Thursday, May 27, 2010

KS Augustin talks about characterization

It is my pleasure to introduce my first ever guest blogger on SFOO, KS Augustin. Let her entertain you and make you think while finish packing for BayCon. She promised not to trash the place while I'm gone. I don't know. I just might be out of a job when I get back. :)

Firstly, my thanks to Ann for letting me post to her blog.

My husband, J, has a skill I don't have and one I'm terribly envious of. (Forgive the dangling participle, and let's move on.) He reads in three languages: Polish, English and Russian. At the moment, he's reading a Polish anthology of science-fiction from a few years back (it contains an early short story by Jacek Dukaj), and one story in particular both intrigues and repels him.

Now, before I continue, I should explain that J's reading habits are confined to hurried snatches as he plies the ways between two countries on an almost daily basis. In between reading, he has to know where his passport and entry cards are, position himself strategically in the bus, and be ready to fly out the doors and dodge the crowds of meandering tourists as they wander their somnambulist paths from one tour-guided resort to another. Occasionally, he also has to instruct newer Immigration officials on how to process his visa (a most diplomatic process). And he's on a clock. So, he's not what you'd call a relaxed reader.

Currently, he's frustrated. "This story I'm reading is great," he tells me. "The technology is very interesting and the premise is novel. I haven't read a setting like this before. But the characters! There are three main characters, and you can't tell them apart. They're all supposed to do different things, but they're blurring together in my mind. I'm getting very confused. You're a writer. Is it me? Explain this to me."

I love science-fiction. I adore it. I credit my remaining sanity to having science-fiction books available to me while I was growing up. (Living opposite a library didn't hurt either.) But, in my opinion, if there's one area where science-fiction falls down, this is it. Characterisation. When reading characters with similar characteristics it's difficult to tell them apart within stories not just across them. A joke I have that will put you all off side is that George Clooney was perfect to play Kelvin in Lem's Solaris (2002) because both the character in the book, and Clooney, are so wooden.

"This is where romance has it all sewn up," I told my husband. "As a result, being a romance reader as well, I'm completely spoilt. The characters tend to be drawn to such a degree, in such detail, that I only need to be given a fragment -- "a flash of emerald eyes", "the hint of a dimple", "a vase crashing against the wall" -- to know which character did it and what they're probably thinking."

"Ah," he said, "that's what's missing. The technology is there, but I can't get a feel for any of the characters. They're not described, no quirks are outlined. They are just three guys with different names, all interchangeable."

Ann has detailed in a previous post of hers why she prefers male sf writers. And lots of commentators chimed in to come up with female sf authors who don't touch romance. (There was a bit of cheating in that list, as you well know.) I myself have an sf novel currently on submission that doesn't contain any romance, as you'd probably define it. But, boy oh boy, what you learn when you put it in! And that learning keeps on giving, even when you don't focus exclusively on it.

Romance is not merely about the kissing and the sex. Romance is about the psychology of the people involved and how they try to establish connections while the universe is against them. What a lot of sf writers have forgotten, in my opinion, is that you take yourself with the technology. We have PCs and tablets and mobiles and what-have-you. They were all originally meant to be productivity aids. And what have we done with them? We've connected. We've commented. We've hated. We've loved. We've laughed. You are connecting with me right now, drawing conclusions about what kind of person I am, whether you would like the kind of stuff I write, whether you would like *me*, all separate to―and yet an intrinsic co-effect―of the technology that's delivering these words to you. To say that we can have one (the setting) without the other (the human connections) is to live in sterility, where one primate-shaped block can easily be exchanged for another, without any harm coming to the unfolding storyline. Such thinking debases our individual and precious humanity, reducing us all to ciphers.

Romance teaches us that everyone has the potential for intimate connection. Science-fiction teaches us the wonder of what-if. If that isn't one of the most perfect matches ever thought of, I don't know what is.

COMPETITION: I'm giving away two copies of IN ENEMY HANDS at my blog, Fusion Despatches []. To be in the drawing, stop by and comment at the Competition post, telling me at which blog you read about my book. You have till 30 June!

