathing person?

Here’s the thing. You might be writing about a powerful wizard living in San Francisco, but he’s also a human being. Well, he is for the purposes of this example. Here’s a shortish checklist of things a human being generally knows about himself:

Birthdate of himself, his parents, his siblings, long-term partners and friends.

The schools he attended.

What pets he or his friends / family had.

How popular he was at school, and whether or not he’s still in touch with school friends.

His employment history.

When and where he met his best friends and / or lovers.

Their names (usually, although it speaks volumes about a character who can’t list his lovers).

What he likes and dislikes (from food and drink, through to holiday locations, political viewpoints, and “certain kinds of people”).

Date of death of anyone important (a parent, a sibling, a best friend).


And that’s just your basic starting point for a human being. If your character is from another race, he’ll know just as much about himself, just with facts pertinent to his race’s culture – he may not know what “school” is, but his race might follow a rigid path of indentured servitude or military service, about which he’d know just as much as a human does about their school days.

And I’ll step in now, Mr. Clever Clogs: If your character is an amnesiac, you still need to know these things.

Then you layer in what makes your character stand out from the crowd. What makes him the hero, the antagonist, the ally, or the Tin Dog? What makes him get his arse off the sofa / rock / grassy knoll and get involved in a story? All this should come from the world you’ve built to set your story in (you did do that bit, right?): If your world is contemporary London with Vampires, did a Vampire kill his sister? If your world is a distant planet with spleen-sucking aliens, did he witness a spleen being sucked and get so terrified that he’s acting purely in self-defence? Has he been living a dual life, or has this taken over his life? Is he in contact with his world, or has he been removed (or removed himself) from it?

Since stepping off the path of dull, normal life, who has he met? Has anyone taught him what he now knows? Has he teamed up with others who seek the same goals? Is he still with them? If not, why not? Has his new life utterly changed his personality? Was he an easy-going guy before dog-faced beetles chewed his father’s head off? Have new-found powers made him overconfident, or does the new playing field scare him to death?

I mentioned earlier that your characters are after something. This is vital. Without desire, they won’t move forward.

All your characters must want something.

All your characters must need something.

What they want and what they need are two different things.

So let’s look at David the San Francisco wizard. Let’s say we now know what school he attended, what happened to his parents, who mentored him in magic, and all those other great facts. Instead of a couple of lines we now have two or three pages of background (or more – don’t be shy now). With all these facts you’ll have a better idea of the kind of guy he is – trust me, you will. How he’s dealt with enemies in the past will inform how he deals with them in your story. Does he hurl fireballs, or does he retreat to the library and research his foe? Is he too prone to losing his temper, or is he such a perfectionist that enemies run unchecked while his nose is in a book?

What does he want?

Why does he do what he does? Does he want to become all-powerful, or does he want revenge? Does he want to protect those unable to defend themselves, or does he want to rule the world? Does he seek to cure his wife from a Lich’s curse, or does he want to become a Lich himself? If he doesn’t want something, he won’t strive for it, much as if you don’t want money you won’t bother turning up to work every day.

What does he need?

Oh yeah. Now we’re down to the guts of it. What is it that your character needs, that he’s unaware of? What would truly solve his problems? He may want revenge, but maybe what he needs is closure, and revenge won’t give it to him. Maybe he wants to find that cure, but what he needs is to recognise and accept that even his power can’t achieve everything. Perhaps he wants to protect the defenceless, but he needs someone to make him feel protected.

What he wants and what he needs should conflict one-another. And the moment you give him either, the story is over, unless you can replace one want or need with another want or need. Remember that if you want to draw your story out into a series.

Nobody wants to read about a character who’s got nothing to do.


Hub Magazine is site of the week on

5 06 2008, the official website of the SciFi channel, is featuring Hub Magazine as their site of the week.

Well? What’re you waiting for? Get over there!

Pantechnicon Seven available now!

4 06 2008

Front cover, Pantechnicon Seven. Click to download the magazine.

Click here to download Pantechnicon Seven as a PDF, or here to visit the website and read all our juicy content online.

This issue contains:

The Web Across The Door

DF Lewis offers a short slice of weird.
DF Lewis

The Trapper
Harsh winter, rotting food, and ghosts take their toll on a trapper and his wife.
Contains scenes of a graphic nature.
Johnny Mains

New job, new boss, same old corporate life. With telepathy, a ghost, and murder.
Brian Wright

Death Knock

A dead journalist seems to be visiting relatives of the recently-bereaved. It falls to the Department for Extra-Usual Affairs to investigate.
David Barnett

The King is Dead
JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley meet a newcomer to the afterlife. Only two of them have his best interests at heart.
Alister Davison

The Dopple Gang part two
Jake has a gun that can delete things. His only question now is who to kill first with it.
Colin Sinclair

Tranquil Sea
An expedition to create a radio telescope using the Moon’s Daedalus Crater suffers Jovian interference.
David Brookes

Seeing the Light
She’s not crazy. And she’s going to show everyone exactly how not crazy she is. Even if it kills them.
Suzanne Jackson

Interview: Barry Wood

Caroline chats to the Canadian author about his work and his future plans.

