Unlikable Lovers

It’s hard to root for a romance if you don’t care about the characters.  We generally sympathize with the main character (“MC”).  But that’s not always so for the MC’s romantic interest (the “RI,” let’s say).  What happens when we don’t like the person the MC’s supposed to be interested in?

There’s a variety of types of problematic lovers, and sometimes a particular type is called for by the nature of the plot.  Let’s look at a few.

The Friendly Enemy

Much Ado About Nothing book coverThere’s an entire category of plotline in which the eventually happy couple start out at odds with each other.  TV Tropes captions this “Belligerent Sexual Tension,” and has a splendid list of examples.  They range from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with the feuding Beatrice and Benedick (here’s the Tropes page) through F&SF examples like Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall in the Lensman series, Taran and Eilonwy in the Chronicles of Prydain, Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.

A subcategory of these turnabout stories involves characters who fight in one context while falling for each other in another.  1998’s You’ve Got Mail, and its predecessors such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), fall into this group, as does my forthcoming novella The World Around the Corner.

Frank and Kathleen across table in You've Got MailSometimes the turbulence between the main characters is based on some conflict in their characters (scoundrel and diplomat in Empire) or their interests (rival businesses in You’ve Got Mail).  Sometimes it’s almost a matter of their own combativeness or aggressive attitudes, as in the romantic comedy Laws of Attraction (2004).  But the writer has to walk a fine line here.  If the relationship is so strained as to become hostile or nasty, we may begin to wonder whether the RI is that great a catch after all.  Would Leia be better off with a “nice man”?  (Other than Luke, of course.)  In You’ve Got Mail, is Frank disqualified by his willingness to take unfair advantage of the fact that he knows who Kathleen is and not vice versa?

In a fight-then-flirt scenario, the romantic interest has to be sufficiently flawed that his tension with the MC doesn’t seem contrived—yet not so flawed that the attraction seems implausible.  The tension must be difficult enough to pose a challenge, and to keep the romance from concluding too quickly.  But the RI has to be admirable enough to be worth winning.

Winning Over the Bad Boy

There’s another class of plots that depend on making the romantic interest disreputable, troubled, or outright wicked.  Not too wicked, of course; they’ve got to be capable of reform—by the right lover.  We see this predominantly with female MCs and male RIs, but not exclusively so.

Clark Gable as Rhett ButlerTake Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.  His appeal seems to lie especially in the fact that he’s a smuggler who defies the gentleman’s code of the antebellum South and pokes fun at their romanticized ideals.  Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t set out to reform him, but she does find him fascinating.  And she does reform him, as we can see but she can’t.  Interestingly, in this case Scarlett herself is pretty problematic too:  she’s a difficult, self-centered, domineering woman, with whom it can be hard to sympathize—though we do sympathize, mainly because we can see her inner thinking and where those traits come from.  (Personally, I always liked Melanie better.)

Edward Rochester of Jane Eyre barely escapes crossing the line into unacceptability, to my mind.  He’s brusque, domineering, and frighteningly deceptive.  We’re willing to approve him mostly because Jane is in love with him, and we love Jane.  And his comedown at the end both chastens him and engages our pity.

In my view, Wuthering Heights Healthcliff does cross the line.  I’m unmoved by his harsh and erratic behavior, and I don’t respect Catherine for her mad attachment to him.  He lacks redeeming qualities.  On the other hand, his very flamboyant unlikability is the basis for a hilarious imaginary counseling session held for the novel’s characters in Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots (2003, chapter 12)—so I guess there’s some justification for his existence, at that.

The Proud, the Crude, and the Gothic

Few of these undesirable, yet desirable, RIs are as comprehensively intolerable as Heathcliff.  Generally one or two off-putting traits are enough to create the necessary tension or conflict.

Elizabeth and Darcy look askanceThe archetype of the proud or arrogant RI, of course, is the much-loved Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy has some unpleasant attitudes and makes some dreadful missteps, but Austen succeeds in convincing us that he’s admirable for all that, partly through his delayed but ultimately sincere devotion to Elizabeth.  Darcy retains such a hold on romantics that he’s even been successful as an artificial intelligence (AI) in Ashlinn Craven’s contemporary story.

Our era’s fondness for the earthy and outrageous gives us a procession of crude romantic interests, whose vulgarity or rudeness may represent a  barrier to be overcome by the Right Woman or merely a species of candor and bluntness—especially in romantic comedies.  Mike Chadway in The Ugly Truth (2009) has made a profession out of cynicism and outrageousness, but comes around in the end, after we’ve seen that his attitude stems from a past rejection.  The main character of Andy Weir’s 2017 novel Artemis sails perilously close to this edge.  But in this era we’re tolerant enough of crudity that the merely indecorous RI doesn’t usually pose a problem.

The brooding, Gothic or Byronic hero can also win readers’ hearts—witness Edward Cullen in the Twilight series.  But his kind of moodiness can so easily slip into annoying self-indulgence that it’s highly vulnerable to parody.  We may be more inclined to snicker than to sympathize, as we see in much of the critical response to Twilight.

The Misguided Romantic Interest

One of the easiest ways to generate conflict without wholly compromising the RI is to make them simply mistaken or wrongheaded.  This aligns neatly with a plot in which the MC shows the romantic interest the error of his (or her) ways.

