Hi folks! This week I’m trying a little something new. For a variety of reasons—chief among them my own lack of motivation—I chose not to read and review a book this week but instead to look back across the books I have read and see what lessons I can pull out about the craft of writing science fiction. Is this a good idea? Perhaps we’ll never know. Or perhaps we can choose to know.
Fun fact, this essay was originally going to be about Penetrator novels but I was having a really hard time finding a way to make that work. It wasn’t until late last night as I lay in bed reading Viktor Frankl that the idea of writing something about character agency hit me.
“Why were you in bed reading Man’s Search for Meaning instead of Assignment: Nuclear Nude, Thomas?”
That question might well answer itself.
The other thing that set me down this line of thinking was the February 7, 2016, episode of Movies with Mikey. If you haven’t watched Mikey Neumann talk about movies, or listened to him talk about anything else on the several podcasts he is on, or haven’t read him talk about whatever else he’s willing to talk about, I recommend you take a break from this essay and just chill out with him for a while, because he ranks among the best people.
In his discussion of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mikey points out that the titular hero has little to no agency in the movie. He’s being constantly pushed around by circumstance and other characters. And what perked up my ears was that Mikey pointed this out as a positive feature of the movie.
And that got me thinking about how many times I’ve railed against a book because it featured a character who never makes decisions and is just a complete loser whose sole purpose is to have the plot happen to him or her. It happens a lot. I started to wonder, though: When is a lack of agency acceptable? When is it a good thing for a character to never make a decision?
The reason it worked so well in Scott Pilgrim turns out to be that it’s the story of a guy who has to let everybody else make decisions for him. When you put it that way it seems kind of obvious. When is acceptable for a story to do blah blah? When it’s a story about a character doing blah blah.
Back on genre fiction, though, it seems that there’s a real tendency for characters to never make a decision because that’s not what the story is about. Often enough, an author gets the urge to write a science fiction novel not because it’s about characters, but because it’s about setting, and the whole point of a character is to have something we can attach the narrative to so that the author can talk about this awesome setting he or she’s created.
A few examples I can think of off the top of my head are SAR, FreeMaster, and The House of Zeor. These three books are shining examples of worldbuilding with no intent of creating a protagonist we give any craps about. The protag is essentially a glass box that we can put our eyes in and see how things are going on this planet or future.
What makes these three books stand out, though? Why is lack of agency such a negative for these books when it’s a positive in some others?
One thing, one really big thing, is when the character is a “hero.”
Holy gods above, that bugs me.
Here you’ve got your protagonist and everybody keeps going on about how strong, perceptive, endurant (not a word), charismatic, intelligent, agile, and lucky he or she is. They never stop talking about it. They frequently go, “Oh, Balzan, only you can save us from this terrible thing!” And then maybe he or she does save the people from the terrible thing and everybody’s happy. It’s all great.
This is something that’s bugged me for a while on a sort of philosophical level. How is it that a character can do so much in a narrative and never once has to make a decision?
It’s frankly amazing how many plots, especially in sf and fantasy, are tests of the character’s resources. One after the other, the character has to face down a guy in an elephant mask, or God’s fleas, whatever else there might be and never once makes a decision on how to go about it. So often the character has just one power or ability or strength and just uses it over and over again while the stakes rise accordingly.
This isn’t agency; it’s being a robot. So many books are about robot characters who aren’t described as such. They are the protagonists who react to the story instead of making it.
Somebody once pointed out to me that the good Star Trek episodes are the ones where the captain has to make a decision. When that’s the plot, that’s when you get real drama. When the episode is just about a space cloud that threatens the ship until charisma and logic fight it off, it’s not nearly as interesting.
The best example of that lies in the fact that Edith Keeler must die.
So to bring it back to sf novels, what must a character face to make the story intersting? Suppose we’ve got a formula-level sword-and-planet story where our hero, Steve, is stronger than the natives but his lady has been kidnapped by them and they’re threatening her.
The standard response would be to fight until the lady is safe again. No decisions are made.
Suppose Steve comes to a decision about which path to take. He must choose to go through the mountains, where the mighty Ka’admar lurks, or through the treacherous M’urr swamp. There, that’s making a decision, right?
Sure, technically. But what usually happens here? Steve picks one, perhaps listening to his cronies or perhaps arbitrarily, and then what happens? He faces the threat that lives there and goes on with his day. Did it matter which path he took? When it does, I’m surprised.
