- by Gitabushi
Lately it seems like every time PC Bushi mentions a book, I have to respond I didn’t like it very much, or at all.
That made me ask, what do I like?
Here’s a partial list:
I like 50s Heinlein, but not 60s.
I like 60s, 70s, and 80s Larry Niven SF, but not his fantasy (mostly).
I like 80s and 90s Cherryh, but to the best of my knowledge based on a brief research attempt, not her 70s and by the ’10s, start feeling meh
I liked Bujold until recently
I liked Brust’s early works, but the later his work, the less I like it.
I used to like Hambly, but she wasn’t re-readable.
I like Saberhagen, but sometimes he just kept digging in played-out mines
To be honest, I guess, I’ve read a lot that was worth reading, but not worth re-reading or recommending.
As such, there are probably more books and authors I have complaints about than I enjoy. That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. Most things fall along a bell curve, and truly excellent books are one or more standard deviations above the mean, and the mean of all SFF novels/stories ever written includes some poor writing.
The rest of this post includes some musing on elements that make a good story. It is also intended to be a continuation of thoughts from this post, and inspired by the very excellent posts by my good friend and consummate gentleman, PC Bushi, found here and here.
I like conflict. I’d like to say all readers do, but maybe all I can actually insist is that all readers should. It can be internal conflict, or opposed action, but I want there to be some doubt about how things are going to turn out.
Yes, yes, the hero is going to win. That’s the point of reading a book, I guess. The good guy losing most of the time is called “life”. We consume fiction because it provides the comforting illusion that there is some overall, overarching narrative to the vicissitudes of life.
For me, the interesting thing is how is the hero going to win?
The very first thing to do, then, is make me care about the character. If I don’t care about the character, how he wins isn’t going to interest me.
There are many different ways that you, as an author, can make me care about a character:
- make me see the issues he struggles with are the same ones I do
- make me see him wanting reasonable things/goals, but being thwarted…particularly unfairly thwarted
- make me see him really committed to success, perhaps well beyond what I would do (that way I can be inspired to persist in difficulties myself)
Next, give him conflict. They type of story you are writing dictates the type of conflict they have. Or, alternatively, the type of conflict they encounter dictates what kind of book it is:
If he is going through an unfamiliar world or society, then the conflict is the hero trying to return to the normal world, and his efforts to escape let you show me the world/society you thought up. Alternatively, the hero might need to explore to figure out aspects of this new world/society to find happiness or even just survive. Either way, it should show the reader some subtle truth about the world we live in, in contrast. The struggle is in dealing with new and unexpected aspects in each new encounter. This is a Milieu story.
If he is dealing with a disrupting occurrence, then the conflict is obviously trying to deal with the disruption. It can be personally disruptive or disruptive to society, or even existence of humanity. An asteroid strike, or perhaps an earthquake or zombie apocalypse are good examples of this. Alternatively, the hero could be the disruptive force, trying to impose his will on the world, like in a caper movie like Ocean’s 11 or Kelly’s Heroes. Either way, the conflict comes from the obstacles the hero encounters in trying to resolve the issue or impose his will on the universe. This is an Event story.
You, as the author, might also want to explore a concept, like: what if teleportation were reality? How would it work? In this sort of story, the conflict is in dealing with unexpected or non-obvious impacts of the concept. This is where Hard SF really shines. Poor examples of this are when someone sets up the world, then lets the Hero “discover” all the exploits. This was handled really poorly in the “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” series (first book: Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell). The hero “exploits” a labor system that apparently was used by idiots for at least a generation. He succeeds at everything he tries, the things he “figures out” that impress everyone else are sophomoric in insight, and there isn’t even an antagonist. The best conflict is when the antagonist is exploiting the idea to the protagonist’s detriment, and the protagonist has to figure out how to stop it…preferably without just using another exploit…at the very least, the exploit should not be obvious. This is an Idea story. I think many “serial killer” stories are Idea stories: “What if someone developed a way to exploit society to murder/rape/assault people without being caught/stopped?”
The final type of story depends on conflict internal to the character. The protagonist needs to change, and it has only recently become obvious. The process of changing, of figuring out what to change into, and the normal human resistance to changing oneself are the conflict that drives the story. This is a Character story.
