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April 05, 2003

Lessons From Heinlein

I was re-reading the postscript I had on Old Man's War just before I sold it, and which I subsequently removed from the Web site. I think it's interesting enough as a discussion of the mechanics of writing that I'll go ahead and repost it here. Astute observers will note that I wrote it before I actually sold OMW, and so the entire discussion of writing successful SF is a little presumptuous. On the other, it is sold now, so there you have it. The first graph, talks about OMW a little bit, but the meat of article -- what I call Heinlein's Theory of Characters -- is generally applicable. Anyway, here it is.

Lessons From Heinlein

A number of readers have commented that Old Man's War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. In both cases, the comparison is flattering, although in the case of Forever War, it's an entirely coincidental thing, since I haven't read the novel and (horrific as it is for an sf reader and writer to admit) I'm only vaguely aware of the plot. I'm aware there's a war going on, and I think there's the matter of long distances taking a long time to travel, but beyond thatů nope. Drawing a blank (although I have read other Haldeman stories and have enjoyed them, which is how I know the comparison is flattering).

The Starship Troopers correlation, on the other hand, is emphatically not a coincidence, since Old Man's War is modeled after that novel in several ways. The most obvious is of course the military setting and the introduction of a starry-eyed protagonist into that milieu, and the subsequent progression from recruit to grunt to seasoned veteran. More generally, however, Old Man's War follows roughly the format of a number of Heinlein "juvenile" novels (of which Starship Troopers was one originally): It's meant to have the "boy's own adventure" feel that RAH jammed into those books. One could easily say it's a classic "juvy," just with a 75-year-old as its hero.

I adopted the "juvy" format for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I like the format, which lends itself to classically linear storytelling and a pace that allows the reader to get comfortable with characters and situations. Second, I like the irony of marrying the format to the story of a senior citizen, whose motivations and interests are emphatically not the same as those of, say, Starship Troopers' Johnny Rico, who is fresh out of high school when he joins the military.

The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format as Heinlein's juveniles is that Old Man's War cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or execution. I think that's a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel in musical terms, it's best described as a variation on a theme or an improvisational riff off a classic tune. I don't think there's anything wrong with approaching a science fiction novel in this way; writers intentionally chain themselves to established formats all the time, or reimagine old concepts and old stories in new, subtly altered ways. Given the persistence of Heinlein juvies on the bookshelves, there's a market for the format. I think readers will note the points of departure from the original formula and judge them on how successfully the riffing works.

In a general sense, I think Heinlein is a fine writing teacher -- his enduring popularity after many of his sf contemporaries find themselves slipping out of print suggests there's something about the writing that is atemporally appealing; that is to say, as fresh today as when it was first written. And whatever that is, it's worth study and worth emulating (so long as it's married to one's own individual narrative gifts; no point writing exactly like the man, after all).

But one has to be careful not to focus on the wrong lessons. One of science fiction's misfortunes is that what many people take away from Heinlein is the man's penchant for "hard SF" wonkiness and his polyamorous libertarianism. Few of the writers who try to replicate these aspects of Heinlein's corpus do it very well, and indeed, with the latter of these subjects, Heinlein himself had a tendency to go overboard. In any event, not everyone likes reading (or writing) hard SF or polyamorous libertarianism.

More enduring lessons from Heinlein come in how the man handled characters -- both in how they existed in his writing and how they talked and interacted with other people. If I could boil down what I see as Heinlein's Theory of Characters. It would come to these four lessons:

1. Your Characters Doesn't Exist in the Story; Your Story Exists For Your Characters. Starship Troopers concerns itself with obligation and duty, but it's about Johnny Rico's development as a person who recognizes the importance of these qualities. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress addresses freedom and the cost of achieving it, but in the context of the relationships between its main characters (which include a self-aware computer). Friday mulls over what makes humans human by providing us a warmly human heroine who worries that she's not human at all. The character is the context; Heinlein books that are more about ideas than people (such as I Will Fear No Evil or Job: A Comedy of Justice) aren't anywhere as good.

2. Make Room in Your Characters For Your Reader. One of Heinlein's great talents was creating characters that the readers felt they could be, either because the character was a more or less average person (Troopers' Johnny Rico is a perfect example of this), or because even if they were special in some way they were still nevertheless subject to uncertainty and doubt (Friday fits here). Heinlein was also smart about immersing his reader into his characters by degrees, rather than frontloading the character development and dumping a complete character into the reader's lap before the reader knew how to handle it. It's like boiling a frog: Do it slowly enough and the frog doesn't realize it's in hot water. By the same token, if you get your reader comfortable with your character bit by bit, by the end you can do anything you want and the reader will willingly follow.

3. Make Your Characters Talk Like People Talk. This is not to say that you populate your characters' speech with "ummms" and "uuuuhs" and fractured sentences and grammar. But you do help your readers by not torturing them with strange usage. Nearly all of Heinlein's books feature recognizably contemporary language usage, and that fact is a great part of their appeal -- the reader can focus on the story rather than the language used to tell it. This is probably the lesson that will be the most ignorable, since not every story wants or needs language with an easy-to-read, contemporary feel. But on the other hand, unless you've got a reason to make your language difficult, don't.

4. Make Your Characters Act Like People Act. A corollary to lesson three: Give them doubts, fears, amusements, petty fears, indecisions, conflicting thoughts, space to learn and grow. This note is especially evident in Heinlein's juveniles, which makes sense because their "heroes" are meant to be teenagers. But Heinlein does it with his adult novels, too -- Valentine Michael Smith famously has to learn how to laugh in Stranger in a Strange Land and copes with a continual failure to fundamentally grasp human nature. The plot of Friday depends on its character's doubts and needs. Characters who are recognizably people are a comfort to reader, since it implicitly suggests that extraordinary things can happen even when one is having ordinary emotions.

Now, bear in mind that not every story is going to be well served by this Theory of Characters. One major science fiction classic that would be flatly ruined by it would be Frank Herbert's Dune, an outsized story if there ever was one, in which even the primary character of Paul Atreides is ultimately little more than a very mobile and integral chess piece. One also shudders to think of the mess this theory would have made of the Lord of the Rings books.

But by attempting to incorporate the ideas found in this theory, your average writer has the opportunity to try something interesting: Incorporate big events into stories on a human scale. Heinlein did this on a regular basis, even in his juvenile fiction -- and indeed the format of his juvenile books feels implicitly designed to support this character theory.

This theory also informs Old Man's War. It touches on topics such as the utility of war, the responsibilities we have towards others (particularly those we don't know and will probably never know), and the uses of both youth and old age. But ultimately what it's about (or what I think it's about; as a writer I cheerfully acknowledge that readers don't have to get out of the novel what I wrote into it) are the relationships that make us fully human. One of my favorite comments about the novel came my friend Erin, who read an early version of the novel and noted that the novel comes on like a sci-fi action thriller but is really a love story. This is exactly right and I was thrilled that this fact came through in the writing.

Whether Old Man's War is actually successful is another matter entirely, and I'll leave that up to the reader to decide. Certainly it doesn't try to be exactly like Heinlein. For better or worse, I'm my own writer, and even if I could write exactly like Heinlein, why would I want to? He left enough books lying around. But as I've said, I'm happy to play with some of the forms he's championed and see what I can do with them. If you're thinking of writing a book, think about fiddling with them as well. You might be surprised (and happy) with what you come up with.

Posted by john at April 5, 2003 12:15 PM

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