I have a little contradiction in my story that may well be fatal.

In my high sci-fi setting, one of my main characters is an android. Let's call him Bob. Bob is efficient, cold and straight-to-the-point: we may as well say that he is heartless. To give you an example: in a scene I'm planning, he will willingly let 30 people die without flinching because their death will maximize the chance of him getting his goal.

Now, Bob is supposed to be a cold bastard, you got the point. But by definition, in my setting androids like Bob are only built in couples - partners, let's say - with matching functions and synergies. The bond between those partners escape logic and can be as well an equivalent of unyielding, hard-coded love.

Sadly enough, Bob's partner, Alice, has been destroyed some days prior to the start of the story (in my prologue). Bob knows this very well.

And now I've got an heartless character who, supposedly, should be dealing with grief.

I can't let Bob falter or mourn: he still has to move on and try to reach the goal. Yet, I wonder if I could (or should) show something.

Is this possible, or have I written myself into a corner from the very start?

In short,

how can I show a heartless character coping with grief?

  • 3
    Many aspects of profound grief are neurological. Like forgetfulness. Check out all the ways that our brains fail to work during grief and create a software analogy for your droid. Also, he might set up a shrine. He might take some of her hardware and store it somewhere.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 21:06

7 Answers 7


Because your character is an android, I might consider how an IT system or a computer program might behave if a necessary component was taken away from it. The system might express this in a number of ways, for example, by writing error messages to a log file, by showing erroneous data or visual glitches, or by simply being unable to function at all. Imagine an android losing a vital component and simply shutting down for a few days until it can figure out how to cope with the loss of that subsystem. The reader might see this as a form of grief and perhaps not too dissimilar from the way humans might behave...

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    On the flip side, especially safety-critical software in the real world is written in ways that allows the overall system to continue functioning in a reduced-functionality state, rather than failing outright. Consider how aircraft avionics are implemented; dual or triple redundancy is the norm, and (by regulation) no single system is allowed to be critical for the safe operation of the aircraft, unless it can be shown that failure is extremely unlikely (on the order of once per billion flight hours). If one part fails that may conceivably fail, the aircraft is required to remain flyable.
    – user
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 9:20
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    Thanks @MichaelKjörling nice insight. In the context of a creative writing piece, this could be a nice detail. Maybe the two androids are a redundant pair themselves; now the android that survived is running without a backup... Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 12:34
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    A nice tidbit indeed! As a matter of fact, this is already a neat definition of what I had in mind for the coupled androids.
    – Liquid
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 15:20
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    @Liquid it sounds like a interesting piece. You might also be interested in a "component" that compares the output of these redundant systems (concept described in Approaches to Sensor Error Detection. Could be viewed as a mentor-type character perhaps. Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 0:55
  • 1
    Although make sure that the config has error logging turned on...
    – user96551
    Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 19:27

The heartlessness you describe is "externally facing" -- the actions he takes and the way he interacts with others. That doesn't mean there's no heart at all in there; it just means he doesn't allow it to influence his actions.

You can show signs of Bob mourning in his thoughts (if the story is first-person) or in brief private moments. Bob might keep looking at the portrait of the two of them in his quarters, or might carry something that had significance for the two of them. In first person he might think "this is how Alice would have solved this" or "I wish I could talk with Alice about this" or even a direct "my partner is gone and I feel incomplete" (or whatever your android would say along those lines).

You have given your android intelligence, and that invites the complexities of emotions. Think of your android like a Vulcan, not like software that the programmer fully controls.


The easiest way to show the impact of a strong emotion would be some change in behavior. But it doesn't have to be large. Small deviations in behavior can be quite effective for tightly controlled characters. My favorite example is the "perfect" butler in Remains of the Day accidentally dropping a bottle of vintage wine. It's an effective betrayal of his emotions because it's so out-of-character. It would be minor for most people, but not for him.

So even if Bob pushes through with his homicidal heartlessness, he could have some small moments of indecision that, while they don't change the outcome, complicate it in a noticeable way.