Pretty Woman dinner scenePretty Woman (1990) is a fine example.  Edward Lewis (the third Edward on our list so far—coincidence?) is a repressed workaholic who uncaringly buys up business operations and sells them off in pieces.  Lively Vivian Ward not only loosens him up personally, but goads him into “using his powers for good” and working to save a company rather than break it up.  Edward’s change of heart in business parallels the more obvious romantic softening and emphasizes the completeness of his transformation.

A character—particularly a female character—working for the bad guys is especially subject to this kind of change.  For example, the atypical Disney heroine Megara in Hercules (1997) aids the scheming Hades, albeit for initially noble reasons.  There’s an entire category of such repentant subvillainesses, documented by the ever-vigilant TV Tropes.

Because the merely misguided RI is only superficially unworthy, this trope is a favorite of Hallmark Christmas romances, where either the MC or the love interest is often a big-city character who wants to turn some idyllic country spot into a soulless commercial enterprise.  This kind of relationship works equally well for either gender.


Genre romance with a female MC has a certain fondness for the strong, dominant male RI.  (If you belong to Critique Circle, here’s a lengthy forum discussion on the “alpha male” from mid-2017.)  But this can easily go awry.  What sounds romantic at first blush may be creepy or distasteful once we think of it in real life.  Many of the male leads discussed above can be classified as dominant types, but there’s a fine line between dominant and domineering.  When this is taken to extremes, we can drift into the dubious territory of the Fifty Shades books.

But we don’t have to go that far to encounter difficulties.  Heinlein’s juvenile SF novel The Star Beast features a somewhat passive hero, John Thomas Stuart XI, and his bratty high-school girlfriend, Betty Sorenson.  Betty is laudably active and independent, but she’s so brash and overbearing that she rather gets on my nerves.  We like to see both strong women and strong men—but we don’t like to see them demonstrate their strength in ways that are tyrannical or overbearing.

Beauty and the Beast soundtrack coverThe various iterations of Beauty and the Beast illustrate the difficulty.  The Beast has to be fearsomely harsh and threatening; that’s the point.  But this quality can’t be so exaggerated as to undermine his potential for transformation into a caring lover.


A romantic interest’s bad behavior can be offset when the author provides information that makes the actions understandable, or even sympathetic.  An io9 article by Charlie Jane Anders makes the general argument that there are “10 Ways to Make Everyone Root for Your Amoral Protagonist.”

Anders is a good source on the subject:  her Hugo-nominated 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky features male and female protagonists who are each highly stressed and at times hard to love.  But the ending, to my mind, is very satisfying.  Part of the reason is that we see so much of the characters’ prior experiences and difficulties.  We comprehend how they got to where they are.

One technique that can help us excuse a character’s faults is to let us hear them speaking in first person at least part of the time.  The romance technique of telling the story by alternating the two principal characters’ viewpoints does the same thing.  It’s rare that characters seem evil to themselves, and letting us in on their thoughts gives us a useful perspective.

Female Variations

We’ve noted that the “bad boy” characters are generally, though not exclusively, male RIs for female MCs.  There are other potentially troublesome character types that tend to skew female.  One is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl:  as TV Tropes puts it, “She’s stunningly attractive, [e]nergetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness) . . . She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly.”  An example that seems to go too far is Sandra Bullock’s character in Forces of Nature (1999).  Possibly this is why, unusually, the hero ends up marrying someone else, although he benefits from the Dream Girl’s free-spirited attitudes.

the-black-flame-2Another primarily female archetype is what we might call the Siren, the mysteriously fascinating and unattainable character with whom the male MC is irresistibly obsessed—frequently capricious and even cruel.  My favorite example is the title character in Stanley Weinbaum’s SF classic The Black Flame.  Here, as with the equally melodramatic Byronic hero, the character type has been so overused that it’s easy for it to become either unbelievable or unlikable.

When It’s the Main Character

Less common, but not unheard-of, is where the main character is the one whose romantic suitability is in question.  We’ve noted Artemis as one such case.

I recently got around to watching About a Boy (2002), starring Hugh Grant, which came highly recommended by Connie Willis.  While it’s been observed that Hugh Grant is inherently irresistible, I found that in this case his character was so aimless and shallow that I felt the women in the story would indeed be well advised to steer clear of him, until almost the very end, when he finally shapes up a bit.

The 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (a modernization of The Taming of the Shrew) also successfully makes the main character just sympathetic enough to sustain our interest.  It’s essential to the Shakespearean plot that Kat be so prickly and abrasive as to be a questionable romantic prospect.  But the excuses we hear, and the perfect fit of the actress’s persona to the dual requirements of abrasion and attraction, give us just enough to go on.


In gauging the acceptability of a character as a romantic partner, even more than in most such judgment calls, “your mileage may vary.”  But we can all recognize that just as there’s peril in making the romantic interest too perfect, there’s a corresponding set of pitfalls if the object of our MC’s affections pushes imperfection to the point of no return.


Mind Powers

Mental powers are a staple of both science fiction and fantasy—and even quasi-SF genres like paranormal romance.  The idea’s like the traditional iceberg:  easy to put into a story, but with some major assumptions lurking under the surface.

