The Author's Guide to Creating Sci-fi Characters

Doug Landsborough
July 19, 2023

In the realm of sci-fi novels, us authors bring wondrous things to life. Alien civilizations, incredible technology, and even entire solar systems with unique histories, languages, and physics-bending anomalies.

But, at the risk of sounding corny, none of those grandiose things would mean squat without the characters who live in your galactic empire.

I know, I know—why worry about the little people of your story when you have entire multiverses to think of. But the little people (your characters) are the folks that will bring your incredible planets, tech, and ideas to life.

And they advance the plot and stuff, too. But more on that shortly.

In this article, we’re talking about those little people in a big word (or moon, lunar mining colony, etc.) and figure out how you can make them the best they can be while serving your story.

Specifically, we’re going to chat about:

  • Must-have elements of the sci-fi genre
  • Character development from a science fiction lens
  • Techniques for making your sci-fi characters
  • Some handy tips

So make sure your neural implant is set to record information and prepare for blast off.

Understanding the Science Fiction Genre

Science fiction is a captivating genre that allows writers to explore vast imaginative possibilities. It takes our readers on journeys to distant galaxies, envisions advanced technologies, and delves into the depths of the human condition. 

To create compelling sci-fi characters, it’s crucial to have a solid understanding of the genre's unique characteristics, themes, and audience expectations. So, you know, let’s talk about that.

Defining the Genre

Science fiction, or sci-fi, is a genre of speculative fiction that typically involves imaginative and futuristic concepts rooted in scientific principles. It explores the impact of advanced technology, extraterrestrial life, time travel, parallel universes, and other plausible ideas on society, individuals, and the world at large. 

At its core, science fiction pushes the boundaries of what is known and possible, inviting readers to contemplate the potential of the unknown.

Popular Themes and Tropes in Science Fiction

Within the vast galaxies of science fiction, several recurring themes and tropes have emerged over time. These elements contribute to the genre's appeal and provide a familiar framework for storytelling. 

Some common ideas include:

Space exploration - The exploration of outer space and encounters with alien civilizations have long been a staple of science fiction. From epic interstellar adventures to intimate encounters with extraterrestrial life, the vastness of space offers limitless possibilities.

Dystopian societies - Many science fiction narratives portray futuristic societies plagued by authoritarian rule, environmental degradation, technological overreach, or other dystopian elements. These stories serve as cautionary tales, reflecting contemporary concerns and warning against potential futures.

Time travel - The concept of traveling through time has fascinated readers for a heck of a long time (you’d need a time machine to figure out exactly when it started). Science fiction often explores the consequences and paradoxes of altering the past or future, raising philosophical questions about fate, free will, and the nature of time itself.

Artificial intelligence - The rise of intelligent machines and their interaction with humanity is a common theme in science fiction. Whether portrayed as benevolent companions or potential threats, the exploration of artificial intelligence raises ethical dilemmas and questions about the nature of consciousness.

Understanding the Audience

To create impactful sci-fi characters, we absolutely need to understand the expectations and preferences of our audience. Science fiction enthusiasts range from casual readers to dedicated fans with a deep appreciation for the genre's intricacies. They’re often drawn to stories that stimulate their intellect, ignite their imagination, and challenge their perspectives.

Science fiction readers appreciate well-developed worlds, thought-provoking concepts, and engaging characters. They seek narratives that blend scientific plausibility with imaginative storytelling, allowing them to explore new ideas and possibilities.

But you’re probably a sci-fi reader yourself, right? So write what you love to read (bonus points if what you love to read sells well). See what’s common between books when it comes to characters, their traits, their journeys, and how they interact with the world around them.

Essential Elements of Character Development

We know characters are a key ingredient to any good story. In sci-fi, amongst alien alliances, rampant AI, and reality-bending technology, your characters are the human element that connects your world to your readers.

And that’s true even if they aren’t human themselves—I’m talking about your characters, not your readers.

