After weeks of finding something to say about storytelling, I’ll be changing gears for a bit and going back to something I’d set out to do more often: Giving a crash course of tropes, characters, and concepts!
Today we’ll be talking about a certain type of character: The Artificial Character. Self-aware objects, artificial intelligence, living weapons, spirits trapped within objects, you’re probably familiar with these things. They are a thinking, cognizant existence of a different kind from conventional life. Basically, the servants from Beauty and the Beast. From wisecracking sidekicks and sage advisors to malevolent enemies and alien entities, many fantastic settings have given ‘life’ or ‘spirit’ to what was once lifeless.
So what is the deal with these guys, and what happens when you give your props lines of dialogue?
If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you’re already aware of this particular trope, and if not, I already gave a crash course. Now let’s get into some details!
The interesting thing about Artificial Characters, at least by my reckoning, is that they’re an even closer combination of character AND setting. See, normally, the two are separate. The characters are formed by their surroundings and interact with them, sure, but they are apart from it.
Artificial Characters, on the other hand, are literally the setting coming to life. They are a product AND statement of the setting, namely because they inform us about a lot of things by their very existence alone. For instance: Are these a normal occurrence, or are they seen as weird like they would be in ‘real life’? What went into making them? Are they rare or common?
These things alone can already reveal some details about a story setting’s level of technology/magic, their society’s perspective on issues like AI, or even more personal things like “Who was the maker/master of this thing and is he/she important to the plot?” Heck, even if the story doesn’t bother to ask these questions, even just treating them as normal, everyday facts of life can reveal just as much.
So What Are They?
Of course, the definition of an Artificial Character can be VERY broad. But at the heart of it, they have these qualities:
- They spend a lot of time as an object, if they aren’t already one by default.
- They are recognised as an existence or species different from ‘normal organic life.
Beyond that, however, the ways they exist, as I mentioned above, can be EXTREMELY diverse. So here are a few categories for us to start with:
You have Pure Objects, Artificial Characters that began entirely as objects/robots/something built. Their awareness might have been part of them from the start, or imparted to them through ritual or programming. Either way, they often owe their existence to an original creator. Golems, robots, and your archetypal magical weapon form the basis of these. They have no previous or parallel existence besides what they’ve known, and they’re usually the most common and simple. The specifics of their existence can get fuzzy, but generally, they end as soon as the body is destroyed. So, the Transformers, Autobots and Decepticons? All Artificial Characters.
Then there are Poltergeists, Artificial Characters which aren’t bound to an object, but aren’t quite human either, with the body being a mere host or shell with no major significance. They are defined more by their spirit than their form, software over hardware. While this sort of thing does sound like it normally means bad news, it doesn’t always have to be. It’s more of a spiritual character putting on a set of clothes, or choosing a particular person or thing to haunt. While it might not quite fit to call them Artificial as they exist separate from their shell, I’d say it’s a common enough occurrence, and arguably a natural evolution of how Artificial Characters start. In this case, artificial intelligence characters are the most common example of these guys, having no fixed body or form and existing entirely as data. But there are also those that don’t have a mortal origin, like world spirits or other such spiritual manifestations.
And finally, blurring the line a little, there are the Humanity-Challenged, Artificial Characters whose key trait is that they were once human. Ahh, and this is something which can be questioned even more! Do they count just because they’re a disembodied soul trapped in a pendant, or a person’s mind copied digitally into a program? The biggest examples of this, of course, are the servants from Beauty and the Beast, but the whole theme of humans being transformed into something else has been around since the myths of old, where they would turn into pigs, pillars of salt, or good people. After all, do they count since they DIDN’T start out as Artificial Characters? Do you count what they are NOW, or what they were BEFORE? But then again, some would argue that it’s this ambiguity which makes it so interesting to explore. And whether they count or not, their circumstances cannot be avoided.
So that’s an explanation on the types, or at least the broad categories for a really flexible character type. Now how do they work out in writing?
Obviously, Character Writing and Writing in general is, much like the form of an Artificial Character, limited to your imagination and design. However, here are a few of the common options unique to Artificial Characters to get you started!