The Physical and the Non-Physical

In SF, it became fashionable to use the invented term “psionics” to refer to powers of the mind.  The term seems to have originated by analogy to “electronics,” giving it a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) cast, and using the Greek letter psi, the first character of psyche, “soul” or “mind.”  Sometimes simply “psi” is used, as in “psi powers.”  It’s a useful coinage.

There are two broad approaches to psionics.  One treats mental power as acting purely on other minds—what we can loosely call nonphysical:  for example, telepathy.  The other approach allows mental powers to act directly on matter:  the most familiar example is telekinesis, moving things by mind power.

Note that distinguishing “physical” from “nonphysical” already involves some pretty big assumptions—but we’ll get to that.


Professor Xavier using telepathyQuite a few science fiction stories postulate mental powers that have only mental effects, such as talking mind-to-mind.

The “Lens” worn by the “Lensmen” of E.E. Smith’s classic series is essentially a psionic amplifier.  It gives the wearer telepathic abilities.  This is extremely useful in making contact with unfamiliar species—especially in interstellar law enforcement, with instant communication an essential for “lawmen” that might be pursuing criminals into unknown regions of space.  The Lens also serves as a means of identification that cannot be faked, since an individual’s custom-made Lens will kill anyone who touches it if it’s not in contact with the designated wearer.

But Lensmen can’t make things physically happen by mind power alone; they have to use the conventional space-opera gear of ray guns and such.  The Lensmen can communicate mentally; they can influence or even take over the mind of another person; they can erase or implant memories.  But a Lensman can’t lift objects and throw them around without flexing his muscles in classic action-hero fashion.

There are some odd borderline cases.  The main character, Kimball Kinnison, gains a “sense of perception,” allowing him to perceive nearby objects without using the standard five senses.  He can “see” through solid objects, for example.  That does involve interaction with inanimate matter, of course; but the interaction is all one way—he can’t affect the things he perceives.

Now, a contemporary scientist physicist would find this paradoxical, since it’s fundamental to quantum physics that you can’t perceive an object without interacting with it—bouncing photons off it to see with, for example.  But the Lensman stories were planned out in the 1940s, when we were not so acutely aware of quantum-type theories of perception.  The anomaly does illustrate the difference between these two theories of knowledge:  one in which the knower is the passive recipient of information, and the other in which knowledge is always the product of interaction.

James Schmitz, The Hub - Dangerous Territory, coverJames H. Schmitz’s numerous stories set against the background of the interstellar “Federation of the Hub” use a similar theory of psionics.  Telzey Amberdon, one of the main characters, can communicate telepathically with nonhuman creatures such as her massive “pet,” the crest cat TT (who turns to be a formidably intelligent being in his own right).  Hub psis like Telzey can influence other minds and can be extremely dangerous—whether in a good cause or a bad.  But physical objects aren’t affected.

A similar sort of psionics is assumed in A.E. van Vogt’s classic mutation novel Slan, and in one of my childhood favorites, Star Rangers (The Last Planet), by Andre Norton.  For a more well-known example, the movie Independence Day showed the inimical aliens using mind control to speak through a captive human to communicate with other humans.  But to properly destroy humanity, they used conventional physical weapons.  (Well, “conventional” as science fiction goes; the alien weapons were dismayingly novel for the embattled Earthlings.)

Fantasy, too, can feature purely mental abilities.  There are references in The Lord of the Rings to the ability of elves and wizards to speak mind-to-mind.  (This was shown more explicitly, as I recall, in the movie versions of The Hobbit.)  An analogue might even be found in ghost stories.  Ghosts are often portrayed as acting only through influence on human minds, whether through terror or telepathy—as in A Christmas Carol:  the various spirits do not act except on Scrooge’s own consciousness.

Sometimes telepathy is imagined as “hearing” only what people verbalize—what’s put into words; for example, in Al Macy’s novels about mind-reading detective Eric Beckman.  In other cases, telepathy allows direct access to other people’s feelings and inchoate thoughts, somehow getting behind the speech-forming function.  The notion that one can think without words would itself be anathema to many a twentieth-century linguistic philosopher—consider the linguistic relativism or “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” so adroitly used in the movie Arrival.  The difference raises basic questions about the relation between speech and thought, and how thinking works.

The divide between mental and physical powers gets further eroded when the story includes telepathic machines.  The Psychology Service in Schmitz’s Hub routinely uses mechanical detectors to monitor psis.  In Slan, “Porgrave broadcasters” can send “recordings” telepathically.  Even aside from the Lens itself, which is a quasi-living physical device, the Lensman series eventually gives us machine-generated mental screens, analogous to the physical force-fields of space-opera lore.  If psionics were confined to minds alone, how can machines handle it?

I’ve spoken loosely about this sort of mind-on-mind power as “nonphysical”; but that involves a very significant assumption—that the mind is not a physical thing.  If the mind were wholly reducible to the brain, there would be no reason in principle why mind powers would only affect matter in the form of other brains.  By analogy, microwaves can be used for communications, but also for cooking dinner.  On this assumption, mind powers would constitute just another kind of physical force, the analogy often being a different “wavelength” of energy.  Second Stage Lensman refers to the “frequency-range of thought” (ch.14), and Smith’s Skylark series presents thought as a “sixth-order wave”—whatever that may be.

Mind Over Matter

We’ve gotten so used to things like telekinesis nowadays that the mind-only abilities discussed above may seem oddly constrained to us.

Vader uses the Force to fling objects at Luke (Empire)The original Star Wars film, A New Hope, showed us that the Force could mediate mental communication, even with the dead (“Use the Force, Luke”), and some degree of mind-control or mental influence (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”).  But it was only in the sequel that we saw that it could also enable telekinesis.  I still recall the moment when Luke, ice-cemented to the ceiling in the wampaa’s cave, strains fruitlessly to reach his light-saber—then relaxes and closes his eyes; and I thought with some excitement, so, we’re going to get telekinesis too!  By the end of the episode, we’re watching Darth Vader use mental power to throw objects to distract Luke and keep him off-balance.  You can even use this matter-moving power to move yourself, or in effect to fly without wings—as we saw in one memorable scene in The Last Jedi.

Yoda lifts the X-wing (Empire Strikes Back)By now this sort of mind-over-matter is familiar territory.  But there are still aspects that aren’t obvious on the surface.  For one thing, telekinesis is apparently reactionless.  It’s unclear whether it obeys Newton’s laws of motion, under which action requires an equal and opposite reaction.  It would have been a great comic scene in Empire when Yoda impressively lifts Luke’s X-wing fighter into the air—and Luke had looked over to see Yoda rapidly sinking into the muck, with the entire weight of the X-wing bearing down on his diminutive form.

The simplest fantasy version of telekinesis is the poltergeist, an immaterial spirit which (rather bafflingly) is capable of throwing around physical objects.  Levitation, whether of oneself or of something else, is a commonplace for magicians.  In fantasy, however, mental powers tend to bleed over into magical powers, which we don’t think of in quite the same way—although one way of conceiving magic is as a kind of mind over matter.

There are other kinds of (fictional) mental interactions with matter, over and above mere movement.  A common trope is the ability to start fires, or “pyrokinesis,” as in Stephen King’s Firestarter.  This might be interpreted as a subtle form of telekinesis—since heat consists of motion at the molecular level, maybe a telekinetic could create heat by causing an object’s molecules to move faster.  Such an explanation leaves open the question of where the added energy is coming from; but that’s an issue common to any form of telekinesis.  There may be a certain nerdy satisfaction in supposing that a physically puny specimen like, er, yours truly could throw things around by sheer power of mind, even though one’s muscles aren’t up to it.  But whether things are moving by mind or by muscle, there has to be energy coming from somewhere.

The Golden Torc, second volume of Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, coverThere are other things you can do with matter besides just moving it around.  Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, and related stories, postulate “metapsychic powers” that include “creativity,” allowing metapsychics to change the form of matter and thus materialize or convert physical objects.  Other stories imagine psionic abilities to “read” the history of an object or a place.

Teleportation—instantaneous movement from one place to another—represents a kind of in-between.  Physical objects are obviously affected, but the physical object in question is typically the practitioner’s own body, and perhaps other objects physically connected (such as clothing—but clothing doesn’t always come along, depending on the story, which can be inconvenient).  Does it count if your mind affects only your own body—the one locus where even theories that sharply separate mind and matter have to assume some crossover between the two?

Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) using telekinesisThere’s a long tradition of mental powers in comic books too.  But given the visual nature of the medium, physically effective mental powers tend to predominate over the purely mental.  We do see some of the latter—pure telepathy in Marvel’s Professor Xavier or DC’s Saturn Girl.  But much more popular is Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), whose telekinetic powers make for much more striking imagery.

Minds and Bodies

Considering these two approaches to mind powers raises the philosophical question of whether minds affect matter only in and through a person’s body, or can do so independently.

If we exclude direct physical effects from the scope of (fictional) mental powers, this suggests parallel realms, with thought proceeding on one level while physical actions occur on another, linked only through the minds of humans or other intelligent beings.  It’s almost a Cartesian approach (that is, a theory similar to that of René Descartes) of mind-body dualism, and sinks roots into the long-standing debates over the “mind-body problem.”

The “sense of perception” concept, similarly, functions as if there were two independent metaphysical levels, mental and physical, and this mental sense could allow a person to go “around” the physical senses and inspect an object directly.  The philosophical notion of intentionality (not to be confused with the usual sense of “intentional” or deliberate) is adaptable to such non-sensory knowledge.  But the trend in both philosophy and physics over the last couple hundred years has been to focus on the physical connection between the knower and the known.

It’s become a standard assumption that we can’t know or do anything without a physical connection.  Anything else seems “unscientific.”  What’s interesting is that we seem to be willing to accept the now-unpopular postulate of non-physical knowledge and events when we’re dealing with fiction.

Of course, it’s also possible to meld the two back together by taking the position that mental powers really only reflect physical events taking place at a level we can’t yet detect—as with Smith’s “frequency range.”  But that isn’t the only way to conceive of the relationship.  There is still a certain imaginative appeal, at least, to the notion that mind can act independent of the constraints of the physical body.