Kaz Augustin is a Malaysian-born writer of science-fiction, romance, and permutations of the two. Her website is at and she blogs at You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter; just look for "ksaugustin".

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Cate Masters said...

Great post. Characterization is important in any genre, though it tends to be lacking at times in thrillers, which is why I don't enjoy them. I can't relate to the protagonist or other characters because I'm not allowed inside their heads.

Melisse Aires said...

Readers like what they like and hopefully will find the books they would enjoy. What someone enjoys reading is part of who they are.

I write fantasy, futuristic and paranormal romance and make no apologies about that. My readers are romance readers--they may read lots of other genres,but they know romance and love it.

In Real Life writing groups in my small town, I have run up against great disdain for romance, and especially fantasy romance/SFR--which I write with *gasp!* sexy scenes! That is, apparently, BIG BAD WRITING.

Literary writing trumps sci-fi, sci fi writing trumps romance. There's a whole pecking order in which romance is the trailer trash of literature.

*Shrug* It is not my mission to evangelize romance to writers and readers of other genres, I have a hard enough time just finding time to write. But having experienced this in real life I tend to be a little cynical. There is a certain amount of disrespect for the romance genre out there in writing land and in the back of my mind I always wonder how much the 'icky girl cooties' attitude plays.

Not saying someone who doesn't like romance DOES have that attitude. Just that it is out there.

Anonymous said...

I write romance. I happen to write romance with a Space Opera framework, but I have never once thought what I was writing was anything other than classic romance.

Does that make the Space Opera bad? I sure as heck hope not, because I strive hard to make all the speculative elements of my plot, world building, technology, and cultures as real as I can make it.

What I find interesting is this sense that what I've done, no matter how well I've done it is somehow wrong because the focus is on boy meets girl.

There is no wrong. If you intend to write straight SF with your focus on "The Big Idea" more power to you. If you humanize it through the lens of personal interaction through say, a romantic subplot, even more power to you. If you want to take interpersonal psychology of two people developing trust, affection, then love in spite of enormous intersteller conflict and cultural/biological differences, Hey there romance writer, more power to you too!

I'm not a girly girl either. High heels just hurt my feet, and I'll put back a beer and watch football with the best of them. I like talking with guys more than girls, and I'm not happy with any sort of entertainment until something explodes in a spectacular manner.

But if you want to talk about love, connection, and how that happens between two individuals, I hope no one dismisses it as "mush". It is not less worthy, it does not taint anything. It just may not be your "thing" and if that's the case, there's a book out there for you too. I'm sure lots of things explode. Yay!

Why do I write Romance when SF is clearly at my fingertips? Simple. I'm interested in the internal as opposed to the external. That's what captures my attention. I want to know what drives people to act, how they act, and how the react to life. Love is one of the most dangerous mental exercises we can engage ourselves in. Therefore it is interesting. The other dangerous mental exercises like murder, for example tend to depress me.

So I'll continue to explore how love causes trouble for people. I'll continue to use Science and Speculation to amplify the situation. I'll shake it up and see what happens.

It makes for interesting reading, if that's what your interested in. Let's try to spare placing values on these things, because they all have value.

My SF isn't ruined because it has Romance in it, and my Romance certainly isn't tainted because it contains SF.

I just want us all to find a happy place.

Ann Wilkes said...

Great comments all! Yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be on my way to BayCon in a couple hours, but I am just so impressed with the comments my friend Kaz has generated. And I'm forced to admit that, yes, I guess I do like romance. Just not the pulp variety, the bodice rippers. I like the classics which are very romantic. My Cousin Rachel, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, etc. And I don't mind it in my SF.

I prefer it not to be the focal point, however. That's my happy place, Jess. :)

Regarding KS Augustin's post, I once reviewed a SF book that was just like the story her husband described. It's pretty bad when, three pages into a chapter, you can't tell whose POV you're in. Dialog tags would've helped, but it should be obvious if the author has drawn differentiated characters with their own quirks, mannerisms and voice.