Conversely, you could rewrite his backstory a little bit. Perhaps he wasn't originally a heartless android --maybe he was unusually emotional or merciful, or kind. It's only the grief that has pushed him to become so mechanical (even if that is the default for other androids). This could be quite effective, particularly if you suggest that it was the partnership between Alice and Bob that originally allowed him to transcend his programming.

  • 1
    I do like the tip about minor moments of indecisiveness. Rewriting the backstory to make him emotional in the past would be a little out of my comfort zone at the moment, even if viable. I'll keep both things in mind.
    – Liquid
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 15:39
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    @Liquid - I think the minor moments can work well, especially if you've done the work to establish this character as a perfect, unhesitating machine. If you've never watched "Remains of the Day" it would be a great resource. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 16:04

What you've got to answer for yourself, very clearly, is what emotions your android experiences, and to what extent.

You mention your android has an attachment to another android. Can they form other attachments, at all? You mention the android has a goal. What guides him - why this particular goal? What does it mean to him?

The first example that comes to my mind for an emotionless android is Data, from Star Trek. He is explicitly mentioned, multiple times, to experience no emotions. All the same, he forms attachments, that is friendships. He knows camaraderie, he talks of gratitude, he is curious, he has a clear moral code.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is different - it's all about empathy. While it's "stated" that androids are incapable of experiencing it, it is strongly suggested that they do feel empathy towards one another, at least.

Depending on the story you want to tell, you can decide whether your android is incapable of experiencing any emotions at all, or experiences them only towards certain subjects, or is simply Machiavellian in his thinking. Once you've decided, however, it is important that you remain consistent with the characterisation.


I wrote a story in a boarding school, its protagonist a student facing obstacles from a new teacher, the headmistress and her daughters. Later in the story, the new teacher discovered he would lose the use of his legs (which is a downer, if somewhat different from grief), and the headmistress died (which, for her daughters, is definitely grief). Given how the teacher and daughters had been presented, how did I show them coping with what they'd been through?

In the teacher's case, his role as a "bad guy" stemmed from opinions the protagonist didn't share. The teacher gradually changes his mind on these issues because of his experiences in the book, and he becomes a better person for it. But he could come across as quite, quite heartless in the earlier chapters; and I'd imagine if he looked back on what he used to be like, he'd admit as much. In the girls' case, much of their demeanor was a product of their cruel mother's encouragement, and following her death they had to assess who she was, since a lot of people were happy about it.

Heartlessness, like all traits of people, comes from somewhere. Why be kind when you don't believe the sorts of ideas that make sense of kindness? And horrible experiences force us to do more than just find resources and do more for ourselves; they make us contextualise something unexpected. I'm not saying your character has to reject everything they used to believe, or stop sympathising with who they used to be. But you need to show them go on some kind of mental journey (at least, if you're using my strategy).


I do not think you have written yourself in a corner.

Show the reader the cold-heartedness of his logic and immidiate after a reminiscence of something that defies that exact logic.

Make him remember the past where choices where less difficult and required less CPU time to process. Where his endgoal was less focused because of this synergy with his partner and the abbundance of choices he could choose from.

Let him have a memento or keepsake that triggers his memories and determines his endgoal. This so the android can always remember that something that used to be in his logic is now missing.

Contrast these 2 states of thoughtprocess as much as you can. When the character makes a cold hard logic efficient choice, make it so that afterward he is remembered of the other choices he had if the missing piece of his partner was still in place. Let the calculations shift in favor of the choice he didn't make and make him ponder what results that would've brought him.


I would find it interesting to read about how Bob learns and grows by coping with situations that would be best handled by the skills of his "lost love." Every time he encounters one of these situations it is a reminder both that "she" is gone and that he is less than he had until recently taken for granted. How does Bob cope with the conflict that he has a programmed goal that he now computes is unachievable with his diminished capacity? Does he grow, learning new skills? Does he form relationships with others who complement him? These are some of the things your story situation made me think about.

  • Yep, I thought that as well. E.g., in my setting telepathic communication exists: Bob used to be able to do it through Alice capabilities, but now he can't. Also, Alice was an expert hacker. So, overall, Bob is now greatly impaired, at least for the standards of his kind.
    – Liquid
    Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 9:50

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