DATE: Tue 06 Jul 2021 18:20 By:

Science Fiction and Over tailored characters. A pointless musing.

I read a lot, not as much as some people but a book-a-week when I’m in a reading mood. I read a lot of classic (old) science fiction. I also read more comics than an adult probably should.

I have also written a long form work of fiction that’s currently being edited by a friend. Its called ‘A Hunters Garden’ and is available on on this very website if you want to read a raw version… You should wait for the edited one.

Last week I started my next long-form work. Its a science fiction story that has been rattling around my head for years. As I wrote my ‘outline’ document and fleshed out points I began to feel like my main characters needed more flaws. I thought about how to ‘nurf’ them or at least make them seem less like tools-designed-for-a-task. But The as pieces on the stories board they seem to fit nicely.

This got me thinking about lead characters in Science fiction that I have enjoyed and how I want to receive characters when I read something.

I worry that, especially in the kinds of classic (old) sci-fi I enjoy that I am unwittingly exposed to over-powered flawless cowboys. Let me give you examples of what I’m talking about.

The Alfred Bester novel “The Stars My Destination” (Published as “Tiger Tiger” in some regions, at some point) is a story about a man named Gully Foyle who goes from an uneducated wild hyper masculine tornado of emotions to a refined self styled weapon of vengeance with education, resources and drive.

His skills include a large natural teleportation range (everyone in the book can teleport, just not as well as Gully) physical enhancements, wealth and drive.

How is he balanced in the story? Gully had a face tattoo that is troublesome. But its mostly just really cool. He also has anger management issues but that’s also the source of his iron will that pushes him forward.

As a character he’s basically the perfect human for the challenges he faces. Also, he’s an arse. But being an arse is what gives him the arrogance to believe in himself.

In the Robert A. Heinlein work “Stranger in a Strange Land” we meet Valentine Michael Smith, who is quite literally the perfect man for the self imposed tasks that he faces. Also the only human with his outlook and training. He is calm and understanding. As the story goes on he becomes charming and warm. When he presents a new, a better way of life to the people of Earth it seems obvious that he’s the right man.

His major ‘downside’ is that he has a lot to learn when he first arrives on earth… yep. That’s it.

These are just two examples. I could have also talked about the lead character in the Arthur C. Clarke work “The City and the Stars” who is literally the hero by-design. Or the Ringworld series by Larry Niven which sees the characters fit so perfectly into the narrative that they couldn’t have been anyone else.

All the really good science fiction seems to have characters that are insanely well suited to their tasks. While I totally understand how this happens and why. It also highlights to me the formulaic nature of the stuff I read, and love.

The trick that the really great writers seem to be able to perform is to make you not notice the over-powered flawless nature of the cast of characters. This is does through complex plot layers, presentation and general framing. It also helps that the reader doesn’t know what challenges the character will face in their personal heroes journey.

As for the question of why we see so many perfectly tailored people? I think that while most fiction is hinged on the struggle of the protagonist, science fiction is a little different because the challenges faced are often such that there are requirements beyond “being spunky” to make it though. The characters are already living in this world that the reader is just learning about. What are the rules here? What are the requirements to be successful this new science fiction setting.

In “Stranger in a strange land” for instance our lead character creates the core challenges of the novel though his own intended and direct actions.

In “The City and the Stars” he lead character is born to complete a task and there have been many before him, hes just the one who does it (spoilers! it was written in 1956 though so I think I can be forgiven.)

In “Tiger Tiger” Gully is able to complete his task only because he is genetically predisposed, hes literally special.

These are all great narrative devices and because of this we forget that our hero is fucking amazing and get swept up in the drama. Lesser writers than the one in the examples I gave would perhaps oversell the awesomeness of them.

I Think being simply ‘chosen’ or having ‘destiny’ is more explicit in fantasy than Sci-Fi which is partly because of the expectation of character driven narratives that fantasy had. Science fiction has mostly even driven narratives. Because of this you don’t question why a character in fantasy has an ability because they are after all special by definition. In Sci-Fi there’s the constant problem of being with real world issues and gelling them with invented problems that need to be explained to the reader in a scientifically framed way (usually nonsense but we accept the pretence.) It means the writer has to take extra care in making the hero seems competent but not not accidentally creating a deity or allowing power-creep to ruin the foundation of the story. So hey arm their character with all the skills required or the ability to collect the required skills in a very explicit way.

This was just something that’s been rattling around my head for a few days now and I thought I would share my musings.

I know (from email’s I get) that a few people who read my posts are not seasoned sci-fi readers and below are a few web (ewe) pages that you may enjoy if this post made you go “hu!”


Heroes Journey.
History of Science fiction.
J M Strazinsky comments on characters
A Grant Morrison, pay attention to Answer number 8.

Books I talked about:

Stranger In A Strange Land.
The Stars My Destination.
City and the Stars.