Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

The Emergence of Characters

When it comes to writing fiction, I’m a planner. I like to pin down important details about characters before I  start writing them. The plot is worked out in a spreadsheet full of story arcs and beats. I know roughly how many words there will be in each chapter.

Despite this, something unplanned always emerges. The characters come alive as I write them, revealing aspects of themselves I never expected. As I spool out a line of logic from tiny references,  small things grow in size. Interests, passions, and quirks all evolve on the screen in front of me. Those characters on the page are inevitably richer and more interesting than the planned versions, and that makes their stories deeper too.

This is the thing about planning.  It’s useful for providing structure and freeing me up to write. But it has its limits. It’s not until I put story to page that the real characters emerge.

Gilmore Girls and Portraying Motivation

In my last blog post, I talked about character motivation in terms of pirates and economics. Today I want to look at it from a softer angle.

I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls, the early 2000s TV drama of fast dialogue, family angst, and failed romance. It’s cute and relaxing. It’s also very good at portraying the irrationality of human motives.

Pretty much every episode, a character will have several issues going on in their life. One thing will get them frustrated. They’ll carry this frustration into the next scene. They won’t deal with the issue there as well as they could have done because their emotions are already in knots.

It’s fantastic storytelling, because it makes sense on a human level and because it’s clear to the audience even though it isn’t explained. Anyone can join the dots from one incident to the next. It means that smart characters can act stupid, ensuring that conflict happens, without undermining the audience’s affection for these characters.

It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like smartly written characters, or you want to study what drives human drama, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Pirates and Human Motivation

“Follow the money.” It’s not a new idea in understanding motivation, but it’s an important one.

The Golden Age of Piracy (a real thing that happened between around 1650 and 1730) was all about following the money. I don’t just mean guys with guns chasing guys with gold, though there was a chunk of that. I’m talking about the bigger economic picture.

“Come back! I want to talk about some exciting opportunities in cannonball futures exploration!”

I’m talking about why the Golden Age happened, and why it happened when it did.

When Peace Means Unemployment

The Golden Age of piracy had three main phases, and two of them began when wars ended*.

In 1648, and again in 1714, wars ended in Europe. I’m not talking small wars that were only horrible for people in the local area. I’m talking huge wars that drew in nearly all the nations of Europe – specifically the 30 Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession. These were sprawling conflicts at land and sea between nations with far more guns than sense. They employed a lot of people, turning them into soldiers and sailors.

So yay for employment prospects, at least?

Well, yes and no. Because military employment in a continent-spanning war isn’t a sustainable career. Such massive conflagrations of human life are mercifully limited. Sooner or later, the combatants run out of resources or the will to fight. The war ends. The poor populations who’ve seen their homelands torn apart start picking up the pieces. And the governments start laying off troops, because they don’t need massive armies and navies any more, and they’ve spent all their spare cash on cannonballs and coffins.

Yargh, I love me a good cannonball.

Yargh For Opportunity!

Imagine you’re an English sailor in 1715. For the best part of a decade, you’ve been fighting at sea. It’s what you know best. It’s what you’re comfortable with. It’s pretty much the only way you can see of making a living.

But now your nation won’t employ you, so you need to go freelance. And just across the Atlantic is your opportunity. Because in the Caribbean, the governments have less control, and there are places were a seafaring bandit can hide out. Piracy starts looking pretty appealing.

Then you get there, and sure there are a lot of people in the same boat as you, literally and metaphorically. But that’s not a problem because trade is picking up. The end of the war means safer travel, which means more commerce. There are all these ships loaded with cash and luxury goods. You’ve lost your job, and suddenly the rich merchants and ship owners are making out like bandits. Well screw them, you’re a proper bandit, and you’re going to take your share.

Your big, watery share of pieces of eight.**

Need and Opportunity

In both cases, there was a big upswing in piracy. Big name pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny strutted their stuff. For years, the seas of the Carribean weren’t safe, because this was the best way some folks could see to make a living.

This is what leads so much of human behaviour – a need and the opportunity to address it.

It’s also why economics, the social science of meeting material needs, is so important in understanding motives. The flow of money and opportunities shifted, so people did too.

In the FantasyCon panel on fantasy economics, the panellists talked a lot about real examples like this. They show how economics isn’t just about exchange rates. It’s about human behaviour. And whether you’re trying to understand history or create a fantasy world, human behaviour is what matters. So it’s worth paying attention to the economics.

Follow the money. Even if it’s pieces of eight.