But if Steve has to face down a real decision, then maybe the book starts to get interesting. Suppose he has to choose between letting a comrade die or giving up the quest. Maybe he’s captured. He’s started to learn that his captor is a real human being, with thoughts, feelings, and backstory. Steve gets to know this captor. Captor doesn’t want to be a jail-guy. He’s a decent human being who’s just trying to make a living. His daughter’s sick with the Revellian pox. He needs medicine.
And then it turns out that Steve has a chance to escape. Doing so will mean that Captor loses his job, or worse. Steve is condemning this man to hardship, but doesn’t the quest come first? What of Noala, the beautiful princess of Dingdang?
And then layer another step on it. Steve could ally himself with Captor. Make a decent living in the city of Rawrth. He could give up on the search entirely and live out the rest of his days in comfort. Even worse, he could actually do some good and help alleviate the poverty that most of the population of Wingwang suffer daily.
Okay, I’m not saying this is a good story, not in the least bit, but I’m trying to get across some elements that make a story work better than being a series of challenges, one after the other, that our hero overcomes with strength or cunning alone. What I’m looking for are challenges that take something deeper. Some willpower, some decency, or some sheer unadulterated horny.
What I’m asking for, then, is something that sets our character apart from a robot. Robots can do all sorts of things. If you make them fight monsters, they can fight the monsters. Keep throwing bigger monsters at them and they’ll keep fighting until either there are no more monsters or the robot is dismantled. A robot doesn’t consider the possibility that all this struggle isn’t actually worth it.
This is the plot of a great many books, but the hero isn’t called a robot, he’s called something like Morning and we’re supposed to feel for him the way we’d feel about a human being trying to do stuff.
Why is it so hard to write characters who have to make these kinds of decisions? Well, for one, it’s a lot easier to write a book where the hero fights a series of challenges until he or she finds themselves against the final boss. That kind of narrative is easy and, furthermore, I’m pretty sure it’s the oldest kind of story in the world.
But it’s also really hard to have to come up with situations that require that kind of decision-making. I’ve no pretensions to being a skilled writer, but I’ve dabbled with fiction a few times, and I can say that every time I’ve tried to write a story I’ve ended up with a tale where stuff happens to a narrator.
And so we end up getting to the real meat of the matter: Do stories where people make important decisions have any kind of reality to them?
Let me tell you a story of my life. For four years I worked a job that I loathed. It was in an upscale grocery store and everything about it offended me on some level or another. Between introversion and a disgust at the class distinctions going on there I was an unhappy guy. Plus I got paid crap and all my managers were idiots who stole things, either bits of my life or money from the safe.
Looking back I realize that I probably could have done a lot more to get out of that situation. But when I was there, stuck in that madhouse, I felt like I was trapped and there were no choices to be made. Every time I tried to escape, say by applying for some jobs or whatever, nothing ever came of it. No decision I made would help make this life more bearable. I went with the flow and eventually came out the other side.
I think this is pretty natural for people to do. I’m no psychologist, obviously, but I still think most people end up living their lives as one struggling day after the other until something new happens. Maybe the struggles get less or maybe they get more. That’s just the nature of life.
And so art can imitate that life and I think that, ultimately, the story of the hero who doesn’t have to do anything difficult like make a decision resonates pretty strongly. We can all project ourselves into the situation of the guy who has to fight one guard, then two guards, then four, then fly the ship against the enemy fleet, and then face down Lord Blorg. It’s realistic to us but also hopeful. After all, here is a character who does win all these struggles. His or her strength does win out in the end, and so we can all hope that our own will too. The protag fought four of the Dark Lady’s elite guard; I’m pretty sure that I can face Kathy at work for one more day.
I think I’ll start coming down a little less hard on these kinds of stories, at least for a while. They make a certain sense.
On the flip, though, the stories where people do have to make decisions are definitely what we should strive for. They’re the kinds of books we can actually learn something from. They’re the ones we can sit back and think about afterward, asking ourselves if the protag actually made the right decision and, whether they did or not, if we would make that decision too.
So here’s your writing prompt, dear readers. I ask you to write a short story, just a few pages long, where the protagonist has to make an important decision for some reason. Then sit on that story for a week or so and go back and re-write it with the protag making the opposite decision. I’d be interested in seeing how well that works.