Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Daily Archives: August 13, 2012

Just how all of us want to dress in Texas summer.

Today, we are going to talk about a problem that plagues sci-fi and fantasy more than any other genre—over fascination with gizmos, widgets, world-building and magic at the expense of the core story and bigger theme. What makes science fiction or fantasy fiction great? What makes it endure for generations? Let’s take a look-see…

Great Stories are about Heroes

All great stories are about people. Fiction is a window into our souls. Stories are a safe place to watch conflict and learn how heroes resolve that conflict. Heroes are not normal people. If our heroes are normal people then that is called “bad fiction.” Heroes are normal people who (eventually) do extraordinary things. They keep going even after (it seems) that all is lost.

But what makes a real hero?

A hero must be relatable.

He/she needs to be relatable so we can connect. We have to see some aspect of ourselves in the protagonist. This is the element that will pull readers into the story and not let go until the end. Perfect characters are not relatable, ergo dull as dirt.

A good hero also has room to grow. 

This is also known as character arc, and it is vital for great stories. Lack of a character arc is one of the reasons that movies based off video games are often less satisfying. Video game heroes are fully actualized on Day One, ergo boring (Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft). The real heroes, the ones that make us dance on the edges of our seats? They begin as unformed clay that we know is going to get a serious pounding. But, once the fires of adversity harden this character? Watch out.

A good hero, if pitted against the Big Boss Troublemaker in scene one should be toast.

If Frodo of the Shire started scene two of the movie at the foot of Mount Doom, he would have been, well *shrugs* doomed. It is the journey that creates the hero. Frodo goes from being a naive fool to a hardened warrior willing to embrace a suicide mission to make the world safe and right, and that is why we stand and cheer.

Gizmos & Magic Does Not a Story Make

One of the biggest mistakes I see in fantasy and science fiction is the writer gets too fascinated with gizmos, magic and world-building. Yes, all of these elements are important, but they are not the core. Icing is awesome and butter cream icing is super awesome, but if it is smeared over canned dog food, we don’t want to eat it. We don’t care how thick you layer that butter cream icing. No matter how many sprinkles you add. No matter how many beautiful roses made of icing, we still don’t want to eat dog food.

Make sure the core story is there. Great stories are a Stake Sandwich. All stories have two layers of objectives with stakes sandwiched in between.

Core Story Problem (Outer Journey)-–What is the core problem your protagonist must resolve before the story ends?

Drop Ring of Power into Mt. Doom.

Stakes–What will happen if your protagonist fails to become a hero? The more that’s at risk, the better the story and the higher you can ratchet the tension.

Naive halfling (Hobbit) who’s never been away from home (out of the Shire) must drop Ring of Power into a volcano in the heart of enemy territory before the forces of evil (Sauron) can use the ring to enslave and destroy protagonist’s known world, including family and friends (Middle Earth).

Core Character Problem—How must your protagonist change in order to defeat the Big Boss Troublemaker?

Naive insecure halfling (Hobbit) must harden into warrior-hero who is willing to do anything to destroy evil.

Note the halfling shows that Frodo has a physical disadvantage (to go with a couple of emotional disadvantages). He is not physically who we would think of when the word “hero” is used. Not only is he small in stature, but he is small in how he views himself. First, he is childlike and naive, which is why he nearly ends up minced meat at The Prancing Pony. 

Warriors don’t just trust anyone and they don’t hang out with friends who have warrants out for their arrest for stealing salad fixings. Frodo, also, doesn’t see himself as a warrior, let alone a hero and yet that is exactly the transformation that takes place.

Movie One—Naive Hobbit transforms into Apprentice Warrior Hobbit

Movie Two—Apprentice Warrior Hobbit transforms into Warrior Hobbit

Movie Three—Warrior Hobbit transforms into Hero Hobbit

As the story arc progresses, so does the character arc until the journey has hardened Frodo enough to be willing to lay down his life to save the world at the end. Yes, there is a lot of magic and world-building and wild creatures but they never overshadow this fundamental core, the journey of a boy to a hero.

Great Fantasy and Science Fiction often are about Bigger Themes and Human Questions

Phillip K. Dick was a master at this. Minority Report asks the question about justice versus free will. Justice and freedom are in a reciprocal relationship. As one increases, the other decreases. More justice, less freedom. More freedom, less justice. Yet, in a world of perfect justice, do we actually lose what it means to be human? Do we trade perfect safety for free will?

Blade Runner explores what it fundamentally means to be “human.” At what point could an artificial lifeform be considered sentient/human? What moral imperative should guide us as we make artificial lifeforms more and more intelligent? What duties and obligations do we, their human Creators, hold?

In both of these stories we can see the hero’s journey. In Minority Report, the poster boy for Pre-Crime is the one who will take down Pre-Crime. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. There is a deep and compelling question of free will versus predestination, thus blending in matters of faith.

In Blade Runner, the hunter will become the protector. There is a dramatic irony in that the Replicants are being mercilessly hunted down and terminated for their “lack of empathy.” The story showcases human hubris and the struggle to remember what it means to be human…compassion, care, empathy.

Digging Deeper

When you start out to write your fantasy or science fiction, think of larger questions your story might answer or at least explore. What does it meant to be human (I, Robot)? Can different races work together even after betrayal (Lord of the Rings)?

Are there religious or political themes you can add to your core story (Dune—substitute “petroleum” for “spice.” Explores the idea of “jihad” and the battle between the “religious establishment” {the Bene Gesserit who are in the pocket of the Guild} and the true messiah and holy warriors who will take it all down)?

Who would be the most unlikely hero for this particular story? What can transform him/her? What crucible is perfect to fire out this imperfection?

In the end, what I challenge you to do is to reach below the surface elements. World-building and magic and gadgets are cool, but they are surface. Dig deep into the tender parts of your humanity, and that is where the real treasures are.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi or fantasy stories? Why do you love them? What bigger questions did they probe? I know I listed a handful and I could write a 100 pages on each exploring the deeper stories and themes, but what did you see? What other selections would you add? Do you get frustrated by stories that are all gadgets and no substance? Does it not bother you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.