You and Your CharactersWhile I believe that this unblinking self-examination is absolutely necessary, I realize that it can be very disturbing. You want to be liked and would much prefer to present your best side to the world. However, fiction is not public relations. We all have dark impulses which we've been taught to hide, perhaps even to deny; to be a writer you must unlearn some of the lessons of civilization. Nobody takes seriously a story in which the good guys are all saints and the bad guys are the spawn of hell. Saints can have their bad days and even monsters love their moms. Increasing the level of moral ambiguity usually enhances a character's believability. Only psychopaths do wrong for the fun of it. Most of the evil in the world is perpetrated by people like you and me -- the very people you want to characterize. Sometimes we do it out of malice; sometimes we're merely selfish or lazy; often as not we think we're doing the right thing. In any event, you have to be brave enough to portray your own ugliness in order to create memorable characters.
I know that some will resist this advice. Why go to all the trouble of putting yourself into stories, stretching your moral imagination to the breaking point, perhaps scaring the hell out of yourself in the process? In the May, 1985 issue of Asimov's, the great Isaac Asimov himself stirred up a controversy when he published a polemical essay called "The Little Tin God of Characterization." Isaac's thesis was that because of the unique nature of science fiction, characterization is not as important as getting the ideas right. "I do what I can, but I've got my limits, and if I have to settle for less than 100 percent, I just make sure that I remember where the science fictional bottom line is. Not characterization, not style, not poetic metaphor -- but idea. Anything else I will skimp on if I have to. Not idea." Throughout the history of the genre, others have made similar arguments for the supremacy of idea over characterization. In fact, if there ever was a war between the humanists and the cyberpunks of my generation (a dubious proposition), it was fought over this very issue. You'll find any number of published, award-winning writers who will "skimp" at times on characterization while they dazzle us with the brilliance of their ideas. In fact, some writers, myself among them, have actually been taken to task for attempting to write the science fiction novel of character -- an oxymoron, to some sensibilities. So whom should you believe?
by James Patrick Kelly
© 1991 by Davis Publications, First published in WRITING SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, edited by Gardner Dozois, et. al., St. Martin's Press
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