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Character and Backstory

America is kind of a science fiction novel in a way. Very weak on character and backstory, but very strong in concept and dynamism and cool ideas.

Jonathan Lethem

I find it very interesting that Lethem points this out – not the part about America, but the part about science fiction (and probably fantasy) being weak on character and backstory. I’m guessing he’s making this as a comparison with other forms of literature – mainstream fiction, the classics, whatever.

I’ve noticed this from forum reviews about certain titles, mine included – there seems to be a negative reaction to backstory. And character development combined with it – well, that just gets in the way of the concepts and cool ideas.

Do readers of SFF generally have this reaction, then? Is this one of the reasons that genre snobbery exists – because mainstream readers can’t connect with the fiction in the way that they’re used to?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

11 replies on “Character and Backstory”

Interesting thought. I suppose, as SFF is traditionally very plot-heavy and spends a lot of its time detailing the otherworldly setting and so forth, the balance tends to be skewed away from character and backstory as “something’s got to give”.

I suppose it’s probably part of the reason the snobbery exists but it’s no mean the main cause. Still reckon Secondary World will always be the biggest factor, alongside all the stereotypes and baggage that the genre carries.

Utterly bewildered as to why there’d be a backlash against backstory, makes me despair about the state of things actually and leads me further toward the idea that really progressive, decent Fantasy continues to be under fire on two fronts: from without (lit snobs to who’ll never get over their prejudices or be able to stomach even the tiniest whiff of genre conventions) and from within (genre fans who’ve become so set in their tastes that they run screaming from anything that dares to be a little more inventive/literary back to their familiar pulpy bestsellers). Not a nice thought.

My favorite recent SF novel, BLINDSIGHT, was loaded with backstory. The backstory is a large part of what makes the main character so interesting and relatable (despite his being so different from any normal human).

Can’t speak for other sf readers though.

I doubt you could extend that commentary into the fantasy genre. Big SFF writers like Robin Hobb and Bujold have made their names on delivering characterization in spades. Perhaps, once upon a time, the Vances and Moorcocks of this world shirked away from the needs of abundant backstory, but it’s become something of an industry standard in the era of Martin.

Agree with both of you, although I think Jordan, for all the disparagement delivered his way for his later volumes of the Wheel of Time series, was clearly a model that Martin, primarily a horror and SF writer up to the point of the writing of ‘A Game of Thrones’, took note of. And Jordan was writing concurrently with Hobb ect in the 90s when female fantasy authors were more prevalent and character development markedly to the fore. (An exploration of that in gender terms would be interesting.) I think Jordan should have done more things like ‘New Spring’ but ended up facing the charge of milking the franchise.

But readers’ impatience with character development, not all, but a good number, is a worrying thing regarding the survival of intelligent, creative and thoughtful literature of the fantastic. I lay the charge primarily at the door of Hollywood and American editors under pressure from American publishers to create something that reaches the widest demographic possible; and that means being as accessible to as many as possible. (The same concept of having very young children’s fiction with words of no more than three syllables in them.) It has long since spread here. Publishers simply survive by making money and they need to publish stuff the maximum number of people ‘can read’ in order to do so. This fascism for clear pane of glass prose – too many adjectives, too many verbs, too obscure a psychological dilemma, too syntactically challenging as a sentence: hundreds of thousands of words embedded in a lexis and you are coerced into trying to express all the subtleties of life in a few hundred because if a sentence or word draws attention to itself then by default it gets in the way of the story – what crap! Bye, bye Bill Shakespeare then; for how could anybody possibly assimilate that syntactical intricacy in a play flying past you in a couple of hours??? His genius would be cut to ribbons today. Like the charge against Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ in ‘Amadeus’: “Too many notes!” We now have the palate of generations growing up and programmed for symbolism, meaning and message compacted down to *&%$! txt@ism & msg. There is nothing in this of the would-be sophistication of the refining down of musical development to its quintessential gesture as the Second Viennese School in music aimed, it is dumbing down what we have here, plain and simple. And it does connect with one of those depressing links I put on another post, Mark! The one where Philip Roth said the novel would be a minority cult in 25 years:

‘Roth has long been pessimistic about the survival of the novel in a gaudy, short-attention-span culture’ it said in the article and Roth said:

“The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen,” Roth said. “Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.”

Vast swathes of the public have been programmed not to have any patience. It began with the advent of TV (and I’m being serious here!) and the communication technology explosion of the last twenty years; and even counting myself as someone who does have that immersive nature, the sheer white noise of all the crap around us is hard to filter out now.

****holes who text during a film at the cinema is a case in point. It’s not multi-tasking, it is conditioned ADHD.

(David Devereux said recently that the single most useful thing he did to help himself as a writer was get rid of his TV!)

Ironically, I found one little spark of hope in ‘2012’ of all films, which I saw last night, in relation to literature and why it does still matter and you should just keep doing it. Especially the back story. Although how you convey that back story is where the art comes in.

‘Art’. Remember that? It has been misapporpriated like the word ‘elitism’ in our increasingly relativist culture. The use of it could be psychologically damaging and offensive to others, you see.

(With an attitude and outlook like that it’s no wonder I’m not published – or more likely, just not any good!)

