“Those who do not take the time to understand philosophy are apt, to borrow Keynes phrase, to be the slave of some defunct philosopher.”
–A paraphrase of David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies.
This week I’m more than pressed for time, so I want to begin our discussion of what distinguishes good speculative fiction from bad with a straightforward point: Good speculative fiction, like well-written history, must be honest and self-aware.
We all begin our writing, of course, from the colorful palate that is our lives. Our unique experiences become the building blocks of everything our intellect constructs. From the music we grew up hearing to the books we read to who our parents were, each new experience, even up to the present moment, becomes a part of an ever-expanding tool kit, and we will inevitably use those tools to interact with the world around us. We will, more importantly for our purposes here, use those elements in creative combination to come up with the worlds, characters, and story-lines that become our speculative fiction. After all, you must have something to speculate about.*
It is very important, especially for Christians, that we actually understand where our influences are coming from and how we are using them in our stories. That affects us on at least two levels, one practical and one philosophical:
- On the practical level, one of the best way to avoid “preaching” in speculative fiction–something we’ll address later–is to know when you’re doing it! That is surprisingly difficult in the best of circumstances, and completely impossible when the author is living an unexamined life.
- On the philosophical level, Christians must be constantly concerned with how we reflect back on Christ Himself. Therefore, while not everything we write must be evangelistic, we should be asking ourselves whether or not we are bringing honor (or something else entirely) to Christ. If we ourselves don’t really understand what we’re writing and why we’re writing it, we’ll never know.
In the case of the latter, “Christian” authors will unintentionally espouse or even exemplify ideas and actions in their fiction that they would be embarrassed to even consider in real life. They simply don’t see the connection between their imaginative world and the real world, and so while they will acknowledge the truth in person, their books constantly deny it everywhere else. In the case of the former, well-meaning authors can adopt a very offensive “soap box” tone that turns off readers completely.**
Therefore, we need to take care to understand ourselves first and foremost. That will enable us to be honest with our readers and to control the world/story construction process intentionally rather than, as Fischer noted, “be the slave of some defunct philosopher,” peddling ideas and ideals that we don’t even recognize are there. Instead, we can craft strong, believable tales that have significant “meat” to them–stories that mean something.
*That is why it is so important to constantly expand your experience, inside and outside of literature. Also, Colin’s excellent point in the comments last week about the lack of distinction between how the mind experiences things reminds us that if we really want to be the best author we can be, we shouldn’t neglect having real adventures of our own. Every new story you read, every new adventure you have provides you with new fodder that is unique to you and therefore gives you something to make your fiction special.
**I recently ran into that myself with my book. Reviewers pointed out that the monologues my main character has in her head sound like “lectures” to the reader. I don’t remember intentionally using any of them to “make a point.” I thought they were just character development.
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