Agents, editors, and readers crave characters that seem true to life… and that goes whether the characters are actually human or not. This week, guest blogger Suzanne van Rooyen tackles humanizing the inhuman. While Suzanne’s post focuses on robots, her insights can help with creating great characters based on animals, aliens, creatures, or even inanimate objects. Happy writing! - Ella
Thanks to a university minor in philosophy, which introduced me to ontological and existential schools of thought, I have become fascinated by the concept of artificial intelligence, particularly in the idea of creating synthetic humans. This fascination hinges on the answers to the following questions: What is it that makes us uniquely human? Can we replicate that? What happens if or when we do? At what point does a machine become human?
I've always been drawn to robots, particularly androids (robots that resemble humans), in science fiction. In fact, some of my favorite characters from sci-fi blockbusters like Interstellar and sci-fi series like Almost Human and even Extant, have been the robots! But why and how do these machines become likable characters, often eclipsing their human counterparts?
This was one of the biggest challenges I faced when writing I Heart Robot. I needed to bring androids to life in a way that made them seem human while never letting the reader forget they were machines. My process was similar to creating a human character: what are their biggest strengths? What are their biggest weaknesses? What do they want? What do they fear? What makes them vulnerable? The answers to these questions might not even be things the android is inherently aware of – depending on the capabilities of their AI – but as an author, I could show these traits to the reader anyway by putting my androids in situations that garnered sympathy for that character. Getting the reader to feel for a character – even if the android can't feel for themselves – is extremely important!
Another technique to employ is humor. This is used very well in Interstellar to bring TARS and CASE, the onboard robots, to life, and we see it too in Dorian from Almost Human. Humor requires a certain amount of self-awareness, which immediately ups the degree of 'human-ness', but can also be used to humanize the character even when they themselves might not be aware of why they're being funny. Consider Star Trek's Data and his aphorisms, or his adorable yet ill-informed attempts at being human, trying to sneeze for example. These humorous moments engendered sympathy in the viewer for the character and made the audience feel for Data even when he couldn't feel for himself.
Another stand out moment, and one that greatly influenced I Heart Robot, is a scene from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles where the terminator Cameron is imitating a ballerina on TV. Her attempt at dance is witnessed by one of the human characters and it's how that human character reacts to seeing a robot doing ballet that makes the moment so powerful. This was a device I employed in I Heart Robot. My android is a musician and his awareness of human artistry, human creativity, and our ability to self-express when he cannot, ironically shows his humanity.
Bringing non-human characters, in this case – robots, to life boils down to giving them just enough humanity to make them relatable. Giving them a goal, a question they need to answer, a problem they need to solve, or a person/object they want to engage with will provide the necessary personification to make the reader care about the character, and once the reader cares, you've got a living character even if they don't have a heart beat.
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Sweden and is busy making friends with the ghosts of her Viking ancestors. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. When she grows up, she wants to be an elf. Until then, she spends her time (when not writing) wall climbing, buying far too many books, and entertaining her shiba inu, Lego. Her books include The Other Me (Harmony Ink) and I Heart Robot (Month9Books).