The best characters are well-developed, both by you and  the story they walk through. And while “well-developed” could take multiple articles to dissect (and we’ve done that over at DabbleU), here are the fundamentals you should perfect, plus some handy links to help you get there.

Creating a Character Backstory

A character's backstory forms the foundation of their identity and actions throughout the story. In science fiction, the possibilities for creating unique and intriguing backstories are endless. 

Consider the character's origins, upbringing, and any significant events that have shaped them. Are they from a distant alien planet? Do they possess advanced technology or special abilities? Do they even know that y=mx+b? 

These elements will influence their perspective, values, and interactions with the futuristic world you've created.

Get yourself some handy information on crafting a compelling character backstory with this article.

Developing Character Traits and Flaws

Just like real people, sci-fi characters should have a diverse range of traits and flaws that make them relatable and believable. 

Traits can include intelligence, bravery, empathy, or even a sense of humor. Because we’re dealing with sci-fi, they can also include things like bio implants and physical augmentations. 

On the other hand, flaws humanize the characters and add depth to their personalities. Are they impulsive? Overly cautious? Flawed characters make the story more engaging as they face challenges and overcome their weaknesses.

Are you having trouble thinking of some flaws to give your cast of extraterrestrials? We got you.

Understanding Character Motivation

Motivation is what drives your characters to take action within the story. In science fiction, characters may have grand ambitions, personal quests, or a desire for survival in an unforgiving universe. 

If you don’t understand their motivation—or worse, they don’t have one—how will you craft their goals and desires or create a strong connection between their actions and the overall plot? 

Explore their fears, dreams, and what they stand to gain or lose in their sci-fi world. And learn more about motivations here.

Character Arcs and Growth

Good characters have arcs. Not “good” like hero good (though they should, too). I mean relatable, interesting, complex, and developed characters have arcs.

Character arcs are essential for showing the growth and transformation of your sci-fi characters. Whether it's a reluctant hero discovering their true potential or a villain finding redemption, arcs add depth and complexity to the narrative. 

Consider the challenges and obstacles your characters will face, the lessons they will learn, and how they evolve as a result. They should only be able to accomplish their goal because of the growth they’ve experienced.

A well-crafted character arc allows readers to emotionally invest in the characters' journey and creates a satisfying narrative progression. Grab our character arc template here

Techniques for Creating Science Fiction Characters

Now into the juicy stuff. While what we’ve covered is true for all characters, no matter the genre (maybe minus the biotech augmentation… you won’t find that in Victorian romance), let’s chat about things you can do to specifically write sci-fi characters.

Worldbuilding and Its Impact on Character Creation

Worldbuilding is an integral part of science fiction that directly influences the creation of compelling characters. As you construct the futuristic or alien landscapes of your story, consider how the environment shapes the characters who inhabit it. 

Does the advanced technology affect their daily lives? Are there social or cultural aspects specific to the planet they live on? What has happened to their bodies, mind, sense of right and wrong, relationships, and literally everything else because of this dystopian (or utopian) world you’ve plunked them into?

By aligning the characters with the intricacies of their world, you can create a cohesive and immersive experience for readers.

To figure all that out, bookmark this worldbuilding guide.

Developing Character Archetypes

Character archetypes are recognizable patterns or roles that characters often embody. While archetypes can provide a familiar framework, your tech- or alien-filled story can really spice up the familiar into something fresh. 

In science fiction, you can expand on traditional archetypes and reimagine them in futuristic settings. Consider how the archetype fits within the larger narrative and how their traits and motivations align with the sci-fi elements of your story.

For example, the sage, a kind mentor figure, might be a researcher marooned on an alien planet who helps our stranded protagonist.

Or the ruler, normally viewed as some sort of king or politician, might be the CEO of an evil corporation in your cyberpunk city.

Archetypes are powerful tools, especially in this kind of genre that provides so many opportunities to lean on their strengths while adding something no one has ever seen before.

