Almost every story begins with an idea that has been written about a thousand times. Detective stories can begin only so many ways. Stories about immigrants to America feature characters who, despite their far-flung origins, share a certain kind of experience. The problem is not to invent a story that’s never been written but to reinvent an age-old tale.
This is what M. John Harrison has done in his novel Light, the first of a science fiction trilogy. The book features space ships and aliens, but Harrison moves far beyond the typical versions of these things. You can read the opening of the novel here, or you can read the short passage below.
How the Story Works
For an example of how Harrison reinvents a stock character, read this passage about an alien invasion:
Drawn by the radio and TV ads of the twentieth century, which had reached them as faltering wisps and cobwebs of communication (yet still full of a mysterious, alien vitality), the New Men had invaded Earth in the middle 2100s. They were bipedal, humanoid—if you stretched a point—and uniformly tall and white-skinned, each with a shock of flaming red hair. They were indistinguishable from some kinds of Irish junkies. It was difficult to tell the sexes apart. They had a kind of pliable, etiolated feel about their limbs. To start with, they had great optimism and energy. Everything about Earth amazed them. They took over and, in an amiable, paternalistic way, misunderstood and mismanaged everything. It appeared to be an attempt to understand the human race in terms of a 1982 Coke ad. They produced food no one could eat, outlawed politics in favour of the kind of bureaucracy you find in the subsidised arts, and buried enormous machinery in the subcrust which eventually killed millions. After that, they seemed to fade away in embarrassment, taking to drugs, pop music and the twink-tank which was then an exciting if less than reliable new entertainment technology.
Thereafter, they spread with mankind, like a kind of wretched commentary on all that expansion and free trade. You often found them at the lower levels of organised crime. Their project was to fit in, but they were fatally retrospective. They were always saying:
“I really like this cornflakes thing you have, man. You know?”
Notice how the passage begins with an alien image we’ve seen before (humanoid, bipedal, white-skinned) but then quickly moves into unexpected territory (red hair, Irish junkies). But the genius of the passage is how Harrison describes the aliens’ attitude. He starts by making them the opposite of the creepy, emotionless creatures from TV and the movies. But then he develops the idea: what would it mean for an alien race to be attracted by Earth’s TV and radio ads? If human culture drew them to the planet, how would they behave? Rather than making the aliens sinister, the passage presents them as both curious and dopey enough to take that culture seriously but also technologically advanced enough to nearly destroy the world. By the passage’s end, Harrison has created an alien race that is entirely new to fiction.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s develop a stock fictional character the way that Harrison develops the alien invader.
- Pick a stock character: hard-boiled detective, crooked cop, bloodthirsty pirate, ambitious drug dealer, too-serious doctor, laconic cowboy, Medieval knight, bold dragon hunter.
- Describe the character. Feel free to include setting. Start with a cliche.
- A thin and weary private eye in a small, dirty office
- A single woman asleep in her cluttered apartment and awoken by a call from the hospital).
- Move the description in an unexpected direction. One way to do this is to include an unusual trait and then use that trait to make an unexpected comparison (red hair, Irish junkies).
- He had a mustache with the ends pulled to a thin point, like a villain who’d tie a woman to railroad tracks or a hipster with a custom-made bicycle.
- She was missing the pinky finger on her left hand. No one at the hospital had yet noticed the absence, but they inevitably would, just as a pickpocket’s victim inevitably pats his pocket to find his wallet gone.
- Answer the question of how someone in that character’s position would behave given that unusual trait.
- The mustache made it hard to blend in, but he wouldn’t give it up—the greased tips had taken him more than a year to grow out—and so as a result he only took business that involved the low-rent but becoming-gentrified part of town.
- The patient in which the finger resided would also discover it, which is why the doctor took a drink before going into work, a habit that was, in part, the reason she lost the finger in the first place.
The key to this exercise is to begin with a stock character and develop him/her by first adding a small, unexpected detail and then imagining how that detail would affect the character’s life.