Characters: Flat, Round and Hanging By A Thread

I’ve spoken lately at a variety of workshops and discussion groups about trends in Science Fiction (both on the screen and the printed page).   In doing so, I remembered a piece I wrote in my old writing blog a few years back that I undug, reread, and decided was worth bringing into the light of day yet again:

I had promised to discuss the characters of Ken Wharton’s DIVINE INTERVENTION and will do so in this entry. The timing is perfect as I’m knee deep into another book, THE SCIENCE OF SCIENCE FICTION WRITING by SF author and guru James Gunn.  And as much as I have enjoyed Gunn’s book, I am vehemently opposed to his opinion that characters should be relatively flat in science fiction so they don’t get in the way of the story. While I am it, I might as well begin throwing out my thoughts on TIME AND AGAIN by Clifford Simak, as the main character serves as a good counterpoint to DIVINE INTERVENTION’s relatively flat characters.

James Gunn believes that characters in science fiction are “by necessity less rounded and more typical.” He reasons that rounded characters might detract from the effectiveness of science fiction stories. He cites C.S. Lewis’ essay on Science Fiction stating that “the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. If they had been more remarkable they would have wrecked their books.”

If the only science fiction I had ever read was DIVINE INTERVENTION and TIME AND AGAIN, I would concur that flat characters are the norm. This does not, however, mean flat characters make for great science fiction. And though my first reaction to this reasoning is chalking it up to old versus new styles of science fiction, I can not help but think of some of the greatest science fiction books ever written that fully demonstrate strong, round characters. DUNE (Frank Herbert), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Jules Verne), STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND (Robert Heinlein), FOUNDATION (Isaac Asimov), CITY AND THE STARS (Arthur C. Clarke) and THE SHIP WHO SANG (Anne McCaffrey) are all classic examples of rounded characters that go through tremendous arcs of growth during the course of their plotline.

Readers are humans. Humans are characters. Some of us may be rounder than others; some of us may be rather flat. In the end, however, we are all characters. When we read, we are first and foremost seeking identification with someone (usually the protagonist) who we can join as they journey through a storyline.  The reader consciously (or subconsciously) ‘sinks’ into the main character’s psyche in order to experience the story as it unfolds.

Science Fiction is speculation, true. But is it about the science or, as I perceive it, people’s reaction to the science? If it is the latter, the need for fully rounded characters reacting to the science becomes essential to good storytelling. Hugo award winner James Patrick Kelly, author of Think Like A Dinosaur, supports this argument in his essay “You and Your Characters.”*   He points out that “the science fiction character is the readers’ guide to the ideas of the story. If she doesn’t belong, nobody will trust her; if she isn’t real, no one will believe her.” And if no one believes your character, no one will believe the story. Asking your reader to suspend their disbelief is essential to the storytelling process.

C.S. Lewis’ mentions ALICE IN WONDERLAND as an example of an ordinary character needed in order to explore the non-ordinary: the fantastic world of Wonderland. I can say from personal experience that though this reasoning might have worked with readerships a hundred years ago, it most certainly does not work today. A (few) year(s) ago I was given the task of adapting the book to play form for a regional theatre’s family series. Considering a child’s short attention span (and these days, it would seem that all of humanity is short on this commodity), it was essential that the main character (Alice) offer the audience a means to identify with the story. A plain Alice that never changes, never grows, just wasn’t going to do that. I therefore expanded Alice’s character so that though she started out as a plain Jane who takes life too seriously.  She then learns during the course of her adventures to enjoy make believe, to not take herself so seriously. She learns to laugh. In other words, her character grows out of being flat and into a rounded, credible individual. And because of adding this dimensionality to the character, the other characters of Wonderland became more significant because of their effect upon her.

DIVINE INTERVENTION’s characters are initially promising as round characters. My overall frustration, however, is that the promise(s) are never actualized. Drew Randall, the young boy who due to being deaf is equipped with technology that inadvertently leads him to communicate throughout the book with a techno-life form hybrid that he believes is God, is never allowed (by the author) to form new philosophies out of his discovery that ‘God’ is a life form and not omnipresent as he initially believed. His mother, Katrina, is established as also deaf and previously lost two children due to a plague on Mandala which causes her to be overly protective of her son. She never moves beyond this obsession even though her son proves his ability to survive through civil war and successful interspecies contact. The father, Paul, is a preacher of Science as religion because God wants his worshippers to always seek the truth. The discovery of Drew’s God being a scientific hybrid of another species and technology just further reinforces his beginning belief system. Not one of these main characters is truly affected by the events of the story.

