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Having Relationships With Characters on the Road to Great Fiction

by Andrew Burt

Additional Material

While of course there's no (shhh!) Secret to writing, we know there's some je ne sais quoi that separates Great fiction from the ordinary—and sometimes an Aha! happens and your eyes lock onto one of those indescribables that lurk in the peripheral vision, just long enough to drive a pencil through it and pin it to the dissection plate. Darned if I didn't catch one of the critters: which you know you've done when some people say "No duh!" while others scream "Heresy!"

This won't singlehandedly win you awards or cure the common cold, but it is a significant factor I've discovered—and to an extent mathematically proven—that's more present in enduring SF and lacking in the more forgettable. Carefully employing it can help your writing regardless of your skill. (Well, okay, multi Hugo or Nebula winners can skip to the next article.)

What I'll demonstrate is this: "Better" SF stories pay more attention to characters' inter-personal relationships.

Now wait— Before you shout, "Ugh! He wants to turn SF into Oprah books!" let me make very clear that I dearly love SF. I most definitely do not want to suggest anything here but a technique to help you nudge your stories one step better, without changing their nature.

What I noticed is that certain kinds of relationships are so lacking that SF is like the Sahara desert. Or as Damon Knight said, "Notice how often the central characters in nongenre fiction have families (spouses, children, parents, sibs, aunt and uncles), and how seldom that happens in genre fiction." [1] My suggestion amounts merely to a slightly less Saharan SF climate, like, say, my own Denver (a semi-desert, at that)—not the rain forest of the kind Oprah used to recommend. Don't Panic.

Why should Relationships matter in SF?

While SF readers aren't looking for "Oprah books" in the SF section, many readers often bemoan flat characters that dampen an otherwise exciting story. It shouldn't be surprising that paying attention to a character's relationships would make them more "real," since, well, we real people spend a lot of our time relating with other people. Escapism is good, but taking it too far and escaping relationships entirely can make SF feel like something's missing. As the multi-genre-talented Ed Bryant commented:

It is my belief that most people read most fiction because they are interested in relationships. That's because all of us are fascinated by how we relate to the person nearest to us, the small group that surrounds us, the larger group that give our culture a framework, or to the whole damn universe in general.[2]

Relationships need not be the focus of your story (and I'm not advocating sacrificing Plot or Ideas or World building); but as I'll demonstrate, paying attention to relationships can help your writing.

Getting a handle on Relationships

To get the most saturated picture of relationships in fiction, let's compare SF with non-SF fiction, what's often called "mainstream" or "literary" fiction. After that, we can compare "Great" SF with "less memorable" SF.

Non-genre stories seem, on analysis, to contain lots of (drum roll)... Sentences about relationships of the characters to the people in their lives who matter. Spouses, parents, children, cousins, friends, co-workers, neighbors, strangers. Marriages, get-togethers, incidents, longings, angsts. Lots and lots of sentences about interpersonal relationships. Paragraphs. Scenes. Even whole stories.

Okay, so they go overboard for most of us SF readers, but bear with me. Heavily interpersonal-relationship-oriented fiction is so prevalent in "regular" fiction, and yet narrowly focused, that for this article let's call it a genre all to itself: "Interpersonal fiction" or "IP" for short. (Yes, those oft-maligned "plotless" stories.)

I would clarify that it's precisely these kind of "real world" interpersonal relationships that I noticed strangely missing in SF. There are plenty of very rewarding relationships between a character and their societies and worlds in SF, so we need not worry about those.

First, the state of the union in SF. Stick your finger in a random spot in just about any SF story and you find:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're crude, go technical; if they think you're technical, go crude.

(Gibson, "Johnny Mnemonic")
The Kanamit were not very pretty, it's true. They looked something like pigs and something like people, and that is not an attractive combination.

(Knight, "To Serve Man")
... The dust rose up in a great soft cloud and went away toward the horizon ...

(Niven, "The Hole Man")
... "Nevertheless, the manufacture of androids is against public policy"...

(Asimov, "Bicentennial Man")
... Oscar uncapped his beer, rinsed the first mouthful around. "Aha! Always plenny of clothes hangers, though...."

