Continuing to put together my outline for Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone for next month’s—no, next week’s (yikes!)—start to NaNoWriMo, it’s time to focus in on the characters. I also want to continue along the short, bad book path in terms of no over-thinking to start with. Where that line sits, by the way, between over-thinking and under-thinking . . . well, that’ll be different for all of us, and even for each project.

But still, any book, however short or bad or long or good has to be about people. Readers focus on characters, and if all your characters do is advance the plot, you’re doing it wrong. The plot should be there to advance your characters. Likewise, for fantasy and science fiction authors, if your characters are only there to advance (or explain) the world, you’re doing it wrong. The worldbuilding should be there to advance the characters.

With that in mind, I cobbled together advice from a bunch of different sources over the years and came up with a sort of template that can get me thinking about who these people are, what they want, how they think, and so on. This also helps tell me where I need to do some worldbuilding.

The personal qualities are words I think I got from Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel—and if not from there then somewhere else. I don’t want these lists of character traits to bind me up—and bind up my characters—but I like to start with them in terms of easy keywords that I can loop back around on as I go, either reminding myself to stay on course or giving myself permission to change course and cross off one or more of those keywords and replace them with another, or with nothing at all. What I want to avoid doing is getting hyper mathematical about it—and I do have that tendency—so I don’t do things like wedge in a scene in which Stas demonstrates his flexibility then another scene in which Dr. Niu is seen conspicuously lacking forgiveness. Some of these traits may simply not come up, and that’s perfectly fine.

Where did I get these questions from? I promise to dig into that and make sure I let you know if there’s a source for them—is it weird that I might have just developed them on my own and don’t remember? In any case, these are designed to help you get to know these people on more personal level. I chose to answer them “in character” and I was purposely keeping the answers as short as possible. This is designed to get to the core of the character, not the minutiae.

The list of groups and separate list of individual qualities comes from an exercise from one of my writing classes. This is a valuable exercise, especially for fantasy and science fiction writers, but for writers across all genres. These lists start to humanize and “flesh out” your characters so you can get thinking about how they interact with the world around them both at the macro/political level and (I think, more importantly) on the micro/personal level. For fantasy and science fiction this exercise also prompts some worldbuilding. For instance, I have characters who clearly needed to have an educational background—so I started making up names of universities (and mixed in some real ones too). They live in a colonized solar system, specifically among the moons of Saturn, so where were they born and where do they live? These then serve as seeds from which more worldbuilding can spring. Does each moon of Saturn have a unique accent, or some cultural something that makes them unique, like the various states of the US? Are there rivalries, like sports rivalries? Which moon or which city on a particular moon has the best pizza?

I tend to harp on the idea of appealing to all five senses wherever possible, and to keep reminding myself of that I thought each character should have a “primary sense.” This isn’t the be-all-end-all—none of this is. So if Big Mike’s primary sense is sight it doesn’t mean he can’t hear, it just means that’s what he tends to rely on. If you asked him to remember a particular event he’d start with what he saw.

Lot’s more to say on all this, but for now I’ll let the actual examples speak for themselves, and get back to writing!


Bella Lucky (F)


hero/primary POV (10 scenes)

relies too heavily on luck, which she has to spare

Can’t shoot or drive to save her life

smart and resourceful

brave, verging on cocky—ready for anything (or so she thinks)

catch phrases from the short story: “The DICE just rolled you.” “people in hell want snow cones” “Save the dog and pony show for somebody who’s buyin’ ”

sometimes calls people “buster”

engaged to Jimmy Dobro, but starting to suspect there’s something he isn’t telling her

Heroes: Lunar Security Chief Bryson and Elliot Ness

Personal qualities: Cheerfulness, Confidence, Contribution, Determination, Excitement and Passion, Vitality; discovers: Flexibility; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude, Forgiveness, Love and Warmth, Self-sacrifice

Who are you?

I am the baddest of the badass DICE constables.

What do you want more than anything?

To rise in the DICE ranks—all the way to the top.

How far would you go to get it?

I have to be the best DICE constable—ever. Maybe even the best cop, full stop—ever.

Why is what you want so important?

I help people…which is what I tell other people. Secretly I know I like the personal power and the thrill of the hunt. I like out-smarting bad guys and being the hero.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love Jimmy—I think, and maybe it’s just cop paranoia but I think he’s up to something he’s not telling me. I respect most of my coworkers, but for the most part I’ve let personal relationships suffer for my career.

How do you feel about yourself?

I refuse to admit to myself that I rely way too much on luck, and I know I can’t keep fooling people forever, but if I keep working my ass off maybe my skills will catch up to my luck, the outward appearance I project, and my own image of myself.

