Monday, May 2, 2011

Character driven Science Fiction – The only way to go!

Guest Post by William L. K.

A Note from BigAl: Despite encouragement from many friends who kept suggesting, “you should start a book blog,” I kept resisting. My typical response was, “why does the world need another book review blog.” When I finally allowed myself to be convinced, it was with the thought of having more than just reviews. In the almost immediate crush of book submissions those ideas quickly fell by the wayside – it also convinced me that possibly there was a place for another book review blog.

However, I still wanted more than just reviews. One of those ideas was posts that prompted broader discussion about the world of books, rather than specific books. Although not my primary reason for writing it, the post on negative reviews turned out like that. The guest post by Donna Fasano on the romance and chick lit genres did the same. Inspired by Fasano’s post, sci-fi/fantasy author William L.K. whose books “The Voice” and “Eye of the Storm” I’ve reviewed recently offered up this post for our consideration. If anyone else, author or reader, has an idea along these same lines and is interested in writing a guest post let me know. William (or should it be Mr L.K.?) also runs a site for readers called "Awesome Trilogies and Series."

I’m amazed by the amount of readers I meet that refuse to read science fiction. The response I usually receive is a preference for ‘character’ over ‘bizarre, frightening creatures and places’ that have no foundation in reality. In my opinion, this is an interesting conceptual flaw because the best science fiction I’ve read never focuses too heavily on external surroundings.

As a sci-fi/fantasy author (and huge fan of the genre), I’ve read an enormous amount of science fiction. I do agree; science fiction that puts too strong an emphasis on setting can many times fall flat. However, the core for any story, regardless of the genre, is strong believable characters. Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke are two great examples of how to create supreme character development. They are absolute masters at spotlighting real human characters, with real human qualities.

Living on this planet, we will obviously experience euphoric moments of extreme pleasure and tragic circumstance that defy understanding. It’s always been my belief that we have a psychological need to connect to the drama in a character if we are to care at all about the plot. Don’t get me wrong, of course plot is vital, but is it really what drives us to a story? At least in my own personal writing, I have found that plot is simply the manifestation of a character's believable dilemma, and subsequently, the triumph or failure over any given obstacle.

Good science fiction must be based in the perceptive analysis of our own reality. There has to be a passionate connection to the personal situations we deal with in our everyday lives. Once that is established, does it really matter where or when the story takes place?


M.P. McDonald said...

I enjoy science fiction to some extent. Loved the Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell, for example. If I, a woman who normally reads thrillers, romance, historical fiction, etc, can enjoy sci-fi, then I think anyone can if they give it a chance. One of my favorite all time books now is Ender's Game. Just amazing.

Chris Quinton said...

One of the best science fiction authors is, for me, C.J Cherryh. She epitomises character-driven SF, and her ability to create alien mindsets never fails to amaze and enthrall me.

Craig Allen said...

I think there is one other factor that you didn't specifically mention. I wrote in the Crossed Genre issue on Gadgets that you have to decide if your "Gadget" is a plot device or a character. If it's a character, then it must act like one, with "character-like" attributes. Arthur Clarke did exactly that in 2001 and 2010 with HAL.

While he appears to be a machine, he is as fatally flawed as any Greek tragedy, and that is exactly why he works so well. We sense something more than a cold, calculating machine, but can't quite put our fingers on it. In 2010 we find out why, and that makes his question about dreaming so much more than a simple query.

William L.K. said...


That is an excellent point!

Walter Knight said...

I remember the writers of "Battlestar Galactica" commenting that character development was more important than the plot.

They succeeded. Battlestar's plot took a lot of twists and turns, but by the time the TV series ended, I felt like a knew each and every character personally.

Anonymous said...

character is more important than plot, imho. there's only a couple plots in the world, ever, and there's an unbelievable number of characters. some of the best writers in genre (jeff vandermeer, catherynne valente, jm mcdermott) are doing amazing things by either ignoring plot for character development(like never knew another by j m mcdermott), or stealing classic plots for their own characters (like valente's amazing deathless novel).

Yeti said...