(Davidson, "Or All the Seas with Oysters")

We've got loving details of actions, planets, things, ideas, societies... But as statistically detailed below, interpersonal relationships are as rare as water on Mercury. A slightly less dry climate can produce some wonderful results.

To show it is possible, this is from Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead:

"I want to speak for you," she cried.

"I'm not dead yet!" he shouted back.

"I know you're going to Lusitania! I know you are!" Then you know more than I do, said Ender silently. But he trembled as he walked, even though the sun was shining and he wore three sweaters to keep out the cold. He hadn't known Plikt had so much emotion in her. Obviously she had come to identify with him. It frightened him to have this girl need something from him so desperately. He had spent years now without making any real connection with anyone but his sister Valentine—her and, of course, the dead that he Spoke. All the other people who had meant anything to him in his life were dead. He and Valentine had passed them by centuries ago, worlds ago.

The idea of casting a root into the icy soil of Trondheim repelled him. What did Plikt want from him? It didn't matter, he wouldn't give it. How dare she demand things from him as if he belonged to her?

It's worth noting that not only does Speaker score highly on my rating system below, but it also won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. Card frequently pays attention to his characters' relationships with other characters. In this passage we have relationships regarding death, siblings, friends, unrequited love, abandonment. Yet note these also serve up the usual elements of SF: relativistic space travel, world building, analysis of Big Ideas. All of these can be synthesized together. There's no need to abandon what makes SF great and turn SF into Oprah books in space, as Speaker for the Dead's popularity shows.

That said, the ideal place to study the best craft techniques of interpersonal fiction is in IP fiction itself. So purely for purposes of analysis, consider the opening of The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan:

Whenever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument.

"Pearl-ah, have to go, no choice," my mother said when she phoned last week. After several minutes I learned the reason for her call: Auntie Helen was inviting the whole family to my cousin Bao-bao's engagement party.

"The whole family" means the Kwongs and the Louies. The Kwongs...

Let's tick off what we've got here to see how Tan's done it: (1) The first sentence describes the attributes of an IP relationship. (2) As a vehicle, a focal point, for that description, Tan chooses an IP interaction, conversation (vs. saying "My mother always coerces me" or "I was coerced into going," i.e. avoiding the interaction itself). (3) Tan doesn't just state that there's an interaction (e.g., "My mother called to ensure I went"), she shows the quality of it, confused, coercing. (4) The topic of the interaction is yet another interpersonal interaction, a party (vs. "the reason for her call: Her house needed a new roof"). (5) An engagement party, not, say, a 4th of July party. (6) Moreover, it's an engagement of a family member, not a lesser-related character, such as an acquaintance, business associate, etc.). (7) The invitation is relayed by yet another family member, Auntie Helen (vs. directly from the distant couple). (8) The whole family is being invited, and what "whole family" means is detailed at length following this passage.

That's pretty "pure" relationship prose. Could that passage work in SF? Something less dense with relationships certainly could, and leave lots of room for Plot, World building, etc. But let's push it, and see if we can twist this with minimal changes and make it sound like it might be the intro to an SF story:

Whenever my older clone talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument.

"Pearl-ah, have to go, no choice," my twin said when she holo'd last week. After several minutes I learned the reason for her call: Chancellor Gool was inviting the whole family to Tau Ceti for my twin-twice-removed Bao-bao's verification party.

"The whole family" means... (use your imagination!)

Personally, I find that more fascinating than:

I'm one clone of many, all different ages and backgrounds. I was persuaded to go to Tau Ceti, in a roundabout way, by Chancellor Gool. A whole bunch of us clones will be there. Ostensibly, a new clone will have his DNA verified, but let me tell you what I know about DNA...

Okay, that's a straw man, but you know what I mean. And if you don't agree the first is more inviting than the second, well, my friend, just put this article down, and back away slowly...

It's not a knew phenomenon: Heinlein didn't forget about relationships (count how often people interact while eating), nor Damon Knight, such as where immortal Players and Students interact in my personal favorite of his, "Dio"—

"But I want—" she says desperately.

