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Almost Human: How to Write Robot and A.I. Characters


As artificial intelligence becomes an increasing presence in our modern world, it only makes sense that it would transcend to fiction writing. A.I. and robot characters are claiming more frequent roles in stories than ever before. But how do authors create these non-human characters while still making them relatable and understandable to the reader?

First, before unpacking the commonalities in artificially intelligent characters, let's take a step back and answer an important question: What is A.I.?

Artificial intelligence is, at its core, an intelligence possessed by machines. There are a number of different machine types that have this type of intelligence, and there are different levels of human traits each type can have. For instance, types of artificial intelligence could include self-driving cars, which might be less human than say an artificial clone of a real human being. Most of the artificial intelligence shown in fiction is not plausible in reality, and scientists and engineers tend to agree. But these scenarios and characters couldn't be imagined in so many different ways if we didn't have machines with human-like intelligence in the modern world. A.I. characters are changing and progressing and being reimagined all the time as the technology of our world also changes.

Whatever form an A.I. character takes, they typically hold a commonality: they are looking to achieve a specific goal. This is not groundbreaking because as we know this is also the arc that a human character takes in a story. We always must answer one important question when developing our characters: What do they want? This is no different with an A.I. or robot character because otherwise they would not hold our interest or have much importance in the story.

Artificially intelligent characters are most commonly used in science fiction or speculative fiction stories, and especially those with a dystopian (or possibly utopian) setting. A.I. in fiction dates all the way back to the 1872 novel Erewhon by Samuel Butler. This notion in fiction has since been developed and expanded as more authors introduced A.I. characters and worlds.

As mentioned earlier about answering the pressing question of what a character wants, more specifically with an A.I. character we must answer: What is their purpose? So, how do we write effective A.I., robotic, machine characters with human-like intelligence?

The three categories of A.I. characters

There are three main categories that A.I. characters can be sectioned into, but these three sections can also overlap or be combined with one another. They are to get the author thinking about their A.I. character's purpose.

1. Harm to humans

HAL 9000
I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen. - 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is probably the most common way that authors write A.I. characters. Typically, the plot will be about a human or humans creating the machine with human-like intelligence in hopes of contributing to a better world or maybe gaining power, etc. but, of course, it goes horribly wrong. This is a creator/creation trope where the artificially intelligent character and the human who created it are at the focus of the story.

There will either be a glitch or the A.I. character will be much more powerful (or intelligent) than the scientist or engineer initially thought or intended, resulting in the harm to or death of humans involved. The message of these stories is the idea that humans reap what they sow in their quest for power (even with good intentions), or more simply, they should not "play God." The most classic example of this type of A.I. character-driven story is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Since the character in this book was not created (or born) naturally, and was rather "made" by a human, then the result is that the character is monstrous by way of punishing the humans involved. The intelligence of the character goes beyond that of the human, and they in turn reject their creator and develop motives of their own.

2. Caretakers and assistants

R2-D2 and C-3PO
How would you know the hyperdrive is deactivated? The city's central computer told you? R2-D2, you know better than to trust a strange computer. - Star Wars

This type of use of A.I. characters is that when they are part of a story to make human lives easier and act as the "tools" they are intended to be. These types of A.I. characters tend to be more human than those who are solely "bad" for the sake of punishing humans. These characters are not enemies, but they exist alongside humans as companions and a complement to their day-to-day lives. To create this type of A.I. character, the author should think about them as if they are humans, give them flaws and feelings and all. However, their flaws will likely have to do with the fact that they are machines or inhibited in some way due to this.

3. Simply existing within the imagined world

Star Trek Computer
USS Enterprise has cleared the star base perimeter. - Star Trek: The Next Generation

Usually within these types of stories the A.I. characters will be secondary characters and they do not need to be the main focus. This is more about making them part of the imagined world and serving a purpose within that world, but often times, the main character will be human with their own mission. Though, of course, the A.I. character can be the main character, but they will not be the only artificially intelligent presence in the story, and their purpose might not have to do with their artificial intelligence but it could be useful in whatever their quest may be.

Writing successful A.I. characters is not that different than writing human characters. They must work together with the world that has been created however close or far it is from the modern world. These characters can be companions (even pets), assistants or servants, the villain of the story, or simply an addition to the science fiction world in some way. Something to keep in mind for great artificial intelligent characters is the possibility of making them a metaphor of the human experience. This is where A.I. characters can vastly differ from human characters. Are they serving a purpose that shows humans a reflection of themselves?

As with human characters, developing a strong backstory for robotic characters is key. How did they come to be? What has informed their present? When starting to write an A.I. character, developing these aspects that make up the character will be helpful to consider:


An A.I. character's origin story is perhaps most important of all because when there is a non-human character who is the focus of a story in any way, then the reader should not be distracted with the question of where they came from. In the classic creator/creation trope, the origin of artificial characters is clear, but what about the ones who were not created by the humans involved in the story? They were still created by "man" and with a specific intention in mind. So, how does the robotic character respond to this and how do they view their place in the world? Their origin will contribute to the foundation they are built upon, which will then lead to the character having a specific set of beliefs. With this foundation and beliefs in mind, it will then inform their personality—the next step in writing successful A.I. characters.

Personality and beliefs

Just as with humans, A.I. characters need to have a personality and beliefs regardless of how "robotic" or how "human" they are going to be, a personality and set of beliefs will develop them as a character. This personality will be made up of what they think, how they act (certain behaviors), how they speak, and overall conduct themselves in the world and in relation to the humans present. An A.I. character's beliefs are often directly related to commentary on society, often a reflection of the humans involved in the creation or "programming."

Once it is established where this character came from, what their function is in the world, and what beliefs further develop them in contribution to the function, it is then worth considering their emotions of "humanness." This is a question that authors must take into account when writing an artificially intelligent character. Will they have emotions and feelings or not? In some stories, the characters are much more robotic—the machines they were created as, or maybe they even develop emotions as they develop into this world. Or did they have emotions when they were "born" in the same way a human would? If this were the case it would make it all the more difficult for them to face the reality that they are in fact a machine, which would likely be a driving factor in the story, how they function within it, and their character development as the plot progresses.

Incorporating A.I. characters into fiction is more relevant than ever, and as we see technology and science around us progress, we can think of even more creative ways and possibilities for such characters. But even as developments are made in the world and more and more stories with artificial intelligence are written, at their core they remain true to what they have always been. When writing an A.I. character, always keep the question of "what is their purpose?" at the forefront.

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