Sharon Lynn Fisher said...

Fabulous post (and follow-up comments too!). I love the bit about the "productivity aids" - an excellent point.

I'm a reader/writer similar to Jess, though I don't write space opera (at least not yet!). I love to watch how characters react, within themselves and toward each other, when something inexplicable (and usually disturbing) comes along and changes their whole world. I love how the process of trying to figure the inexplicable thing out teaches them things about each other, and becomes a catalyst for their relationship.

Anonymous said...

It's a good happy place, Ann. LOL

M Pax said...

Nice to see you here, Kaz. :)

I enjoy a balance of external and internal. I agree that characterization is important.

Lowly as romance may be considered, it is the best selling among the genres.

I don't write it, but refrain from judging it.

Jennifer Leeland said...

I love this post. Why? Because I think you nailed what I'm looking for in a book.
What sucked me into the Dune universe Frank Herbert created and Brian Herbert continues?
Herbert drew characters that loved, that failed, that grieved. Lady Jessica, Paul and Chani. No, it isn't "romantic", but those characters grabbed me and haven't let me go.
And THAT'S what I want from any fiction I read.
The same things that keep me reading the Dune series also keep me reading McCaffery's Pern books, the Berserker series over and over, Loribelle Hunt's Delroi series and others.
The characters.
Good writing makes me care not only about the main characters (such as Paul Atreides) but also the characters around them. And a good series will let you know what happened to them, their children and their world.
I love romance in my sci fi, but that's probably because a world without love and connection would seem...incomplete.
Awesome post, Kaz.

Kaz Augustin said...

Wow, fantastic comments all! And I'm always late to the party being on the other side of the planet. LOL It's my morning here right now.

Oh good point, Cate. I'm going to have to pay more attention to the thrillers I read. (I don't read that many, tbh.)

A few of you (Melisse, Jess, M Pax - hi!) made the comment that romance is at the bottom of the writing genre order, and you're right of course. But I have to add that that's mainly an attitude in English-speaking Western countries. It's not a universal truth.

As for the evangelising, Melisse, ah that's one of my definite missions! :) I'm known for tilting at windmills, so am happy to take up this fight. Romance is a wonderful way of honing your interactional writing skills. Just the considerations that come into play enrich one's prose, even if you're not writing romance at that moment. And sf is such a wonderful, diverse, thought-provoking genre that I can't imagine life without it. I don't see them as antagonistic, as so many people seem to, but as valuable, life-affirming partners.

I'm happy to carry this attitude everywhere, so please be sure you all come up and say hello should I ever appear at a Con! LOL (Unlikely at this point.) And hope you're having a good time @ BayCon, Ann! I'm sooooo jealous.

Heather Massey said...

Great post!

I agree with the observations that science fiction romance is one way to deliver character-driven SF. Science fiction and romance are not mutually exclusive, as some would have us believe. Integrating the two is definitely a challenge, but many authors have shown it can be done, and done well.

Science fiction is evolving into many different hybrids and there's room for both them as well as the more traditional stories. The larger picture is that SF needs hybrid stories (and action adventure, and romance) in order to flourish (as both an art form and for profit), especially if the goal is to widen the audience.

Kaz Augustin said...

And a big thanks to Jennifer as well.

YES! Even though there may be no "romance" in a novel, those skills that romance-writing helps build up, that focus on characterisation, can be used to lift any other book in any other genre.

Pauline said...

Have to chime in! what a great post and so true! I will admit I also get weary when women are slammed for being into relationships. Yes, we are and thank goodness for it! One thing I've learned after 35 years of marriage, is that when a couple brings their strengths to their lives, both are better for it. I need the male perspective and he needs my female perspective to get a total picture.

And, IMHO, books that don't bring both to the table are also lacking. When I read for pleasure, I want the total experience.

I've written romantic suspense, romantic action adventure and now romantic space opera. I write what I like to read, but I've got fan email and support from male readers, too.

Looking forward to your book release, Kaz!