Art by Adam Shaw

Art by Adam Shaw

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: cop, DICE constable, Saturnian

But also: agnostic, coffee-drinker, detective novel reader, jazz fan, liberal (mostly), native Miman (born on Mimas), right handed, smoker, straight, wedding magazine reader (closeted)

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Most importantly: lucky, fooling everybody, undefeated

But also: clever, fast, fun, funny, smart

Physical Description:

see illo

Primary Sense:

sight—very straightforward



Niu Fu Ian (F)


bio-tech expert/doctor


6 POV scenes

all about the pretense

In way over her head, but more afraid of trying to work her way out of it than in just pressing ahead and hoping for the best

Personal qualities: Confidence, Determination, Flexibility, Self-sacrifice, Excitement and Passion; loses: Excitement and Passion; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude, Cheerfulness, Contribution, Forgiveness, Love and Warmth, Vitality

Who are you?

I’m a once-promising doctor and gifted geneticist who’s at the end of a long and rocky career.

What do you want more than anything?

To flush the rest of my baggage and be free to finish my life with some shred of dignity.

How far would you go to get it?

I will kill anyone but my son, commit any crime… I have nothing left to lose so have to just do anything to get out of the nightmare my life has become.

Why is what you want so important?

If I didn’t think there was a way out, I guess I’d just have to kill myself, but I deserve a second chance (or is it a third or fourth or fifth chance?) to get my life back on track.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love and miss my son but I understand why he doesn’t talk to me. Everybody else just wants something from me, and are using me up. Fuck ’em.

How do you feel about yourself?

I’m a decent person in indecent circumstances and if I can just get through this, do what I have to do, I can go home and spend the rest of my life just being a doctor and forgetting all about this

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: doctor, Enceladus Wildlife Survey Team member (former), University College Tethys graduate (go Gray Ghosts!)

But also: amateur poet, Asian descent (Chinese), atheist, DICE consultant (part time), gamer (romance RPGs), geneticist, Gray Ghosts fan, half-Earthling (on her father’s side), Martian cartel associate (not by choice), Martian Orange addict (reformed), Miman (currently), mother (son is 26, still lives on Tethys), native Thethyan, rehab “graduate”, Saturnian, Saturnian Medical and Research Technical Society (SMARTS) member, scientist, widow

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Most importantly: watchmaker’s daughter, resourceful, guilty

But also: anxious, daring, desperate, has-been, intelligent, lonely, secretive, temporary, transformative

Different Murder Method:

Uses the monsters to do her dirty work, knows her drugs/instruments will be checked

Unique Item:

Carries a portable medical kit that’s a sort of doctor’s bag/extreme first aid kit—will need some specifics so it doesn’t become “the thing that can do whatever is convenient at the time”

Physical Description:

Asian woman, short (5’ 1”), black hair in an extremely geometrical bob, tends to stand with her hands behind her back, head usually tipped down (guilty body language), showing signs of age (mid-50s) around her eyes

Primary Sense:

touch—the trained hands of a surgeon


Stas Zalevsky (M)


tech expert, but not “geek”

but ultimately a good guy

Bella suspects he’s cartel, but he isn’t

2 POV scenes

Personal qualities: Cheerfulness, Flexibility, Forgiveness; lacks: Confidence

Who are you?

I’m the guy who knows how things work and how to get them to do even more. There’s nothing I can’t figure out (eventually).

What do you want more than anything?

To be recognized for my far more valuable work within the “gun culture” of DICE. What I do is important but marginalized.

How far would you go to get it?

I’m seriously considering interfering in the old fashioned cop culture in some critical case to showcase that my way is better. But I’m not so sure this case is important to warrant that, and it might not be the best showcase either.

Why is what you want so important?

The Martian cartels are out-spending, out-witting, and simply winning the “war” with DICE because they put more money into resources and technology, and they are out-thinking the good guys. DICE is losing the war on drugs—and people are dying as a result.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

If and when there are people in my life, ask me again.

How do you feel about yourself?

I’m smart—actually, I’m smarter than easily 99% of the people in the Saturnian system if not in the entire settled solar system. And if I didn’t absolutely believe that, I would just have to kill myself.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: Phi Beta Kappa, The Titan Institute of Technology and Sciences graduate (TITS, MS, one year of PhD), DICE

But also: current Miman, ethnic Russian, Independent Thinkers of Saturn (ITS, sort of a “social” club for intellectuals), MENSA member, native Martian, naturalized Saturnian, people who hate the acronym TITS, puzzle fan (crosswords, Sudoku, etc.), Rhea Polytechnic graduate (undergrad), Saturnian Museum of Art and Science—Mimas (membership), Subaru owners, vintage video game collector (but not player)

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Most importantly: very much smarter than almost everybody, unappreciated, right

But also: customized his DICE bigBRAIN, defensive, disgruntled, lonely

Unique Item:

Stas has a bigBRAIN—sort of the laptop version of a BRAIN. It’s physically bigger—he carries it around in a messenger bag—and faster and smarter with more robust apps, etc. Of course I’ll have to figure out a way to get rid of it pretty early on so it doesn’t become a crutch.

Physical Description:

There is nothing particularly interesting or unique about the way Stas looks, and that’s why no one really seems to notice him. He’s average in every way—on the outside. Since he doesn’t particularly care what he looks like, and neither does anyone else, we’ll never get any details of his physical appearance in the book.

