Learning an important writing lesson early on

Way back in fourth grade (over half a lifetime ago) we had the occasional in-class time available for creative writing. We could write whatever we wanted, so long as we were, indeed writing. I had read lots of fantasy childrens’ literature and two of the Lord of the Rings books by then, but what I was really interested in was science fiction. I hadn’t yet read any serious adult science fiction (my first scifi book would be Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke when I was ten), but I was still interested in writing scifi. So I tried writing some scifi during one of my fourth grade creative writing periods, and I learned a very important lesson that has stuck with me ever since.

I tried to write my story about a group of nearly microscopic collaborative robotic drones that were investigating some sort of radioactive material in a laboratory. The idea itself is very cool and something that is inevitably going to happen as soon as miniaturization technology grows good enough; how could the government possibly resist? But I made one fatal flaw in the story. The robotic drones were not just the main characters, they were the only characters.

It simply didn’t work, and even though I was only in fourth grade, I realized it wasn’t working after just a page. It was boring. It was painful to write. I was writing them like the real robots they were supposed to be: small, incapable of much intelligence. The dialog went something along the lines of, “Probe B-46 said, ‘Target identified. Closing distance to 2 meters.’” It was terrible. I didn’t really understand why it was so bad, but I recognized it as such, and all of my future endeavors to write fiction always included human characters in them. I had stumbled across a pretty fundamental rule of science fiction that I only explicitly understood much later.

The rule is simple: Despite how fantastic or futuristic the setting of the story is, humans must always be the main characters. This is malleable somewhat, in that a story can work if it has human-like robots or aliens with understandable proxies for human emotions. But you can’t just write a story solely about machines, or truly alien aliens whose motivations and feelings cannot be deciphered. The story must always be grounded with humans. That’s what we all are, and what we all empathize with. You cannot have a science fiction story without humans (or similar analogs) just like you cannot have a forest without any trees.

A few years later, when I was reading Isaac Asimov’s biography, it finally dawned on me. He said something to the effect that he didn’t consider himself a science fiction writer; rather, he considered himself a writer of human trials and tribulations, with his most-oftenly chosen milieu just happened to be science fiction. He also pointed out that even though he was perhaps most well known for his robot short stories and novels, each of those stories always contained a main human character which the reader used as a sort of porthole to understanding the story. Asimov’s robots are very capable, but they aren’t intelligent in the same sense as one could call a person intelligent; they need rigorous codified laws such as the Three Laws of Robotics. They are alien, and without a recognizable human character to ground the reader, the stories simply would have flopped. But Asimov was a very smart guy, and he always included strong human characters, such as Dr. Susan Calvin, to ground the stories.

So, back in fourth grade, I learned an important lesson that it took me a few years afterwards to really understand and explain. But I did learn the lesson. I haven’t tried to write a story without human characters since, and my writing has definitely been better for it. Because nobody wants to read a story that reads like a transmission log between computer programs. And Cydebot, Post complete.

5 Responses to “Learning an important writing lesson early on”

  1. Darmok Says:

    Have you ever read Asimov’s The Gods Themselves? While it, too, is dominated by human characters, a significant portion of the book takes place on an alien world. It’s one of the few (or only) stories I can think of that deals, at least for a time, exclusively with a very non-human alien.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Yes, I’ve read that book, and it was one of the things I was thinking about when I wrote the exceptions section that included non-humans with human-like motivations. That book was still very readable because, even though the aliens didn’t have the form of humans, they were understandable by humans.

  3. Darmok Says:

    Right, and of course, they end up interacting with humans.

    As a side note: is it possible for human authors to write about aliens that are not understandable by humans? Of course not in the extreme, but it would be neat to read about aliens with a very different psychology than ours.

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking just simply wouldn’t work. That there is nothing really like it is probably good anecdotal evidence that such a thing isn’t possible. Sure, there are aliens whose motives are incomprehensible (say, the Moties in The Mote In God’s Eye), but the principal characters in that book are humans who are trying to decipher this alien race. I can’t see something being successful coming from the POV of the truly alien race.

  5. Darmok Says:

    Ah, I’m not familiar with that The Mote in God’s Eye; perhaps I should read it.

    I do tend to agree with you. One of my English teachers used to always remark that the purpose of literature was to explore the human condition. I used to think it was an generalization at the time, but now that I think about it, it seems to be largely true.