I think such stories are helpful.  We’re apt to rush to conclude “science has proven” that the mind equals the brain and the brain is just a particularly subtle form of matter.  Science has not, in fact, proven any such thing.  The physical sciences assume, understandably, that only physics is involved.  But they have by no means demonstrated that all observable phenomena can be wholly explained by physics.  The arguments on this subject are still live.  We should still apply sound standards of evidence, and not leap to conclusions—but that applies in both directions, whether to materialism or to its alternatives.

In other words, there may still be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our physics, and one of the uses of speculative stories is to help us keep an open mind on these subjects.

Looking Backward/Looking Forward

One of the things that distinguishes science fiction and fantasy is the direction they look to for greatness.  In SF, we expect things will be better and greater in the future than they are now.  In fantasy, the great days are behind us.


Both F&SF recognize that things change over time.  Empires rise and fall; discoveries are made and lost; human ability to control the environment expands or contracts.  Both of them help counterbalance our mental inertia and remind us that things will not always be as they are now.

Our present era is particularly alert to changeability.  “Disruption” is the watchword of today’s businesses, and Moore’s Law reminds us that technology can be expected to improve.  But the two kinds of literature tend to look in opposite directions.

The Bright Future

Modern science fiction started out by anticipating scientific and technological advances.  New inventions like the railroad and the telegraph suggested further developments like flight and advanced weaponry.  This is so obvious that we might overlook the key assumption—that we will know more, and be able to do more, as time goes on.

Brad Paisley, "Welcome to the Future"

Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”

The trend has a familiar resonance, after all, in our own experience.  As individuals grow up, they learn more and become more able.  Shouldn’t we expect society to do the same?  Stories of wonderful inventions and daring discoveries were the meat and drink of early modern SF.

Of course, “more powerful” does not automatically mean “better.”  But a future dystopia presented an extraordinary menace precisely because advanced technology or social change could allow a tyranny to expand its oppression.  The two-way television sets of Nineteen Eighty-Four made it possible for a government to observe its citizens’ private lives at any time.  Now that such surveillance is actually practical, we are grappling with the issues of privacy and security that Orwell’s novel raised hypothetically.

The notion of technological progress in SF was reinforced by the parallel of biological evolution.  Primitive forms of life, from one-celled microorganisms to dinosaurs, develop into today’s dominant humans; the future may see further evolution into some superhuman being.  While the idea of evolution by natural selection does not actually imply that later creatures are “better” than earlier ones—they are simply better adapted to recent conditions—it has been almost irresistible, in SF and elsewhere, to assume that later species are improvements on their predecessors.  (The traditional way of fudging this issue is to refer to the later creatures as “higher” forms of life, which suggests “better” without quite saying so.)

The Past Glories

In classic high fantasy, on the other hand, the present day tends to be presented as a come-down from the great days of old.  The Golden Age is in the past; we understand less, and can do less, than our predecessors.

The Silmarillion, coverThe archetypal example, of course, is The Lord of the Rings.  The War of the Ring (taking place in the “Third Age” of the world) is small potatoes by comparison to the immense conflicts of the First Age (depicted in The Silmarillion), no matter how cataclysmic it appears to those involved.  The heroes of the First Age are of legendary stature; Aragorn modestly points out that he is not a hero on the same scale as his ancestors Elendil and Isildur.  The most powerful weapons, such as Gandalf’s sword Glamdring, are handed down from an earlier era.  No one in the Third Age, we gather, could craft such weapons.  The downward trend even continues forward from the time of the story.  The Elves are leaving Middle-earth, the Age of Men is coming, and we’re led to expect a gradually more mundane (if perhaps safer) world from which the colorful magic and variety of LotR are absent.

Robert Jordan’s immense fantasy series The Wheel of Time operates on the same pattern.  The story is set in a world where the vast powers and knowledge of the Age of Legends, three thousand years before, are largely lost.  The magic that remains is far less capable and much less well-understood than in ancient days.  Relics left over from the Age of Legends, if one can discover how to use them, have powers vastly greater than anything contemporary characters can exercise on their own.

Camber of Culdi cover

From the Deryni series

The earliest books in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series take place in a world where the magic-wielding Deryni have been largely pushed into hiding, and even those still active hardly understand their own powers.  Later on, Kurtz wrote prequel stories set in that earlier era when Deryni magic was in common use.  Seeing for the first time that earlier, more civilized era produced a fascinating effect—as did the publication of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, decades after LotR.

In a similar way, when Lucasfilms released Episode I of Star Wars—the first of the prequels—we had a chance to see for ourselves what Episode IV had called “a more civilized age.”  The appearance of this fantasy trope reminds us that Star Wars has a good deal in common with high fantasy, despite its spaceships and droids.

There’s a psychological basis or resonance for fantasy’s backward gaze.  As children, we are wards of larger people whose knowledge and power far exceed our own.  We grow into adulthood ourselves eventually—but it’s still hard to feel equal to our parents’ generation, because we don’t feel all-powerful and all-knowing when we get there.  We’re too aware of our own limitations.  So as our parents move offstage and we take over the reins, there’s a vague sense that the Great Ones of the past are gone and the world has devolved upon our more modest powers.  Remember when you were a high-school freshman, and the seniors who ran clubs and activities seemed larger than life?  When you yourself were a senior, you weren’t larger than life; it was hard to feel equal to the older leaders you remember.

