For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind. Not traditional psychology, with control groups and ethics committees—but rather, the dark side of emotions. You know, the kind of stuff no one ever really talks about. The way a jilted lover feels after finding out their partner had an abortion, for example, or the kind of fears a prisoner faces while waiting for their execution. I guess you could say that I always had a bit of a fetish for the vulnerable, private thoughts of a downtrodden man on the fringe of society.
And since my social anxiety prevents me from going to the grocery store some days, much less interviewing a prisoner on death row . . . I decided the best way to explore these cravings for dark and hidden emotions was through my science fiction writing.
A Thirst for Darkness that Began in Childhood
You could interrogate people with questionable morality from every corner of the Earth until your tongue went numb with exhaustion, but you’d probably never find anyone that’s more of a sucker for “the villain” than me. And it all started when I was a little kid, before I even understood the finality of death and the severity of all the grim subjects I was writing about.
Kindred Spirits in Unlikely Places
Of all the seedy, greasy corners of the internet, you probably never would have guessed that I first discovered my love for creating wicked sci-fi characters on the Neopets role-play boards. The year was 2003, and every nerdy kid under the age of 16 was totally obsessed with anime. I, of course, was no exception.
I can’t remember why I originally stumbled across the role-play section (which us forum-goers affectionately dubbed the “RP boards”), but I was probably seeking out some goofy, innocent amusement—such as writing from the vantage point of a character from Outlaw Star or Dragon Ball Z. But instead, I ended up creating a muse that I still find myself writing about to this day, over a decade later. My oldest, dearest character and my first taste of seeing behind the eyes of the star-crossed villain: Raven.
Exploring a Twisted Psyche for the Very First Time
The son of a demon prince from across the stars, Raven couldn’t have been more different than me. Not only did he wander the galaxies without the slightest regard for what anyone thought of him, but he wreaked havoc freely and without remorse. He shamelessly tormented the roleplay characters of my online friends in what I now realize was a childish attempt to feel what it was like to be in control. He was a bit of a psychopath, but he had a soft, romantic side as well (which I wasted no time exploring with my fellow roleplayers, of course). But most of all, he gave me a taste of what I’d craved for my entire life: a chaotic, unstoppable darkness that paid no regard to laws, or traditions, or the conventions of man.
Suddenly, overnight, I knew what it was like to be a bloodthirsty space pirate with enemies from Arcturus to Alnilam. I no longer had to wonder what it felt like to taste the blood of your enemies, or to make someone fall in love with you and leave them—because if I wanted to experience a shred of that glorious darkness, all I had to do was write a short story about Raven doing this very thing.
Looking back, the situations I injected my wicked little blackbird into were pretty standard things for kids to be curious about. Through Raven, I learned about romance, violence, and even heartbreak. And although what I was doing was nonconventional by 2003’s standards, I really don’t think it was that weird. When you think about it, what child doesn’t wonder what it feels like to muck through all the emotions their parents warned them about? Raven gave me a chance to safely explore the dark side of life with other kids, all from the comfort of my own home.
If only he could have satiated the thirst for darkness forever . . . But no, my merciless childhood probes into his twisted psyche were only the beginning.
A Fascination that Grew Even Stronger in Adulthood
As the years crawled by, it got more and more difficult to avoid facing my destiny of becoming a science fiction writer. Although I tried going to college for biology, and even working in an office for a while, I had long-since realized that Raven would never leave me. In a convoluted, bizarre way, he was me. After all, every single grim act he’d carried out was something that I myself had fantasized about in the halcyon days of youth. I truly don’t know if all sci-fi writers pour as much of themselves into their characters as I do, but this is my confession: My characters and I are one in the same.
And this is probably why as I grew older, I began to empathize more with Raven’s father, Ralyn Marduk. It became painfully obvious that an eternally-young demon prince could never know the pains of growing old that I’d become so accustomed to. So I guess it’s no surprise that Ralyn ended up being the protagonist of my first science fiction novel instead of his son.