"What? To love him again, as if he were normal? Or do you want to help him? Is that what you mean?" His thin face is drawn tight, arrow-shaped between the brows. "Do you think you could stand it? If so—" He stands aside, as if to let her enter again.

And it's no accident Octavia Butler was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant and assorted Hugos & Nebulas when she writes relationships like this in Parable of the Sower:

"Did you notice," Dad said, "that every off-duty watch answered the whistles last night? They came out to defend their community."

"I don't care about them! It's you I'm worried about!"

"No," he said. "We can't think that way any more. Cory, there's nobody to help us but God and ourselves. I protect Moss's place in spite of what I think of him, and he protects mine, no matter what he thinks of me. We all look out for one another." He paused. "I've got plenty of insurance. You and the kids should be able to make it all right if—"

Flannery O'Connor's famous story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," often cited as one of the best in the English language, is easily classified as a horror story and thus close kin to SF. Yet it's full of relationships:

The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of the chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal.

Even ol' Dickens pays close attention to relationships. I don't think most folks classify "A Christmas Carol" as an IP story (perhaps a ghost/horror story, or a morality play), but look:

Scrooge knew [Marley] was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residual legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

I inspected a wide variety of SF and non-SF work. [view the list] The dearth of relationships in SF vs. in non-genre work led me to wonder if it was possible to quantify all this, to demonstrate not only that it wasn't my imagination, but also to see if there was a correlation between "better" SF and relationships than "average" SF, and to what degree.

Thus, I devised a quick test that can be applied to any novel.

Scoring a Book

This test only takes a couple minutes a book:

Pick about ten random places in the book, and read three paragraphs on each. Pick the first three paragraphs of the book, the last three, and, say, eight spread around inside. For example, if it's a 500 page book, pick page 50, 100, 150, etc. For middle pages, look at the last line of that page, consider the paragraph that line is in, plus the one above it, and the one after it (on the next page, wherever that is—likewise skip blank pages, start of chapter epigraphs, etc.). On each of those pages, read those three paragraphs, and rate them on a scale of 0 to 10 for how strongly filled with interpersonal relationships you feel they are—0 is none at all, 10 is pure. Add up the points. If you picked 10 places, that's your score. (If you were silly and didn't pick 10 places, woe is you, divide by the maximum possible points, which is 10 times the number of places you picked, and that's your score as a percent.)

For example, I'd rate Card's Speaker for the Dead passage above between 9 and 10, and the Amy Tan is definitely a 10. Whereas stuff like Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" quote I'd rate between 0 and 1 for its IP content. Use your best discretion; statistically this will work out fine.

The Results Get Personal

It goes fast enough that I did this for a whole slew of books. I took a batch of utterly average new SF releases from SFWA's Circulating Book Plan, a bunch of SF classics, some random mainstream stuff, classic literature, etc. The raw numbers are in the sidebar.

In raw numbers, I found:

  • SF (Science fiction & fantasy) overall, 50 books, scored an average of 22.5.

  • "Classic," i.e., famous, award-winning, etc. SF scored 30.

  • "Average/ordinary," non-classic (new release) SF scored 15.

  • Fantasy scored lower on average than science fiction, at 18 vs. 23.

  • Non SF, 18 books, scored an average of 55.

Were these statistically valid? Well, yes and no. I chose most of the "ordinary" samples at random, but not the classics, though these were specifically chosen for their high positions on assorted "best ever" lists from the Internet. Some of the "ordinary" I did just grab off the shelf, out of curiosity, but those had about the same distribution. Pleasantly, the margin of error calculations put the results at +/- 5% or less (as low as +/- 2.5%), illustrating that (with the possible exception of SF vs. Fantasy), there is a statistically valid difference between these results.

Which leads me to believe that...

  • There is a measurable difference between Great SF and ordinary SF. (Not surprising.)

  • That difference is observable in terms of "relationships." "Great" SF scored twice as high as ordinary SF. (No doubt measurable in other ways too, but if you had a piece that was "good," vs. the same piece where the author paid attention to relationships as a technique, readers would probably describe the latter as "better.")