Mixing Things Up

Having noted this very broad general tendency—SF looks forward, fantasy looks back—we can say a word or two about the numerous exceptions and nuances.

You can get interesting results when you mix things up.  Another classic SF trope is the discovery that some great vanished civilization or species preceded our own.  They may seem godlike to us; our own people may even have considered them gods, if there was an overlap in time (see the first Thor movie).  Here we get some of the high-fantasy ambiance mixed in with regular futuristic SF tropes, for a distinctive overall feel—as, for example, in many of Andre Norton’s later novels.  We may learn from the Forerunners’ technology, or we may make use of it without understanding it, as in Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series or Poul Anderson’s The Avatar.

If there’s a collapse of civilization, we ourselves may be the fabled precursors, whose lost technology must now be rediscovered.  Any number of post-apocalyptic stories take this tack.  In A.E. van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom, a far-future priesthood uses power sources and spacecraft it barely understands—until the genius Clane Linn appears on the scene.  SF can also show us decline from a lost golden age.  It’s significant, though, that the SF story tends to be set at a point where we’re going back onto an upward trend after the collapse, beginning to reinvent or recover lost arts and abilities.

Dragonflight coverAnne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern stories throw us a sort of double-reverse.  The opening story Dragonflight feels like a fantasy, with its dragons, its medieval-style technology, and its feudal society.  But the introduction makes clear that this is a human colony on another planet that has lost (or given up) its technology—the story is really science fiction.  When the characters begin reinventing devices like the telegraph, there’s a fascinating sense of acceleration and change that plays simultaneously against the fantasy atmosphere and the SF basis of the story.


Reading both fantasy and science fiction helps us gain a balanced perspective.  Great days may be behind us, in the Age of Legends.  They may be ahead of us, in the Age of Tomorrow.  Or even today may be a moment of greatness, by contrast to where we’ve come from or where we’re going.  As Carly Simon once put it, “these are the good old days.”

Useful Simple Things

Inventing the Everyday

What are the best inventions of the 20th century?  I’m sometimes inclined to nominate the Ziploc bag.  (The generic name, apparently, is “zipper storage bag.”)  An inexpensive airtight, watertight, reusable bag—it has a thousand uses.

Ziploc bagRunner-ups (at least for geeky types who dote on office supplies) include the Post-It note, which allows removable annotation of papers and other objects.  I use them for bookmarks in magazines, with the added bonus that you can write on them to list pages for later reference.  And then there’s Velcro (all right, “hook and loop fasteners”), popularized in the space program, and beloved of small children who haven’t learned to tie their shoes.

Computers?  Atomic energy?  Spaceflight?  Sure.  But while no one has yet (alas) offered to put me on a spaceship, I use Ziploc bags every day.  Sometimes it’s the small everyday innovations that do the most to make our lives easier.

When we’re developing the setting for a science fiction or fantasy story, we may focus on big showy stuff, like the Ringworld or light-sabers.  But whether we’re dealing with technology or with magic, we also need to think through how the principles embodied in those big inventions may affect more mundane activities.

Making Bathrooms Unnecessary

Sherwood Smith, Inda, coverIn Sherwood Smith’s world of Sartorias-deles, magic has been known for thousands of years, and is used in some form by practically everybody.  For example, as soon as possible, at about four years of age, a child is taught the Waste Spell.  As the entry in the glossary explains:  “these few syllables, whispered when a human being lets go of waste, gets rid of it.  Waste includes vomit, and with a syllable attached, menses.”  Babies have to have diapers changed, as usual.  But once the child learns the Waste Spell, it’s no longer an issue.

Imagine the implications.  No latrines, no chamberpots.  No scenes in which women go off to the bathroom together to compare notes on their dates.  No sewer systems.  Less disease.  That single innovation could make significant changes in the story mechanics.

Smith’s simple magics also include enspelled water buckets that clean and sanitize anything dipped in them, and “cleaning frames” through which clothing and such can be passed to cleanse them instantly.  The work of medieval-style drudges who might otherwise spend hours rinsing clothes in rivers and beating them dry on rocks just became vastly easier.

Then there’s the other end of the alimentary canal.

Larry Niven, Neutron Star, coverLarry Niven’s Known Space stories include teleportation in the form of “stepping discs.”  Step on one of these sidewalk spots and you’re instantly transferred a block down the street, or to the vestibule of a friend’s home.  That’s the snazzy futuristic effect.

But in one story (“Flatlander,” in the collection Neutron Star) Niven’s character Beowulf “Bey” Shaeffer visits the home of a new buddy, “Elephant,” who happens to be one of the richest men on Earth.  Elephant hands Bey a drink—in “a glass which would not empty.  Somewhere in the crystal was a tiny transfer motor connected to the bar.”  The motor teleports more beer into the glass as the original supply is consumed.  Bey dryly observes that the gizmo “must have tricked good men into acute alcoholism.”  The same trick appears courtesy of Dr. Strange, using magic rather than technology, in Thor:  Ragnarok.

