Character Foremost, Not First
by David Snyder
Open any book on the craft of writing and you’re going to see some familiar advice. Try to write every day. Read more work from writers you admire. Seek out feedback from readers you trust. Character, not plot, must always come first and foremost in your writing.
I agree with all of these recommendations, save the last one. When it comes to all fiction writing, and especially sci-fi writing, I believe that while character should certainly be foremost, it doesn’t have to come first. I know that—for myself—it rarely does, and I think that’s for the best.
Before I dig in, though, let me offer a caveat: I think it is well established by this point that one of the defining traits shared by hacky, unsophisticated, unsatisfying sci-fi is the prioritization of plot over character. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a classic piece of pulp now and again: shootouts, escapes, aliens, and generic, interchangeable scientist/explorer/cop protagonists all have their place. But that’s not what I aim for in my own writing, and not what most other sci-fi writers I know aspire to. You want to create good stories that feature sci-fi; the sci-fi elements should serve the story, and the plot should serve the characters, not the other way around.
That being said, I don’t think that a story’s genesis must center on the creation of a compelling character or characters. Yet, that’s quite possibly the single piece of writing advice I’ve heard the most: Great stories demand great characters, so don’t think about the plot until you’ve figured out who will inhabit it. While questionable, I think that this advice is sound when it comes to purely literary fiction. There are countless great stories in which not all that much actually happens, but which feature well-realized, fascinating characters with exciting mental landscapes. If consequential things are happening in the protagonist’s mind, it’s okay if they aren’t happening in the physical realm.
The same isn’t true for sci-fi (unless, perhaps, there are tiny people/aliens/monsters literally in the protagonist’s mind, but let’s set that aside). With sci-fi, you need a compelling element not found in the real world. On the most basic level, that is the very definition of sci-fi. And if that part of your story isn’t working, then your story doesn’t work.
Here’s how it works for me: When I write sci-fi, I always start with a broad idea, a concept I’d like to explore, one key thing to change about our world and how that would play out. What if gambling on celebrities’ death dates became a national past time? What if a single videogame became an all-consuming obsession for a huge percentage of the population? What if all but a handful of people could fly?
Once I have that general notion in mind, I start to think about what kind of plot would effectively and entertainingly demonstrate this new element. I want my plot to play to my sci-fi concept’s strengths, to highlight and probe the effects of this element. I don’t worry about the plot’s specifics at all at this point, just the broad strokes. And as I think about the plot in this relatively vague way, I’ll inevitably start to think about the characters, around whom the plot will center. Who will do what to make these events occur?
This is when I really focus on character. There’s a general framework in place, but it’s malleable: A sci-fi element and a notion of what will happen, but nothing more and nothing that can’t change. Now, all my attention shifts to creating a compelling, realistic person, someone who I would want to read about, who can demonstrate the effects of whatever sci-fi concept I zeroed in on all while revealing something universal. As I get deeper into this character, I’ll often realize that my plot needs to be modified to make sense with the character’s personality and what he or she would likely do in a particular situation. That’s fine—I was expecting the plot to contour to the character. It may end up totally different from what I originally conceived, and that’s fine, too. The key at this point is to remain flexible and be willing to change my original plans to accommodate my new ideas.
So why do I think it’s not only acceptable, but better, to think about the sci-fi concept and plot before character? Two reasons. First, I would argue that the genre of sci-fi, much like crime stories and westerns, is inherently predisposed toward a more active plot. If the plot is inconsequential – say, it all takes place in a character’s mind as she walks from one Martian colony to another – that raises the question: Why make this a sci-fi story in the first place? If you’ve introduced a sci-fi element, or a murder or a posse of bandits, you need to make use of it.
There are exceptions, of course. But without a strong plot, you’ve dug a hole for yourself that’s hard to escape. I’m sure we’ve all read sci-fi stories with intriguing premises but plots that spin in circles and never deliver. Even if populated with great characters, the story is not going to satisfy.
Second, and more importantly, I believe that creating an interesting scenario—complete with sci-fi elements and general plot—will help you to create an interesting character. For myself, I will almost always come up with a more fleshed out, believable, and overall better character if I have this framework to work within. I’ll ask myself what kind of a person would live in this environment, and what kind of a person would be involved with the plot I’ve started to develop. This sets a baseline from which I can build up the character’s personality, history, speech style, and everything else.
In my mind, all of this works a lot like a writing prompt. If someone tells me to sit down and write a story from scratch, the result’s going to be haphazard and not very good. If I have a specific writing challenge or jumping off point, though—well, the result’s still not going to be very good, but I’ll feel a lot better about it. Limitations can breed creativity, especially if you’re willing to discard those limitations later on.
Maybe this is all a personal preference. Maybe you’ll find that beginning with a character and then developing a sci-fi world and plot for him or her to inhabit makes your stories more vital and effective. After all, there aren’t too many universal rules for writing. “Follow all of the advice you read,” certainly isn’t one of them.
David Snyder is a writer living in Somerville, MA. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Farspace 2, Battered Suitcase, Red Moon District, Cracked.com and elsewhere.