When many people think of science fiction, they envision plot-driven page turners in which the sole purpose of the characters is to move the action forward.
And there’s nothing wrong with that… a great plot is always the engine that drives the story.
But I want more than just interesting ideas and plots. For me, what makes a story – scifi or not – are the presence of complex and often quirky characters who are struggling with something inside themselves. It’s their internal journeys that pull me in from the gut and keep me reading.
That’s why I choose to write character-driven science fiction.
Character-driven stories still need great page-turning plots. But here’s the difference: the overall purpose of the plot is to place the protagonist in such extremis that they have to grow and/or change internally and then decide to act on that change. That moment when they choose is the culmination of the story. Whether they succeed or fail in the events that surround their choice is what keeps us on the edge of our seats.
For me, character-driven stories feel more real. When I can plant both of my feet deep in my characters’ exo boots, I experience the story viscerally on all levels… the left side of my brain trying to figure out the plot twists, and right side experiencing the emotions of the characters. Those emotions are what give me that wonderful “reading hangover” after I finish a great book.
So, Why Don’t We See a Lot More Character-Driven SciFi?
I think one reason is that traditionally scifi writers and readers have been there for the science and the ideas. For them, the spark is all cerebral and they simply are less interested in character development. Today, with all the genre bending that’s going on out there (SF romance!), the universe of writers and readers is a whole lot wider, so we’re starting to see more interest in character development.
I also think there’s another reason: character-driven scifi is difficult as all hell to write. Unlike in any other genre, we scifi writers have to introduce not only plot and character, we also have to build a world (or at least a cosmology) for the reader. That world-building takes up a lot of space on the page. Adding in a third element of deep characterization can really slow the story down. When writing my novel, DUO, it killed me to delete a whole bunch of great character-building scenes. But I had to, because they stalled the plot and pacing, and I needed the story “real estate” for explaining the cosmology. In the end, I found ways to show character in the subtext of the plot, but it was really hard work.
So How Do You Write Character-Driven Science Fiction?
Here’s the method that works for me. (And if you have a different method, I’d LOVE to hear about yours.)
#1 Build Your Premise first. In Duo, the premise is that genetic doping will one day rob us of the lives we were born to live.
#2 Build Your Cosmology. And while you’re building it, understand that your cosmology is what’s going to drive your character development, so be sure you build in elements that will do so. In Duo’s cosmology, the healers can’t leave the Temple because the empathic overload will fry their brains.
#3 Build Your Characters and make them a product of your cosmology. Think about how living and being in that cosmology will make them who they are.
#4 Build Your Plot and make it entirely designed to drive your characters to extremis that causes something inside of them to shift, so they have to decide and act (or choose not to act) in a new way. Everything drives toward that internal moment of change.
A Few of My Favorite Character-Driven Scifi Novels
- The Martian, by Andy Weir. Okay, so I’m not sure Mark Watney changes all that much throughout the story (and I do wish he had), but he is so utterly and deeply vibrant as a character it feels as though the entire plot is built to showcase him and his resourcefulness as a human being under the most extreme duress.
- Dune, by Frank Herbert. Paul Atreides has to choose between the destinies planned for him. Will it be his father’s Atreides birthright? His mother’s Bene Gesserit way? Or will he find the courage to choose a third path, one of his own making?
- The Sparrow & Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell. Will the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz find God on an alien planet, or will the experience strip him of all his beliefs? And whatever happens, will he be strong enough to remain a spiritual being?
Feel free to list your favorite character-driven scifi stories and writers (and why you like them) in the comments. I’m compiling a list.
And if you’re a writer who wants to learn more about writing character-driven scifi, be sure to sign up to get my newsletter. I’ll be writing in more depth about it in the coming weeks and months.