We have successfully demonstrated that an appropriately designed semiconductor saturable absorber device, the antiresonant Fabry-Perot saturable absorber, can reliably start and sustain stable mode locking of solid state lasers such as Nd:YAG, Nd:YLF, Nd:Glass, Cr:LiSAF, and Ti:sapphire lasers. Especially for solid state lasers with long upper-state lifetimes, previous attempts to produce self-starting passive mode locking with saturable absorbers was always accompanied by self-Q-switching. We derive criteria that characterize the dynamic behavior of solid state lasers in the important regimes of Q-switching, mode-locked Q-switching, and continuous-wave mode locking in the picosecond and femtosecond range for the pulsewidth. We demonstrate that semiconductor absorbers can be designed to predetermine the dynamic behavior of a laser for a given solid state laser material and present an experimental verification. This allows for the development and design of robust, compact pico- and femtosecond solid state laser sources for scientific and industrial applications.