Jun 28 2011 12:43pm

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 Tor.com. His criticism on science fiction and literature has also appeared with Clarkesworld Magazine.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. wingracer
Not all stories are character stories. I think that because a really good character story is often the most moving and powerful kind of story, some people think that is the only way to write a "good" story, so anything without it is "bad". But not every story requires that.

If I am writing a romance or coming of age story or some such thing that just happens to be set in space, I need to really work on my charecterizations. It is the characters that will determine whether or not the story is a good one.

But what if the story is about terraforming Mars? Not a romance set on Mars, but actually ABOUT Mars. Obviously I would still want to make my characters as real as possible but they don't need to change or be all that complicated because the story is not about them. They are merely the lens through which we see the world, not the source of the story.

Think about this for a moment. Imagine sometime in the future you heard about a documentary chronicling the efforts to teraform Mars. It sounds really interesting so you go down to the theater to see it. Through it all, they spend very little time talking about Mars and instead, spend nearly the whole movie talking about the colonist's relationships. It very well may be an excellent film, but it is not what you were expecting to see.

Some stories are about people, but there are also event, idea and milieu stories and the characterization requirements are a bit different for each one.
2. James Davis Nicoll
But what if the story is about terraforming Mars?

Then you could get something like George R. Stewart's Storm or Fire, where the phenomenon is the main character.
3. nicoletort
As a reader who reads almost exclusively for characters (I'll put down a book that doesn't have interesting characters), I read science fiction BECAUSE of, not despite, the characters. I like to read about how people react in insane situations, and if they're not well-developed, their reactions won't be as interesting. I find it interesting that this article didn't mention Orson Scott Card, whose characters are consistently layered and well-developed.

As a side note, none of George Orwell's characters in any of his novels, science fiction or otherwise, are well-developed. The characters in Burmese Days, for example, are described best as charicatures of the types of people that lived in British colonies, rather than characters with personal identities in their own right.
4. wingracer

Exactly. While I haven't read that book, there are thousands of stories that are not about the people but about some event or idea. And not just in SF/F but all genres of fiction.

Now don't misunderstand me, you still need to have believable characters, but they don't need to be all that complicated.

If character stories are the only kind of story you like, don't buy hard science fiction novels. With only a few exceptions, you will be disappointed. It's like buying a Ferrari and then complaining that there isn't enough room in it for your family and the groceries. If that's what you wanted, why did you buy it? There are plenty of great character stories of the "soft" science fiction variety. Fortunately, most of us can enjoy a good event or idea story as well.
5. Laura Lee Nutt
I think that the big examples of SF that people think of like Asimov or Bradbury have the problem of marginalized characters, and it is this that paints the stereotypes of SF, especially to the non-SF audience. SFF works with fabulous examples of well-developed and memorable characters like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card rarely get noticed outside the field.

As a reader and fan of SFF, I do not tolerate flat characters for the sake of enjoying big ideas. Granted, I enjoy many big ideas, especially as they relate to questions of humanity. However, I will put down a book or have to force my way through it if the characters are too flat. Halfway through, I might just look up a summary rather than enduring a plot without decent characterization. But that’s me. I have a number of friends who enjoy concepts so much that they don’t need good characters.

In the end, the fact that SFF can accommodate such a range of story types is one of its greatest strengths.
6. wingracer

"In the end, the fact that SFF can accommodate such a range of story types is one of its greatest strengths."

Absolutely. OSC in one of his books on writing wrote a great piece about how science fiction has certain rules a writer must go by, but whithin those walls, anything goes. It truly is a very diverse genre with room for all types of stories and all types of readers.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@All the Orson Scott Card stuff. I liked the first Ender's Game when it came out. I have to say that I agree that most of the characters are fairly memorable in the series. However, on a personal level, there's something that never really connected with me emotional level with Ender and everyone. So, I suppose I'm admitting a bias. But technically yes, there's a good balance there.
8. nonCharacter
Ryan, the whole point of Ender was that there wasn't any emotion to connect to. He was trained to be a machine, and to ignore the emotions that he felt, that was the only way to get him to do what needed to be done (or so they thought anyway). The latter books didn't impress me much, the first should have just been a standalone, IMHO.

Anyway, the point I think others are trying to make is that in SF, characters are not limited to the people/aliens walking around and doing things. All too often, the scene, the idea, the lens through which we are viewing a particular story IS the/a character. It's a genre in which the story doesn't have to be the point, it's the way it makes the reader THINK about the story/characters that is important.
James Enge
9. JamesEnge
There's a question being begged in most discussions of characterzation. Not all "well-drawn" characters exhibit the same level of detail.

Look at painting.

Here's something by Raphael (maybe).


Here's something by Gaugin.


Both paintings have beautiful well-executed human figures. But Gaugin's are more stylized. They're not worse because they have less detail and less precision: their stylization is what makes them impactful in the context of his particular work.