I wonder about the meaning of character development in this context. I think genre readers actually can’t ever get enough of character development as long as it’s „witty“ and „lyrical“. This seems to be the case the impactful „The Name of the Wind“ by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s the ever changing life story of a believable character in a believable world (slightly Early Modern Times-like) where small things like money, food, interpersonal problems can make all the difference. Here in Germany it got high praise by a professional mainstream critic, calling it the next best fantasy novel since Tolkien. So much high praise is not well understood, since though the writing is certainly very good, it’s probably not the best, and I think it has to do with the unique way the book is written, not so much its extraordinary artistic quality.

You can even take some examples by megaseller and most universally loved writer Terry Pratchett.

What this generalization is aiming at seems to be the Hard-Scifi faction, and I’m personnally not knowledgable enough about that. In Scifi however there seems to be tendency to choose very symbolic, exemplary characters. But this doesn’t mean that they have to be wooden idealizatons. William Gibson’s street credibility certainly doesn’t suffer from his choice of the scifi theme, or Gene Wolfe’s subtlety from his deeply mythical, symbolic themes.

Hey, Alex! You’re right, I think – it being a case of the amount of airtime someone can give to each facet of the fiction. There is always so much to explain in SFF. A lot is taken for granted in fiction of the real world – plus, I always think that in real-world fiction, there are more cultural references which are very easy to shape characters with, and which require little effort on the author’s part.

Hi Tim. Interesting point there. Less to explain in fantasy, perhaps. But then again people are always “off doing stuff”, and it’s the stuff which may, perhaps, get in the way of subtle character development. Something I’ve wanted to think about is how caricatures are often used in place of character. Is that something you think is notable in fantasy?

Thanks for the Mighty Post, Nick! I accept a lot of what you say. I really think someone could write a thesis on how film and other media is shaping literature. And you’re totally correct – art is often accused of being elitist, which I find a rather dismissive if not passive-aggressive reaction to art in literature.

David – how does Blindsight compare to other contemporary SF?

Hi Matthew – that’s a very interesting observation. So, in essence, perhaps people accept something is good characterisation, so long as it’s character traits of which they approve?

Ah, you’re a Wolfe fan too? I remember re-reading The Book of the New Sun and being astounded at the depth second time around.

Having read The Reef, you saying that gives me hope Mark, seriously. As does this, perversely enough!

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8335793.stm

Twitter was always one step too far for me. I’d rather Fry pooled his creative energy into a comic novel than Twitter into oblivion. Twitter is for folk who don’t really want to communicate. It is txt for communication online. R. Scott Bakker said he gave up on contributing to forum discussions etc because as a novelist it was like being in one room and having a babel of voices in the room next to you offering a white noise of contribution. No. Absolutely no. No matter how informed fans may be, they have no business in the singular pursuit of a novelist’s vision and mind.

Don’t care about the influence of editors etc, which I don’t mean to trash, but from the onset and quintessentially, writing a novel is a singular visionary pursuit and the moment it ceases to be one is where singular creative energy and yes, genius, ceases to have any meaning. Just listen to Mahlers’ Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler did it all by himself. That’s genius. That’s art. Pure. It’s what separates the artistic men/women and boys/girls, quite simply.

Forgive me, for on this Halloween saturday night and after over a bottle of free red wine and surveying the whole of Londinium from the rotating BT Tower – Top o’ the world, Ma! (it was great, wife loved it too!) I am a bit tipsy, but I mean what I say.

“So, in essence, perhaps people accept something is good characterisation, so long as it’s character traits of which they approve?”

Yes, that’s it in essence, although it’s not necessarily the same as lack of complexity.

“Ah, you’re a Wolfe fan too? I remember re-reading The Book of the New Sun and being astounded at the depth second time around.”

I’m so far only half through the Book of the New Sun. I admire Wolfe for the most part, but I can sometimes be irritated by some of his interviews and his writing. But that’s probably a superficiality on my part… Anyway, I haven’t read enough.

“David – how does Blindsight compare to other contemporary SF?”

Well, its one of the best SF novels I’ve read this decade (or ever, for that matter). But I assume you’re asking about the issue of character and backstory and how it compares to others in that regard.

I find it rather hard to generalize in any meaningful way about this sort of thing. All I can say is that I don’t share the perception that SF readers or writers avoid backstory—but that could reflect my taste in reading as much as anything else. This much I can say: the SF novels that stick out in my mind as being the best I’ve read recently (OLD MAN’S WAR, BLINDSIGHT, SPIN, and RAINBOW’S END, to name just a few) tend to have quite a lot of backstory and focus on character development to them.

I think the criticism of SF that underlies the Lethem quote has become less applicable than it once was.

I also think, though, that SF gets little credit for this since the ideas being dealt with by a lot of the best (at least best in my opinion) contemporary SF, things related to the singularity and transhumanism, are so off the radar for readers of mainstream fiction that they can’t begin to relate to it even when the characterization is top notch.

“things related to the singularity and transhumanism, are so off the radar for readers of mainstream fiction that they can’t begin to relate to it even when the characterization is top notch.”

That’s even the case with classic fantasy. Especially Tolkien’s “landscape descriptions” are always formed and composed to evoke definite moods, most of which I find very rare in any sort of writing (kind of a specially filtered and enhanced Beowulf). Yet there is always the criticism that there was not enough “human element” in the story, whatever that is.
Well, that’s only my opinion, from someone’s point of view who quite liked Tolkien’s writing.

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