Should characters be robots?

I recently joined a critique group over on Dragonmount and someone there started a rather interesting discussion there today regarding a blog post by Robert J. Sawyer who points out on his blog:

Psst! Wanna hear a secret? The people in most stories aren’t really humans — they’re robots!
Real people are quite accidental, the result of a random jumbling of genes and a chaotic life. But story people are made to order to do a specific job. In other words, robots!


And, of course, that means that you shouldn’t start with a character and then go looking about for a story; it’s a lot easier to do it the other way around. First, come up with your premise (for instance, “I want to write about a telepathic alien who can read subconscious instead of conscious thoughts”). Then you ask yourself who could most clearly dramatize the issues arising from that premise (“There’s this guy, see, who’s been suppressing terrible memories of the suicide of his wife”).

After that, head for your keyboard and build the character to your specifications, for that one specific job. (In this case, the story has already been done brilliantly; it’s Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.) Of course, you have to add subtleties and quirks to give your character depth, but if you do it right, only you will ever know that underneath the real-looking skin, your hero is actually a made-to-measure robot . . .

I guess I partly agree. Of course your character has a certain function, a specific ‘job’ as you put it. After all that’s what prompts character action and interaction.
But then again I couldn’t imagine creating a character just for the sake of their function. When I’m creating a character – or when they spontaneously pop up in my head waving and screaming PICK ME! – I’m thinking of a couple of things:

– yes, what’s the characters’ function, what do they do in the plot and how do they influence the story as a whole?
– what is their background/personality/motivation? In my experience thinking about those three can either result in something that perfectly fit into your already existing plotline or it can create something new. It can result in a new subplot or even in the general plot taking a completely new direction. This is the point where I’m not thinking about shaping my character to fit into the pre-existing story, but where I’m pretty much doing the exact opposite of what Sawyer suggests.

So with that said, I only about halfway agree with that approach. Sure, you have to model some characters to fit into your plot, but there are just as many occasions when it happens exactly the other way ’round and a character and their action or motivation lead your plot into a completely different direction.

Then again it also depends on what kind of writer you are. I suppose Robert J. Sawyer’s suggestion works very well if you are already totally set on what you want to happen in your story. If you already know exactly what your protagonist(s) and your antagonist(s) etc are going to do, then you just need to fill in placeholders so to say.

Maybe it’s because I’m not that kind of writer and usually start out knowing jack-shit about where my story is going in the end, but I hold it more with Nathan Bransford who recently pointed out in his blog  that character and plot are pretty much inseparable. It’s a little simplified, but IMO you can’t really have a detailed plot without knowing who your characters are and the other way ’round, you can’t have intriguing characters without them having a background, a personality and a motivation that drive the plot that unfolds around them.


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