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Writer’s Craft #66 – Extending our roots

April 2, 2012
Michèle Laframboise

Michèle Laframboise

A science-fiction lover since childhood, Michèle Laframboise juggles her time between drawing comics, writing stories and caring for her family. With her scientific background, she elaborates intricate plots filled with sense of wonder, poetry and adventure. Three of her novels received literary awards. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario.

Extending the roots of your inspiration

Our inspiration tree must be fed, from three main sources: your imagination, your readings, and your life experience.
We draw first from our own life experience, that help to get empathy with what our characters are living through. Then by our readings, any kind of reading: for researching our subject, for fun, for exploring different genres and ways of storytelling and, last but not least, our imagination, always creating bridges.
The more roots you extend, the best it is for your inspiration. Imagination rarely works alone. Like a sculpture, imagination needs primary materials to work on.
The most common material of old (and many beginner’s novels) were leftovers from dreams, figments of wild imagination blended with misunderstood forces of nature into legends. Personal wants and desires feed inspiration and poetry. But to redraw them into a somewhat cohesive story, the writer must extend other roots.
Readings (including researching) can support your imagination a long way towards a story.
Drawing mainly from those two roots, thousands of eager SF writers have cranked up gripping plots set in exotic locales… but inhabited by stereotypical, cardboard characters (the Explorer Hero, the Scientist, the Wise Old man, the Girl). Most of those were perfectly serviceable stories, especially if the writer has style and the reader devours the stories for compelling ideas.
Writers did not even have to dig deep into their life experience to build characters.
Stretching a few superficial roots, you can fill a few blank slots for appearance, education, some attributes, give each character one or two recurring mannerisms and voilà! When rocket-and-laser Sci-Fi appeared as a far-fetched pulp literature, readers needed some remnants of familiarity to balance the weirdness, some plushy cardboard characters to rely upon.
But do not think that the “experience” root was not used. Many stories were loosely based on their author’s mindset. So you got SF novels starring a cool, lean and mean main character (usually a white male), cavorting among endless stereotypes. Case in point, the first Heinlein novels (A door into Summer, Starship Troopers*, comes into mind).
But, like a stool, a story needs three legs : good plot, strong ideas (and SOW settings), and believable characters.** Creating endearing characters requests a more personal commitment: thinking, discussing, listening to friends and family, so that you’re not ending up contaminating the stories with your own mindset (when your voice slices through the characters’ voice). Across this quest will come some moments: marvelling at a bird arcing through a perfect sky… (and stepping in a smelly puddle)!
Your have to dig deeper into the soil. The deeper the roots, the more your words will strike a chord in your reader.
Extending roots into your memories, emotions and wounds requires more time and commitment than jotting down a few traits. But it makes the transfer of your experiences to your characters smoother. They become more human, more vulnerable and they stick to the reader’s mind. The latter Heinlein novels (enriched with his own family experience and the strong women around him) featured more interesting characters.
When you tap into the common ground water of humanity, you make a deeper connection to your reader and your writing will resonates strongly with her or his life.

And this hidden connection won’t be the superficial mirror reflex that makes us pick up a book: “Oh, look, this heroin is my own age and background, I must read this novel!”
If you achieve this, the reader will care for your paper children, whether your main character is a human, a robot or a rabbit***.

ENDNOTES
* BTW, the movie adaptation featured some great female leads, absent in the novel!
**to which many authors add a fourth: style!
*** Not strictly SF but Watership Down by Richard Adams is a formidable example of characterization.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012 10:54 pm

    I get annoyed with cardboard cutout characters in science fiction. No matter how much effort you put into getting the scientific facts right, no one will find your story believable if the characters don’t seem real.

  2. April 23, 2012 11:06 am

    Right! I was also annoyed by those characters flaws. But, mainly, that was a problem when you begin writing: your main character (often based on yourself) has some depth, but the rest of the cast are puffy marshmallows,

    My husband does revel in sotires featuring strong characters, even if the science may be somewhat off.

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