Alaskan writer Sara King will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is the bestselling author of The Legend of ZERO, Outer Bounds, Guardians of the First Realm, and her latest urban fantasy series, Sunny Day, Paranormal Badass, among others. She’s an alumna of the 2008 Odyssey Writing Workshop and has spent the last six years forging a successful career in independent publishing in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. To her chagrin, she is owned by four 120-plus-pound Tibetan Mastiffs, cautiously maintains a flock of ninja chickens, and has so many literary irons in the fire that she’s losing count. Thankfully, whenever she needs writing inspiration, she can step out her front door to go wandering in the Alaskan wilderness until she gets cold or almost dies—usually one or the other, but sometimes both—and then stumble home with fresh stories to tell and a new respect for falling, drowning, hypothermia, disorientation, and aggressive 1,500-pound wildlife.
Part 1 of this interview, posted last Sunday, is available here.
For the past four years, you have sponsored the Parasite Publications Character Awards, which provide scholarships to three character-based writers attending Odyssey. Thank you for your generosity! What draws you to character-driven fiction? What do you think plot-driven writers could learn from writers of character-driven fiction?
Uh oh. You asked The Question. (Warning: What follows is a rant on the state of science fiction as an art form, how it lags behind the other genres in both readership and author diversity because it is actually less evolved creatively than the other genres, and how it needs to be brought up to par with all the other genres by intrepid people like you.) Well, for one, I can’t believe you’re asking this question. It’s my humble opinion (f*** it, I’m not very humble) that character-driven fiction is the best kind, hands down, because it allows readers to fully submerge themselves in the minds, situations, and psyches of another human being, enriching them for life afterwards. Name me one other medium that can do that. It allows people to live lives they haven’t lived, experience emotions they otherwise wouldn’t experience, and make friends they otherwise wouldn’t have had. The most gripping stories are character driven. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, George Lucas, George R.R. Martin, Patricia Cornwell, Orson Scott Card, David Baldacci. Every thriller I’ve ever read has been character driven, and they have to be—otherwise people won’t have any investment in whether the character lives or dies, and the end result of the thriller would be moot. Same for romance or fantasy.
Unfortunately, science fiction really has two genres—so-called “hard” and “soft” sci-fi—and it seems to me as if the writers of “hard” sci-fi are using science as a shield to tell a bad story, then mocking and minimalizing the writers of genuinely good stories with labels like “soft” or “space opera” or “unrealistic” or “mass market” or “nonsense” or “space fantasy” and essentially driving potential authors away by making them feel like they’re somehow failing or stupid for not following the “rules.” It’s an elitist club in a lot of ways. Imagine this: statistically, most women won’t read science fiction, and the genre has a historically small audience, mostly male, with an abnormally high number of PhDs in that mix. Yet I’ve had dozens of women (and men!) write me and tell me they hate science fiction, but they love my books! When asked why they don’t like science fiction, their answers are vague, like they don’t really know, but they all agree it’s too dry and technobabbly and they generally like fantasies instead. You know what the main difference between fantasy and science fiction is? That science shield. If a reader can’t get into the head of a character in a fantasy, they throw the book aside and dismiss it as a bad book. But because there are so many bad science fiction books (in my world, a bad book is a dry one where the reader doesn’t care a whit about the characters), they just assume that the textbook-style “storytelling” is the way science fiction is supposed to be and avoid the genre entirely.
What really irks me is that this science-shield mentality has been and is continuing to be perpetuated in a sort of echo chamber in the genre where nobody’s really listening to what the masses want. A lot of hard sci-fi authors (and some readers) even have an elitist attitude towards the “purity” of science fiction and will preach about how there must be “rules” applied to be “true” science fiction or it should be labeled fantasy. Please. “Science fiction” merely denotes stories about our future, and unless you’re freakin’ Nostradamus, you don’t know what our future holds—you can’t. Because your beloved “rules,” as much as you love them, will change. Two hundred years ago, we were still coming up with electricity. Two hundred years from now, we’ll look back at what we “know” with the same blind disdain with which we look at our own ancestors’ knuckle-dragging beliefs. All great future advancements in human tech will look like magic to us modern Neanderthals, regardless of how many chapters you spend explaining your theories, so why bother wasting the space (and your readers’ time) trying to detail out something you will never fully understand—otherwise you would invent it and make billions—and give them something to enjoy instead? That’s the hypocrisy I see in science fiction right now, and it really needs to change before sci-fi will ever be as popular as, say, thrillers, fantasy, or romance (all three of which are entirely dominated by character-based stories).
So, because it’s my duty as a champion of character fiction, I then inform my readers that there’s actually two established types of science fiction: technobabble and character-based. Once they hear that, the light goes on, and they start looking at science fiction differently, willing to give it another shot. These are highly intelligent people, avid readers, who never understood that “character-driven,” when applied to the blurb on the back of a novel, was publisher lingo for a book where they could sink into the characters’ heads, nor did they understand that “hard” sci-fi was literary code for “This book will bore you out of your ever-lovin’ mind.”
*Cough* I like to champion character-based stories because they’re the best stories. Period. As to what plot-based writers could learn from character-based writers, go take a look at an old Native American fable. (I highly respect Native American fables, probably a lot more than most people, but this is a good example.) Plenty of stuff happens, cool stuff, but see how you don’t get into the character’s head? Or care? Know why that is? It’s because we don’t know who the characters are because you’re reading a badly translated written version of an oral story that once came complete with pauses, hand gestures, little grins, winks, stuttering, boisterous pride, inflections, body motions, exclamations, and emphasis. It had a person telling it, and that’s what enthralled people for millennia. Now it’s just dead words where s*** happens. Don’t write dead words where s*** happens. Make your story about your people. Give your reader a friend to follow, learn from, and enjoy.
Here ends Part 2 of our interview with Sara King. In the third and final part, which will be posted next Sunday, Sara will discuss dealing with burnout and the perils of sharing your early drafts too soon.