Character is way more important, you need to connect with the characters in order to care what does or doesn't happen to them. I've read alot of books that by the end I couldn't give a monkeys about the charaters that it made me want to throw the book across the room. However these books are from all different genres and, equally, from all different genres I've read some exquisite books including sci fi. Infact, some of the sci fi books have left a more marked impression on me due to unusual back drops for the characters. One of my favourite sci fi books is Illium by Dan Simmons, I actually missed the characters when I finished it (me, sad? maybe). Damn shame the follow up book was very pale in comparison and did get thrown across the room :s Not sure if The Gone Away World could be described as sci fi but another great character driven book - with a lot of weirdness thrown in!

Helen Smith said...

Good post. I agree with you - character is important. I enjoy science fiction, by the way.

I had an interesting conversation with some friends today about the difference between science fiction and science fantasy. One of our party defined the difference as: science fiction = Dr Who, science fantasy = Star Wars.

Donna Fasano said...

Dear Anon, if "there's only a couple plots in the world, ever," how can you call using one of them "stealing"? Who gets credit for coming up with the original "couple plots"?

William L.K., I enjoyed your post and agree with you 100%. I'll take character-driven novels with well-developed characters over plot-driven ones, any day.

Russ crossley said...

Excellent post. Science fiction is by definition about ideas, but stories told in science fiction settings have always been about the people (or the aliens) in these settings. The characters have to be fully realized with opinions about the new and strange universe they live in. Full realized characters should drive any story. Without characters SF as a genre would disappear because no one could relate.

For example, everyone recognizes the Star Ship Enterprise, but the stories are about the characters in the star ship not the ship itself.

BooksAndPals said...

Donna - I've heard variations on that statement and have thought about what it actually means. I'm not sure who originally proposed the idea that says there are only two basic stories, either a tragedy or a comedy. My quick internet research says Aristotle and Plato disagreed on the definition and it has been refined and argued since. (It appears they were maybe only talking about Greek Drama, but it seems applicable to our discussion.)

At the 30,000 foot level I guess there are only a few stories.

This link ( seems more valuable to me and possibly more what Anon was thinking about. Maybe this brings us down to the 5,000 foot level.

The specifics of the plot and the characters are what get us to the individual story. I would argue that the characters created or envisioned by the author along with the story world they exist in is what drives the specifics in the plot to make a story unique.

FWIW, I found this list of archetype characters ( ). They say it is "almost complete" with 140 characters types.

Of course you could say there are only two kinds of characters, human or non-human. I think this is all valuable to analyzing literature in various ways, but I'm not sure that how far we can subdivide the various elements of a story is indicative of which is most important.

My thought is the answer goes to why we read. Different people read for different reasons and I daresay the reasons aren't the same every time for a particular person. However, I suspect most reasons for reading fiction require the reader to relate to the characters and what they are going through for the story to be enjoyable.

Walter Knight said...

Uh Al, I wish you had not mentioned 'Greek Drama.' I don't know about 30,000 feet, but at sea level it the plot gets harsh.

BooksAndPals said...

The cure is to never land, Walter.

Ramona Richards said...

I've always loved science fiction for this very reason: It's given us some of the most unforgettable characters in the world. Even people who don't read it know their names. The masters of it are astonishing character builders as well as world builders.

William L.K. said...

Fantastic comments!
Russ I like what you said:
"Without characters SF as a genre would disappear because no one could relate."
I think you summed it up. And not just for science fiction, but for any genre.

Donna Fasano said...

Al, I can't go to 30,000 feet; I suffer with red trillium...bloody know, nosebleeds. :-D

Thanks for the links. I'll check them out.

tennysoneehemingway said...

I also agree that character is more important than plot. Indeed, character tends to drive the plot if the writing is good. Though I think some people get stuck on the term, 'science fiction.' What is it, really? Isn't something like 1984 Science Fiction? It isn't particularly 'futury' in my mind but it's set in the future from the time it was written but speaks so well to the human condition. Perhaps we need to ignore genre and concentrate on good writing.

Lyn Horner said...

Al, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it's the characters and the story world they live in that drive the plot. I enjoy fast-paced stories in whatever genre, with lots of twists and turns, but if the characters don't make me care about them, chances are I won't finish reading the book. I'll surely never read it again.