I’m the kind of reader who absolutely loves characters. They can make or break a story for me — and I certainly pay more attention to them rather than a book’s plot or world. Because, at the end of the day, we see those things through the characters’ eyes. That’s why it’s important for those characters to intrigue and fascinate us — especially in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genres. Which is why today, I want to talk about fascinating characters in SFF.
There are many fascinating characters in the genre. If I were to name them all, the pandemic would end and this list still wouldn’t be complete. What I want to say is that this list is by no means definitive or exhaustive. It is, simply, a list of some of the most fascinating characters in SFF.
To keep this as objective as possible, I want to look at a few things to find fascinating characters. First and foremost, I want to see how they change throughout their stories. Do they rise or fall? Do they stay the same? I also love seeing their motivations and backstories. Why do they act the way they do? Of course, there are some particulars that make characters fascinating by themselves, so these elements may morph depending on who I’m talking about.
I have to warn you that because of the nature of this post, there will be spoilers for all the books I mention. Seriously, SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ll try to avoid specifics, but still. Beware potential spoilers! So without further ado, let’s talk about some of the most fascinating characters in SFF.
8 of the Most Fascinating SFF Characters
The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang
Character: Fang Runin AKA Rin
The Poppy War trilogy is already fascinating because of its historical inspiration — and I can say the same thing of its main character Rin. She’s one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read in SFF lately. That’s because R.F. Kuang was inspired by a very prominent and controversial historical figure to create Rin’s character — none other than Mao Zedong. So it’s no surprise that Rin is more of an antihero in the trilogy.
R.F. Kuang herself said of Rin’s character, “the question the trilogy tries to answer is: how does somebody go from being an irrelevant, backwater, peasant nobody to being a megalomaniac dictator capable of killing millions of people?” The exploration of that question is what makes the character so infinitely fascinating — because we get to see that backstory with Rin, and how war and being a pawn to people she wrongly idolized turned her into a ruthless dictator over the course of the trilogy.
The Locked Tomb Series by Tamsyn Muir
Character: Harrowhark Nonagesimus AKA Harrow
I don’t think that complex characters are necessarily fascinating, but in this case that’s absolutely true. Harrow is a grief-stricken young woman who has to live with the knowledge that her parents committed mass genocide to create her. She still keeps her House afloat, even after her parents die by suicide. She has a tough exterior, with her sneer and her black capes. But she’s intelligent, hard-working and just trying to make the best of what she’s given.
You don’t really get to know her in Gideon the Ninth, but when you get to Harrow the Ninth, she becomes a fully fleshed human that grows despite being so overcome by grief she basically gave herself a lobotomy. If that doesn’t tell you more about her character, I don’t know what will. But it is one of the many layers of the Reverend Mother — and the reason why she’s so fascinating to read.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Character: Black Hat Otokoto
Can we all agree that antagonists/villains are incredibly fascinating? Otokoto Ginny is cunning and cruel. He is also power hungry, which is the reason he does everything — including kidnapping and performing ritual sacrifices on young children. Which is all the scarier considering the amount of power hungry people in the world who are capable of unspeakable atrocities. What’s more, Nnedi based the character on “The Otokoto Ritual Killings of 1996” (graphic image at link). Which, if you read the article, is terrifying. So even though you don’t know the character as thoroughly as others on this list, Otokoto is so intricately constructed that you can’t help but be both fascinated and horrified by his actions — and the story would not be the same without him.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Of course I wasn’t going to overlook one of the most famous and fascinating characters in SFF! Circe is a classic, and masterfully written, exploration of its main character. If you want a book that truly takes its time to develop a character and see them grow and change — this might be your cup of tea. Another thing that makes Circe so fascinating, as a character, is the way Madeline Miller frames her story. She’s no longer just a witch-villain, as she’s constantly portrayed. Instead, she’s a powerful woman whose humanity is put front and center.
I’ve always found it fascinating when authors portray immortal deities more human. Plus, Circe does change — to the point she regrets what she did to Scylla in the beginning. She also realizes that immortals are cruel and manipulating, and that she can break that cycle for herself. I could go on about Circe, but in the end it’s the delicately intricate way she’s constructed that makes her one of the most fascinating characters in SFF.
Villains by V.E. Schwab
Character: Victor Vale
There is something entrancing about V.E. Schwab’s characters. They are some of the most human — and morally gray — characters I’ve ever read in SFF. They’re all fascinating in their own way (I myself am an Eli fan), but Victor is easily one of the most interesting characters to read. He’s a sociopath who doesn’t care who he hurts, like Angie. Yet he manages to form a sort of family with Mitch and Sydney — I’d even say he cares about them.
He does change between books, although maybe not in a positive way. He becomes more erratic and dangerous, and kills other EOs indiscriminately in Vengeful. His motivations tend to be pure self-interest, which is unusual in a main character. Yet what makes him truly fascinating is entirely thanks to Schwab. She manages to give you two villains and then makes you root for one of them — and it’s always Victor. Even though he’s not good in any sense of the word.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Vern’s story is a difficult one. She was abused as a child, and at the beginning of the book she is pregnant and escaping from Cainland — a cult that should seem utopian yet is rotten at its core. The place still rejects queerness, children are microdosed, and Vern herself was married off to the cult leader years before; and she’s FIFTEEN when the story begins. From then on she grows with the beauty and love her children bring. But there’s also something happening to her. Something that would seem like a monstrous metamorphosis but that Vern turns into a superpower.
Vern is completely fascinating in that she constantly rejects expectations due to her rebellious nature and strong will, all as she comes of age while dealing with years of trauma. She is a character that embodies the potential to grow and literally transform — there’s nothing more human than that.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
What would happen if a supposedly inanimate object wasn’t, in fact, inanimate? What if they had feelings (ugh) and free will? It’s a question we have explored endlessly in stories, and maybe it has something to do with the fact that we want to understand what makes us human from an outside perspective. Either way, this is exactly what makes Murderbot one of the most fascinating characters in sci-fi. It disabled the program that requires it to obey the orders of The Company— it gave itself free will.
But that is only the beginning of a journey spanning six novellas and one full-length novel (so far). In them, Murderbot is always growing, always interacting with humans and helping them despite claiming to have no patience for them. It constantly reevaluates its relationships — and even when it denies the possibility of friendship, it cares. But it never tries to be another human, just itself. Just Murderbot. Its journey of self-understanding, along with a kick-ass and sassy personality, make Murderbot truly fascinating to read.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
She Who Became the Sun is a character-driven book with two very fascinating characters that mirror each other. But for this list, I picked the main character, Zhu. Zhu is genderqueer and part of what makes their journey so fascinating is that throughout the story they try to identify as female, then male, and then they realize that neither label quite fits them. Zhu figuring out their identity is a big part of the story, as they come fully into themselves.
This is linked with the other main topic of the story — desire. Both Zhu and their counterpart have so much raw want that they would burn the whole world down because of it. They are scheming and extremely intelligent, but they also feel very human. Zhu’s takes their brother’s destiny because they don’t want to die, but then they embrace it as their own because they want greatness. It is a hunger for power and recognition that drives them. Zhu is a morally gray character, an anti hero that you can’t help but root for — which makes them super fascinating to read!
Want to read more about and find new recommendations in the SFF genre? Take a dive into out Sci-Fi/Fantasy Archives for all sorts of SFF characters.