Being a Better Writer: Serving an Idea

Welcome back readers! Sorry for the lateness of the post. There almost wasn’t one this week. Between a work shift today and a family wedding last week (not my own; I’d talk about that) the last few days have been extremely busy, and more than once I’ve been tempted to just skip a week and get caught up with Hunter/HuntedBut then I was talking with someone online this morning about the differences between a couple of different Sci-Fi books with regard to how they approached their stories, and, well, here we are!

So, those of you who are long-time readers of this site may find this post slightly familiar. To be fair, in near five years doing this, I’m frankly amazed that I’ve managed to keep from retreading topics as many times as I have. But even with that, there’s something to be said for coming back at a topic from a new angle and with a different approach or perspective. So read on. Either it’ll be new to you, or it’ll be a different approach that you hadn’t run across before.

So, what are we going to talk about today? Priority of ideas and concepts. More specifically, how you present those ideas, the core concepts of your story, in your story, and how that ends up affecting everything else. Or rather, if it helps, how important those ideas are to the story in its most basic form.

Confused? Don’t be. Or hopefully, you won’t be in a moment. But this does take some explaining.

See, this topic arose from someone online asking after a fairly popular Sci-Fi book, The Three Body Problem (I’m not ragging on it, so naming it is fine), and what various folks opinions on it were. When there appeared to be a fairly even split on liking it versus not liking it, one of the common criticisms that came up which ended up being discussed in-depth in the discussion was Three-Body‘s fairly lackluster characters.

I’m not ragging there. It’s a genuine criticism. While Three-Body has interesting ideas and concepts at its core, the characters you view these concepts through are largely uninteresting.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. They’re very uninteresting. In fact, they usually don’t feel like characters at all. Oh sure, they’re all given the trappings of personality and character, but they never act like it. Instead, they’re there to move the story along, to present the next idea in a logical chain of events. In fact, Three-Body does this to such a degree that one character’s appearance always means that something substantial is about to be presented in the plot, as they only exist as the “everyman” who will be given, or sometimes offer, the concise summary of things for the audience in layman’s terms. See that character appear? Exposition incoming! Summing up everything the other characters have ferreted out. Which, again, is all the other characters do (ferreting).

Now, some of you might be asking “But wait, isn’t that what characters do? Move the story along?” Well, you’re right, they do. But there’s a point with every book where the author has to make a decision: Are these characters servants of the story? Or agents of their own selves?

Which brings us back to Three-Body and its ideas. The point of Three-Body, as a story, is to present its ideas and concepts. First and foremost, that’s the goal. And so, with that goal, the characters are servants of the story in that they exist only to present the ideas and concepts. Other freedoms of the characters don’t exist; the only moves the characters make are to present more of the ideas and story.

Again, I can hear that question: “But that’s what characters do! How else would you move a story forward?”

You can let them be themselves.

See, here’s where Three-Body‘s criticisms run true: Its characters don’t ever exhibit any of this freedom to be themselves. Every move they make, every step they take (I’ll be watching you?) is in service of presenting the story’s core concept and ideas. They don’t ever deviate from that. In fact, if I recall correctly, at one point one of the protagonists is given a choice: pursue the story … or pursue the story.

Not much of a choice there. And little room for the protagonist to take initiative.

Okay, some of you might feel that I’m taking cheap shots at Three-Body. I’m not. And to be perfectly fair, it’s translated. I’m fully willing to give the story a pass on having flat characters because not only can a lot of subtlety be lost in translation, but the book also comes from a very different culture that places low value on individual character in favor of the group, which would drive a story about ideas more than character choices.

But even so, its characters don’t actually portray any … character. They’re just there to serve as exposition for the story. But, again, that same question: How is this different from any other story? Well, let me tell you. Or rather, show you by looking at another popular Sci-Fi book with a similar overarching premise: The Expanse.

See, both The Expanse and Three-Body do have a similar setup at their core: Both are stories about humanity making contact with an alien species through their tools, and what results thereafter. But both stories differ heavily in how they present their ideas, their themes, and their messages.

In The Expanse, all of the characters have the freedom to do as they please. They are what matter. And so they make bad decisions, decisions that put them at odds with other characters, etc, all in pursuit of their own goals. The result is that while you have a story covering a similar concept (enigmatic, vastly more powerful aliens with designs for the solar system) the two stories come out very different in execution because The Expanse doesn’t place so much importance on its ideas, and instead places its trust in its characters. Characters in The Expanse aren’t so much vehicles to present the ideas and concepts the author wants the reader to think about, but to present their own takes on things and act in their own way.

Let me put it this way: You will never find yourself while reading Three-Body Problem saying “Agh! No, don’t do that! You’re making the wrong choice!” The characters are never given that freedom. They exist to give the reader information, not make choices. But in The Expanse, there are plenty of moments where characters are left to choose for themselves, and make a wrong choice. This wrong choice still does move the plot and story along. The characters making mistakes and getting things wrong is part of the story. Or rather, the story is their choices.

Which is where Three-Body and The Expanse forge different paths. Three-Body is about the ideas and the concepts first and foremost, so the characters (and the story, really) have that goal first and foremost: Present the ideas and concept. The Expanse, meanwhile, is about the characters in the story before the ideas and concepts, so it lets them make their decisions and bounce around those ideas and concepts.

Hopefully this is making sense for you, because there’s something to take from it for your own writing, but before we do that, I want to note that neither approach is truly “wrong.” There are a lot of successful Sci-Fi authors that put ideas and concepts first, writing a story that explores an idea before it explores its characters. Or rather, a story where the characters are secondary, their purpose being to feed ideas and concepts to the reader. These often end up being regarded as more “literary” Sci-Fi, though there are those who would disagree with that assertion. Point being, however, that you can write a story that’s more about the ideas and concepts than the characters who are in said story. They’re there to be mouthpieces. Harsh as it sounds, it’s true. But yet, such a book can gain a very impassioned audience.

Same is said of stories that let the characters and their choices matter more than the ideas or concept. The Expanse was a huge hit. So was The Martian. Stories where characters make their own calls and stumble through a Sci-Fi universe are also massively popular. People love stories where characters seem real and exist to call the shots on their own life. The fun of stories like that is seeing how they interact with others, and how the ideas and concepts the story’s universe may be built on can change or influence their decisions.

Stories don’t have to commit to one or the other wholeheartedly, either. There are books that sort of shoot for “neutral” in this area. A Mote in God’s Eye straddles both, having characters that make their own decisions and judgments, but also run into core ideas and concepts to the story that are presented squarely and are of great import to the work itself. You can adjust the “balance” as you see fit.

Which means now we’re getting into application. So then, how is this important for you, the writer? Well, when sitting down to work on a story—any story, not just Sci-Fi, though it seems to occur most there—consider where you want your focus to be. Is the story about the concept of the dangers of automation? Or will it be about a character who faces the dangers of automation? Will you try and juggle both? What’s more important to you and your story? The concept? Or the characters in the story? Which will you focus on? Which needs to be given more focus for the story to take shape the way you want it?

Also, will going one way or the other leave your story with a weakness some may not like? As Three-Body shows, going to heavily into concepts and ideas can leave you with a story that only acts as a vehicle to present those concepts and ideas, with little other substance to speak of. But if you dive too far into characters, you may make it difficult for a neat concept or idea to come across.

Ultimately, there’s no “wrong” way to do this. Your goal is to find the variance that works for you. But it’s something you should be thinking about.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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