Obviously, these four concepts can arc beyond just one book. The Jhereg series is someone what of a character concept, although individual books seem to be more Event stories. The whole series is, of course, a milieu, and the milieu being explored is not just geographic (Dragaera) but societal/racial, as each book explores some inherent aspect of a Dragaerean house.
But this is all science fiction.
I also really like the Jack Reacher series.
Jack Reacher’s character really doesn’t change over the stories. The milieu he’s exploring is modern-day United States, so it isn’t a milieu story. There is a “What if?” concept of, “what if there were a sort-of modern-day Super Hero who went around the nation solving problems that the law couldn’t solve?” But it seems to me to be, at its core, an event story. Something happens, and Reacher tries to figure out what is happening, then once he figures out the mystery, he acts (often very violently) to impose his will and stop the bad guys from doing bad guy stuff.
Good stories often combine the elements. There are Milieu, Idea, and Character concepts included in the Event Story movie Die Hard. There are Milieu concepts in Titanic. I think Cameron wanted it to be a Character story, but in my opinion, it failed at that, but succeeded by being so strong as an Event story.
Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series is really good, too.
They are all Event stories. Like Reacher, either the protagonist starts ignorant, or what the protagonist thinks is the original premise often turns out to be false. The conflict comes in the protagonist collecting clues about reality, then responding to those clues, then acting. And much of the conflict also involves not knowing how the problem will be solved, as initial plans go wrong and the protagonist deals with the unexpected. You know the hero isn’t going to die, of course, but there is often a cost the protagonist pays to succeed: damage, or a supporting character important to the protagonist is killed.
The Matt Helm series is interesting in that the protagonist’s character doesn’t really change over time, but still is a character story in that Helm seems to have normal human emotions and desires, yet is forced to do some fairly brutal things to accomplish the mission. The reader (or, at least, the continuing reader) doesn’t lose sympathy for Helm not just because Helm’s character trait of Commitment to Duty is shown as being incredibly strong, and not just because that commitment to duty is shown as necessary to preventing catastrophe, but because the author shows us the emotional price Helm pays for that commitment.
In contrast, in ERB novels Princess of Mars, the Land that Time Forgot, and the People that Time Forgot, there never is any character conflict. They do the right thing because it is the right thing, with hardly a thought. It ends up leaving the impression that because the hero does it, it therefore is the right thing.
I’m not saying a protagonist must have a desire to be a cad to be sympathetic, but humans are selfish, and shortsighted, and petty, and often ignorant of the implications of their decisions. A good book with good conflict acknowledges those issues.
It doesn’t mean that I favor character over plot.
It does mean that the reasons people do things are important to whether a character is likeable or not, and believable or not, and these reasons often provide motive force to the plot. Why does a character want to do things? Absent any internal conflict, authors too often rely on plot devices to keep the action going. “I saved Tarkus’ life, so Tarkus will save my life” seems more like a plot device. The author knew he would need Tarkus to save John Carter’s life to resolve some conflict and needed plausible motivation for Tarkus to do so, so had Carter save his. It seems too obvious, like it happened because the author needed it to. In contrast, in Jhereg, Vlad wants to avoid taking an action that would cause Morollan to break his oath. Placing a friend’s value system above your own life is an admirable loyalty that drives the plot and increases the reader’s commitment to the protagonist and the story (although wanting to find a way to preserve both is still expected, normal, and included). It is a character element, sure, but it not “characterization over plot,” but rather an effective plot rather than just a plot device.
It means that a story with weak characterization is also going to suffer in plotting.
It means that among the five elements of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, description (some people identify different elements), a novel can be saved by excellence in just one element, but it can also be killed by incompetence in just one element. Most likely, a story that does one or two elements very well will make the other elements more effective. Good dialogue helps in making character and pacing better. Better pacing helps plot. Good description helps everything. And yes, good character helps make plot development more intuitive.
There is room for a difference of opinion over what is “plausible”, and consequently, what is an effective plot vs what is a clumsy plot device.
This probably needs editing for coherence, but I’m not going to do it. For good or ill, this is my stream-of-consciousness, non-exhaustive explanation of why I like some books and don’t like other books.