Without interesting characters engaging the reader, you rarely have memorable SF. Give me flawed characters. I find damaged people striving heroically more memorable, and likeable, than perfect people. This makes Han Solo more likeable than Luke Skywalker. Han is in it for the money, he’s a rogue, but he does the right thing–eventually. We never doubt Luke. Flaws let Spiderman eclipse Superman in the 1960s.
Give me characters who succeed despite their weaknesses, not because of their strengths. Send your character with agoraphobia to repair the ship from the outside, with all space wide open around him. Could you do it? Does his heroic action lead to a ‘cure’? Perhaps better if not. He saves the ship, yet can’t enter the auditorium to accept his medal/reward. Though the book is finished, this character goes on, flaw intact. He doesn’t graduate to the ranks of ‘the perfect’. Once in the realm of ‘the perfect’, his story ends and I needn’t think more on it.
This goes for any genre, not only SF. So: Place your interesting, flawed characters in a world where some aspect of that world or society makes us think, contemplate. What would we do in such a society, on such a world? Is honour a more valuable trait than mercy? What are the ramifications? Should your character let someone die rather than lessen her honour through association with him? What happens when she abandons the local social mores and does ‘the right thing’? Would we be willing to accept the same fate? If you can’t get your readers to put themselves into your character’s shoes and say ‘what if’, you won’t have memorable SF.
Elizabeth Moon writes about ‘rejuvenation’–a process that returns people’s older bodies to a younger state. How will that affect society? Can the young advance, when the old occupy all the important positions and could continue to do so for many decades? It makes you think, contemplate. With our own lifespan and retirement age increasing, where will our youth go? What will it do? Make your readers think and you get memorable SF.
Finally, why not avoid the ‘Big Bad’, as Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) would call the antagonist? In Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, Baron Harkonnen is as ugly a character as you could then find: He’s obese, homosexual (remember: written in the early 1960s), a pedophile, enjoys torturing, brutalizes his slaves, etc. We rejoice when Paul Atreides wins–and it’s over, no regrets. You want memorable? Try this: Make your antagonist likeable. Have her world-view incompatible with that of the protagonist (or the one he champions). Have each world-view contain something good, putting the protagonist on the horns of a dilemma. Whatever his choice, we will lose something of value. Have two honourable characters each pursuing a mutually exclusive end. Only one can ‘win’, that victory destroying the hopes and dreams of the loser. Our ‘hero’ makes the final choice. Would we make the same choice? That’s something we’ll have to contemplate and, if we have to contemplate, we have memorable.
Which ending would you find more memorable: “We’re committed,now,” said [the hero], seeing in his companions’ eyes the same question he now asked himself: Did we make the right choice? OR the one that effectively says: ‘And they lived happily ever after’?Debra L. Martin
As a reader, I enjoy stories where the science is grounded more in reality. You can stretch or enhance the science to fit the story, but not so much that it seems unlikely that we would ever see something like that in the next hundred years. If the author creates a alien world where the science rules are totally upended, then I expect every aspect and detail of the world to be consistent. Otherwise, I lose interest in the story.
As a writer, I “stretch” the science a bit. I write with co-author, David W Small, and in our first series, THE RULE OF OTHARIA, our characters are from the planet Otharia in a distant galaxy. All Otharians have innate PSI [empathy, telepathy and telekinesis] abilities – some are stronger than others, but they all use crystals to enhance their abilities.
We wanted these “crystals” to be grounded in every day reality and so we chose to use diamonds as the model. Anyone who has purchased a diamond knows that diamonds are rated by 4Cs – cut, clarity, color, and carat. We enhanced the 4C rule and had the Otharians discover another intrinsic “C” within the nature of diamond: conductivity, the 5thC. This fifth C fuels their PSI abilities and the largest 10K crystals open their portals for interplanetary travel.
In our books our main characters travel to Earth where they see many Earthlings wearing diamonds. They soon learn that Earth people do not use the diamonds in the same way as Otharians. This becomes a central point in the book because not all diamonds/crystals are created equal and not everyone wearing one has PSI power.
By stretching and enhancing the “science” of diamonds, we’ve created a believable and realistic foundation for their use on Otharia.Thanks to Debra and D.A. for sharing their thoughts. I hope you’ll check out their books (linked in the intro). As always, readers are encouraged to reply to the post, either discussing the article, or sharing your own thoughts on the subject.