SF101: Olaf Stapledon
Sean Parker’s series continues with an exploration of Stapledon’s work.

Icon Oddities: The Musical Career of William Shatner.
Jamie Halliday kicks off a new series on the odd careers of genre icons, starting with the Shat himself.

Horror Gems: Sundown
The next in Jamie’s Horror Gems series takes a look at this bargain-bucket treasure, unavailable on DVD.

Weird Tales:
A Time-Travelling interview with DF Lewis.

Des and Caroline talk. And travel through time.

The Fandom Menace

The Age of Innocence:
SF: Is it really for you any more?
Time for some Perspective:
And now, a look at the murky waters of Doctor Who fandom, and the raging battle of New Who vs. Old Who.

Getting published.

7 05 2008

You want to get published. You’ve written something fantastic, but where do you go to get it into the big wide world?

Let’s look at your main potential outlets:

  1. The Internet
  2. Print Magazines
  3. Book publishers

Now let’s look at your potential earnings:

  1. None
  2. Some

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve written fiction or non-fiction, long or short. The first thing you absolutely, positively have to do is research. You need to investigate what markets are available for your particular output, and you need to be realistc about whether or not there’s an audience for what you’ve written.

Let’s start with the easy one: The Internet. I say “easy” because technically you could just get yourself a web page, slap your writing on it, and call that “published”. No editors, no agents, and nobody to protect you when the bots come-a-stealin’.

One step up from putting it on the internet yourself is to join one of those sites that builds content by letting you post your stuff on their site. Some have little to no editorial control, while others do their best to ensure all their content meets their guidelines. One such site is Suite 101 which has been going for over ten years, and pulls in 7 million visitors a month. It also pays you based on advertising revenue generated from the articles you write.

For fiction writers there is a bewildering array of opportunities out there, and there’s nothing I can say except that finding the publication for you is going to be a cold, hard slog through search engines and forums. You’ll need to find sites which list potential markets – Ralan is an excellent example – then check the publication out for yourself. Read their guidelines, see if you can find good or bad feedback about them online, ask fellow writers what they’ve heard about it. Some e-publications out there don’t bother editing at all, some have poor process, some have great editors behind them. Only doing your research will guide you in the right direction.

Next up, Print Magazines. The more your piece relates to a specific niche, the more likely you are to find an outlet for it. Just be wary of undertaking an article with too small a target audience, lest you find that no such outlet exists. Don’t just think of the newsstand magazines, either. Until you are established as a Freelance writer, you’re most likely to sell to magazines with lower circulations – hobby club publications, subscriber-only magazines and the like. And if you’re writing for a niche, you’re best off if you yourself are part of it – you wouldn’t want to try to sell to Tractor Fancier Quarterly if you haven’t a clue about Tractors, would you? Would you?

Try your nearest library – they often subscribe to periodicals outside the average. You may stumble across publications you had no idea existed, and now feel a burning urge to write for. Also get whichever annual listings book is suitable to your target country’s market (e.g. Writer’s Markets, Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, etc).

The internet can be your friend here, too. Find out whether your target publication treats its freelancers well or poorly, whether they pay up on time or hang about for months on end.

And, vitally, read whatever magazine it is that you want to submit to. You may find they already did a piece on the Magnum 7140 Tractor two issues ago and are unlikely to welcome another article on it so soon. Or you may find that the horror magazine you were about to send to likes quirky gothic romances and your epic tale of a trophy wife’s descent into schizophrenia leading to her murdering her next door neighbour and making a purse from his arse-cheeks may not be appreciated there.

Finally, Book Publishers. This is assuming you’ve written, well, a book. Again, fiction or non-fiction, you’ll need one of those aforementioned annual market books. They’ll tell you who publishes what, and who accepts unsolicited submissions (if the slush pile is the route you want to take). Some are happy to solicit you after an email or phone call, others will refuse all contact or consider you unsolicited even after you’ve contacted them first.  Every single one has a right way and a wrong way of going about contacting them, and failure to adhere to their guidelines can get you thrown out by your ear.

Realistically, though, what you want if you’ve got a book manuscript in your hands is an agent. Agents can turn you from unsoliced to solicited. It’s often said that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Well, agents know all the people that you need to know, and can get your work in front of them.

And you never, NEVER pay an agent up-front for their work. You never pay them afterwards. If an agent asks you for money at any time, they aren’t an agent, they’re a leech. Yes, their money comes from taking a small cut of your earnings. What would you rather have? The contacts and protection of a good agent, or a complete failure at finding yourself a publisher?

Finding an agent means just as much research as finding any other outlet, and deserves a post all to itself. In the meantime, always remember the Preditors & Editors list. It is your friend.

Getting published can be a hard slog, or it could be a complete breeze. But the more effort that you put into making it a breeze, the more rewarding you will find the experience.

