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The Primacy of Ideas

One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.

Or is it?

Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.

Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.

In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.

It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.

To do that, you need ideas.

For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)

When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.

This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.

I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.

I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?

As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.

That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.


  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    I wonder if anyone else will catch the Freak Brothers reference.

  2. Erbo says:

    Oh, it wasn’t just the mercury-hose wires that made Hell interesting; it was all the dodges the Hellions came up with to get around the need for electricity in the first place, too. Chemical and natural-gas lighting systems. Fluidic control computers. Babbage-type mechanical computation systems. The Plenum, a power distribution network based on compressed air. Pneumatic-tube messaging systems with automated routing. Diesel-cycle engines not relying on electricity, including spring-driven starter motors. Hell might just as well be named “The Planet of Cool Hacks.”

    1. Alex Dillard says:

      Speaking of The Cunning Blood, there is currently a copy on being sold by TSCBOOKS for $555.55 Jeff, I think you commented on computer controlled book prices in a post a while back. I’m skeptical that the price was computer-set in this case since it is entirely composed of one number.

      1. Considering you can get the book here and there for a dollar plus shipping (less, in some places) the usefulness of a human-price like that defies understanding. Assuming that the bidbots are constantly running prices up and down in their peculiar game, it’s inevitable that prices like $444.44 and $555.55 would pop up once in awhile. Lacking any other reasonable explanation, I’ll have to stick with that one, though other theories are always welcome.

  3. Science fiction is about putting people in plausible situations that we haven’t faced yet, be they disturbingly possible in the near future or remotely possible in the distant future. Fantasy is about situations that can’t exist without magic, but oh, the stories we could tell if they did.

    Either way, you use these situations to get at parts of the characters you can’t normally see. In science fiction, the means are important. Science fiction readers are less tolerant of hand waving “This is how things are.” Science, after all, is about asking “Well, why?” Yes, the ideas are crucial.

    Humans also anthropomorphize things practically instinctively. Gadgets become characters, even if they never speak or exhibit their own will, just as ships, aircraft, and cars do. They become characters simply by being there and exhibiting unique patterns of behavior.

    One must also play to the groundlings.

    Cool gadgets appeal to the younger readers because, yanno, they’re cool gadgets. The character depth appeals to older readers because it’s so very human. Star Trek (TOS) is not the same series when I watch it now as it was 40 years ago when I was 6. And yet… and yet… part of me is still the gadget-happy 6 year old, so both those age groups are in place in one skull at one time.

    As a result, you never say “that guy who beamed back to his ship at the last minute before the other ship went into that thing. You say Captain Kirk beamed back to the Enterprise (who has a voice, a personality and who he’s claimed to love more than once) at the last minute before the Constellation (another gadget that has become a character as well – the brave ship marching to its death with a bomb in its pocket) went into the planet killer (a gadget, but a concept, an idea. It never got personal the way the Constellation and the Enterprise did.)

    1. Kirk was mass-market in ways most stories are not. We know his name, and his friends’ names, and the names of a lot of other things (tribbles!) with a degree of cultural saturation that only a handful of other works of fiction have ever achieved. You and I (and almost everybody else) will have to remembered in other ways.

      That said, the real message of this post is that “Nobody cares about your starships” is absolutely the wrong thing to say to Jeff Duntemann.

      1. Tom R. says:

        Jeff, If and when the extraterrestrials vist the only thing I REALLY want to know is HOW DO THE ENGINES WORK. I guess it is the engineer in me. I actually worked in the building that was supposed to have the aliens when I was in the Air Force, but never saw hide nor hair of them. Yes, I DO care about the Starships!

  4. I am also into SF writing but probably not as good as you are. I also focus more on character development and their core. Interesting post!

  5. Carrington Dixon says:

    Damon Knight used to pillory stf stories that were just thinly disguised ‘mainstream’ stories. If a story doesn’t have to be stf, it shouldn’t. Transposed westerns should be real westerns, etc.

    Context is what makes a story stf; character usually does not.

    But a context without character is a travelogue. Some of the early stf writers fell into the trap of writing colorful travelogues. It is possible to bring off such a work, but it is very hard. Hal Clement came close, but his works are also problem-solving stories. How your characters solve their problems — or don’t solve their problems is character. Even so, I bet that most folks who remember Clement’s Mesklin stores remember more about the planet Mesklin than about the protagonist Barlennan.

  6. R-Laurraine Tutihasi says:

    You have a point, but you do have “good enough” characters. Otherwise I couldn’t say much good about your writing. Take Kim Stanley Robinson. Until 2312 I found his books rather tedious. While I remember the ideas in his Mars trilogy, they read more like a scientific treatise than a novel. I realize there are a lot of people who like his writing, and they may think more like you than I. I never even finished his THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT. Granted this was mostly because the password protected PDF that I had broke when I replaced my computer, but I was so little interested in the novel that I did not go to the library to borrow a copy. I had been finding it tedious and boring to read; it was real work. I expect a work of fiction to be entertaining. Ideas can certainly add to that. For me foremost are characterization and good straightforward writing style. Do you want to be remembered solely for your ideas?

    1. I want to be remembered for my stories. The point of this post is that ideas are more memorable considered alone than characters, who, without context, don’t have much to define them. I didn’t say that characters aren’t necessary. I said that they aren’t the whole story.

      There are a lot of people writing fantastic literature today who feel that characters are the only things that matter in fiction. This has flipped since the pulp era, when characters were a sort of Halloween costume that readers donned to help them imagine being “in the world.” Better writing took care of that. I think we’re now very much in danger in going too far in the other direction.

      Hostility to the importance of ideas in fantastic literature is a puzzle, unless it’s a sour-grapes thing propagated by writers who have little or no idea-generation ability of their own.

  7. […] Technique monoculture. Critics and gatekeepers lean strongly toward literary techniques, and against techniques that emerged from the pulps, and the pulp descendents that many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, characters are critically important. Characters are not the whole show. […]

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