* The other phase also had economic drivers, as opportunities in the Caribbean started to dry up.

** Pieces of eight were high quality Spanish silver coins which became a popular global currency.

Redemption in Science Fiction and Fantasy – a Nine Worlds Panel

The panel on redemption in science fiction and fantasy at Nine Worlds was an odd one. There’s always a danger that a panel with real world implications will drift away from sf+f. The conversation on this one was interesting, not always comfortable, and definitely not always connecting to sf+f. I’d be hard pressed to properly write up the discussion, but there were some really useful lessons for writers, so here are the ones I picked out and who came up with them:

  • In real life, redemption is a slow, gradual process. It comes from outside influences, not a sudden internal moment of revelation (Mike Brooks).
  • Redemption of a character isn’t always about them changing. It can be about the audience gaining a new understanding of them, as happens with Snape in Harry Potter (Adrian Tchaikovsky).
  • In a fictional narrative, it works better if the decision to find redemption is in the hands of the character (Mike Brooks).
  • A character who sees the good in a person can be a useful spur to change (Ro Smith).
  • Redemption can end up gendered. Don’t make female characters’ redemption all about having children, as some TV shows do (audience member).

So there we go – a quick lesson in writing redemption, courtesy of Adrian, Mike, Ro, and Jan Siegel in the chair.

I’ll add that this was the first time I’d seen Mike Brooks talk and he was both interesting and eloquent. Despite my huge to-read pile, I always end up buying a book by someone who impresses me at a convention, and this time it was two of Mike’s books. Remember authors, being a decent human being is one of the best forms of marketing.

Disability in SFF: Beyond 101 – an Eastercon panel

For me, writing about other people sometimes feels like a minefield. I don’t want to write lots of white, straight, cis, able-bodied, male characters – the world has plenty of those. But as I am all those things, there’s a very real risk of writing other perspectives badly.

So when Eastercon had a range of panels on disability in science fiction and fantasy, I was determined to go and learn more.

Beyond 101

The panel I went to was trying to get beyond the basics of representing disability in sf+f. The panellists were Sue Smith, Caroline Mullan, and Diane Carr, all of whom made some excellent points.

As Sue pointed out at the start, sci-fi is a productive space in which to explore disability and access. This doesn’t mean that it’s done flawlessly. Representations of disability often have an ablist bias – something I’m sure I’m guilty of myself.

Fortunately, the panellists pointed out both obvious and less obvious pitfalls.

Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The panel skimmed over one of the biggest problem areas – presenting disability just to wipe it away. For example, Geordi La Forge in Star Trek seldom shows the real challenges of blindness, as he has a visor that lets him see. Similarly, Daredevil is effectively not blind due to his other senses. There was a whole other panel on this, so this panel didn’t cover it for long, but the overall message was clear – if you’re not showing the experience of being disabled, you’re not really showing disability.

Diane pointed out a less obvious but equally important problem area – metaphors. When you use disability as a metaphor in a story, a lot of the nitty gritty of living with disability is lost. You’re seeing a symbol, not a reality. Metaphors are usually spoken from a position of power, one that assumes its own view to be neutral. Someone else’s experience is leveraged to make a point. But that point is seldom about other people’s experiences.

This opened up a whole can of worms in my brain. I seldom think about the messages of my metaphors, beyond the message I’m trying to send. Clearly, that’s something to work on. And clearly, when I include disabled characters, they should be there as people, not symbols.


The panel raised some really interesting ideas, things that I’ll try to use in future writing.

They talked about DIY solutions to disability, such as people building custom-made prosthetics. This sounds like it’s rich with character and story potential.

An audience member talked about how having seizures leaves her on edge all the time, as she never knows when they will strike. That’s an experience I want to use to enrich a character.

And the panel talked about how medicine, with its technology, power structures, and resources, tries to fit people into those structures rather than adjusting to them. That’s an interesting conflict right there.

Becoming a Better Writer

I’m not going to pretend that I’ll flawlessly represent disability from now on. But just thinking about what I might be missing will make me better at it. And anything that makes me better at writing other people’s experiences makes me a better writer.

Huge thanks to the panellists for that.

False Relationships in Fiction

Tension in fiction comes from knowing that something is wrong and waiting to see what will happen. That’s as true of a relationship between characters as it is of Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. As in Hitchcock’s example, whether this creates tension or a surprise depends upon your point of view.

There’s a scene in Peter Higgins’s book Wolfhound Century that includes two characters – Lom and Maroussia. Lom is a policeman. Maroussia, a dissident, doesn’t know this. The readers do, and we know that she won’t respond well. Throughout the scene, we’re waiting for the information to drop. We’re waiting to see how she reacts. There’s tension here.

