In previous installments, I covered character, setting, and plot—based on librarian Nancy Pearl’s description of appeal characteristics—and craft, an expansion of the characteristic she calls language. This week, I cover the first of two extra characteristics I use to understand the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show: Idea.
Pearl identified her four characteristics for mainstream literary fiction. However, the appeal of some narratives lies outside these, when the main enjoyment to be found in the work is the presentation of some interesting idea or concept. Neal Stephenson put it like this in an interview when asked to define science fiction:
‘Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.”’ Science fiction, and, more broadly other speculative fiction, often asks ‘what if...’ when establishing a setting outside of our real-world experiences. And often, the answer is what readers or viewers find compelling. For example, the seminal dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World are not renowned for their memorable, three-dimensional characters or intricate and clever plots. Their settings are developed only to the point where they allow Orwell and Huxley to present their ideas, and it is for these ideas that these novels are famous.
When I started thinking about idea as an appeal characteristic of fiction, I had thought exclusively in terms of speculative genres. However, a friend (thanks B!) pointed out to me that the appeal of particular narratives in all kinds of genres might also lie at least partially in its presentation and exploration of ideas. For example:
- A romance might revolve around an extremely unlikely couple.
- The idea explored might be ‘how can true love blossom between two such different people?’
- Historical fiction set in the Wild West or in the Age of Chivalry might present an honourable character with conflicting loyalties.
- The idea explored might be ‘how is it be possible to satisfy both?’
- A contemporary literary novel or art film might follow the ripple effect of a dispute through a community.
- The idea explored might be ‘how could such a small thing end up dividing so many people so completely?’
- What if wars were fought entirely by computer and casualties of simulated attacks just stepped into disintegration chambers when ordered? What would that be like?
- What if people suddenly stopped dying?
- How might the death of one person affect a whole town?
- How could we talk to aliens who only communicate by tasting subtle but rapid chemical changes in each other’s skin?
- How could an avowed pacifist and an officer in the military overcome their differences and find true love?
- What criteria will we use to judge whether we have created computers with consciousness?
- Should it matter whether the prize-winning cake at the town fair was created from raw ingredients or from a packet? (although the depiction of the fallout from this dispute might be perversely entertaining)
Next week, I’ll conclude this series by considering affect as an appeal characteristic.