Evolving with Your Characters Through the Years
As I’m sure anyone over the age of 18 knows, emotions don’t get any easier to deal with once you “grow up.” In fact, in my experience, they become even more of an indecipherable clusterfuck. As I watched my childhood slowly slip away, I became more adapt at navigating the nuances of my atypical brain. The crippling depression that would have once laid me out for weeks became little more than a mild annoyance on alternate Tuesdays. The existential dread that once drove me to become a shut-in with frequent 12-hour computer sessions in my middle school years seemed as far away as a distant nightmare. And yet another aspect of mastering my own soul was getting a better grip on my own characters and the direction of my writing.
Raven’s neurotic, unhinged ramblings quickly became a thing of the past when Ralyn took center stage. In stark contrast to his son’s uncontrollable angst, Ralyn is actually quite stoic. And although he faces countless trials over the course of his long and tumultuous life, he handles them a hell of a lot better than his terror of a spawn.
Oddly enough, as I wrote from Ralyn’s perspective more and more, I began to feel his calm seeping into me—just as Raven’s neuroticisms had bled into my brain so many years before. Over a decade later, it feels sublime to finally have a shred of control over these muses that got under my skin for so long. Perhaps the evolution of my characters isn’t so different from my growth and development as a writer, and as a person. If Ralyn, this massively powerful alien that knows the black secrets of the universe, can turn his back on his sorrows, then so can I. This is the lesson I learned with the help of my muses, through our dual evolution.
The Difference Between Spilling Your Guts and Venting
Make no mistake, Ralyn still knows his own brand of heartache. He still feels sorry for himself, and bleeds, and even cries throughout the course of my first novel. But he’s a hell of a lot more graceful about it than Raven could ever dream of being. As I grew into my own emotions and evolved as a person, it showed in my characters more than I ever thought possible.
I have to admit that I’m also quite guilty of one of the cardinal sins of writing: projecting my own problems onto my characters. When friends and family got sick of listening to me rant about my issues (as I’d grown so tired of Raven’s shit almost a decade earlier), I’d take out my angst on the page. And although Ralyn lives on an alien world impossibly far from the Milky Way Galaxy, the trials he faces really aren’t that different from my own. But instead of wilting under pressure like I’d done so many times before, Ralyn faced his problems with a warped-yet-solid sense of honor.
When I incorporate my own issues into the sci-fi novel I’m writing, I’m careful to keep it graceful and artistic. I carefully weave the trials that are plaguing me into the story for Ralyn to face, without giving too much away about my own situation. But this means that sadly, eventually, if someone I know reads the story . . . They just might stumble across a character that mirrors a tiny part of themselves.
Maybe that’s just my own unique way of immortalizing the pain, and sneakily showcasing my own emotional evolution to a world that did its best to break me.
My Advice for Sci-Fi Writers
If you’re a new science fiction writer looking for guidance, you’re probably asking yourself what the hell you can learn from all this. You might even be thinking, “I came here for a lesson in sci-fi character development, not a sob story about all the villains you’ve known and loved.” Well, this raw, unabashed little confession from a lifelong writer might help you in ways you haven’t yet realized.
My approach to science fiction character development requires you to be true to yourself, and to not hold your emotions back even for a second. If you haven’t figured it out by now, my process has always been entirely emotion-driven. I don’t shape the characters—the characters shape me, and every single story I’ve ever written.
When it’s time to create a new character for Ralyn to play with, my deepest emotions come pouring out onto the page, even if I don’t expect or want them to. And by allowing them to flow freely, I’ve formed a relationship with these characters that have followed me for over a decade. This, I believe, is what makes my characters stand out in the “sea of souls” that drowns most writers in the sci-fi world—and also, what makes them stand the test of time.
Sci-Fi Character Development Isn’t a Science, at Least for Me
Although some people claim to have a sci-fi character development process, I’ve never been one to sit there with a pen and paper and write a character to “fit a story” or to “embody certain personality traits.” My characters are their own unique clusters of negativity and sorrow, with a bit of romance sprinkled in here and there. Even the side characters in my novel emerged entirely on their own, in the exact moment they were needed.
Sometimes I wonder if even the most minuscule characters embody certain traits that I’m hiding from the world, and even myself. Perhaps they’re the universe’s way of forcing me to be true to myself and examine my soul—just as I did so many years ago with Raven, for the very first time.