Name a non-character driven SF story

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Tiran, Dec 7, 2017.

  1. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    I often run into this as a description of a type of writing: "character driven". What would be an example of an SF fiction book that isn't driven by the characters? Is there a counter example?

    I can think of sections in books that describe events unattached to the beings that caused them - a synopsis of history or the maneuver of a docking spacecraft. But that is not the way an entire story is written, as far as I have ever seen.

    What does "character driven" mean to you? What does it promise, and what is its antithesis without stating a pejorative?
  2. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    I'll answer out of order.

    For me - a character-led story is one where the characters lead the action, where their story is as important as the action and where they have a defined character arc. The writing of them is focused enough to make to feel those characters are real and that I empathise with them and care what happens to the characters, independently to any interest I have in the wider story.

    Books that are great examples of character-led writing for me - Vorkisigan by Lois McMaster Bujold, The St Mary Chronicles by Jodi Taylor and the Luna series by Ian McDonald.

    Books I didn't find to be character led include The Three Body Problem (which I mostly enjoyed nonetheless but I found distant from the character and focused on the tech aspect) and Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, which I really didnt enjoy and felt some of that lay in the distant portraysl of the characters.
  3. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Good topic. The "character-driven" mantra can get tiring. A good plot-driven story is nothing to scoff at.

    Asimov's original fix-up Foundation trilogy is probably the classic example of excellent plot-driven science fiction, since they were originally short stories that were later threaded together. Plus, there's the fact that the stories take place at different time periods - always in the chronological future where different factors come together to bring about what's called a "Seldon crisis", and where the different cast of competent and cerebral characters must envisage and put together solutions to what is for them essentially out-of-context problems in the socio-economic/-political sense.

    Most of Sir Arthur's works would be plot-driven, since his science fiction is conceptually based and focused on exploring ideas. The characters are normally just a vehicle to that end. Rendezvous with Rama and his written form of 2001: A Space Odyssey being prime examples. Strangely, I find his earliest work, Against the Fall of Night (re-worked as The City and the Stars), to be more character-driven despite also being conceptually focused.

    I have read little Heinlein, but from what I've read I find him to be a character-driven author who seems to meld hard SF and sociological SF very well. In fact, I think he's more along the lines of a good sociological SF writer.

    While Iain M. Banks writes very good characters, I find him to essentially be a plot-driven author. Most noticeably with Consider Phlebas and Excession, although Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata all fall along similar lines. His more character-focused Culture works would be The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Look to Windward, Inversions and The State of the Art, and of those, I think Inversions and TSotA are the most purely character-driven stories. Also, the initial section in Banks' The Player of Games is almost wholly character-driven since it's concerned with how Gurgeh lives his every-day Culture life and with Gurgeh's general sense of dissatisfaction.

    Blindsight by Peter Watts and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge are great plot-driven works. As are Anathem and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. A lot of hard SF would fall into the plot-driven category.

    The best character-driven SF I think I have read is Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. Character-driven to me is essentially in the realist, more mundane mode, where the internal thoughts and feelings of the individual completely determines action. That is nigh impossible to find in fantasy, whether category fantasy or science fiction, since the fantastic nature of whatever conceit you're dealing with necessarily propagates the action to a large extent. Dying Inside is one of the more unique SF novels I've read, where the internal nature of the individual is the very point of the narrative, and so it's closer to being an actual "novel" as opposed to a "romance" like most SF&F, despite being fantastic in nature.

    The more science fiction becomes mainstream, the more character-driven it will become. For two reasons: 1) a greater number of mainstream authors will write novels with SF elements, and 2) a greater number of science fiction writers will try for mainstream 'literary acceptance'. All good and well, but it will also go a long way in stagnating science fiction. SF is most vibrant and innovative when it lives in its ghetto.
  4. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Another great plot-driven work is Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312. At times it feels like an actual narrative, but other times it is more like a documentary. Slow moving, but wholly absorbing with some fantastic speculative ideas and an attempt to capture a holistic vision of man's future three centuries hence. I have read many novels I love more, but this work has fixed more images of natural and man-made wonders permanently into my mind than most.

    And A. A. Attanasio's Last Legends of Earth. Completely plot-driven and amongst the very best science fiction books I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
  5. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I struggle with this labelling. The way I understand it, a character-driven story is one the personality and traits of the character will lead the events of a story; whereas a plot-driven one would mean that the character acts forced, prompted by some event developing in this way the plot of the story.

    Now, I think most stories rely on both techniques, although one might have more weight than the other (except, i.e, a very introspective account with hardly any external interaction)
    The Martian, is character or plot-driven? Initially, I would say plot-driven, but then it entirely depends on Mark Watney's driving personality to shape the plot.
    On the other hand, The Sun Faded Trilogy by C. J Cherryh would qualify as a character-driven story although there are entire sections that I would consider to be plot-led.

    In the end, does it matter? Surely to the author, it must be fundamental how to structure and develop the story, and for that purpose, you must be clear in your technique but for the reader, at least to me, matters very little. Maybe @jo zebedee, as an author, could clarify how relevant is to plan the role of each technique or is it something that organically grows and mutates while writing?
  6. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    I am of several minds on this.

    Three Body Problem and 2001 are both excellent examples of stories where the plot is not controlled by the experiences of the protagonists. And this is large part due to scale of the stories - they tell histories. But each section does take place from the character and actions of real protagonists that are more than interchangeable cogs. Dave Bowman is not an empty vessel and drives his section of the story.

