Making Characters Feel Like Real People: The Becky Chambers Way

I’ve only read 2 books by Becky Chambers, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. Both are from her Wayfarers series, books that have easily jumped to some of my favorite of all time, and if you read them, I suspect they’ll be some of your favorites as well.

For what reason, you might ask, have I made such a bold claim? It’s because I love the people in her stories. Notice, I said people, not characters or protagonists, not heroes or villains, but people. Chambers excels at something that writers (including myself) have spent their entire career trying to learn to do well. She excels at making fictional characters seem like real people to a reader. She does this so effectively that even though most of the characters from the first book don’t even show up in A Closed and Common Orbit, it doesn’t mater, you still want to read it, and keep reading it until you finish. I literally pulled an all nighter just because I wanted to keep listening.

4 Steps of Making Real Characters the Becky Chambers Way

There are four things I think she does to accomplish this feat of character creation:

  1. Even though her characters live in space and among aliens, Chambers gives her characters problems that could be our problems in real life.
  2. Chambers makes her characters good people first (even if they seem bad at first), then makes them choose good repeatedly.
  3. Chambers makes them great at one thing, and terrible at others.
  4. Chambers makes a universe seem small because every character’s story ends up being connected to the rest in a completely believable way.

Specific Character Case Study: Rosemary Harper

Take Rosemary Harper from A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Without spoiling anything, Chambers gives us a mystery with Rosemary.

  1. We know something’s off about her history, but we don’t know what until near the end of the book. Rosemary struggles to fit into a tight spacer crew, she makes mistakes she has to fix, and she desperately wants to prove herself. For being a crew member on a ship that punches tunnels through the space time continuum, her problems of wanting acceptance are something we all experience.
  2. To make Rosemary a good person first, Chambers gives us just enough about her backstory that we know she’s running from something bad, and yet despite that, she tries to do as best she can for the crew of the Wayfarer and the people. She then has to constantly work to do the right thing, to try her best, and at times, ignore her own needs to keep things going. At any point if Rosemary just gave up, we’d hate her. If she chose to not help the crew, we’d hate her. If she chose anything else but the good she already had, then we wouldn’t love her so much we want to know everything about her. See Random Aside below number (4) for an example of how Chambers takes a character we don’t like and turns them into a good character we can care about.
  3. Rosemary fulfills a very important job on the crew, the accountant of sorts. She not only is a good at it, but she’s great at it. The only complaint she gets on the job is when she orders a part that is one serial number away from the actually requested part. But while she’s great at the records and money, she’s bad at just about everything else required of a spacer. This immediately puts her into state of separation from the rest of the crew, who have worked long enough that they know how they fit with everyone else in both the day-to-day and emergencies. One of the greatest parts about the thing she’s good at is that she’s able to use her talent to help the crew in an emergency as well, making her ability worth it for more than financial gain.
  4. Now I definitely don’t want to get into spoilers, but when we finally learn everything about Rosemary’s past, we find out that things from her past have created situations that the crew has either already had to deal with or are currently dealing with somehow. These connections made the universe seem small but were completely believable because of the nature of her past. Then Chambers goes another step forward and brings out the tension of the crew about the situation making the crazy, strange and beautiful universe she created feel even smaller.

Random Aside

The best example of how Chambers takes a character we think is bad, and then endears them to us by making them good, is a character from A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet named Corbin. For much of the book, Corbin is an ill-tempered perfectionist that seems to enjoy being difficult. He’s also kind of speciest (essentially racism except that its discrimination based on species). Without revealing his story, you find out that he has a lot of very justifiable reasons for being the way that he is. To start his transition into being a good character, Chambers does something akin to the master stroke of a painter, she forces Corbin to rely on his crew to save his life. She not only does that, but she forces Corbin to rely on a specific member of his crew (one he doesn’t get along with) for a full year. Because of this, Corbin learns how to respect others and makes decisions to help others that then endears him to us just as much as Rosemary or Sissix or Dr. Chef.

This making a universe feel small is a common way to make the characters of a movie or TV show quickly relatable. It’s like what The Office did for general, white collar America and what Parks & Rec did with general government bureaucracy. Those shows took a very broad, and widely variable setting, filtered it down to its most base parts, and then making the characters interact in the constraints of those base parts. Once they did that, everything about how the characters interact follows from that base setting.

We writers (especially fiction writers) seem to get so fixated on world building, when authors like Becky Chambers are showing us that it’s not about how detailed the world it, it’s about the people in it. Instead, we just have to do one thing.

To make a world and its people feel real, practice making your world feel small instead of expansive. It will force you to examine character motivations to a higher level because we won’t be able rely on world building exposition to get in the way of character dialogue.

I wish I could outline the character Sidra from A Closed and Common Orbit because the character exemplifies the 4 steps better than Rosemary does, but no amount of talking around a bush or trying to be sly about it would stop me from spoiling A Closed and Common Orbit for you. You’ll just have to go read them and see how amazing Becky Chambers is as an author. These 4 categories will fit any character you choose in her books, so I definitely suggest you go read them, if not for the learning value of them, then for the entertainment value. I literally cried, got angry, and couldn’t stop reading at the end of A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and then cried, was elated, and put of a freelance project when finishing A Closed and Common Orbit.

Summary

Becky Chambers uses 4 major categorical tools (as far as I can tell) to make characters feel real, which in turn makes the universe her characters are connected feel real.

  1. Give your characters relatable problems, even if the universe they live in is very different from our own.
  2. Make your readers love your characters by making those characters good first, then make them choose good repeatedly (think Mal from Firefly).
  3. Give your characters something to be great at, and then make them terrible or mediocre at best in everything else.
  4. Make all of the back stories for your characters connect together (without being obvious) in some way.

If you haven’t read anything from Becky Chambers before, now is definitely a time to start! You can click any red link on the page (or these: A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet or A Closed and Common Orbit) and it will take you right to Amazon where you can buy her books (which yes means I get a little bit of a commission which will help me produce more content!).  

I think I’m going to do a writing prompt on this, so stay tuned for that! And as always

Keep Writing!

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