Primary Sense:

hearing—he listens for signals, but not from people


Hunter Weston (M)


DICE officer

straight-laced, Mormon

security expert, electronics


2 POV scenes

Personal qualities: Contribution, Love and Warmth, Self-sacrifice; lacks: Flexibility

Who are you?

I am a father, husband, and DICE JAG officer.

What do you want more than anything?

To help create a nurturing and safe environment for my family—specifically one free of drugs, which are burning through the Saturn system like a wildfire.

How far would you go to get it?

I always operate within the law (which I understand in exacting detail), and within the system (which I’m not always a big fan of), but I’m not afraid to lie to a liar or even kill a killer.

Why is what you want so important?

I need to know that I’ve done everything I can to leave the Saturn system a better place than I found it—it’s where my children will live on after me.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love my six children, my wife, and our extended family so much sometimes it seems overwhelming. In many ways, I exist only for them. I know that DICE is deeply flawed, but I’m not going to give up on it, or the people who still believe in its mission.

How do you feel about yourself?

If I stopped to think about myself at all, which I don’t, I might feel a little sad about the things I’ve missed—even if I’m not sure I could put my finger on exactly what those things are or were. Still, in the dark moments of the soul, I can feel something missing.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: father (of six), husband, Mormon

But also: Bimini Insula Icebergs fan (professional G-ball team), blond, Brigham Young University School of Law graduate (BYU, Earth), computer expert, cousin, DICE Judge Advocate General’s Office special agent, G-ball coach (like soccer but in zero-G, for his son’s team), G-ball fan, grandson, hates the acronym JAG Off, history buff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate (MIT, Earth, undergrad in network security), native Titanian (still lives there in the city of Bimini on Bimini Insula), Saturnian, security expert, son, uncle

What makes you unique (and the top three)?

Hunter refuses to think about what makes him special. He sees service and community as much more important than what makes him different.

Unique Item:

In his BRAIN are detailed dossiers on every member of the team and their significant contacts. It’s set to self-destruct if anyone tries to access or download it.

Physical Description:

Thin but not lanky or “skinny,” blond hair cut very short, blue eyes, perfect teeth, fastidious uniform and appearance in general

Primary Sense:

smell—he feels he can “sniff out” a bad cop, and actually manifests this literally.


Michael “Big Mike” Stenglitz (M)


DICE tactical officer

gregarious soldier

dies vey soon


NO POV scenes

Personal qualities: Vitality, Excitement and Passion, Cheerfulness; lacks: Appreciation and Gratitude

Who are you?

I am one big bad motherfucker.

What do you want more than anything?

To bust some skulls for the cause, whatever that cause might be.

How far would you go to get it?

All the way out to the maximum operational range of my weapon.

Why is what you want so important?

They tell me it’s important to bust up drug cartels, I bust up drug cartels. If they told me to jack up the fucking Girl Scouts, the fucking Girl Scouts are getting jacked up. End of story.

How do you feel about the people in your life?

I love my husband, my parents, my dogs, and my fellow Marines. Most DICE constables should be fucking hanged, but this Bella chick’s not so bad.

How do you feel about yourself?

I fucking rule.

What groups do you belong to (and the top three)?

Most importantly: ex-Saturnian System Marine Corps (SSMC) Staff Sergeant, husband, dog person (owns three)

But also: betweener (born aboard a spacecraft between Jupiter and Saturn), color blind, country music fan, DICE tactical officer, gay, hunter, member of Bug Hunters Anonymous, military veteran, Saturnian, son, square dancer, uncle

What makes you unique?

paranoid about my feet, supreme self-confidence, funny and fun as hell

Unique Item:

a particularly big and versatile rifle that I still need to define

Physical Description:

massive: 6’7” tall, 300 lbs of pure muscle. Shaved head, big mustache, wears particularly heavy boots

Primary Sense:

sight—he’s an uncomplex kinda guy: “Do you smell that?” someone asks. “Nope,” he answers—and the monster eats his head.


And by now you’ve probably realized that even though I knew I’d end up putting this up on my blog, I still wrote this for me. These are my notes, and normally would never be published in any way. And like I’ve said a bunch of times: No plan survives contact with the enemy. This is my plan for these characters. How they’ll end up will be largely determined by the writing itself. And I’ve already got an idea that will require adding another character—and this after I’ve already added Big Mike since the last go around. This is enough to get me started next week, but it’s just the first few layers, and everything is subject to change.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, creative team, horror novels, how to write fiction, monsters, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, science fiction technology, SF and Fantasy Authors, technology, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. This has got me thinking of ways to juice up my characters. Thanks!!

  2. djmorand says:

    I love this. Especially talking about primary sense. I tend to be visual and tactile myself, so my characters do as well. I had never thought to spice it up by making them more inclined towards other senses. Thanks for this! NANOWRIMO is going to be great.

  3. danielaark says:

    I really liked ” characters do is advance the plot, you’re doing it wrong. The plot should be there to advance your characters.” Unfortunately we often forget about that. Thanks for this post 🙂

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