Musings on Fiction in the World of COVID-19

Remember what life was like this time last year? Most of us had probably never even heard of COVID-19. Terms like lockdowns, facemasks, social distancing, track & trace, shielding and self-isolation have all become so central to our daily lives from the youngest to the oldest in a very, very short space of time. Not only has the world changed in the blink of an eye, but it is continuing to change rapidly. Will we go back to lockdown? Will there ever be a vaccine? A cure? Will life ever return to normal? Will COVID-19 still be here in a years time? Ten years? Ten thousand years?

We writers (especially those of us who indulge in speculative fiction) love to think we can anticipate the future. There’s a reason so much sci-fi is set in a future dystopia; it’s there to warn us of potential disaster that could occur if we go down a particular path in the present. Even utopia’s like those imagined in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek are there to show us one writer’s vision of how the world could be if the right conditions were met. If that’s the kind of thing you write, you’ll have a hard time ignoring the events of the last year, unless of course you decide to imagine a miracle vaccine which makes the whole situation disappear overnight. I doubt serious authors of hard sci-fi would choose such a course.

Writer’s of non-speculative contemporary fiction have it even tougher. Can you write a cosy locked room mystery with social distancing? How do romance novels work when you’re not allowed within more than 2 meters of people who don’t live in your house? Can Barry Trotter go back to Pigboils School of Magic* after the summer holidays even if he has a bit of a cold? Do we avoid writing a story set in 2020 altogether or can we find a way to deal with these issues head on?

Honestly, it depends what kind of story you want to write. It may well be more appropriate to set your story in the spring of 2019 when we were all still blissfully ignorant, but with COVID-19 ravaging so much of our lives, you may well be wise to face it head on, in which case the tried and true principles of good story writing still apply.

First and foremost good story writing is about good characters, their goals and the forces that prevent them from realising their goals. The world may change in sudden and extreme ways, but people will always be people, with general motives feeding into specific goals. These are the things readers care about, far more than deadly plagues, dashing rogues, post-apocalyptic world-building or wizards learning to do magic.

Who are your characters and what matters to them? This is at the heart of telling a good story, no matter what is going on in the world you have created. Start with your character’s motive. Do they want true love? COVID-19 and lockdown could be an obstacle to that if they aren’t able to go out and meet new people. That’s a potential story in itself (one I’m curious to read the ending of!).

Of course, COVID-19 need not be central to your plot (what a boring world it would be if every novel from now till doomsday featured the same central conflict!) and it may be appropriate to set your novel in a time without COVID-19 in order to tell your story well, but don’t be afraid to face it either. Tell your story as truthfully as you know how. No one really knows how long this is going to go on for or how much worse it will get before it gets better, but what makes for a good story remains the same. And now more than ever, we need good, meaty, meaningful stories.

Footnotes

*Do not write a story about Barry Trotter going to Pigboils School of Magic. You’ll get the pants sued off you quicker than you can expellibraccas.


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