Sunday, August 30, 2009

Science Fiction and the Art of Being Human

Any visitor to my humble writing space would see that my bookshelves are crowded with an eclectic assortment of literary adventures. Ursula LeGuin, George Orwell, Rita Mae Brown, Debora Crombie, Isaac Asimov, Nadine Gordimer, Eoin Colfer, Donna Jo Napoli (just to name a few). It’s one wild party. But no matter how varied the genres, one thing these writers have in common is the ability to craft a phenomenal human story. When it comes to science fiction, however, novice writers often forget to do what science fiction does so well: ask the big questions. Sure an exciting and innovative plot is an essential hook, but the ultimate driving force of any book is its humanity.

The trap for beginning sci-fi/fantasy writers is the urge to get so caught up in creating cool gadgets, provocative character names, and mysterious places that they lose that sense of humanness that transforms not only the narrative, but the reader as well. I’ve read a small share of early drafts and even published pieces that fall short, and the primary flaw is that lack of a truly human story. Many writers portray huge events and complicated plots, but they end up meaningless unless there is a real and relevant human cost.

Let's start with some basic questions:
  • Character
One of the first questions you should ask is do we care about the characters? Are they rich enough, real enough, flawed enough for us to actually care what happens to them? If they are cardboard cut-outs, cliché stock characters, then they will have no resonance with the reader. Even if your characters are robots or aliens, they must have emotional depth to reach the human audience. And believe me, they can. (Take a look at Helen Fox's MG book, Eager for an idea of how one robot can answer this question.)
  • Setting
Whether it’s futuristic or otherworldly, the setting must connect to the human story. At the same time, it needs to be an organic part of the narrative. If it takes too much effort to explain it, the setting loses its impact and becomes detached from the crux of the story. Treat it as another character that brings this world into sharper focus. What does it contribute to the conflict? What does it tell us about the characters and what they need? How does the MC’s view of the setting change through the course of the story?
  • Conflict
What kind of conflict fuels your narrative? Sci-Fi landscapes offer a lot of potential battlegrounds, literal and figurative, but how does it connect to what it means to be human? There is the crux of it all. What does it mean to be human? The further your narrative travels beyond what is the known world, the more diligently the writer must seek to answer that question.  
  • The Big Questions
What is the human cost? The stakes must be high and they must be relevant. The MC should grow through the narrative as well, even if he loses. This is something that good science fiction does so very well. It asks the big questions and pulls the audience, heart and head, into the discussion.

I'll close this brief treatise with a recommendation.  If you have not seen DISTRICT 9, you must. This film has set the gold standard for our time. Some people may wish to bill it as a science fiction movie and others as an action movie. It is neither. It is a human story.


  1. This was very thought provoking and well written.

  2. All great points! I just saw District 9 yesterday and I really appreciated the "human" aspect of it. I did want a little bit more background on the aliens, though, because they were so interesting!

    Another sci-fi movie (and book, though I haven't read it yet)that I think goes along with everything you've said is Children of Men. It's haunted me ever since I saw it.

  3. Excellent points about humanness. And I think this fits for more genres than just sci fi.

  4. Great post, Mary Ann! All those points apply to good fiction in general, not just sci fi.

  5. Weirdly, I love to read science fiction, but I've never once tried writing it.

    I agree with Stella -- every one of these points, and they are all good ones, could be applied to fiction. Great post!


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