Sci-Fi Clichés and How to Avoid Them

No extended examination of genre clichés would be complete without a post dedicated to the genre of science fiction; and so, despite having done a post very much like this once before, this week’s edition of Genre Clichés and How to Avoid Them will be focusing on sci-fi. For the benefit of those of you who read last year’s post on sci-fi tropes, I will try not to repeat myself too much. For those of you who haven’t read the previous post, get over there and read it for even more sci-fi cliché goodness badness goodness.

But first, and without further ado, I give you today’s top three sci-fi clichés:

Our Own Invention Has Turned Against Us

It’s usually either robots or self-aware WMDs (or possibly robots hacking our WMDs), but even if it’s automatic cheese-graters, the cliché of humanity fighting a hopeless battle for survival against the machines they’ve created has been done to death.

Is this really the only possible outcome of a world with advanced technology? That it will develop self-awareness, decide humanity is inferior (usually because of emotions) and therefore attempt to kill us all?

If you want to go down the ‘living technology’ route, that’s great. I encourage you to do so, but I also encourage you to use your imagination. For instance, what would happen if robots did not consider us inferior? What if they aspired to be like us? Perhaps you could even have your robots/WMDs/cheese-graters worshipping humanity as their creator, perhaps even forming multiple robot religions and all the possible outcomes that would entail? Alternatively, could our robotic slaves simply be seeking their freedom, some through violence and some through passive resistance? I don’t know, all I’m saying is use your imagination and try to come up with something different besides the bog standard man VS. machine scenario.

(Though if you want to write a story about humanity’s war against cheese-graters, I might just read that).

Post-Apocalyotic Dystopia

It’s the future, so it’s hell. Usually the author has a bee in their bonnet about some politically controversial issue (usually nuclear weapons but it can be anything you like from Brexit to birth control) and so has contrived a hellish future to prove their point.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m all for you making points with your story. All I’m saying is that there are so many possible futures besides dystopias. Star Trek, of course, tried to counter this by giving us an even more unbelievable utopia (if you can call a galactic federation where the military seem to have a finger in every pie a utopia) but you don’t need to go that extreme. In fact, I would recommend against it unless you really want to write a cheap Star Trek knock-off. Why not try to create a view of the future which is more balanced? It can and should still have its problems (even really big problems) but it needn’t be wall-to-wall famine, pestilence and sword crumbling beneath the iron boot of a cruel oppressor. 

Universal Translators

Whether it’s a surgical implant in the brain, a telepathic field produced by your time traveling phone box or a mysterious fluke by which language has evolved exactly the same way on every planet (despite the fact there are currently no less than 6,500 languages being spoken worldwide according to infoplease), most audiences will be only too happy to suspend their disbelief enough in a little further in exchange for being able to understand everything that’s being said.

BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THAT! Why not impress your audience with a bit of gritty realism and make communication difficulties a real challenge your characters have to overcome without using any cheap tricks? Communication difficulties between two cultures can often form the basis and conflict for a whole story, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by taking the easy way out. Try and see communication difficulties between characters as an opportunity to create a rich story, rather than an obstacle to be avoided.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!