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How to Write More Meaningful Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories
Give your speculative fiction greater purpose.
Popular science fiction movies, TV shows and books created in the 1950s were known to exploit the proliferation of nuclear power as a plot device. Atomic energy provided a backdrop for some noteworthy apocalyptic fiction like A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), On the Beach (1957) and Atlas, Babylon (1959). Movies like Them! (1954), Godzilla (1954) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) explored the effects of radiation on humanity in the aftermath of WWII. For the last seventy years, a number of authors have written about the unregulated misuse of this destructive energy.
While nuclear weapons will always remain an imminent threat to our existence, the scales tipped toward other potential catastrophes throughout the decades. If authors aren’t writing about war, then they emphasize the negative impact of climate change, disease and pandemics or any number of disquieting socio-political movements. The best speculative works that focus on these topics captivate our imaginations and open up a dialogue, while the worst of them are simply meant to feed off our anxiety. Fantasy and science fiction have the potential to illuminate our dreams, reflect society and reveal the darkest depths of our depravity.
One of the best examples, George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, so eloquently examines the effects of totalitarianism that it’s been used by both liberal and conservative movements at various points in history to identify illicit government surveillance and misconduct. It’s promoted as a commonplace guidebook to raise awareness about newspeak and doublethink, which are fictional words that symbolize a populace under a totalitarian regime.
If you want to write speculative fiction that is both entertaining and meaningful, like Orwell, then it’s important to craft a story that is layered with conflict and realistic characters. The fictional world needs to mirror our own world in some capacity, even though it’s speculative, and the plot needs to amplify the issues you want to highlight. With some careful forethought, you can bring important topics into the public consciousness while giving your readers a story that is appreciated for generations.
Decide Where You Stand
Before you tackle your primary theme, you’ll need to decide where you stand on the issue in question. For example, if you hope to address financial disparity by juxtaposing disparate races, then you should research economic systems. This wouldn’t be in theory alone, but case studies on why generational wealth is so powerful and how cultural norms affect prosperity. You’re not looking to castrate ideals wholesale like capitalism or socialism. You want to highlight the conflict between two opposing systems and how characters struggle to accept one or the other, even in the face of evidence that supports the alternative.
Your personal views need to be clear when attempting this, or your characters and plot will be vague, and the world you build will be riddled with contradictions that don’t align with any particular viewpoint. However, you’re not trying to sell your perspective to the readers. You’re trying to get them to question established norms and think openly about what could happen if a series of events are allowed to transpire without consequence or intervention. Doing this will be impossible if you’re unable to defend your own convictions. Your world will be filled with straw men otherwise.
Amplify the Real Issue
When I was a young boy in grade school, I learned for the first time that petroleum, also known as crude oil, is formed from the remains of ancient marine organisms, such as plants, algae, and bacteria, and possibly even dinosaurs. Since all of those carbon-based life forms are gone, it meant on planet Earth there was a limited supply of this fossil fuel. An interesting discussion followed in class, which included an observation by my teacher that regardless of what anyone believed about “peak oil”, the Earth is a gifted resource that must be tended to wisely.
The real issue is not whether oil, solar, wind or nuclear are the only answers to long-term energy needs. What’s most important is that we understand there are limits to how much man can exploit our planet before it’s detrimental to our well being. The notion is similar to Orwell’s take on totalitarianism. Many are surprised to learn that the author was a socialist, and espoused policies coinciding with individual freedom, equality and social justice. He could have railed against capitalistic tendencies in 1984, but decided to focus on what happens when you reach the extremes in either direction.
Even Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, which could be interpreted as an attempt to unravel inherent injustices within capitalism, ends up masterfully highlighting the real issue that principles of equality and justice can only be upheld when there is a balance of powers. There again, is a way to use power struggles between creatures and fictional people groups to demonstrate how centralized authority leads to destruction. You can invent a well-crafted magic system, or design complex governments within different cultures, but ultimately those structures are as fragile as the people who uphold them.