The villains of DIVINE INTERVENTION are equally flat and frustrating. Mandala’s Prime Minister, Alexander Channing, is immediately established as being power hungry. Threatened by impending arrival of another colony ship from Earth, he immediately plots to kill everyone onboard rather than consider the possibilities of sharing power. An understandable and recognizable trait in a villain. But where is the reason for his motivation? And surely he must have some likeable or at least intriguing aspects of character in order to have become as powerful as he has on Mandala.

The author never gives us a peek into this side of the main villain’s character, leaving us with a complete case of predictability from the get-go. And when the character dies, it is barely mentioned in a simple sentence of “Channing was flushed out the airlock.” There is never any final verbal confrontation between our good and bad guys. Never a peek into the psychosis of a twisted mind and therefore never a care about whether the character lives or dies, fails or succeeds. For this reader, it was an incredibly dissatisfying ending to a dissatisfying character. To make matters worse, his main crony Croll is a cartoon cutout whose only passion in life is to beat people up. Been there, done that and the author should really have known better!

Without round characters, DIVINE INTERVENTION provides no reason to care about what the individuals go through. Instead the reader is kept at a distance from their responses to their experiences. Instead the plot serves as the character as it goes through its machinations. The story grows from a normal Earth Colony setup to a young civilization that must deal with civil war and the meaning of God. When the war ends, the combatants make peace, determined to get along in ways they never were able to before. Throughout the book, however, we are never given a glimpse into the affect of these struggles and therefore can not truly identify with the characters experiences, nor learn from them. And the plot itself is not remarkable enough to justify it being the only true round character.

On the flip side, the plot as character technique certainly applies to TIME AND AGAIN by Clifford Simak (another of my contract books). Simak’s style is so pastoral, his settings so deeply and emotionally defined, that Gunn’s argument applies well. Though none of the characters truly learn from their experiences, (with the possible exception of the main character: Ash Sutton), the exploration of what defines humanity versus other species expands greatly, chapter building upon chapter. To this reader it would seem that Simak intended that the reader be the character to grow through the experience. An enviable talent that I believe any writer should attempt to emulate through their storytelling. (More on this in another blog to come).

Ash Sutton’s character is magnificently detailed in terms of reaction and growth to the story as it unfolds. The reader is allowed deeply within the recesses of his mind, encouraged to share in his experiences, his doubts and most importantly his epiphanies. This gives TIME AND AGAIN the ultimate in success as a work of fiction because by having the reader join the main character in exploring profound issues of destiny, humanity and freedom, the reader comes away from an intimate experience of discovery that hopefully leaves an impressionable mark.

TIME AND AGAIN is only 235 pages long and I have to believe that this is why the technique works so well. I am not convinced that story as character could have been sustained in a longer work. There is little opportunity for the reader to ‘take a breath’ in this intense story, to sit back and let the morality play sink its implication in for deep effect. Still, I would have to rate this as one of Simak’s best, with CITY perhaps topping it by only a hair.

To be fair to James Gunn, he does close his section on characters in THE SCIENCE OF SCIENCE FICTION WRITING with an emphasis on how science fiction could be served well by rounder characters. Kinship with the characters, as Gunn points out, is what drives the reader forward, encouraging them to be committed to the storyline.

Considering the authors I’ve read the last few years (Allen Steele, Tobias Buckell, John Scalzi to name a few), as well as seen (particularly in television where the results of writing happen so much faster, e.g. BSG, Sarah Connor, Eureka), I’d say that in the end Gunn was right.  Well rounded characters drive the reader/viewer forward.  If we care, we turn the page.  We watch the next act.  The character’s experience becomes our experience.

More importantly, this is what storytelling should be about:  Touching the reader’s psyche and letting them know… no, you’re not alone.

* You and Your Characters
by James Patrick Kelly
© 1991 by Davis Publications, First published in WRITING SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, edited by Gardner Dozois, et. al., St. Martin’s Press