Or to put it another way, are writers wrong to bother with characterization? Does it really matter?
Every good story needs strong characters, they say. Characters the readers can identify with, that make the readers want to share the character’s fears and worries and passions, even enable the reader to identify so strongly the character becomes a wish fulfilment alter ego, at least for as long as it takes to read the story.
But what if the reader rejects ordinary concerns as just so much soap opera which has nothing to do with science fiction? What if the reader doesn’t care if the protagonist gets laid, finds a potential mate, recovers his honour, or gets fired?
Take myself, for instance. I’ve experienced strong emotions and worries involving all four of the above concerns. I really don’t want to relive them all over again just because it’s part of the human condition. Screw the human condition. That’s mundane stuff. I’m more interested in the non-human stuff. I love idea-driven SpecFit, not emotional fiction designed to make me feel one with the protagonist.
As Buzz Aldrin said when asked if being cooped up in the Apollo 11 Command module with two other guys in close quarters for several days would bother him, he replied something to the effect “Look. This is my chance to walk on the surface of the Moon. I’d put up with kangaroos for crew mates if that’s what it takes to get me there.”
So even as a little kid reading “Tom Corbett Space Cadet” books I’d put up with the “mushy” kangaroo bits (girls were mentioned occasionally as I recall) to get to the good stuff. Not that I had anything against girls (I was beginning to get interested, though not yet as much as I was during the Summer of Love in 1967 when I was sixteen, but I digress…), it’s just that I wanted my sense of wonder evoked, and ordinary matters common to virtually all of humanity didn’t get me excited anywhere to the same degree.
When the “New Wave” of science fiction came along and everybody began celebrating how adult and literary the genre had become, I stopped reading science fiction for a prolonged period. To my mind the genre had been ruined.
And no, I am not one of the Sad Puppy crowd. I got better, in that I rediscovered SF about a decade later and was delighted to discover the old themes had returned. The fact that many authors still wrote in a New Wavish fashion I didn’t mind because the underlying premises were so good.
I realise this is perilously close to appreciating stories that are merely a prolonged explanation of the premise, an elaboration of the author’s notes for the story rather than an actual story, but few such are published today. Most authors get beyond that stage quite quickly.
Besides, if there’s an alien mystery to be solved (my favourite SF theme), I’m more than willing to put up with kangaroos these days because the current herd are reasonably well trained and actually help me get to where I want to go, namely into that state of bliss known as the sense of wonder.
Mind you, I still tend to ignore the “mushy” stuff, which is to say, the “ordinary” stuff, which may sound as if I’m in favour of the “Mrs. Brown” syndrome (the lack of an ordinary character to reflect how ordinary people react to events in the story), but not true. I just happen to believe that type of character should be a secondary character.
The kind of primary character or protagonist I crave is an interesting character. Someone who rises above mundane concerns. Someone who is in some way unique, perhaps in their particular obsession, their habits, their plans, or whatever, just as long as they stand out from the crowd. I don’t identify with such characters so much as simply want to tag along with them and see what happens.
I am more than willing to embrace characters like that, even if they are well-rounded, as long as they don’t suffer from angst.
I hate angst.