Good Speculative Fiction: Facing the Consequences

The next point in distinguishing good speculative fiction from the poor variety is directly related to last week’s post on honesty and self-awareness and also to the issue of moral escapism:  a willingness to follow a speculation through to the bitter end.  As authors, if we want to write truly believable speculative fiction, we must be willing to create a world, create characters, set up a situation, and then let what happens happen with a minimum of authorial interference.

In the abstract, this would seem easier than it actually is in the concrete moment when it matters.  Most people won’t react to our own characters or their plight unless we ourselves do first.  As our characters become real to us, they will become real to our readers.  That fact puts many authors into a cruel dilemma, not unlike the one faced by an army commander in the field.  To paraphrase Ulysses S. Grant, in order to be a good leader, you must love your men and your army and place their good above your own.  To be an effective commander, however, you must be willing to order the death and destruction of the very people and organization you love so much.  Authors who love their characters must therefore be willing to put their beloved through pain, loss, and even death in order to evoke the kinds of reactions they want from their stories.

From the perspective of someone who hopes to one day publish his or her work, the characters and the story have a symbiotic relationship to each other–one can’t very well exist without the other–but the reader is even more basic than both.  Without readers, neither characters or story will exist as anything more than random words on a page.  Readers want conflict with a real chance of failure.  We have to give it to them.

That makes it difficult at times (for me, at least) to keep things in their proper perspective in this regard. I must be willing to place my characters–some of which I am really attached to–in situations that can easily result in life-altering trauma or even death.  That is rendered even more difficult by the fact that, as the author, I have the ability to prevent it at any point.  I can’t escape feeling somehow I should be doing something, but I know that things must be allowed to play themselves out.

In a very real way, this brings us back to what our own lives must mean to God.  He has the power to force us to live perfect lives, but, as C. S. Lewis notes, “He cannot compel, He can only woo.”  He watches our failures, our own choice of damnation over salvation, with a pain and frustration of which our experience as authors is but a small taste.

In the same way, if we are to be effective as authors of speculative fiction, we must be willing to let our characters be themselves and react realistically to the world around them.  If we fail to do so, if we decide instead to implement some deus ex machina that will swoop in and rescue our characters then we will lose all of the credibility that we’ve so painstakingly built up, a credibility that is necessary to create a truly immersive world.


Other Posts in This Series:

  1. Speculative Fiction:  A Brilliant Opportunity
  2. Moral Escapism:  Speculative Fiction’s Evil Twin
  3. Good Speculative Fiction: Honesty and Self Awareness

3 thoughts on “Good Speculative Fiction: Facing the Consequences

  1. Nicely put.

    We often focus on the live-or-death aspects of letting our characters make choices, but there are additional consequences. Such as finding that one character suffers from unrequited love, having the object realize this and yet not be able to address it. Those pangs are also important.

    As the author, I might wish to console my suffering character, but I know the story won’t play out that way.

    It takes discipline as a writer to let the consequences be real. I get very irritated in reading fiction where the author was so in love with the characters that he proves the “magical” happy ending for which there is no preparation. It’s just “I loved this character and he and that girl deserve a really happy ending. So instead of him dying, he comes back to live, gets magical powers and they all live happlily ever after.” (Sorry – I’m thinking of a very specific work. That choice outraged me a great deal, because it meant that the heroes achieved their goal at no cost to themselves.)

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