One of my favorite characters of all time is Star Trek’s lovable android, Data. If you aren’t familiar with The Next Generation, and Data in particular, the most important thing you need to understand is Data is an android with a life mission of becoming more human. He’s the Pinocchio of space, but with better decision-making skills.
While rewatching the series for the tenth time—because of course we need to indoctrinate our oldest patootie into this world—we came across the episode titled “The Measure of a Man.” If you haven’t seen this episode, or if it’s been a while, please take a few minutes to watch this clip.
The crux of the episode is this—what (or who) qualifies as sentient life? And it made me wonder about my own characters. At what point do they become ‘sentient’?
There are tons of character interview questions for authors to get to know their characters. My deep, dark secret? Character interviews have never ever worked for me. At least, they’ve never helped make my characters seem sentient.
But what if we applied Star Fleet’s criteria for sentient life to our characters and judged them under the same microscope that Data was judged in “The Measure of a Man?” Will doing so help us understand the core of our characters better? And if so, do our characters measure up?
The first criteria that sentient life must meet is intelligence. Does the being possess the “ability to learn, to understand, and to cope with new situations?”
I mean, yes, we can force our characters to learn, to understand, and to cope with new situations. We are their creators, after all. But at what point do our characters become organically intelligent? In other words, when do our characters begin to tell us, their creator, if a certain decision or action is within character for them?
In the past, it has taken me a long time to get to this point with my characters. I have to live with them and immerse myself in their world for a while. Korrina, the main character in my Siren’s Call series, took years to develop because I, the creator, had a different idea of who she should be than who she truly was. (And she is nothing if not stubborn.) My idea of who she should be blocked her true self from coming out.
Once I let Korrina be her snarky, acts-now-apologizes-later self, she became organically intelligent. She was able to learn and to understand new, big concepts (such as the existence of mythological beings and that she’s a Siren with a magic object attached to her soul), as well as cope with new situations in ways that were realistic, believable, and unique to her character. It is her intelligence that adds shape to her character, as well as her ability to learn from her mistakes that makes her seem sentient.
My critique partner, Julie Glover, is an absolute whiz when it comes to crafting characters who appear self-aware. One of her main characters in SHARING HUNTER, Chloe, is so self-aware that she occasionally jumps into conversations Julie and I have with each other.
Dr. Maddox, in the Star Trek episode we’re referencing, claims that self-awareness is achieved when “You are conscious of your existence and your actions. You are aware of yourself and your own ego.”
Are our characters capable of becoming self-aware?
I argue, yes, they are.
When our characters do something surprising or different than we had planned, our characters become self-aware.
When our characters speak in a way that is totally foreign to how we, the author, processes the world, they are self-aware.
When Julie Glover’s main character, Chloe, suggests that she and her best friend Rachel share a boyfriend the last semester of high school, she doesn’t just suggest it. She knows Rachel won’t go for this idea unless she sets the situation up perfectly, orchestrates the slow leak of idea building upon idea, and uses phrases like “that smokin’ hot piece of boy-bacon won’t last long in the high school meat market.”
However, she also realizes that if she comes on too strong, Rachel will balk and the idea will be over before it has a chance, “for Twain’s sake.”
The way Chloe masterminds her sharing-a-boyfriend scheme is just so…Chloe. (And if you haven’t read SHARING HUNTER yet, you really must.)
This one is, I believe, the hardest criteria for our characters to meet. Do our fictional characters experience true consciousness?
Consciousness is defined as “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself.”
In Data’s example, that is the question that was left unanswered. It was up to the court to decide if Data met the requirement of consciousness in even the smallest measure. Is Data a machine, programmed to answer an infinite number of questions, or does he have consciousness—is he capable of original thought?
So I will follow Star Trek’s example. What do you think?
Are our characters derived from our own subconscious, meaning that the questions they pose and the answers they find are actually from deep inside our own brains? Or do these characters speak for themselves, with thoughts and ideas that belong to them?
It’s an interesting concept to ponder. What is sentient consciousness? What is life?
And do your characters have it?
Our best characters don’t simply occupy the page but come to life—for us and for our readers. They possess intelligence, feel self-aware, and seem to be, or perhaps are, conscious.
Consider these traits as you write characters your readers will connect with, and use these traits to help your readers feel that your characters are almost as real as their own selves.
Live long and prosper.