Playing for Higher Stakes:
Why your dog is more important than the universe
Scene 1: The protagonist is sculling past a park and she sees a dog that looks a lot like her dog chasing a ball. Then she sees that the villainess who’s been harassing her in an escalating fashion is throwing the ball for the dog…yes, it is her dog, chasing after that ball with the happy, crazy focus of any young lab. Then the villainess turns and throw the ball into the morning rush hour traffic. Brakes squeal, but…
Scene 2: The protagonist sits, bound to a chair, surrounded by armed thugs. The villain explains that she’s been enough of a nuisance that he’s decided to let her witness the first test of his mega weapon—behold, the target. A planet appears in the holo display and she recognizes her homeworld. As the villain reaches for the button, she struggles frantically against her bonds, but…
Which of these two scenes sent a bigger chill down your spine? I’m betting it’s scene 1, which I borrowed from a Lisa Scottoline novel because of the way it affected me when I first read it. I was horrified when that dog went bounding into the traffic. The second scene is a composite of innumerable clichés, none of which move me, because saving the planet is not only the biggest SF cliché going, but because saving the planet never really matters—to either the protagonist or the reader.
A thousand people killed by a bomb is a statistic. One child drowned in a pond is a tragedy. You’ve heard that one? It’s not true in real life (or at least it shouldn’t be) but in fiction it is true, and a writer should always be aware of it. The things readers (people) care about are the things that are closest to them. How close are you to “a thousand people”? Now, how close are you to your child? And the fact that it’s not your child in that pond doesn’t matter because readers bring their feelings about their own children to their understanding of that story.
When saving the planet became the biggest cliché in SF, some writers tried (are still trying) to increase reader involvement by upping the body count. Saving the planet had become boring, so let’s save the whole solar system! Then the galaxy. Then the universe. Then all the universes that exist in all the dimensions… Are we yawning yet? What those writers haven’t figured out is that the multiverse is so distant, so abstract, that no one can feel much about it’s fate.
A good rule of thumb for emotional importance is: If someone asked your character Why do you care so much about saving X? can the character reply Because it’s my X. without sounding pretentious—or ridiculous? Why do you care so much about saving a dog? Because it’s my dog. My family is a no brainer. My neighborhood works pretty well. With the culture that prevails today, my country is a convincing motivation. But Because it’s my planet sounds a bit over-possessive to me and the further you go, It’s my galaxy, universe, etc. the more ridiculous it gets. Because it’s my multiverse. Sure it is.
Some writers try to get around the abstract quality of big numbers by personalizing the destruction. They’ll take one family on the planet, show their deaths in gory detail, and figure that the reader will then multiply that tragedy by millions, trillions, billions… I can’t speak for all readers, but when a writer makes me care about a character for the sole purpose of wiping him out to demonstrate that the bad guys are bad, it doesn’t make me care about the disaster—it pisses me off at the writer. And if they do it more than once, I stop trusting that writer with my caring. I not only withhold my emotions from the little people in the path of the behemoth, I stop caring about anyone in the book—including the protagonist.
But this can cause a problem for SF writers, because sometimes the story you want to tell demands that you set the planet, the galaxy, maybe even the whole multiverse at risk. How can you make readers care whether or not the protagonist succeeds, when they can’t get emotionally invested in the stakes? For my money, the best bet is to expand the problem to involve something that does have personal meaning to the protagonist. If the villain kidnaps his child to keep him out of the fight, then the protagonist has to save his child along with the multiverse—and when he carries his kid out of the wreckage of the villain’s lair, that we can cheer with our whole hearts. My ship, my colony—any group of people small enough that the protagonist knows most of them personally—can be placed in jeopardy. My self-esteem is another thing your main character can rescue along the way to saving the world—especially if she’s lost it somewhere along the line. So is my reputation, and my honor. My friend’s/parent’s/lover’s respect is another good one.
There are doubtless many things your main character can fight for along with, or instead of, the universe. And if you make certain that it’s something you would care about, not in your mind where abstractions function, but in your heart and gut, then it just might save your story from the slush pile as well.