  • SF has such a long way to go before it worries about being in the "Oprah" heart-wrencher category that it can profitably improve: Non-genre work scored about 2.5 times higher than SF (about two times Great SF and three times ordinary SF).

  • Fantasy doesn't seem to deliver on the often mentioned concept that it has much deeper characterization than SF, at least in IP terms (18 vs. 23, though the margins of errors just barely overlapped, so further study is in order).

  • I noted that the poles of attention to relationships are even more stretched in short fiction than novels. I did this same sort of analysis for a number of stories and found: SF short stories are typically more spare, while non-genre short stories are denser in IP material (and thus worth study for their IP condensation techniques).

  • SF can reach the same IP heights as literary works do—Flowers for Algernon scored almost as high as Amy Tan, and the multi-award-winning Speaker for the Dead came in at a very impressive 61. Yet these remain thoroughly SF; nobody is accusing them of being Oprah books.

How you can use this in your SF writing

What I really wanted out of all this was to determine a genuine technique that could improve my writing, even if just a little.

Of course you can write entire relationship stories, IP stories meshed with SF (which are few and far between, but well regarded), but you can also use this observation in small ways. The way this has helped me the most has been to give me pause when I'm meeting a new character (especially a primary one) and ask myself, among other character-defining questions, what are this character's relationships? How does he feel toward his father? Mother? Each sibling individually? Significant others? Ex-SO's? What kinds of friends and groups does he spend time with, and how? How does he interact with co-workers? Does he have pets he cares deeply about? Certainly not all these should make it into your story, but not knowing them is almost a guarantee you're not likely to portray your character interacting in relationships with others, thus creating a flat character for readers. Not to mention, you'll be missing an additional methodology to convey information to readers, advance the plot etc.—all of which can be accomplished via relationships.

This leads to another application: When you arrive at a mental "So, what comes next? X just happened, what's the result of X?" question, you can answer not only with more action (as is typical in SF)—"What action will the character take?" fwoomp! goes the planet—but you might sometimes answer with another question, "What impact will event X have on the character's relationships?" True relationships will manifest themselves throughout, since people important to a character will remain important.

Consider positive relationship effects especially, not just the predominant negative kind (grumbling about ex-wives, bemoaning the lack of a girlfriend, etc.). I know writing is a solo activity, but remember that realistic characters will interact often in ways that are friendly, cooperative, compassionate, happy, etc., not just lonely or antagonistic. (These positive actions may well cause conflict for other characters, though...) I didn't quantify it, but ordinary SF seemed to have far more negative IP interactions than positive.

Resist the temptation to choose a Significant Other as the only primary relationship. If you do go there, avoid mere lust and romance. Where relationships do exist in SF, they tend to be overmuch of this kind.

If you write by creating a character bio in advance, be sure to include details of their relationship with everyone in their life who matters. You can display different facets of a character via these relationships. Don't gloss over this. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "this is his and not his brother's story." Your hero can't be whole and rounded without considering his complex relationships. Differentiate your character from his clone!


We as real people are defined in large part by our interactions with others, so it seems a shame not to portray this in fiction. Or as our legendary Damon Knight said, "Good fiction of all kinds is about people, and a good deal of it is about their relationships with each other."[3]

I realize that any kind of "but that's not how it's been done!" suggestion will provoke a great number of objections, but as space precludes addressing them here, I've addressed those at length (as well as provided more quotes and some quizzes, notes on methodology, etc.), on a companion web site, http://www.sfwa.org/members/aburt/rel. In researching this article I found that examining these objections greatly helped solidify my understanding of what I was trying to say. I welcome your comments.

On the whole, I found this research extremely enlightening, especially the correlation between "non-classic" SF scoring lower than the classics. Again, I realize it's only one piece of the puzzle, but I won't sneeze at anything that helps my craft. I hope it helps yours, too.

End Notes

[1] sff.workshop.critters newsgroup on news.sff.net, 11/17/2001, Re: That Interpersonal Thing.

[2] Northern Colorado Writers' Workshop email discussion list; used with permission.

[3] sff.workshop.critters newsgroup on news.sff.net, 11/27/2001, Re: That Interpersonal Thing.

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