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So what did your character do at the end of the world as we know it, Daddy?

Predictive text can get you into a mess.

Just think of what spectacular chaos we could achieve with predictive fiction (Yes, I know. First they predicted Alien Invasion (War of the Worlds), atomic holocaust (On the Beach) then the start of the new Ice Age (Ice) and then the nasty spread of viruses – Tom Clancy, or resurrecting dinosaurs, and vast volumes of grey nano-goo, and then the IPCC decided fiction was too good for the common people… Seriously, with a nasty disease crawling out of Africa (yes, I know it’s not that infectious… not compared to ‘flu anyway. It does however seem to be mutating in typical direction for successful spread. The optimum for a disease… is NOT to kill the host, or not too quickly, and to spread as easily as possible (which is more difficult with a dead host not doing the legwork.)) and Bárðarbunga slowly going through the process of caldera collapse – which could lead to nothing… or could lead to a large amount of ice suddenly meeting fire. If you write catastrophic sf, you know what could happen then (and yes, the possible scale of that event varies a great deal.

Of course most sf writers are really as good at predicting the future as I am at texting (I did send one once, or at least I thought I had, with no spaces between the three words I had laboriously squinted over for ten minutes (short words too). I later found I was mistaken, however and had failed to send it. I’m gifted like that. ) Considering the society of future that dahlings seem to think optimum, I am glad about that.

But it doesn’t matter. And I say this with deep delight, and especially for the new writers who approach me from time-to-time, each with a new and awful way to end the world, most of which are riffs off whatever is fashionable in apocalypses right now. They’re always very disappointed in my response. I do apologize. I do appreciate it isn’t easy to come up with a new smackeroo of a way to end the world as we know it. But… I write for a living.

And of course any story isn’t about TEOWAKI. Nor is about people caught like leaves in the wind in it. Those are news reports.

Great Science Fiction how the people cope with it. Indeed sf and ordinary fiction too (literary fiction is another matter entirely. It’s purpose is to make us feel less inadequate about our piteous efforts. Strangely enough, writers of this think that’s our purpose) don’t need earth-shattering disasters to be great books (they do usually need a conflict or problem to be solved – but that can be quite mundane. Of course mundane is relative (some of mine are not): to Cthulhu cosmic evil is pretty mundane). But it’s about the people, and how they deal with their own troubles, and those of others. And that, my friends, is much harder to deal with well and to suspend disbelief than a new way to end life on Earth as we know it. When you’ve got great ideas on that, that is exciting!

It’s curious – to me anyway, how different authors deal with this (via their characters). That seems a lot less flexible than settings, or gender or TEOWAKI… I know mine tend to attack the problem with a fair amount of ingenuity (courage, determination, yes. Strength, usually no. Skill… unless you mean of mouth or or brain, not much. Luck or chance only peripherally. Giving up and dying stoically – or angstily, never.)

So what is about how the characters deal with crisis that appeals to you?

34 Comments
  1. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut (although it may have been someone else in the recent Literary Elite whom I have never read or if I did under protest and only sufficient to get through the class) who said that writers ought to create appealing and believable characters that readers would invest in and sympathize with … and then have horrific things (or at any rate, interesting things) happen to them.
    Halfway through Adelsverein, I had to kill off a character who was a major hero, a very sympathetic character who had held up the first book and half the second. I had planned this from the beginning, and I did begin to consider a reprieve though, when the alpha readers asked if I REALLY had to … but I did. The whole rest of the book was how this character’s family coped. Without it, I would have had practically no plot-driver.

    October 13, 2014
    • Interesting in the supposedly Chinese saying of the word can be quite horrific.

      our times are getting more and more interesting.

      October 13, 2014
      • curiously, I read that that ‘may you live in interesting times’ as a Chinese curse was an invention of EFR. I do not know if this is even vaguely true.

        October 13, 2014
        • Yeah, I heard it was not chinese at all some years ago, but never really who or where it was from.

          October 14, 2014
        • EFR?

          October 14, 2014
    • Yes, failing to kill really strong characters is one of my weaknesses. And sometimes it can be necessary.

      October 13, 2014
  2. I like characters who keep their heads, and don’t do absolutely the wrong thing in a blind panic. I can see that in real life (I have this “interesting” neighbor.) Oh, and arrogant snottiness on a daily basis (Yes, same neighbor.)

