This article will examine current trends in the way that writers approach character in science fiction and fantasy. If you are a writer it will give you some tips on things you may wish to consider or try out for yourself. It will speak to the current state of expectations regarding characterisation in SFF. Like, what is today’s SFF reader looking for in terms of character and if this has evolved / has different conventions than maybe a previous generation.
So without further ado!
Idea versus character
There is something that occurs in science fiction that we don’t see in fantasy. It happens due to the scientific basis of SF. This is the thought that we somehow have to choose either to write great ideas or great characterisation; a story can’t do both. I recently interviewed Justina Robson and she talked about how shorter-form SF (short stories and novellas) tend to be the ground of great ideas and innovation whereas novels are often more character-driven adventure stories. I think there is some truth to this but maybe that’s because the novels I’ve been reading lately are adventure space opera (eg Embers of War, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet). It is true though that most innovation happens in the short form.
This way of thinking is not new and has always been controversial. In 1985, Isaac Asimov himself stirred up a controversy when he published an essay called “The Little Tin God of Characterization.” Isaac’s point was that because of the unique nature of science fiction, characterisation is not as important as getting the ideas right. “I do what I can, but I’ve got my limits, and if I have to settle for less than 100 percent, I just make sure that I remember where the science fictional bottom line is. Not characterization, not style, not poetic metaphor — but idea. Anything else I will skimp on if I have to. Not idea.”
Many SF writers will disagree that you have to prioritise great ideas or great characterisation. It is possible to have both! Some food for thought, though, isn’t it? I think that nowadays readers are demanding great characterisation because they want great stories. And the gatekeepers to traditional publishing definitely say they want great characterisation more than anything else. I have interviewed them, for example see my interview with Lee Harris of Tor.com Publishing here.
So, given that great characterisation is desired in SF and fantasy (fantasy has always loved great characterisation), what are the current trends?
Readers, agents and SFF publishers are continually saying these days that they want to see more stories written by women and about women. For example, when interviewed by Writers Digest, Quressa Robinson of Nelson Literary Agency said she wanted to see more space opera. “And if they featured an all-female crew or female leads, even better!”. And we need more hard science fiction from women writers too.
Gender issues are definitely in the spotlight at the moment, especially in science fiction. The seminal book with this feature is Ursula K LeGuin’s The Hand of Darkness. But there are many ways to examine gender and do gender differently. For example, you could have species which have different biologies than a two-gender biology eg one gender or three. Or human societies where there is only one set of pronouns, regardless of your gender (I’m thinking about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series). See also this article by Goodreads.
This is another huge topic at the moment. Over the last five years I have been to many SFF conventions and I can honestly say that at all of them the topic of how to promote diversity in the stories we’re reading has been huge. Diversity means more characters of colour, LGBTQ characters, more women, more characters with disabilities or other neurological conditions. It means characters from historically underrepresented minorities.
The ‘Up-Lit’ movement is something that has been happening in literary fiction in the last few years. This is literature that is uplifting and makes us feel good. Stories about nice people where nice things happen to them. This has filtered through to the science fiction and fantasy community, which has in recent years had a huge amount of grimdark fantasy and unsympathetic characters. I think readers are ready for more uplifting stories. In fantasy they want heroes and stories of hope (see this article about noblebright as opposed to grimdark) and in SF we get stories like Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.
I have recently heard SFF writers, readers and gatekeepers saying that they dislike it when aliens in SF, or other species in fantasy, are not well thought out. This can be if they are one dimensional and the species is all about one thing eg they are miners and that’s all we know about them and their society isn’t rich or varied in any way. Or it can be if there has been no thought into their biology, considering the environment they come from.
The difficult thing with other species is that you do have to make them relatable to readers if you want readers to care about them. This usually means that aliens who are main characters (those friendly with your human(usually) lead) are made more anthropomorphic than aliens that are not main characters, which perpetuates the belief that we can only be friends with those who are like us. It’s a difficult situation and I don’t have the answer I’m afraid!
There is definitely a desire for stories to break new ground and not repeat the same old tropes we know so well. For example, in fantasy we don’t need any more stories where the band of characters is a human, an elf, and a dwarf! Or maybe we do but do something new with it! I wrote an article a while ago about the Chosen One trope in fantasy and whether it should be laid to rest. You decide!
This section is now about the way we write our characters in science fiction and fantasy rather than the type of characters. There is a definite trend now for writers to write so that the reader feels much closer to the characters. For example, the trend for 3rd person omniscient perspective which was so prevalent decades ago is now almost extinct from the genre. First person is still not very common but is becoming more accepted. What is very common is 3rd person limited with close narrative distance.
What do I mean by 3rd person limited with close narrative distance. Well, third person limited is simply where there is a viewpoint character for every seen, and the reader sees everything through the eyes and ears of that character, even their thoughts. Close narrative distance means that the reader sees a lot of interiority; this is what the character thinks and feels. Also, their thoughts will be relayed almost in their words rather than through the intermediary of a ‘he/she thought’ phrase.
To illustrate, look at these examples. They are in decreasing narrative distance.
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- I hate snowstorms, thought Henry.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.
Well that’s all for trends in character in science fiction and fantasy. Please tell me your thoughts in the comments!