    Blindsight is an example of a story where the main character is not the protagonist in terms of actions. Like the majority of epics, he relates his experience, including emotions, to the events that he was part of. But he doesn't get to make a lot of choices that influence events. He does get to make his own choices about how he views those events, though - and that matters since we only receive his view.

    I do not agree that SevenEves, Marooned in Realtime or Excession are anything but character driven. All offer very intimate views of proactive people moving the plot due to their internal motivations and personalities. Is the issue with them that there are too many of these characters?

    My thoughts when I wrote the OP was that all fiction is about the decisions and viewpoint of the characters. We only relate to something being a story because we see the events in terms of the reactions of the beings who dwell in it, and there is no way to construct drama if there is no jeopardy - an emotion that can only be experienced by characters. To have a narrative that isn't essentially "character driven" would be a historical list of events that are unconnected by the rationalizations of the individuals within it. Framing anything as narrative is impossible without imposing a point of view that organizes the events as motivations rather than random occurrences.

    Is "character driven" when we are spoon fed the emotions and motivations of the protagonists rather than having to infer it from their actions and disclosures?
  7. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    @Diziet Sma - I think it really comes down to the individual writer. My style is close character work - to not tell a story that way would feel very alien to me.

    @Tiran - I think spoon feeding is the very opposite of a character led narrative. The skill is to pull people close enough they can make intuitive jumps. The balance can be hard to achieve, however.
  8. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    What is close character work? How do Wang or Ye in Three Body Problem fail to get it?
  9. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    They don't make me feel like I am inside the character, experiencing their story. Instead I feel like I'm seeing the plot from a distance.

    Technically, there are tricks with point of view to being a reader close to the character (not that this is necessarily the best way to tell a story) like not using words that filter the reader from the character, like using direct thoughts and distinct character voices.
    Diziet Sma likes this.
  10. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    I was not being pejorative by saying "spoon feeding". I was referring to using direct thoughts to tell the reader exactly what the character is thinking.

    Would a story where the actual thoughts of the main character are unavailable to the reader (either directly or by their own words) be "character driven", even if the story is completely about them?
  11. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    It depends how closely we are held to that character. If the narrator was close enough to capture the character, then why not? As ever, it depends how it is executed.
  12. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Can a book who's plot is essentially the revealing of a mysterious character's motivations be considered "character driven" if the protagonist is in every scene? I'm thinking of Use of Weapons or Raiders of the Lost Ark. In both the protagonist is something of cypher that the plot reveals why they act. In other words, the plot is the character description and the reader does not fully understand the character until the denouement, but has grown to understand them as the story unfolds.

    At first glance, a story about a person and really only that person should be very "character driven", but on the other hand the reader is kept in the dark about why the protagonist acts, so they aren't driving anything.
  13. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    I haven't read Use Of Weapons and Raiders is a film (which are a very different storytelling medium) but...

    Take Raiders. Indy is portrayed closely throughout. We may not know all his thoughts (and we don't have to for it to be character driven - close narrative is not the only feature of such a story) but we are held close to his story, we know the key motivations that drove him, we stay with him throughout. I'd call it very character driven (and delivered by a fantastically nuanced character actor). Whereas Bladerunner isn't so much (and I do think this is a spectrum) due to the distance put between Deckard and the viewer. We never really know Deckard - but we do know Indy from his childhood to old age.

    It's not only about the story being only about the character but the focus and the WAY it is told.

    For instance, Children of Time which was the recent bookclub read. I'd say the human story isn't particularly character focused for a range of reasons* but the spider story really is - also for a range**

    * the humans are really there as a catalyst for the spiders story. The first one presented is kept distant from us with the writing, warmth of character and their interaction with the tech around them.
    **the spiders share culture with one another, they have a nuanced world we see only through their eyes and we wate given no barrier between them and us.

    As a result - and I'm assuming it is deliberate given Tchaikovsky's cleverness as a writer- it is the spiders we root for. Might be a nice one to look at to see the balance and feel of a character focus.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2017
  14. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    So the "inside the character" thing isn't a requirement? It seems like there is a kind of unreliable narrator problem, where the description of the character's actions may purposely mislead the reader as to why the character is acting. The character is a mystery that the plot solves. I used Raiders because we've all seen it, and the film starts with Indiana appearing to be a villain, then a cad. He is only revealed to be sympathetic somewhat late in the story after his reactions to events corrects our earlier impressions.

    Deckard is also a character revealed as both the viewer and the character come to understand what he is and why he must act the way he does at the end.

    I suppose a lot of this has to do with whether the author is a character transformer (like YA fiction) or a character revealer.
  15. jo zebedee

    jo zebedee Well-Known Member

    Being inside a character doesn't mean you have to know everything about a character. In Abendau I write very closely - and yet there is a key reveal in one of the characters that doesn't come until book 2 (the Lichio character). It's not relevant to any of the book one scenes and not where the character focus is at that point - so doesn't need told.

    It is, essentially, about how close to a character you feel, not how much you necessarily know about them.

    If you asked this in one of the writing forums (sffchronicles or sffworld) you'd probably get a few more knowledgeable writers chipping in.

    For me - I know it when I feel it. When a character feels real - like someone I could meet in the pub - as opposed to a cardboard character profile is when it becomes character-strong for me. Indiana feels real from the first scene (with fears, and flaws, and a voice) - I don't need to know everything about him for him to feel real. But someone like Dave in 2001 - I never really know him. I know a lot about him but I don't know him.

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