Unmask Your Character’s Motivation
One big mistake speculative authors make when attempting to infuse meaning into a story is the immediate embrace of perceived stereotypes. Most often these caricatures are representative of the prevailing minority view in the story, or at least the perceived minority according to the author, and are used to support a weak theme. These biases are reflections of popular culture reported by the media, but do nothing to unmask a complex character’s motivations.
Within speculative fiction, where aliens, goblins, elves and trolls are commonplace, those caricatures no longer make sense. How presumptuous and arrogant to think these beings are simple cardboard cutouts with assigned stereotypical human traits. Even for the representative humans in a story who are placed within our historical context, a speculative element should reveal hidden motivations, or deeper truths that avoid the trope we’re all tribal by nature. People are inherently selfish, and even if they subscribe to a particular group’s views, it stems from personal experience.
There are situations when it makes sense to break this rule. It’s possible a character’s motivations are rooted in a strong desire to adhere to convictions that are stereotypical, but it should be for a well understood purpose. In the Lord of the Rings, the Orcs are ugly, destructive and a formidable force that represents corruption and decay. They have a lust for ruin and are enslaved by darkness, but are motivated by nothing more than the desolation of all mankind. Their characters are symbolic of evil with extreme prejudice, but a narrative device like that should be used sparingly.
Introduce Worldbuilding as a Catalyst
A great way to add meaning into your fantasy and science fiction stories is to introduce worldbuilding as a catalyst to change the momentum of the plot. Complex worlds, which include a number of different ecological systems and races, can affect change and impact the entire flow of the narrative. Even though these fictional worlds are not an exact replica of the real world, they provide an opportunity to reflect systems similar to our own. This device can get your readers thinking about existing issues, but without pulling them out of the story.
A good example of this is Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is primarily a story focused on the rise of a messianic archetype. However, what readers appreciate about Dune, is the amazing way in which Herbert built a world that serves the story perfectly. Underneath the surface of the savior myth is a multi-layered plot about various factions fighting over a limited resource called the spice or Melange. At first the spice appears to be nothing more than a MacGuffin, but it ends up highlighting the necessity for ecological balance, establishes how different cultures assign religious significance and forces us to understand how governments manipulate one another.
Arrakis, the planet where Dune takes place, is dry and desolate, and water plays a role just as spice does, demonstrating how royalty and ruling parties can control one another through its scarcity. Water and spice are central to the plot as a major component of a carefully constructed world. They point toward meaningful concepts like adaptation for survival and how our dependency on ruling elites to meet all of our needs can adversely determine our future. Building the right world makes that possible.
Turn Speculative Elements into Symbols
A core feature of fantasy and science fiction that makes it the perfect genre for writing meaningful stories is the use of speculative devices that manipulate known universal laws. The introduction of advanced technology and magic instantly creates a division between those that possess it and those that don’t. Even among those that do, the way in which the elements are mastered illustrates how good and evil can evolve from the same source. This is readily apparent in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where Voldemort and Harry represent a schism in the realm of magic.
All wizards and witches in Rowling’s books have the same potential, which makes for an interesting character study, but only a relative few convert that potential into action. Harry learns that in order to defeat Voldemort, he must reconcile with his past and the death of his parents, rely on the power of friendship, and understand sacrifice is necessary to overcome evil. It would have been easy for Rowling to create a character like Harry with an inherent power greater than all others, but the series would have lost the meaning to some of its greatest lessons.
Using speculative elements in this fashion symbolizes that even those of us who come from uncontrollably poor circumstances can learn to harness what is within our control for the benefit of everyone. If speculative elements emphasize an imbalance, they can be used to create obstacles for a protagonist to overcome, or provide aid in overcoming a challenge. At their core, they can represent an incalculable number of virtues encompassing justice, moral excellence and goodness, or even vices like dishonesty, greed, selfishness and cruelty.
While creating fiction with entertainment value, a page turner for the masses, is fun and rewarding, a fantasy or science fiction story with additional meaning offers another layer of satisfaction. Writing a story with purpose is a careful balancing act that causes readers to question established norms and challenges our thinking. If you’re able to accomplish this without alienating audiences, then you’re on the path to becoming an author celebrated through the ages.
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You may also enjoy this Desk Notes essay by Charles Schifano, where he explores George Orwell’s writing philosophy in greater depth: