Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: Does SFF Marginalize Characters?

As with nearly every summer, a batch of blockbusters are here to burn some explosions into our brains while denying us the possibility of getting to know the people surrounded by said explosions. From Green Lantern to Transformers the most visible aspects of genre fiction have the flattest characters imaginable and rely heavily on plotting and worldbuilding to get by.

But this tendency isn’t just limited to mainstream films or television. All of these scripts (for the most part) have to be written down first, which means this deficiency must come from somewhere. In thinking about a lot of science fiction writing, it seems characters are not treated quite the same way as they might be in mainstream literature.

But is this true, or is it just generalization? Do even the stalwart print titles of genre fiction treat its characters as second-class citizens in favor of “big ideas?”

Recently, in writing about the dystopian classic 1984, I pointed out that despite the brilliant concepts and social criticism contained in the novel, the plotting isn’t all that interesting and the characters are relatively flat. Naturally, 1984 isn’t a character piece; it’s not the story of Winston, it’s the story of all of us, of the reader if trapped in such an environment. And yet, when confronted by shelves and shelves of all the wonderful literature since Orwell a reader is enticed by thousands of novels and stories with more relatable and well-drawn characters than in 1984. And though this isn’t remotely fair; pick any Tom Robbins novel, or Harry Potter for that matter, and tell me which characters you can picture better, those of Robbins and Rowling or those of Orwell?

Jo Walton recently took a look at a classic science fiction novel I truly love; Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. She asserted that while wonderful science fiction concepts are contained in this one, the human characters are absolutely cartoonish. This couldn’t be more spot on. Asimov remains one of my favorite writers of all time, and while the poor characterizations in The Gods Themselves don’t bother me as much as they bother Jo, I think this problem pervades nearly all of Asimov’s work. In fact, in many of the stories contained in I, Robot the robot characters are slightly more developed than the humans. Here, the big ideas are LITERALLY competing with the characters for attention. Sure, you could make the argument that the robots are representative of human characters and as such, the important characters are being “fleshed out” so to speak. And yet, when you read I, Robot the human characters aren’t as well developed as say, some characters in a few of Asimov’s mystery stories. I have to stress here that, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, I consider I, Robot to be one of the more humanistic and hopeful SF books ever written. It is a good book. But even in a good book as unique as this one, the characters are still struggling to be heard over the cacophony of the imagination.

I don’t think this conundrum is unique to Asimov, and I certainly think it pervades more contemporary and popular works of SF. Around the internet, many have been wondering just where people go to the bathroom in The Hunger Games. (Check out this bookrageous podcast for an analysis!) Now, I’m not saying using a toilet makes a character three dimensional or more human, but genre fiction is often guilty of leaving out the more crude aspects of being a person. If Mary Gaitskill or Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood were writing The Hunger Games you can bet we’d know where they go to the bathroom.

Then again, someone like Harlan Ellison would delight in talking about exactly how and where all of that might take place. In fact Ellison has a lot to say about characters and what they mean to him as a function of fiction. In a book of stories and essays about writing called Those Who Can, Ellison talks about characters like this:

…Ideally, a writer with talent will meld both [character & plot] into a story that makes you believe and care because the people are real and interesting, and what happens to them is different and fascinating. But if I were denied on or the other, I’d opt for people over plot…

When you consider how many off-the-wall plots Ellison came up with, this stands as a pretty serious statement.

However, no writer, science fiction or otherwise would cop to favoring plot over people. Maybe if we were able to capture and interrogate Dan Brown or John Grisham they would spill the beans and admit that yes, yes, yes, they are just hacks who come up with convoluted murder plots. But in regular interviews, I’m sure they would say that these terrible stock characters like Alex Cross actually “came to them in a vision” and they just “had” to write down the story.

And though this would be total nonsense, it doesn’t mean these writers don’t actually think about it that way. I’m not asserting SFF writers or any writers don’t care about characters. I’m simply saying that SFF writers have given their characters more to compete with than say, a writer like Jonathan Franzen. Ray Bradbury is most famous for his science fiction stories like The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man, but I’d argue the characters in Dandelion Wine are more well-drawn, more memorable. Is this because Dandelion Wine is a work of “straight” literature? As a fan of science fiction literature I shudder to think that a really good SF novel would be “inferior” to that of a mainstream one because its characters would always be marginalized.

Throughout this column, I’m frequently looking at works of mainstream literature that have speculative fiction elements or at the very least might appeal to SF fans. Many of these like Swamplandia! or Big Machine have very well realized three-dimensional characters inhabiting SF-like worlds or dealing with speculative conflicts. And yet, mainstream literary novels like In Watermelon Sugar don’t have the best-developed characters. And while I considered Super Sad True Love Story to be my favorite novel of 2010, and certainly feel it was denied a Hugo nomination, the only criticism I’ve heard from friends and colleagues is “I didn’t like the characters.” To which I almost always respond, “But what about the ideas?” The fact of the matter is that the characters in Super Sad True Love Story ARE good and probably better than any of Orwell’s. But like I mentioned before, they have more to compete with than characters might in another kind of novel. This makes the imperative for the writer to give the characters a strong voice all the more important. Personally, I think Shteyngart pulled it off in Super Sad True Love Story, but when I think about for a second, I can see why some disagree.

Further, it is possible that because readers of SF are primarily interested in the the big ideas; our tolerance for flatter characters is higher. (Even if the characters are just a little bit flat.) However, there are still a lot of great SF novels out there with rich, round, or subtle characters. Books like Paul Park’s Celestis or Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness contain such characters, and those are just a few examples. Even though the characters are all serving to demonstrate the themes and SF concepts in The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi still develops Anderson and Emiko with absolute perfect skill.

But maybe these different types of characters I’m referring to don’t exist at all. And a critic of mainstream literature might illuminate the point. In this book How Fiction Works, critic James Wood has this to say about “flat” and “round” characters.

…I would be quite happy to abolish the very idea of ’roundness’ in characterization, because it tyrannizes-readers, novelists, critic-with an impossible ideal. ‘Roundness’ is impossible in fiction, because fictional characters, while very alive in their way, are not the same as real people…It is subtlety that matters…

So if we take Wood’s belief to heart, then ultimately none of this matters, right? Well, perhaps we are simply swapping out the notion of well-developed characters and/or well-rounded ones, for the notion of subtle ones. And if the concern is to not hit the reader over the head with either characters or plot, than SF has even more challenges than I thought.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for His criticism on science fiction and literature has also appeared with Clarkesworld Magazine.


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