    Fictionally, in the way of character growth, I want to see learning and epiphanies that crush the automatic one-ups-manship. Can training and education change a tendency to panic? I dunno. But in a book I either want the character so imbued to either learn to control panic and think, or serve as a bad example to the real main character as he dies, painfully.

    And whiners. I really cannot identify with the sort of character who just can’t cope. Not that we don’t all have our down periods, but in _fiction_ I want them short and then the character needs to get up and get doing again.

    October 13, 2014
    • heh. I must have been employed by your neighbor (or his twin brother) back on my first fish farm.

      October 13, 2014
      • I hope not. Even the man who came up with the Aluminati doesn’t deserve my neighbor, nor any of his relatives.

        October 13, 2014
        • Then I am even more certain they’re one and the same. This guy was… the source of many villains.

          October 14, 2014
    • I have seen someone literally run in circles in panic. He was a Supervisor for SouthWest Airlines. A belt loader alternator failed and caught on fire and he just ran in circles until I walked over to my truck, pulled on of its fire extinguishers and held it out into his line of vision … then he grabbed it and put out the fire. Said he couldn’t remember where one was.. I named all of them off (2 on my truck, one on each of the Provisioning trucks, one on the back of the Pushback and a big one on wheels under the jetway).
      “Wow, How do you remember all that?”
      well, I was driving around 5000 gallons of flammable liquid… knowing where the fire extinguishers were was just a tad important.

      October 14, 2014
      • Big one on wheels…. Once I was out on the apron doing work on one of ANA’s 787’s, and I noticed a big fire extinguisher on huge cart wheels. Then I read the tag. That sucker contained 150 pounds of Halon. The story I heard is that when the government decided to ban Halon, Boeing cornered the market on the stuff. We have it everywhere.

        October 14, 2014
        • the stuff is worth having, they just needed to get people to quit playing with the stuff
          The fire fighting foam industry is now running into issues with the Fluorocarbon bans. The shorter chain (C6 and under) FCs don’t work nearly as well, and that is what they are forcing folks to use.
          Another AlGore endorsed bit of bad science there.

          October 14, 2014
      • Yeah, that was my boss at the first fish farm. He literally hadn’t screaming and running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off, and achieving absolutely nothing (he actually hadn’t started, let alone finished any useful task) by the time I had solved the problem and the emergency was over – about 10 minutes of complete panic on his part, in which he failed to think at all.

        October 14, 2014
        • I’ve run into several, though most just locked up instead of turning into Kermit the Frog. And they always seem to get themselves into a position of power of some sort.

          October 15, 2014
  3. I like when the characters care about the other characters who are also going through this chaos, even if there’s nothing they can do. Like if someone is dying and they say “Don’t worry about me please go help my grandma (who lives 500 miles away and there’s no way you can do it)” the character says “Of course I will” and then the grandma crosses their mind later, even though they realize they were just lying to comfort the dying guy. There’s only so much efficient writing off of the doomed that I can take.

    October 13, 2014
    • good point. – Shows the decency of both characters.

      October 13, 2014
  4. tim #

    Blame Campbell, or Heinlein, or Piper, or even Weber or Ringo, I like competent characters. Smart fast strong brave hero types.

    October 13, 2014
    • Although I do have a soft spot for incompetent (at least in some respects) characters — Mouse Padway in L Sprauge de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, who learn to become competant around their weaknesses.

      October 13, 2014
      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

        Don’t remember reading Lest Darkness Fall, but to me a character must be competent in at least one (or more) areas if he’s seen as incompetent in other areas.

        C3P0 was the Star Wars character that I disliked the most as “he” is mostly shown as “not worth the money it took to create him”.

        A2D2 did his job while C3P0 was mostly whining about “how terrible life was” or “running scared”.

        October 13, 2014
        • Lest Darkness fall – Then you ought to re-read it, Drak. It’s good!

          October 14, 2014
  5. Add me to the list of readers who want to know how characters cope, adapt, or decide to rebuild. I think it comes from reading history and finding out how people coped with the “collapse” of large powers (Babylonian Empire, Egyptian dynasties, Romans, Chinese dynasties). A few sat back, watched the curtains drop, and wrote elegies. A few tried to step into the gap and deal with (or fight off) the barbarians, while others probably didn’t notice too much (same taxes, different landlord).

    October 13, 2014
    • Yes, in History they’re the ones we remember – possibly because some them succeeded 🙂 -at least for them and theirs, or died well enough to be remembered.

