Fiction Philosophy

By Carl Slaughter: For several years, me and Mike Resnick went back and forth about premise versus character. I insisted a science fiction story required a valid science premise well-integrated into the story. He insisted the characters were the only story elements that truly mattered.

Then one day I heard myself talking to Analog writer Karl Bunker about his “This Quiet Dust” story. Me and Bunker happen to both be on the Critters Workshop, so I was able to read an earlier version of “This Quiet Dust.” The version of “This Quiet Dust” that Analog published was significantly different from the draft Bunker had submitted to the Critters Workshop. I told Bunker, “The first ‘This Quiet Dust’ story is character oriented, the second ‘This Quiet Dust’ story is premise oriented. I’ll take character oriented version over the premise oriented version.”

When I saw these words come out of my keyboard, I knew Resnick had finally won. When I shared this experience with him, he said, “I gladly take credit for your conversion. :)”

But this was only one of a string of Resnick inspired epiphanies, so many I’ve lost count.

A few summers ago, I put “Birthright” on hold to binge watch 4 seasons of a The Good Wife.  I’ve never met a legal drama I didn’t watch, but I’ve never binge watched any of them, much less 92 episodes over a period of 3 weeks.

When I thought about why I devoted so much of my valuable time to watching one television show, why I couldn’t stop watching, why I wouldn’t even be tempted to binge watch, indeed, even watch, 99% of other television shows, I realized it was because the characters were so compelling. Every one of them – main, recurring, and cameo – was fascinating.

Then they got a new showrunner or a new script team or lost their vision or something.  After the fifth season, the story arcs became headline oriented, the scenes became antic oriented, and most importantly, the characters existed to serve the plot instead of vice versa.  The show became a shell of its earlier self. I was on the verge of abandoning it when the network put it out of its misery.

A few months ago, I binge watched the first season of Billions, another legal drama. And for the same reason. There wasn’t even one character I didn’t thoroughly savor exploring.  Comparing the two shows, I realized one was character development oriented and the other was character interaction oriented.

I never got back “Birthright,” but I did have yet another epiphany or two or three.  I think it was worth the tradeoff.

Back when my debate with Resnick began, I was working with Diabolical Plots. My bio for Diabolical Plots doesn’t include anything about fiction philosophy. When SF Signal, File 770, and Amazing Stories asked for a bio, I included this line, “I subscribe the Mike Resnick literary philosophy: It’s all about the characters.”

11 thoughts on “Fiction Philosophy

  1. I’m going to post a correction for this bit of grammar:
    For several years, me and Mike Resnick went back and forth about premise versus character.

    For several years, me and Mike Resnick and I went back and forth about premise versus character.

    You wouldn’t write “Me went to the store”, would you?

  2. Interestingly, I have liked Resnick’s stories more for the premises than the characters:-)
    I’d say it depends on the story, I’ve enjoyed character-driven ones and idea-driven ones.

  3. P J Evans: So you would have preferred a world with the songs “Bobby McGee and I”, “Mrs. Jones and I”, or “My Shadow and I”? People can write informally here, can’t they? This ain’t no scholarly journal.

  4. @gottacook: Actually, “Me and Bobby McGee” is gramatically correct – the lines that it’s quoting are
    Feelin’ good was good enough for me
    Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee

    /pedant

  5. Can I put my linguist hat on? “Me and Mike went” is correct according to the unwritten “rules” (structures that speakers aren’t conscious of) in a number of dialects of English, including the one that most Americans speak every day. In these dialects me/you/her/him/us/them is the default form of the pronoun and is used everywhere except in one specific circumstance: when it is the subject AND occurs directly before the verb. Separated from the verb in any way, it goes right back to me/etc. That’s how the following work:
    * “Who did that?” “Her.”
    * “Nobody sings ‘Memories’ better than him.”
    * “Who is it?” “It’s me.”
    * “Me, I’d rather read ‘Godstalk’.”
    * “Me and Jeanie went parasailing.”

    Interestingly, some people (not all) say “Jeanie and me went…” even though that puts the me up against the verb. To explain why the same rule is still at work even in that case, I’d have to draw a tree diagram, so take my word that this sentence is in fact correct according to the way the language is structured in the speaker’s mind.

  6. P.S. For an understandable description of our language according to principles of modern linguistics, I highly recommend The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (though, at 1,860 pages, it is a book for the library rather than the individual).

  7. Okay, I shouldn’t have included the Kristofferson song. But until something like Heinlein’s Speedtalk (from “Gulf”) comes along and is adopted by everyone, no human language is going to be spoken uniformly with complete precision of syntax. Just because one knows the “rules” (and, of course, different “authorities” sometimes prescribe conflicting “rules”) doesn’t mean one has to strictly adhere to them. Who among us – to get back to how this started – would really say “It is I” rather than “It’s me“?

  8. Language really is an example of an anarchic self-structuring structure. No “rulemaker” makes its “rules”. Instead it builds itself up unconsciously in the minds of people learning to speak. And because it is unconscious, figuring out what its structure really is, is a tricky matter– linguists still don’t fully have a handle on it, though a lot of progress has been made in the last century. But people who lay down dicta about how something should be said usually have no idea about the internal logic of what they’re trying to change, so their ideas can only, at best, convince people to make inconsistent superficial changes, and usually only in writing.

  9. @ P J Evans: He does it again in the next paragraph, with “Me and Bunker happen to both be on the Critters Workshop”. And yeah, it klongs like a klongy thing. That’s not even informal English, that’s careless English.

    @ gottacook: Lancelot, that’s who. 🙂
    Also Data.

  10. This debate goes all the way back to H.G. Wells versus Henry James. With a little bit of effort I could dig out the excellent book, published a few years ago, that contains essays by both sides of the argument, for the sake of the title. Of course, the whole point of SF is, or should be, about the power of ideas and change in a post-Enlightenment, industrial, technological world, for better and or for worse. Except, “SF/F” is now a brain-dead form of commercial entertainment written for a fast buck, about dragons, elves, vampires, hobbits, unicorns, etc. Hey, science is just another kind of magic, isn’t it, as pointed out by the successful card-carrying SFWA hack…….

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