So there isn't just "good characterization" or "bad characterization". For some stories, most genre stories possibly, a starker cleaner less-detailed approach to character may be appropriate. But the lines are not less well-drawn because there are less of them.
10. N. Mamatas
Here's some interesting commentary from Michael Cisco on the topic:

We know that the Western novel (as distinct from long prose narratives in general, and so not including The Tale of Genji or The Golden Ass)
develops in parallel with the Western middle class, and that this
parallelism is not a coincidence. The middle class strives to vindicate
itself socially alongside the aristocracy by demonstrating a moral
superiority predicated on the cultivation of an elaborate personality or
interior life. The novel is the model of this kind of interior life
and the obsessively general, all-surveying point of view it takes on the
world and its society. Any people anywhere in the world, irrespective
of class, may have elaborate Freudian inner lives; my point is that the
middle class have turned the elaborate inner life into a fetish which
serves as one of the fundamental componants of class identity. In
principle, every middle class person lives a novel. Middle class life
is a novel. Not every novel is a middle class life.

Read the rest here:
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
@nonCharacter. Sure that makes sense! I think I tend to not really enjoy a "series" as much as I did when I was much younger. I know this sort of prevents me from loving a lot of SFF, but it might be part of my deal with Ender.
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
I agree with you that not all stories are character stories; I suppose what I'm asserting is all GOOD and thoroughly moving/important/resonant stories are some kind of character story.
13. Laura Lee Nutt
Ryan, I agree with you that most moving/resonating stories are character based. There is no better vehicle for touching the human heart than human experience.

However, I’ve noticed a bias in our discussion of examples drawn from science fiction. A lot of the character based SFF I’ve read lately has been fantasy, and perhaps this is why I’ve shifted in the last decade towards fantasy over science fiction. Urban fantasy has a great emphasis on character, especially since, without that emphasis, their usual first person POVs could not support the series they come from. I’ve also noticed that several epic fantasies are moving toward much heavier characterization, most notably of late, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Any thoughts on these?
Sherri Nichols
14. snichols
I look at books as being made up of plot, characters, ideas, and craft. The very best books are good at all of these, of course, but most books, regardless of genre, are lacking somewhat in one or more. Because the ideas are often so big in SF, a SF book can find an audience with a great idea and decent plot but be weaker in character development and craft. People who aren't as taken by the big idea then tend to marginalize SF as genre fiction that isn't very good.
15. Andrea Santa Maria
I agree with wingracer, there are many elements of a story an author may choose to emphasize. Characters might convey ideas better by being flat archetypes, or broadly drawn. I particularly balk at the tyranny of plot, and cutting language or relying too much on dialogue to move it, but some people like those books. My favourite books are those which don't consider plot a focal point, though they may be about something abstractly, like Little, Big. Some people want to watch ideas move through story rather than people.
16. Sophie Gale
Back in 1988 Orson Scott Card did an excellent how-to book for Writers Digest called Characters and Viewpoint. He devotes a chapter to "What Kind of Story Are You Telling?" and introduces "The Mice Quotient." Stories can fall into four main types: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. You can even have one type dominate and have a second subordinate.

According to Card, "Whenever you tell a story, you make an implicit contract with the reader. Within the first few paragraphs or pages, you tell the reader implicitly what kind of story this going to be; the reader then knows what to expect, and then holds the thread of that structure throughout the tale.

"If you begin with a murder, for instance, and focus on those characters who have reason to find out how, why, and by whom the murder was committed, the reader can reasonably expect that the story will continue until those questions are answered--the reader expects an idea story."

I prefer a character story, but, thanks to Card, I will read--and even enjoy--one of the other three IF the character element is a strong subordinate. Can't write a believable character? Buh-bye!
17. Scotoma

I read Western novels as Westerns and the rest of the paragraph got evermore stranger. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

I'm always on the fence about the whole plot-driven, idea-driven, character-driven novels and what is best, or what mix is best. Most of the time when I think I prefer one or the other, the next day I read something that, by my own admission is something I don't like, only then I do. In the end I feel like screaming: I like good novels, thought that gets me into a similar snake pit. So I say I like novels I like. That thought, sounds kinda stupid. But that's the best I can do most of the time.
René Walling
18. cybernetic_nomad
One problem is defining good characters. What works for one person doesn't work for another. And often when it doesn't work, the reaction is "the characters are boring/unrealistic/flat" – it's purely an emotional response.

Great ideas are another thing. Some people may not be interested in reading idea driven SF, but they still admit these ideas are interesting – intellect falls into it.

Looking at lists of top SF novels, most of the books are ideas driven. And that's one of the strengths of SF: ideas, no other genre explores them as much.
Ryan Britt
19. ryancbritt
@13 Laura
I think I drew from science fiction because I actually think the "problem" might be more prominent there than it is in fantasy. Maybe science gets in the way of people more than magic does. (And yes, I know what Arthur C. Clarke would say about that one) :-)

@15 Hi Cousin! Yeah, I think Wood was saying exactly what you're saying, that sometimes a "flat" character is super important and more "real" than a rounded one. I suppose I agree with him and you, but as I mentioned before subtle and flat are different. And those differences are...subtle :-)
20. apokalypsis
Re: Super Sad True Love Story - I thought the characterization was great, but could see why people criticize the "likeability" of Lenny and Eunice. They may take their fiction with less realism than other readers.

SSTLS didn't bother me that way, but I had a similar reaction to the characters in The Magicians. While I loved the story, Alice was the only character I really liked -- and she's the one that saved it for me. (The more I thought about the "unequal love" in her relationship with Quentin, the more I valued the story.)

@10-N. Mamatas -- So would the disappearance of the middle class imply the disappearance of the novel?

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