      October 14, 2014
  6. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Well, I like a lot of the stories that Shonen Jump has published. So in addition to these other methods of solving problems, I don’t mind them fixing major issues, solving interpersonal problems, and making friends by punching or bizarre supernatural powers.

    I guess I like seeing a character who even in the most intense of trials is still a man. Even if the pressure is too much to bear, and they fumble a little, they know they ought to bear it, and attempt to master themselves. That we carry our civilization, our humanity, and don’t just conveniently drop it when it grows heavy.

    Kipling’s If, or Chandler’s bit on the kind of man a noir hero is.

    Stress can be a way of showing the nature of a person. Some people were never really civilized, never really proper adults. Some are children, who can cry as long as they grow. Some are regular men, who are varied, but not contemptible. Some are adults always holding themselves to high standards, who show themselves the same in adversity.

    October 13, 2014
    • Tim McDonald #

      Or Kiplings Sons of Martha. I always thought of myself as a Son of Martha, a personal conceit I guess. Anyway, Campbells “Citizen, Heinleins competent man, and Pipers “win the personal battle against the fall of civilization (even though it falls anyway after the competent man is gone usually). But yes, no bitchin and moanin, just roll up your sleeves and get the job done, weather it be restarting a generator, or killing the bad guys. I always wanted to be Tell Sackett when I grew up!

      October 13, 2014
      • heh. But then there was always a desire to be Macon Fallon competing….

        October 14, 2014
    • It’s one of the reasons that so many of my friends are people I’ve either dived with (in vile, dangerous conditions – not a pleasurable swim) or rock-climbed with, or was army with. In adversity I saw the real people, and those were the kind of people I wanted as friends…

      October 14, 2014
  7. Dan Lane #

    Give me the everyman who in crisis shows a strength and moral character not easily seen in daily life. He may complain about the price of gas, fumble for words in front of a pretty lady, curse a bit when the hammer bites his thumb, but few may see what drives his charity and kindness, perhaps.

    Show me the crippled soul, crushed ‘neath the crisis’ weight, who says “I may not be strong enough now, but I will grow into it.” Whether redemption, simple growth, training or experience, the change within that character should drive the change without.

    How about a truly unlikely hero- a man who takes his responsibilities seriously, keeps his word, leads by example, and makes no excuses about it. Give him real humanity that battles with the man he wants to be, costs to pay to keep those principles dear, but make of him the bowed but unbroken man (or woman, or droid, or ape, or coelacanth). With the broad swath of “anti-heroes” polluting fiction (especially “literature”), this is truly edgy stuff. He doesn’t even have to be a main character. *grin*

    Or what of a thinking hero? The planning, discerning, contemplative one that uses his superpower of common sense* and properly applied research to bring about a satisfactory solution. Whether the solution is the one expected or not is completely beside the point.

    There’s always the Vader option. Given a villain so badass, how rich is it when he turns and lays into a greater evil than he? Sometimes “a thief to catch a thief” tales can be quite enjoyable.

    It depends on what mood I am in as to which I prefer to read. The ones I come back to are those that have a strong moral component to them, but which manage to avoid being trite or overly simplistic.

    October 13, 2014
    • What you say is true, Dan. Different heroes for different days. Although I’m not big on the superhero, and some of my real favorites are the everyman battler, who gets sixteen kinds of crap knocked out of him by life/badguys… and gets up (or yells come back I’ll bite you to death) and tries again. That’s a very Australian – and possibly American frontier kind of hero – a good man who just won’t accept that he’s licked.

      October 14, 2014
      • Dan Lane #

        That’s a very good point. For those kind of characters, they’re not heroes because they win- they’re heroes because they never stop trying. Persistence rules. Nothing of worth gets done without it.

        A good thought to start the day with. *grin*

        October 14, 2014
      • Funny thing about superheroes, nobody but Americans really seem to get them. They can ape them, but they can’t really pull them off. They just don’t have the right cultural basis for them, so they can’t understand what really makes a superhero.

        Conversely, I actually like a lot of stories that turn the superhero paradigm on its ear. I guess having soaked in it, culturally speaking, I’m up for a little jazz.

        October 14, 2014
        • BobtheRegisterredFool #

          I’ve been thinking about Tall Tales, and how well they might go over with a foreign audience. Specifically, I’ve wondered about Mike Fink and Australians.

          October 14, 2014

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