Missing the Implications

On the other hand, if a writer fails to recognize that some invented technology can be used in ordinary but life-changing ways, we may end up with a plot hole—what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic,” the kind of problem you think of half an hour after the show is over, while you’re getting something from the fridge.  “Why didn’t they just—”

We might wonder, for instance, why they don’t have personal-sized force shields in Star Wars, to protect individuals the way the ships are protected.  They had them in Dune.  A nice personal force shield would not only change the whole nature of blaster and light-saber combat; it would also make umbrellas unnecessary.  (Not that umbrellas are much needed on Tatooine, to be sure.)

Actually, I haven’t come up with a lot of examples of this kind.  That might be a testament to the thoroughness of writers, but it’s probably also got a lot to do with the vagaries of my memory.  Anybody have a good case study where there’s a technology or magic that ought to make a major difference in how people live, but that difference is missed in the story?


There can also be good explanations as to why an innovation doesn’t affect daily life.  If a magic or technology is rare, difficult, costly, or dangerous, it won’t be used casually for everyday things.  In the Niven story, the fabulously wealthy Elephant has these self-refilling glasses, but the well-traveled Beowulf Shaeffer has never seen one before; we can infer that they’re hideously expensive.

Similarly, if the necessary equipment is bulky or consumes a great deal of power, it may not be feasible to use the technique in small-scale applications.  That might explain the absence of personal force shields in Star Wars:  perhaps the generators, like steam engines, can’t readily be scaled down to belt-buckle size.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverThis is actually a plot point in Asimov’s Foundation series.  The grandiose Empire had massive force-shields, but only the Foundation’s emissaries have personal versions.  “We have force-shields—huge, lumbering powerhouses that will protect a city, or even a ship, but not one, single man.”  (Foundation, part V, “The Merchant Princes,” ch. 10)  The nascent Foundation, working with severely limited resources, had to invent smaller shields—just as American satellites in the early days of the space program developed miniaturization techniques that the Soviets, with their larger boosters, didn’t need.

Real Life

There are plenty of real-life cases where mundane innovations make possible noteworthy changes in lifestyle.  Modern business life, with its exact schedules and appointments, would not have been possible before the invention of the wrist- or pocket-watch—and in a form that was not only portable, but inexpensive enough for the average person to own.  Only the invention of the elevator, and its nearly fail-safe operation, made skyscrapers practical.

Consider the smartphone.  All of a sudden, almost everyone in many sectors of society has with them at all times not just instant voice communication, but also a flashlight, a calculator, an up-to-date map with position location—and access to a world-spanning library of information.  If these were separate devices, they’d require Batman’s utility belt to carry.  As it is, one simply slips this electronic Swiss army knife into a pocket.

We’re still getting used to the consequences.  But one thing that’s clear is that the ubiquitous smartphone makes for changes in how stories have to be written.  For example, when I wrote a story in which a teenage girl runs away from home, I had to establish that while she had her phone with her, she’d accidentally left the charger at home—so that by the time people thought to locate her by her phone, its battery was dead.  In another ten years, ubiquitous facial recognition might make it even harder to go on the run.

Grand-scale innovations, whether magical or technical, are the meat and drink of F&SF.  Everyday innovations are the humble bread and water.  But the plausibility of a story may depend on the minor as much as on the major applications.

Rings and Death Stars

Death StarWhy is Star Wars so fond of Death Stars?  What’s the mysterious attraction of this plot device?  (And no, it isn’t a tractor beam.)

Vast Plots and Concentrated Resolutions

The trouble with galaxy-spanning conflicts is that their resolution tends to be spread across years of time and vast regions of space, with armies of characters involved.  No single battle won World War II, though one can while away enjoyable hours debating the importance of this or that engagement.  No single hero won the American Revolution.

But in a story, we focus on certain characters, and a limited series of events.  We can’t cover every fight and everyone’s contributions (though some authors seem determined to  try).  This is so even in a series of doorstopper novels; it’s even more true of a two-hour movie.  How, then, can we give readers or viewers the satisfaction of seeing the overall conflict resolved?

One answer is to give up telling the whole story of the war or conflict, and just trace the tale of a few characters through the tapestry of events.  This is the technique of Gone With the Wind or Titanic, and it works very well.  We gain an appreciation of the whole through the experiences of a few people.  But we don’t get the additional satisfaction of seeing the entire campaign come to a climax.

To show the audience that climax, we need to focus the storyline so that the campaign can get resolved in a single concentrated set of actions, ideally carried out by a few individuals.  If we can rig things so that everything turns on a single crucial event, we can enjoy the overall resolution and enhance the achievements of Our Heroes.

Turning Points

Black hole wireframe, converging linesI don’t know what the best term is for this kind of crux or turning point.  I keep thinking of it as a “bottleneck,” or a gate that all the plot lines have to pass through—but “bottleneck” suggests a blockage, which isn’t the idea at all.  The military notion of a “choke point”—a narrow passage through which an armed force must pass—is closer.  Science fiction sometimes uses the term “Jonbar hinge” (named after an old SF story) for a crucial point at which the past can be changed—but that’s in a time travel context, rather than in the story’s present.

Whatever we call it, this is the action, almost always constituting the story’s climax, that solves the key conflict and lets everything wrap up neatly.  Concentrating the whole burden of the plot into one critical event has an effect similar to that of Aristotle’s dramatic unities of time, place, and action.

Let’s look at some examples.

