CharactersSavvyBlogWriting Life

The Martian and Stephen King: or why characters arcs are bullsh*t by Leslie Dow

The Martian is one of my favorite books. It’s right up there with the hard SciFi of my childhood when all I read was Clark, Asimov, and Heinlein followed closely by Niven, Bova, and Vinge and a slew of others. I inhaled SciFi only occasionally wandering into the squishier realms of Fantasy and Horror. I’d walk the bookstore aisles looking for the telltale image of a riveted metal panel or a gleaming starship. Andy Weir’s The Martian is a book in that genre and when I read it I’m twelve again reading by flashlight, under the covers, long after I’m supposed to be asleep.

These books are rousing adventures where everyday people drop into extraordinary circumstances and face insurmountable obstacles to achieve some goal. In The Martian, the goal is to survive long enough to be rescued and return to Earth. This is a common goal in these SciFi adventures. The main characters dodge obstacles and through their own ingenuity figure out solutions to unsolvable problems. The one thing common in these books, as in The Martian, there is no character arc. None. Nada. Not a one.

Characters in these SciFi adventures walk onto the stage with all the internal skills they need to succeed. Mark Watney is both a mechanical engineer and a botanist. He’s smart, capable, and brave and has a boatload of common sense. He’s also willing to do what the other experts at NASA tell him when it makes sense. He doesn’t need to mature or grow to beat Mars. To survive he uses the tools he already has, and his talents and knowledge. The story we love is how he overcomes these obstacles, and it’s a darn good one!

This is similar to how Stephen King talks about his characters in his book On Writing. He writes character-driven stories and compares writing characters to unearthing a fossil. The character like the fossil is there, fully formed, only needing the author to unearth for us to see it. It need not grow or change for it to be interesting to read about. Granted, some of King’s characters have a an arc, King focused the theme of The Stand on how people change,  but many of his stories do not and yet we love them.

But how many times have we been told as writers that the characters in our books must grow and change? How many books and classes focus on the character arc and developing a character? Guess nobody told Stephen King or Andy Weir, eh? Which is my point, sure there are amazing stories where characters change and grow and that is the point of the book.  There are also ones where an author drops a likable, smart, and capable character into an impossible situation and we are riveted by the story of how that person figures out how to succeed without needing a single change in their character.

So write the book you want to read. The hell with what anyone else tells you write.

Love this?

Leslie’s teaching a class next week!

  • M
  • November 1, 2019
Thank you, Leslie!! I get so tired of being told my story MUST do x, y, and z, when just as you say, many of my favorite authors just tell really good stories.
    I know! Right? It's so frustrating. I think the one thing I have learned lately is to tell the story. Focus on that and the rest will fall into place. :)

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