Pat Richards    

  ... Character driving Ms. Daisy crazy.


These are notes, not polished articles...

"Character-driven" novels have been the rage in the SF and Fantasy field for over two decades now. It's time ask if it's been even remotely worth the effort to read most of them.



Character driving Ms. Daisy crazy

In my dotage I have come to be suspicious of the very concept of the "character-driven" SF or Fantasy novel. Don't get me wrong, I love reading about fascinating, well-drawn characters who change and develop in intriguing ways over the course of an unusual or exotic storyline -- but I've found that too many "character-driven" novels don't have such characters. Instead, they have rather ordinary characters doing rather ordinary things and developing slowly -- if at all -- in rather ordinary ways in what just happens to be a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Such character drivers are set in an extraordinary world or situation, but then that turns out to be just window dressing and when examined you find the novel could just as easily have been set in modern day New York or Kansas as far as the bulk of the book's verbiage goes. And far too often of late I have found "character-driven" means an excuse to engage in padding the novel by an extra 50% in the deplorable bloated big-book syndrome which has taken over the publishing industry.

Basically I find interesting and unusual characters which are well-drawn and developed over the course of an interesting and compelling story to be the best of all worlds. But simply "character-driven" novels, as such, I am less enthusiastic about.

Samuel R. Delany's "character-driven" DAHLGREN is a classic example of what I'm talking about. Only the main character is even vaguely interesting and he gets less so as the novel plods along. The sci-fi setting is there exclusively as a background for the characters to stand in front of... nothing much else out of the ordinary happens or is revealed. And while the main character does slide further into self-delusion as what little there is of the storyline unfolds over 500 pages, there's not much that constitutes worthwhile "character development" to me -- even if it does meets the definition of "character development", it just isn't interesting enough to be worth that much of my time. I remember finishing DHALGREN and thinking "Humph. I want the last several days of my life back."

Delaney followed DHALGREN with "character-driven" TRITON, with similarly boring characters and character-interaction and not much else filling the space between the covers -- but prior to those two "character-driven" novels, Delaney did *real* character-driven stuff which was (and still is) some of my favorite work. Things like BABEL-17 and THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION are almost exclusively character-driven, but they are interesting characters and the things those characters go through are interesting and unusual, i.e., worth reading about.

Just off the top of my head, I can cite things like Theodore Sturgeon's MORE THAN HUMAN or Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, or Ursula K. LeGuinn's THE LATHE OF HEAVEN as being classic examples of "story-driven" SF that also have fully-developed interesting characters where the characters grow, change and develop in concert with the story. Ursula K. LeGuinn's original EARTHSEA trilogy fills the same bill in the Fantasy genre, along with works like Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES or Barry Hughart's delightful BRIDGE OF BIRDS (highly recommended to any who have not read it, although it is out of print and a bit hard to get hold of).

Too many modern SF and fantasy authors feel it is enough to set their "character-driven" story in an exotic locale, throw in a few props and some unusual back-story for historical background flavor and call it breakfast. But what's the point of reading fairly ordinary characters doing  everyday things and coming to ordinary, everyday realizations about themselves and their world  -- even if their ordinary, everyday world happens to be the twelfth moon of Rigel 7? If I wanted that, I could just as well read the best-seller fiction list instead and get street cred with the girls around the office water cooler.

My preference is for story-driven or concept-driven novels which *also* integrate wonderful, well-developed characters interacting and developing in unusual and interesting ways along with that story or concept. Character as the be-all and end-all just isn't enough to hold my interest, except in a short story or perhaps a novella -- it's certainly not enough to carry the 500+ page mega-novels so prevalent these days.

Obviously, the ideal situation is where story, characters and environment all blend seamlessly into an interesting whole that is synergistic. But too often that blend is not ideal and if an author is going to err in placing too much emphasis on one or the other, I personally prefer the emphasis to go to story... or even to the environment (as in Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY or Frank Herbert's DUNE, although the characters in both those books were also well done).
 
Why? Because there's only so much you can do with human characters and it has all been done already by the classical and mainstream authors whose work was all about the human character. Yes, you can have great *alien* characters -- and when they are truly alien and not just humans with fur or tentacles, that can be very interesting indeed in the hands of a good author -- but how often does that really happen?
 
To get something interesting, if not altogether new, SF takes humans and puts them in non-normal situations/environments and hopefully the mix leads to something different or at least interesting to read. But if the author lets character take over to the point where there the story becomes moot -- to where the human character IS the story, then we're back into well-trodden territory...to the same old examination of the human condition and I might as well be reading a mainstream novel.
 
There is precious little left for any author, no matter how perceptive, to reveal about the normal human condition. I already know about the vagaries and variations of the human condition. That's why I read SF -- because it deals with things beyond the human condition. But when an author takes SF and uses it as a mere backdrop when his main purpose is to re-examine the characters of Dickens, Chekhov, J.D Salinger or even Jacqueline Susanne -- then I get bored pretty quickly because there's plenty of superb stuff like that already available in the mainstream going back hundreds of years.
 
That's why, if I can't have the ideal blend of story, environment and character in my SF novels, then I prefer story-driven novels as opposed to character-driven novels.
 
 I think the reason we're getting so much character-driven SF these days in recent decades is not because the authors are better writers or more concerned with deftly delineating the human condition. I think it's because publishers started demanding  Big Books to justify ever-rising paperback prices and it's a lot easier for an author to pad a novel with lots of additional "character development" scenes than it is to come up with more story.
 
Take Vernor Vinge's 1993 Hugo-Award winning A FIRE UPON THE DEEP as an example -- it could have been one of those ideal blends of story, environment and character, but since it had to be a Big Book (611 bloody pages), Vinge ended up diluting the ideal blend with excessive time spent "developing character" even *after* he had already fully developed his characters. He ended up if not actually repeating sequences not vital to moving the story along, then doing minor variation after variation on scenes he had already done with those characters... not really revealing anything more about them... scenes where nothing significant really happened... but filling up lots of extra pages. I was really enjoying the book, but it would continually bog down in such excessive and repetitive character-development scenes and I found myself saying "yeah... yeah... you've already told me all this about him or her... let's move it along, please."
 
I'm not against well-done development of interesting characters -- I'm against excessive character development wasting my time and, worse, diluting the ideal blend.