Felix Writes: Sins Of Fiction Writing

DigitalThoughts / Sins Of Fiction Writing

With all the reading and writing I've been doing lately, a number of intriguing ideas have started coalescing in my mind. None of them is exactly new; just pieces of wisdom that are finally falling together. While they are mostly useful from a would-be writer's perspective, readers might also file them under fun trivia.

A lot of ink has been spilled to try and explain why some stories "work" while others fail. As with anything else, I think the best explanation is the simplest: it all hinges on the author's ability to make the audience care. (Incidentally, that also explains why videogames and interactive fiction can get away with flimsy stories that would never fly in static media: it's much easier to get the audience emotionally invested when their own actions determine the outcome. What kid hasn't imagined himself entering his favorite story and making things better? I still do that now and then.)

With such a simple base principle, it becomes easy to understand most failures. In fact, all examples I can think of boil down to a couple of reasons: unsympathetic characters and lack of hope.

One of my favorite examples of what not to do is the movie Filantropica. It is a critically acclaimed work with many fans, and I'll be the first to admit it has exceptional direction and acting. Yet for the most part I found it unwatchable. Why? Because the protagonist is so naive I want to smack him, while the other characters are so cynical they turn into human caricatures; none of them feels like a real person, much less someone I can relate to. As for the story, suffice to say I had to skim the Wikipedia article to even figure out what it's all about, and it's still unclear.

Now, one author who gets characters right is Vernor Vinge. His characters are often jerks, or even villains, but they're always people you can understand and accept, if not side with. What he gets wrong every time is the world. I wouldn't want to live in the worlds he imagines, and I can't help but think that in the end, all the protagonists' efforts will be for naught. That takes the edge out of his otherwise mind-blowing stories, and leaves a bitter taste instead. The crapsack world trope at its finest! Contrast with the endings of William Gibson's Neuromancer and Johnny Mnemonic (the film adaptation), which leave you satisfied that there will be a little more freedom in the world from now on.

Is there a way to get it right? Sure there is. In one of the most famous stories ever written (and arguably one of the best), namely Lord of the Rings, not only the heroes achieve a complete victory, but things are such that evil of Sauron's magnitude will never be able to exist again -- granted, at the cost of removing magic and wonder from the world. So the ending is full of melancholy, but definitely happy. Even when the heroes die at the end -- think Matrix Revolutions -- it's not a problem, because we know all else will be well forever more.

But failing to make the reader care is not the only sin commited by writers. Another pet peeve of mine is excessive sex.

Don't get me wrong, sex is a part of life, and it's only natural that it will come up sooner or later in any story where the characters are adults. But, unless I'm reading erotic fiction, don't shove countless protracted sex scenes into my face, especially if they have no bearing on the plot. Doubly so in science fiction, which is supposed to be about, you know, ideas. The Difference Engine, I'm looking at you here.

Contrast with A Fire Upon the Deep, by the aforementioned Vernor Vinge, a 900+ page book with exactly three sex scenes, two of which are only suggested, and a third is glossed over quickly. Plus, each of them is relevant, one for the plot, the others for character development.

Come to think of it, during the 1980es there was a genuine obsession with sex (and occasionally drugs) in fiction. Just look at this webcomic, or this short story. Norman Spinrad's late 1980es works also exhibit that trait.

Thankfully, that particular fad belongs to the past now. Making the audience care appears to be a fundamental difficulty, though.

2010-11-24