Pantechnicon anthology stories selected.

6 05 2008

After a frenetic couple of weeks, we’ve finally selected the stories that will see themselves in print as part of the first Pantechnicon anthology due later this year.

As yet I can’t reveal the list, because I’m awaiting responses from all authors involved to confirm that they wish to proceed (and I’ve already had one author pull out because their story was accepted elsewhere, in spite of our “no simultaneous submissions” policy – while I’m quite forgiving, do remember that most people will blacklist you for such behaviour).

We do have an excellent selection, and picking the final stories was damn hard. There were a few cases where we had to reject purely due to bad luck – where two authors came up with similar themes or plots, both stories were excellent, but one had to win out over the other.

Huge thanks to everyone who submitted a story. I’ll leak more information as and when it’s leakable.

Reviewers wanted.

1 05 2008

Pantechnicon is looking for reviewers to cover genre (science fiction, fantasy and horror) books, magazines, podcasts, radio programmes, computer games or websites.

We need contributors who can offer at least two reviews per month of approximately 500 words a piece. We cannot offer remuneration at this time, and you will need to source most review materials yourself (although we do occasionally receive ARCs).

If you’re interested, please contact and tell us which you’d like to do. Similarly if you know someone who might like to do this, do let them know about us.

The post-Alt.Fiction breakdown, part seven.

1 05 2008

My final post on Alt.Fiction covers the last two sessions that I attended:

Fantasy – Innovation vs Expectation featuring Juliet E McKenna, Chaz Brenchley, Stephen Hunt and Sarah Ash

Science-Fiction featuring Eric Brown, Tony Ballantyne and Charlie Stross

Fantasy – Innovation vs Expectation

This was another excellent panel, and the first of the day to really get its teeth into something. Juliet was acting as chair, and steered the conversation efficiently and in interesting directions.

The panel discussed, as the title suggests, Fantasy and whether innovation in the genre can break out of its expectations (i.e. can Fantasy still be Fantasy if the Tolkien-esque tropes are set aside).

This was the perfect selection of guests. They worked well together, and all are writers who have broken out of the Sword and Sorcery boundaries that Fantasy used to find itself limited by. All are also extremely inspirational in their own right, from the well-established to the newcomer (Stephen’s first novel actually went to auction, and his second is due soon).

There was discussion on how Fantasy’s tropes became established, and how modern Fantasy was working to either turn them on their head (such as Write Fantastic collaborator Stan Nicholls’ Orcs novels). Juliet also made the salient point that Fantasy still needs to retain some comfortably-known Fantasy framework if it is to be saleable (or, in her own words, “the same, but different”).

Q&A was a bit, er, special, as the first questioner promptly asked whether the panel thought it’d be good if Fantasy started doing away with wizards, elves and dragons. But after a brief didn’t we just have this conversation? moment, questions began getting more sensible.


As the last panel of the day, I can’t be sure whether this one meandered a little due to the influence of alcohol, tiredness, or the Ladyboys of Bangkok who were performing in the nightclub next to the Assembly Rooms with music loud enough to wake the dead.

Tony and Eric were lovely, but Charlie’s got quite a dominant personality, so did the majority of the speaking. Perhaps as testament to the Ladyboys I don’t really remember much of what was discussed – the music was extremely intrusive, and turned out to be the main downside of the venue (even above the ludicrous bar and snack costs).

Mostly they just spoke about how they got into the business, what they liked about Science Fiction, and Tony admitted he was coming close to having to choose between his writing and his teaching careers.

The Q&A was brief, but I think most people were itching to get to a pub by then.


Alt.Fiction is definately an event I’ll attend again, and one I heartily reccommend that everyone with aspirations to becoming a writer in SF, Fantasy or Horror attend at least once. For the new writer it offers everything, and for the reader or the more confident writer there are plenty of readings to attend, and a bar full of writers and publishers to hang out in during the sessions that are of no interest to you.

The dealer area is quite open, and there are usually only about eight tables in use. Browsing is a nice, casual affair with a range of options from the small presses (Elastic Press shared a table with Ian Whates) through to TTA Press (selling back-issues of InterZone, Black Static, Murky Depths, and a variety of other things that Roy was kind enough to display for people who didn’t want to take up a whole table for a single item), and collections of the classic mags such as Asimov’s, Weird Tales and the like. Finally Alex Davis also puts on a general interest table, selling books of the authors in attendance and anything else that might appeal to the attendees. And unlike a lot of conventions, one feels under no pressure at all to make a purchase.

I only have a couple of quibbles: The venue is in the centre of Derby’s entertainment district, so the outside world gets a bit noisy if you’re in the Reception Suite. And the cost of the bar really is ludicrous – a small coke (approximately 200ml) and a packet of Walkers crisps costs £2. I dread to think of the cost of alcohol and the more adventurous bar food (chips, pizza, and so on). I took a pre-arrival detour into the town centre to get food and water to last me the day, but an attendee who isn’t forewarned could end up spending their book money on comestibles.