LESSON Character-oriented and Story-oriented Science Fiction

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Lstorm, Feb 24, 2013.

  1. All too often, when people think about science fiction, they think about long-winded and boring scientific explanations which break the flow of the narrative, transforming it into a long-winded encyclopaedia. Even more often, they think that science fiction puts science first and foremost, abandoning plot and characters for the sake of introducing ideas to the reader and then explaining them with boring, technical paragraphs. When people think like this, they think of the old science fiction flicks of many decades ago, forgetting that the genre evolved over time. When people think like this, they forget one simple fact:

    Science fiction is not just about the science.

    Even if there are novels and narratives which feel like they would not be out of place in an encyclopaedia, there are also stories which do not feel the need to choke the reader with technical details. These stories may have a technological background or even take place in the future, but they always focus on either the characters or the plot. As such, two categories must be taken into account when working with this type of science fiction: Character Driven and Story Driven. Either of these types of narrative is much more fun than the description- and technology-oriented science fiction that most people associate the genre with, not to mention that it is quite easy to immerse oneself in them.

    The role of technology in non-technology-oriented science fiction

    In both Character Driven and Story Driven science fiction, technology is just a tool for the author to express their ideas or to make the story work. Even if a piece of technology is examined more closely, its workings will almost never be described in great detail and it will almost never use technical terms. The narrative just gives us a description of what this piece of technology does and maybe gives a brief glance of how it works. However, it is also common to just describe a device or machine, then directly show what it does. It is important to note that the description should be seamlessly integrated into the narrative and not feel as if one were reading a technical encyclopaedia.

    Occasionally, technology can take on a larger role, and may even be the driving force of the plot, however, the former principle still applies. Even if something is an integral part of the narrative, it is explained in easy-to-understand terms which the casual reader can take in without any problems. Even new concepts or radical ideas are simplified so everyone can enjoy the narrative for what it is: a story that is being told with the help of technology.

    Research and technical explanations

    There is one major thing that most people tend to forget if they are writing science fiction: People do not necessarily need to know how something works in order to understand the story. To give some real-life examples, many people do not know how an engine works, but they still use it every day when they drive. Most people do not know how firearms work either; however, they do know that they can be used to cause harm and that is all the information they need to avoid someone who is waving a gun around. Likewise, a large number of people do not know the details of how a computer works, just that they need to plug it in for it to work.

    If one thinks it through, they will realise that technology is being used every day by people who do not know what makes it tick. They may have a general idea of the principle the technology is based on, but beyond that, all they have to know is that it works. This goes for science fiction as well. Just because the author has researched something thoroughly and came up with a realistic explanation for a new piece of technology, it does not mean that the reader needs to know how it works. A good way to approach explanations is to think of the reader as a normal person who was just introduced to a new world without any technological know-how beyond well-known trivia, and only introduce them to the essential concepts.

    However, introducing the reader to everything in one gigantic paragraph is a bad idea. If one wants to write engaging science fiction the narrative of which does not feel jumpy, then they must introduce concepts gradually. Dumping everything on the reader at once just feels clumsy, not to mention that the reader is not likely to memorise most of the ideas if they are introduced at once. Another good idea is to think of relatively simple names for difficult concepts, for example, even though most cars are operated by an Internal Combustion Engine, ordinary people just call it an engine. This is because people will inevitably invent new names for pieces of new technology, names which are usually descriptive of its function and are short enough to memorise. Inventing names for new devices- even if one has to explain that name- makes the narrative more believable and enjoyable once the concept has been conveyed to the reader.

    Of course, one also has to be careful not to oversaturate the narrative with unknown words, or it becomes disruptive. It is not necessary to include a new word for every new concept as old words can take on new meanings as technology progresses and languages evolves with it. One can also combine words to form compound nouns or word combinations which are just as descriptive of a concept as an entirely new name would be.

    Characters and Story

    Now that technology has been shifted into the background and all unnecessarily technical explanations were simplified, it is time to take a look at the differences between Character Driven and Story Driven science fiction. As their name implies, these two types of science fiction have different focuses: While one focuses on the characters themselves, one concerns itself more with the plot. Neither one of them, however, concerns itself with the workings of technology or has it as their central focus.

    Generally, in Character Driven science fiction the setting is already quite well-established and the actions of the characters mould the plot, just as with any other Character Driven narrative. Technology may provide a motive for the characters or be a part of said characters, but it is secondary to both them and the story. People use technology as they see fit and just glance over how it works without explanation as the device which they are working with already have their place in the world. Of course, it is also possible to introduce a new technology which motivates the characters, but inevitably, the focus will always remain on the actions of the protagonists, supporting cast and villains.

    Story Driven science fiction is different in the fact that the introduction of new technology may be used as a premise-changing plot point. Because the primary emphasis is on the plot, technology or technological creations may overshadow characters if they are an integral part of what is happening. Naturally, that does not change the fact that the story does not linger on the workings of machines, and even if technology may be the driving force behind the plot, the focus is always on what is happening. Characters can also take a defining role in Story Driven science fiction settings, but they are also just a part of a story which is being told and not necessarily more important than technology.

    Using either a Character Driven or Story Driven setting does not mean that technology takes a backseat; in fact, there are many Character Driven and Story Driven narratives which focus on the fact that technology is more important than the lives of the characters. However, a distinction must be made between the importance of technology and the importance of how technology works. Just because something is an integral part of life in a setting, or it is considered more important than the life of people, it does not mean that the workings of it are known or that it is crucial to the characters. In certain cases, the technological aspect of science fiction may even be entirely glossed over and serve only as a distant background piece.

    Making a Story Driven or Character Driven narrative

    There is no “proper” way to write a narrative that is not oversaturated with technology and in which technology has more role than actual story, but there is one method which should work fairly well. First, one has to take out every single explanation from the story that depicts a new concept or a new piece of technology. Second, one should then summarise the remaining story, and then see if it works without the addition of technologies. If it does, then one should take a look at the descriptions, and simplify them as much as possible while considering their context before reinserting them in the narrative. Finally, one should rewrite and add to the story as they see fit.

    If the story does not seem to work without the addition of technology, then one must compare how much space is spent describing technology to how much space is spent on the characters and the plot. If the scale tips towards technological descriptions, then technology most likely overshadows the story. If the scale tips towards characters and plot, then one must look at what purpose the technology serves in the story. If it has an actual role in the story, it must remain, or else the story will not work. If a piece of technology serves no purpose in the story whatsoever, then it is not necessary and can be removed without causing harm to the narrative. After pruning the narrative for superfluous technologies, one should rewrite the descriptions of remaining technologies to be as simple as possible, and then rewrite and add to the story as necessary.

    As an easier rule of thumb, if technology spends a lot of time in the focus without actually contributing to the story, then the narrative is most likely not Character Driven, nor Story Driven.

    Things to look out for when roleplaying

    1.) Do not get too technical with your descriptions.
    2.) Never describe the workings of technology in detail.
    3.) Try to keep everything simple and intuitive.
    4.) Let characters shine and have their moments.
    5.) Do not get boggled up with technology. If a piece of technology is described for a long time, read the description again and consider if it is needed at all or if it can be simplified.
    6.) Technology can be a major focus of a roleplay, but it should never overshadow the storyline and the characters.
    7.) Keep an eye out for the use of devices and machines. If machines solve more problems than the player characters, it is a sign that the roleplay is heading in the wrong direction.
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