Star Wars

In three of the Star Wars movies (IV, VI, and VII), blowing up one Big Object forms the climax.  We’re given to believe that if the original Death Star is operational, the Rebellion is doomed; destroying the Death Star doesn’t give the Rebellion a permanent victory, but at least the good guys can continue fighting.  The second Death Star’s destruction (Return of the Jedi) has more far-reaching effects, because the Emperor is on board and dies as part of the same action.  Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens is a similarly crucial danger.

There’s another “single point of failure” in the first prequel, The Phantom Menace.  The irresistible invading army of droids is run from a single control ship in orbit.  Once Our Heroes destroy the control ship, the droids all go dead.  In one stroke, the invasion is ended.  And we can still get home from the theatre before bedtime.

Geography and Control

Guns of Navarone, cannon & seascapeThis kind of blow-it-up plot isn’t restricted to F&SF.  Terrestrial geography makes it even easier to position a crucial fortress or facility in a key spot.  The World War II classic The Guns of Navarone turns on just such an installation.  The whole story is about destroying that one fortress.  (Well, and about the characters involved—but that’s true of most good fiction.)

In fact, it’s much harder to create a spatial choke point in featureless three-dimensional space—which is why the original Battlestar Galactica’s rip-off of Navarone (the double episode “Gun on Ice Planet Zero”) is so implausible.  The Wikipedia summary begins:  “Herded into a confined area of space by the Cylons” —but confined by what?  This is why space adventures typically turn on something other than geography.

Independence Day, crashed city destroyerA more mobile fortress can be a plot bottleneck if it serves a critical function—say, power or control.  We saw that in The Phantom Menace.  The same device is used in Independence Day, where everything depends on the immense mother ship.  You can use its computer system to lower the force shields on the city-destroyers thousands of miles away; and when Our Heroes deliver a single A-bomb to blow it up, all the other invader craft fail as well.  Convenient.

Hive Minds

If we’re dealing with an imaginary science fiction or fantasy opponent, we can also fall back on the classic trope of the hive mind—a culture centered around a single queen or other crucial individual, as in an ant colony.  Kill the queen, and the other ants are no longer a problem.  As TV Tropes observes:  “This plot device is handy as it allows a handful of heroes to win the war without having to depict them fighting off the entire enemy force.”

Star Trek’s Borg fall into this category—at least, as depicted in the film First Contact.  The Borg Collective has a Queen; destroying the Queen apparently disposes of the Borg menace as a whole.

One can see the intrusion of the hive-queen idea in the 1994 movie version of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters.  In the novel, Earth is invaded by “slugs” from space, which attach themselves to humans and take over their minds.  To defeat the slugs, the defenders use a disease that kills the slugs without immediately killing their human hosts.  But since this is a specific infection, not the generalized bacteria of The War of the Worlds, a massive operation involving thousands of people is required to distribute the disease to the whole slug-ridden population.  Heinlein specifically notes that even after the victory, “there is no way to be sure that the slugs are all gone” (ch. 35)—adding a sobering note of realism.

The movie, along with numerous other changes, introduces the entirely un-Heinleinian notion of a hive and a “mother slug.”  The whole slug invasion is kept so confined and centralized that a single quick operation can get them all.  The resolution seems too facile, too easy, especially if you’re familiar with the book.  (A fascinating article by screenwriter Terry Rossio details how the original story for the film, which stuck close to the novel, was hijacked by the Hollywood movie-making process and turned into something quite different.)

One Ring to Rule It All

Fall of Sauron (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien illustration by Ted Nasmith

The classic example of the crucial plot hinge is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien handles it well:  he builds up the Ring throughout the story to make it the one thing on which victory or defeat turns.  We learn that Sauron has placed much of his power in the Ring, which means that if it’s destroyed, much of his power will vanish.  The Tower of Barad-Dûr and other structures were made with the One Ring’s power, and fall with its destruction.  The Ringwraiths were given their power by Sauron’s control of the nine human rings through the One (“One Ring to rule them all”).  Sauron’s armies of orcs and humans are evidently held to a single purpose by Sauron’s will.  Sauron himself, and all his works, are destroyed with the Ring.  The groundwork for this crux has been laid so thoroughly that we accept the completeness of the destruction, and the victory, as the proper consummation of the epic narrative.

Tolkien, like Heinlein, adds a note of realism.  There will be orcs hiding in remote places long after the end of the War of the Ring, though they will never be the threat they were under Sauron.  And the end of Sauron is by no means the end of all evil, as depicted especially in the chapter titled “The Scouring of the Shire.”  The heroes’ victory is satisfying, but it’s not absolute.

The LotR climax is only one example of the trope in which killing the final enemy causes his works to fail as well.  This is the assumption TV Tropes calls “No Ontological Inertia”:  the villain’s creations depend on the villain for their existence.  Kill the Big Bad, and his lair collapses, his minions flee, and his deeds may be undone.


We see the Death Star-like plot bottleneck especially in fantasy and science fiction, where the author can design species and mechanisms to create the dependencies that make the plot solvable in a single event.  But it can also appear in mainstream works, as The Guns of Navarone demonstrates.

The choke point is a great plot convenience.  Real life tends to be messier.  For that reason, the author has to take care to make the bottleneck believable, so the result is a concentrated climax and not an artificial, deus ex machina solution.