A Story Isn’t Always About Characters

I recently finished reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a book I enjoyable read. It reminded me a great deal of Issac Asimov’s Foundation series. Both books have a very wide lens. The story follows the path of humanity far more than any individual character. Individual success is mirror a representation of humanities greater success. Characters are only examples, not lynchpins.

This is in stark contrast with most modern science fiction that people experience. At the basic level, the Star Wars trilogy is about Luke Skywalker’s attempt to  revive the Jedi and redeem Darth Vader from the Dark Side. Expanding to larger scope things, like destroying the second Death Star, the primary people are known quantities. Han and Leia led the ground team. Lando Calrissian and Wedge Antilles led the space battle. The action is entirely people driven.

This is part because television and movies make up a much greater proportion of science fiction entertainment that people consume. It is much harder to tell a wide scope story in visual medium. The more measured pace of Childhood’s End would bore the average television viewer to tears. Movie has more potential for these kinds of stories, but even that can be hard. Sit today’s movie goer down in front of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and most will want to turn it off before they ever get to any of the “main characters.”

With less exposure to this kind of story, it is very easy to turned off when you read one. I definitely struggled with adjusting to the tone and pace of Childhood’s End. My thoughts were continually “get back characters and get them doing things.” But that is not how the story is built or what its focus was. The characters were almost entirely passive. Their actions were rarely actually impactful; the major events happened regardless of what anyone did, humans or alien.

Childhood’s End is about the evolution of the human race, as shaped by the alien Overlords. Foundation is about humanity recovering from the galactic empire’s collapse. It is these major events that ARE the story, not the characters.

-That is all.


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