So I’ll start with this because it’s the most sensational. This is an Artificial Character where the alienness is ratcheted up, and the author decided they would have almost NOTHING in common with organics beyond the fact that “it exists and wants things.” With the Utterly Alien, writers are able to explore the unknown yet give it a face and have it interact with what IS known.
The Utterly Alien Artificial Character has no mortal frame of reference. Much like how elves can be written with inscrutable goals and a detached, big picture worldview because of their immortality, imagine a living weapon. It doesn’t age because of the magic within it. It doesn’t feel hunger, pain, or even pleasure. All it perceives is the world around it, the hands seeking to wield it. What would be its goals? Are those goals set by someone else, or does it pick them itself, maybe even defying what was expected of it? For that matter, who says it has to want things based on what we know of what’s in this world? If it’s an entirely different form of existence, much like an AI or a spirit born from outside sources, what it wants is often beyond our comprehension.
Pictured above: And sometimes, less so.
Plenty of ways you can make use of this particular character type. They could be a set piece, a main villain, or even a ‘weird ally’, as exotic as Proud Warrior Race Guy. It could be a consistent theme, but the interesting thing is even they can go through development. After all, learning to be human is a popular theme, as is bridging gaps and finding out we’re not so different after all.
The Uncanny Valley
OK, this one might be a little creepy. Much like the actual Uncanny Valley trick, what I mean is that your Artificial Character’s creators TRIED to recreate normal thought, but ended up short somewhere. As a result, it’s similar but not quite there, and that failure to match stands out all the more.
Maybe they lack the ability to learn and are completely fixated on whatever thought came into them. They might even be literally incapable of conceiving of anything else, like an AI with thought restrictions. Or it could be they simply lack the frailties of the flesh, and so can’t comprehend emotions and reactions born from pain or pleasure, relying solely on intellectual and emotional cues.
But what DOES set this apart from the alien is that it is capable of TRYING. Of WANTING to fit in. And that in itself is a common story arc.
Not the most sensational example, but arguably the most common direction and disposition for Artificial Characters. It’s a middle ground that is commonly used, standing between the Utterly Alien and our upcoming example…
Basically A Normal Person Without A Body
One of the most common ones used in a much wider array of works, the long and short of it is all the interesting questions about their existence are ignored and they’re basically treated as another member of the cast. In some cases, they can even freely take a human form for ease of interaction and are more or less fitted in with no problems, as commonplace as elves, dwarves, or vulkans.
Pictured above: Some forms are less human than others…
Now, based on that picture above, the obvious example is Soul Eater, a manga series all about basically Grim Reapers-in-training and Scythes-in-training. However, you can also consider all the other shows that featured a Talking Object but hardly ever addressed that fact beyond “Hey, you’re a talking object!”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a sign of a lack of originality. It’s not the novelty of a concept that matters, but how you use it. And Soul Eater, as mentioned, is actually another great example. Yes, it treats the Weapon characters as perfectly normal parts of society, and yeah, they DO behave as pretty much ordinary characters who just happen to turn into guns, swords, spears, and hammers. But it’s a good example because their nature is acknowledged, and it also plays a part in the story, serving to highlight the partnership on both a personal and mechanical level.
And hey, even if you don’t go into such detail, you don’t actually lose anything. If nothing else, you get another member to add to the cast. Only bad thing that could happen is if they’re a bad character that adds nothing, but that’s hardly exclusive to Artificial Characters.
So What Can We Do With These Guys?
These may be examples of how an Artificial Character STARTS, but they by no means dictate their paths. As mentioned above, even an unchanging, alien intelligence can still be subject to character development!
So there you have it, a crash course on Artificial Characters. All in all, they’re one of the many delights of writers exploring the fantastic aspects of their settings, while having the versatility to simply be ‘one of the guys’ if you’re not the sort who explores such in-depth issues about their nature.
If you stop to think about it, they also represent a synthesis of many skills that make a good writer: The ability to create a distinct yet understandable voice, to build a fantastic and engaging world, and to figure out the details and conflicts within it.
Ultimately, the heart of the matter is this: What sort of story are you looking to write? If you can figure that out, the Artificial Character can help you navigate what that is. From a lighthearted adventures of a lovable group, to a deep exploration of synthetic life, the power of creation lies in our hands.