Imagine that scene if we didn’t know the truth about Lom. There’s no tension from the relationship now, but there is a surprise coming. A twist has been set up.

False relationships create tension and twists out of the characters we care about. That makes them a particularly powerful source of tension. Think about the film The Truman Show or the TV series Chuck. Most of the drama and the humour in those stories comes from that tension. We know that the relationships between characters are not what they appear. We’re waiting for that to resolve.

How you show this to your readers depends on how you write. But whatever your approach, it’s a powerful tool.

Throne of the Crescent Moon – a Fantastic Array of Characters

Trouble is coming to the city of Dhamsawaat. Monstrous ghuls animated by dark magic prowl the streets. A corrupt ruler sits on the throne. A criminal firebrand is stirring revolt. And through it all strides Doctor Adoulla Makhslood – ghul-hunter, scholar, tea drinker, and an old man who just wants to be left in peace.

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon drew a lot of attention when it came out. It was praised for the world building, in which the author gets away from Eurocentric fantasy with something far more Middle Eastern. That stuff is great – this is a cool world. But it’s not the best thing about the book.

What made me love this novel was the characters. The kind yet grumpy Adoulla. Fanatical young fighter Raseed, grappling to deal with his emotions. Litaz the alchemist, an aristocrat far from her homeland. Dawoud the mage, whose every spell drains his life force away. Zamia, a fearsome shape-shifting tribeswoman. They all have strong personalities which complement and clash in interesting ways. They’re all well developed and presented to the reader.

This is a great ensemble story. I’d lend you my copy, but I already passed it on. So go find your own, make a nice cup of cardamom tea, and settle down for some fine reading.

Smart Characters, Stupid Writers

One of the most interesting challenges for a writer is presenting other people. This can be about gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. It can be about life experiences. It can be about political views. And, as a friend recently reminded me, it can be about intelligence.

I could go to great lengths here picking apart what we mean when we say intelligence. But this isn’t that blog, and fortunately I don’t need to. Because what I’m about to say applies as much to being educated and informed as it does to having the skills to use that information.

We’re all smart in some ways and dumb in others. Give me twenty minutes with the right book and I can talk in depth on any incident in history. But after a month, I still can’t master the fingering to play “Walk Like You” on the ukulele, and it’s only the fourth tune in my beginners’ songbook. As for bluffing at poker, I know from the start that my pot will end empty. No-one is straight up all smart or all stupid.

As a result, every writer has to write people who are in some way smarter than them. It’s just that sometimes this is really noticeable. Most of us can’t think like NASA scientists, never mind write like them.

So how do you write really smart people?

First up, make use of technical language and special ways of speaking.
If you can pick out a few pieces of jargon or ways of talking appropriate to your character, you can make a good bluff of writing their voice. Those few bits will sell their intelligence and knowledgeability, making it seem like they know a lot about something you don’t.
Secondly, use point of view.
Say the story is following John, who shovels shit for a living and can just about count to twenty-one if he’s naked. He meets Anna, a NASA scientist. She starts talking science. And you write something like… “John tried to follow what Anna was saying, but the words kept sliding off his brain. Velocity this and orbital that, words no-one needed in an order that made no damn sense. As she kept talking, he started wandering around the lab…” And so on. Because your PoV character doesn’t understand the smart person, you can get away with not understanding them either. It’s just part of a convincing viewpoint.
If you’re not a NASA scientist, or hugely smart and dedicated to research like Kim Stanley Robinson, then you’ll always struggle to tell a story convincingly from the point of view of a NASA scientist. But flip the viewpoint, throw in a few bits of jargon, and you can get away with a lot.
After all, this is writing. We’re always making it up.

The Good Guy Hero

It’s not easy creating a straight up good hero. We like our heroes that bit more flawed and broken, a reminder of what it is to be truly human. A straight-up good hero usually comes across as unconvincing, cheesy and old-fashioned.

But on the rare occasions when they’re done right, these are some of the most likable characters out there. Think of Captain America. Think of Carrot in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch novels. They aren’t perfect, but their imperfections have an innocence about them. We don’t love them because they have a dark streak. We love them because even their faults are endearing.

The rarity with which this is done right shows just how hard such characters are to write. But they’re something worth looking for as a reader and worth striving towards as a writer. They lighten up even the darkest corners of our lives. They show that we can be flawed, as all humans are, without having to let the darkness in.