TV’s Influence on Science Fiction Novels

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This is the story of the frozen protagonist, but it's not fiction.

Over at SFF Chronicles, a British science fiction community website, there’s a writer's topic that’s run hot and cold for a few months now in a couple of different threads: Does a novel’s main character have to change over the course of the story? There’s been a lot of back-and-forth on this, but interestingly, most of those arguing ‘no’ are referencing TV shows as their rationale for why the character shouldn’t change.

So let’s examine that.

Traditionally, as I was taught in creative writing courses in uni, a story is the biggest event to happen in a character’s life. It will be life altering by definition, and it will end with the character(s) somewhere that they’ve never been before.

Does a main charcter have to change over the course of the story?

In the stories that I am writing (and others I intend to write), the characters go on an incredible journey. They can’t help but be changed by that. As I noted in the discussion thread mentioned above, this isn’t always true - for the most part Isaac Asimov’s characters didn’t have transformative experiences (especially when compared to, say, Heinlein’s or Herbert’s novels) In fact many of Asimov's charcters turn out to be robots. The exception for Asimov is Elijah Bailey, who changes considerably across his two novel story arch.

I always took this lack of change to be a sign that Asimov wasn’t really interested in characters as much as ideas. Which is fine.

But the idea of the character not changing isn't a common thread in written sci fi. It comes to us courtesy of sci fi TV. It was dictated by networks so they could syndicate a show later, and not have to worry about the airing order. This meant that each member is frozen. They can't change. No matter how dastardly Doctor Smith acts, the Robinsons won't abandon him, because that doesn't fit the needs of TV syndication. So, at the end of every episode, everything has to come back to normal. All may not be forgiven, but it certainly is forgotten by next week's episode.

This dictate did change, but only once there were viable alternatives to the big three networks. The frozen protagonist thaw probably started with Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine (and yet somehow never took hold in Voyager, the story whose premise would most comfortably accept a continuously changing status quo). But the most notable practitioner of this new freedom to have stories matter and have characters grow was undoubtably the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.

The thaw started with Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine.

Coming back to books, think about stories in the past that had sequels (and how few of those there were, another point to consider later). Think of Dune - Paul and his son Leto definitely both changed over the course of those stories. Writing a series of stories with a frozen protagonist wasn't ever a part of the sci fi thesis (Keith Latimer's Retief being a possible exception, but Retief was "Bond in Space" and seemed more influenced by Albert Brocolli's movies that Ian Fleming's books).

This brings me to The Lord of the Rings, arguably the first epic of modern fantasy, published in a time when trilogies and series were rare. I mention it for completeness, because it isn't an example of a story where the MCs never change. It isn't even technically a trilogy. It's one long story told in five novels/novellas published as three books due to press limitations. Even here, the characters all substantially changed over the course of the story, hence the raising of the Shire (which somehow didn't make the twelve-hour movie).

And now I’m scrambling to find a contemporaneous second example because trilogies were unknown back then. Sure, there might be a sequel (Herbert's Whipping Star comes to mind), but it wasn’t part of some over-arching trilogy until we get to the Tolkien-inspired writers like Stephen R Donaldson, Terry Brooks, and Philip Jose Farmer. I’ve never read Farmer or Brooks, but I have read Donaldson, and his characters absolutely changed. They grew. So even then a trilogy or sries wasn't grounds to lock your characters into unchangeable monotony.

I wonder if TV’s influence on novels can be traced back to James Blish’s successful adaptations of Star Trek episodes (hence the book cover at the top of the article). This would be the first series of printed stories that I’m aware of where characters in print never learned from their previous experiences, never grew, never faced the one and only biggest story of their lives. (I don’t blame Blish, if he is indeed the culprit [or more likely bellwether] - he wrote some excellent sci fi separate of Star Trek).***

Alternatively, perhaps this rather non-literary idea came from comic books. If the characters changed enough in a comic book, you just re-set the universe and started over. Maybe it comes from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, serial movies derived from comic books (yes, I'm aware of Armegeddon 2419).

Perhaps this idea comes from comics.

In any case, we now live in a culture where writers are expected to make at least trilogies of their stories, if not longer series. Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner all would probably have been better epic fantsy/sci fi if they'd been told as a single story instead of parcelled out as trilogies. But now writers who grew up consuming TV wonder if the over-arching tropes of literary writing apply to them. Readers, who also grew up on TV series, want their characters to be recognisable, repeatable, and ‘safe’ in the sense of not challenging the reader’s assumptions about them. Thus we have our Jack Reachers, protagonists psychologically frozen in a series of books that can be read in any order. (Even Fleming’s James Bond grew over the course of the novels, if not the movies.)

So as a writer, I now have to decide if I'm going to juggle telling the most important story of a character's life with telling a story that leaves room for a sequel, for the characters to be 'known' and 'comfortable' for the next episode, the next visit by the friendly, money-paying reader. I’m not sure I can do that and I don’t know how failure to do so may impact my career development as a writer.

As always, thoughts and ideas are welcome below…

*** ADDED LATER: I never read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew as a kid. I don't know if they are examples of the frozen protagonist, but I suspect they are.