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Out Of Character Dept.

At the risk of going back on what I just wrote about the other day ...

As research-of-a-sort for the story I'm working on, I was given pointers towards a whole slew of space-opera type works. Some are more blatantly in the military-SF vein than others, but they all had certain elements in common. Most obvious was what other people have called "tech porn"—long, frothy descriptions of docking sequences, or elaborations on how this or that tech works.

My first reaction to most of this stuff was "Gawd, this is boring." Puts me right to sleep, it does. This from someone who writes about technology for a living — which is why it puts me to sleep. The last thing I want to read about when I get off work is some tarted-up analogue of what I was reading about on the job. I wanted to read about people, not machines.

Then I realized the audience for those books might well pick up anything from my own shelf — ostensibly about people, not machines — and have the back of their head hit the chair as they nod off, and I stopped fuming and started thinking.

I've skirted around the edges of this before, but here goes: I get the feeling most of the target audience for SF (and to a lesser degree fantasy) is only interested in character inasmuch as it gets them to the part of the story they really want to read about. Namely, the stuff that blows up. This bugs me, because from where I sit the character is the part of the story most worth reading about, and the blowing-up-of-stuff is wallpaper and carpeting, not architecture.

It also bugs me because I don't doubt for a second any of the writers I was reading above would say they care deeply about character. But I have to go on what I see, and what I see is tissue-sample-thin. There's the apparatus of character there, the gift wrapping and packaging, but not quite the gift itself. I call it "characterization by implication": give readers enough of the outward trappings of character, and at some point they're likely to just fill in the rest of the blanks on their own. Saves you the effort of doing it yourself, and it might even produce the illusion of depth, too.

Much bad-to-mediocre writing works this way, and my theory is because such work is spun most directly from the rough wool of other books, and not from the fiber of life experience proper. This is a very difficult trap to get out of, because if a writer is an avid reader (and if you aren't, you're asking for trouble), they will be tempted to reach that much more for the example that lies in books rather than the example from their own life. The former is easier to use in many ways, after all: it's been pre-digested, made that much leaner and more direct. But it's also had all the roughage stripped away, all the incident and accident that you need to start with before you can end up with something interesting. It's far harder to take something out of your own life, sharp edges and all, and take the time to cut it and sand it down and polish it into the shape it need to be to fit our story. Harder, but all the more rewarding.

Purchase on AmazonAlso, being immersed in the technical aspects of a setting doesn't preclude the proper depiction of character. Go ask John le Carré or Graham Greene; they'll set you straight. Look at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy's George Smiley (and the rest of the intelligence agents in the Circus) as prime examples of how to depict character in the context of a technically-detailed setting. The Quiet American: another example of how to place compelling character in a specific, politically-charged setting. Or The Year of Living Dangerously, another gem of both character and politics. These books all felt closely informed by real life, in big part because that's what their authors tapped into most directly — not so much other books. Or at least, not so much other books in the same rubric. Le Carré reminded me of Greene, and Greene himself had the distinction of not reminding me directly of anything, bless his soul.

If nothing else, it all amounts to another argument to read as much as you can outside the confines of the genre or target market you're aiming for. It helps to know what else is possible, and what you might be missing.

Tags: fantasy science fiction writing

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2011/11/29 14:59.

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