In Joe M. McDermott’s novel The Fortress at the End of Time, Ensign Aldo has just come to a remote space station. The commanding officer is a bit of a fallen tyrant, but still, young Aldo thinks:

I felt alone, torn between obligations, waiting for someone to do something, confused and uncertain about the true path of my devotion. Call it idolatry, but at the time, I favored the admiral, because I saw, in him, my service oath and the path to other colonies.

Later, that belief is shaken:

“Don’t give him false hope, Wong. The admiral is pissed. You’re under Article 32 now.”

The quartermaster looked in at me. “Obasanjo has volunteered to be your advocate. Do you object?”

“No offense to Obasanjo, but I will decline. If the admiral is pissed at me, I would prefer an advocate that doesn’t cause any more friction. Who else you got?”

“NetSec says he could do it, in a pinch. He doesn’t like you, though.”

“Well, at least the admiral likes him, right? It is actually not a criminal proceeding or a court martial. It is just an Article 32 trial—a big show because the admiral is pissed. I did my duty. Sergeant Anderson was very sick. He will be back. Corporal Jensen deserted on her own, likely with help from Wong. Let’s try and make the old man happy, okay? What is his goal here? Am I an example to others to maintain order, or am I actually under investigation? I have nothing to hide. My reports are honest. I did the right thing with Anderson, and I failed to capture Jensen, who was in collusion with Wong and the monastery. I am a pilot, not a security officer. I have limited hand-to-hand, no investigation training.”

Q put his hand on my shoulder. “The admiral hates you. The best thing to do is take whatever he gives you and prepare for the next phase, after service. I will alert Lieutenant Commander Obasanjo and Captain Nguyen.”

I said nothing else. What was there to say?

Notice that most of this is about Aldo’s sense of who’s with him and who’s against him, who might be trustworthy and who might make his bad situation worse: If the admiral is pissed at me, I would prefer an advocate that doesn’t cause any more friction. He even gets into what Aldo thinks other characters think of a particular character: Well, at least the admiral likes him, right? A subject of great concern is what another character is thinking, what might be motivating him: What is his goal here? Am I an example to others to maintain order, or am I actually under investigation? And relationships are defined in a sometimes categorical, perfectly direct manner: The admiral hates you.

Like it or not, we often see ourselves in terms of how we relate to other people around us. There are people we admire and seek, at least in part, to emulate, and people we see in a negative light for some reason or another, and from whom we hope to differentiate ourselves. This goes back to my purposely reductive definitions of a hero and a villain from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, a hero is someone whose motivations we understand and whose methods we find inspirational.

The point there being that, either way, we understand why that person is doing that thing, even if we’re not a fan of the means or the end.

Though we spend a certain amount of energy trying to make sure that our heroes are “likeable” and our villains are well motivated from the point of view of our readers, do we spend the same energy making sure that the hero is likeable to the other characters in the story, and that the villain’s motivations are understood by other characters in the story? In fact, the best way to show your hero being likeable and your villain being plausibly motivated is in their reactions to others.

I’m a lifelong Trekkie, and a particular fan of what I call the “thinking person’s Star Trek”: Deep Space Nine. Years ago—when the series was still on the air—I picked up a copy of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Writers/Directors Guide at a convention. Written by Rick Berman and Michael Piller, this slim little document is only nineteen double-spaced pages long, and serves as a quick rundown of the basic concepts of the series, with sections entitled THE BAJORAN WORMHOLE, THE BACK STORY, and DEEP SPACE NINE (which described the station itself). But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the lion’s share of the document, pages 7-19, is all about the characters. Each one of the show’s outstanding ensemble cast gets at least a short write up, but what I found interesting when I first read it were the short sections at the end of many of the character write ups in which the series creators called out important relationships.

Kira, for instance, has three key relationships called out:

KIRA AND DAX: Dax and Kira have formed a very strong friendship, though Dax’s free-wheeling attitude toward life has yet to rub off on the Major.

KIRA AND ODO: Next to Dax, Odo is Kira’s closest confidante on the station. Kira trusts Odo. Ironically, his stoic demeanor gives her the security to reveal her more vulnerable side.

KIRA AND QUARK: Kira has no tolerance for Quark’s shenanigans. She feels he is a corrupting influence on the station and believes they would be better off without him. Perhaps this is why Quark finds her only the second most desirable woman on the station.

O’Brien only one:

O’BRIEN AND BASHIR: It’s not that O’Brien doesn’t like the young, enthusiastic Doctor, it’s just that he… prefers not to be around him. For some reason, everything Bashir does annoys him. They’re just two very different people and O’Brien can’t understand why Bashir wants to be his friend.

Some characters, including Quark and Dr. Bashir, have none, but are more or less covered in the sections for other characters.

This was a real lesson for me, and I’ve carried through something similar in my own writing. When thinking about characters, writing up notes like this, I actually write these sections—at least for a handful of key relationships.

Of course it’s still important to get into each major character’s inner experience, and of course it’s important to consider how those characters might appear to your readers, but add this layer, too. How do they appear to each other?

After all, that’s really how most of us live our lives—much more concerned with what a few key individuals in our lives think of us, rather than how me might be remembered by history.


—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.
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  1. I love Deep Space Nine! That book you got sounds cool, though I think those character relationships are quite obvious in the show, which is a testament to the producers and actors. I remember playing a table-top RPG (though I don’t remember the name of it) where you had to write down a few sentences describing your relationships/character’s views of other player characters. These were secret, only known to you and the game master. It certainly made for interesting role playing! I don’t keep specific notes on character dynamics, but I do keep them in mind when I write and they often become the core of the story.

  2. Pingback: Writing Links 12/18/17 – Where Genres Collide

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