And lucky for you, we have a complete guide to archetypes.

Character Design and Visual Representation

In science fiction, visual representation plays a significant role in bringing characters to life. Whether in books, films, or graphic novels, readers often rely on visual cues to connect with your characters.

When describing these folks, provide vivid yet relevant details about their appearance, attire, and unique features. 

Consider the impact of futuristic technology, genetic modifications, or alien physiology on their physical attributes. Strive for a balance between providing descriptive details and leaving room for readers' imaginations to fill in the gaps.

And don’t just toss in obscure visual features for the sake of being edgy. Sharing info with your reader should enhance your world or leave a crumb for something in a following act. 

That said, consider the visual aesthetics of your sci-fi world and how it reflects on the characters. Are there distinct clothing styles, body modifications, or cultural markers that differentiate them? Visual consistency between the characters and their environment helps create a cohesive and visually appealing sci-fi universe.

Tips for Writing Compelling Sci-fi Characters

Creating compelling sci-fi characters requires a hand as skilled as a technomancer operating on a patient. To help you in this endeavor, here are some valuable tips to consider:

Develop multidimensional characters - Avoid one-dimensional characters by giving them depth, complexity, and inner conflicts. Explore their past, fears, and aspirations to make them relatable and realistic.

Write authentic dialogue - Sci-fi characters should speak in a way that feels authentic to their world and experiences. Consider the influence of their culture, technology, or social status on their speech patterns and word choices. For help writing dialogue, visit this article.

Avoid stereotypes and clichés - Challenge stereotypes and clichés commonly associated with certain character types in sci-fi. Subvert expectations and offer fresh perspectives to keep your characters and their arcs compelling.

Balance character and plot development - While sci-fi often emphasizes intricate plots and worldbuilding, ensure that character development remains a vital aspect of your storytelling. Strike a balance between advancing the plot and exploring the internal growth of your characters.

Consider the impact of technology - All aspects of your worldbuilding are important, but sci-fi is defined by its technology. We have a guide to help you navigate the life of characters with technology in your sci-fi novel.

Establish complex relationships - Characters' interactions and relationships are key ingredients to well-developed fictional people. Craft diverse and complex relationships, like friendships, rivalries, or alliances, that influence their decisions and add depth to their personalities.

Embrace diversity and inclusion - Science fiction provides an opportunity to celebrate diversity and inclusivity in ways that not only feel natural but spans worlds, even galaxies. Incorporate characters from different backgrounds, cultures, genders, and identities to reflect the richness of your characters and expand your readers' perspectives.

Explore ethical dilemmas - Science fiction gives us the room to explore ethical and moral quandaries. Place your characters in situations where they must grapple with difficult choices, forcing them to confront their beliefs and values, and make use of the themes you have available to you thanks to otherworldly life and futuristic tech.

Leave room for imagination - Some readers love when you include pages of details to describe a character. Most don’t. Provide enough details about your people to make them vivid, but also leave room for readers to imagine and connect with them on a personal level. Allow readers to fill in the gaps and make the characters their own.

Craft Your Sci-fi Epic with Dabble

As a last tip, here’s something most writers only learn through experience: writing a sci-fi novel is hard.

You’re diving into a genre with massive worlds, complex technological advancements, an intricate understanding of real-life science, and characters that have to believably navigate all of that.

And you have to write it all, to boot.

But you don’t have to do it alone (or, worse, with Microsoft Word). Dabble is designed for writers just like you.

Not only does it give you the power of the Plot Grid for managing all your complex plot lines, but it helps you break down your massive space opera into realistic daily writing goals to actually get your book done.

On top of that, it has folders for all your characters, worldbuilding, and anything else you need… all one click away from your manuscript.

And there’s even more for your sci-fi mind to explore and wield while you write. The best part? You can try all of Dabble’s features for fourteen days without even typing in your credit card info.

So grab your free trial by clicking here, and let your AI or alien race run rampant.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.