Start with the most basic premise that a story is characters in conflict, and the best stories are those that present the most fully realized characters—characters who feel like real people, however unreal their circumstances—so that no matter how outlandish the conflicts in which they find themselves our readers happily come along for the ride. That said, how do we create characters, especially in fantasy and science fiction stories and novels with no grounding in the real world at all, that seem like real people, when nothing about the world in which they live is itself real?

This is the the trick, isn’t it, to genre writing in all forms. For me, this always starts with authors’ own ability to empathize with the people they create. You have to know what it feels like to be scared in order to write a character into a scary situation. But this is true of any genre, or “genreless” or literary fiction as well, isn’t it? Of course it is. Know what love feels like before you start writing a romance novel, people.

In his book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern reminds us:

A character comes out of a dense cultural, social, and psychological matrix. The more richly this is suggested, the more resonant the portrait. Evocative details about the person’s family, childhood incidents, intimate moments—all are clues that help us understand the character. And remember, too, that you’re writing fiction; you’re creating art. Actual facts are your raw material, not your boundaries. 

Romance authors and realist authors have the “actual facts”—the whole real world—to fall back on. We know what the codes are, basically. We know what in not just the physical world but the culture that triggers various emotional responses. Will those same triggers exist through the looking glass or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? This is where worldbuilding enters the picture, but not in the sense of maps and names for things and arcane religious rituals. Romance and mystery/thriller characters exist in a cultural context, and it’s from that context they’re drawn. In his book The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow wrote:

“Culture” is defined as behavior, knowledge, ideas, and values that you acquire from those who live around you, and it’s different in different places. We modern humans act according to the culture in which we are raised, and we also acquire much of our knowledge through culture, which is true for us far more than it is for other species. In fact, recent research suggests that humans are even evolutionarily adapted to teach other humans.

If we’re creating our own cultures, we need to think through those triggers, those basic expectations and the unwritten rules that can be summed up as culture. But this can get complicated. It certainly is in the real world, in which we hear talk of “culture wars” around an impossibly broad swathe of subjects. My cautions against too much worldbuilding in place, can you describe the culture of your invented world in a couple paragraphs? In his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” George Orwell wrote:

But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order. The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc., etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries.

One can learn a good deal about the spirit of England from the comic coloured postcards that you see in the windows of cheap stationers’ shops. These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

As a counterpoint to that passage from Orwell, consider a similar short take, this time on American culture, by Eugene Thacker from his book Tentacles Longer Than Night:

The idea of an American pessimism is an oxymoron. In a culture that thrives on entrepreneurialism, pharmacology, and self-help, “pessimism” is simply a fancy name for a bad mood. In a culture that prizes the can-do, self-starter attitude, to be a pessimist is simply to be a complainer—if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. To live in such a culture is to constantly live in the shadow of an obligatory optimism, a novel type of coercion that is pathologized early on in child education in the assessment: “Does not like to play with others.”

I’ve used these as examples in courses on science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding, challenging students to use that Orwell passage as inspiration to write something similar for their own world. What is the ordinary citizen’s experience of this kingdom or that stellar empire?

This gets into how people live, their behavior and interactions. And this is how you bring a sense of personal involvement into your characters’ lives. It’s not all about the high-minded ideals of duty, honor, country… Sometimes, and I’ll side with George Orwell in asserting that this is true most of the time, what really defines us are cultural expressions like slang, fashion, music, courting, sports and games, and so on.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about in terms of characters living in the popular culture from the science fiction novel Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta:

The atmosphere in the square was almost relaxed today. I had only seen two soldiers when I had arrived, and they had been leaning against a wall at the edge of the square, looking indifferent and drinking amber-coloured liquid from their waterskins. A couple of children were arranging frayed plastic mahjong tiles on the ground, someone was playing an accordion across the uneven puzzle of the stalls, and Ninia’s sister Tamara was selling trinkets and hair brooches a short distance away on the other side of the alley. It seemed strange to me that women would still want to decorate their hair. When I had mentioned this to Sanja, she had said, ‘People will hold on to what they’re used to, for as long as they can. It’s the only way to survive.’

In this book, climate change has forced a global fresh water crisis, and the heroine, Noria, lives in a small town that’s part of a much larger police state. Even in a world of “water crimes” where citizens are summarily executed in the street, we see people clinging to pop culture—to games (mahjong), music (someone is playing the accordion), and fashion (hair brooches and other trinkets). These human touches serve to add a greater level of personal affront to the actions of the oppressive regime by building a foundation of humanity under Noria and the other characters trying to make their way in this dystopian future.

There are certain “facts” of what it means to be human—certain shared assumptions in any case—but everything is then filtered through lenses of culture, in this world, and our dreamworlds.

—Philip Athans

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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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