One very nice review for my book contained the following comment: “It’s tough to invent a science-fiction universe from scratch, and tougher still to make readers care about the characters in that world. Usually writers pick one, intentionally or not. But the emotional guts of “Agony of the Gods” succeeds in both.” [You can see the review in its entirety on Amazon]
I must admit, this made me very happy because it told me I had succeeded (at least for this reviewer) in writing a complete novel. All too often modern novels are similar to our yearly crop of summer blockbuster movies – all spectacle (i.e., creating a visually impressive reality) without much plot or characterization. Granted, for a quick summer read (just like a summer movie) many people don’t mind one-dimensional characters frantically running through an amazing world or cookie cutter (but fast-paced) plot. I guess it all comes down to what you, as the writer, want to achieve.
My problem with this is that the characters are a part of the world you are creating and should tell us about it through the way they think and act – after all we are creatures of our environment. Let me give you an example. A fellow I once met had a wife from Indochina. Despite being from an active war zone, the woman could not sit through one of the gory, blood soaked movies so common today. She was physically sickened by the level of violence and gore on screen. Yet our own pre-teens can not only sit through these movies, but find them funny and cool! Yes, it’s a matter of conditioning, but that conditioning tells us something about society.
Another way to look at this is to consider older books, even if they really lack characterization. If you read them you can find examples that unintentionally tell you about the author and the society he/she lived in (often reflected in the way their characters act or react). Just for fun I’ve recently been reading a number of the old Winston Science Fiction books from the 1950s and early 1960s. They are all considered ‘juvenile’ level books and while many of the plots are dated, they still give you quite a bit of insight into the times. Even keeping in mind that at that time science fiction was written for an assumed totally male audience, it’s still sad to see almost all the female characters stereotyped as pretty, a bit dim, and needing to be protected. No female starship captains here! Also, in some of these novels aliens are treated with disdain. For instance, in The Missing Men of Saturn by Philip Latham, the Saturnians (yes, there were inhabitants of Saturn – hey, this was the 1950s) are frog-faced creatures who invoke an instant loathing in the main character. These Saturnians are intelligent, and peaceful, yet they are instantly looked down upon. Hmmm, a bit of racism here? Well, like I said, it was the 1950s.
Okay, so I’m not trying to preach here, what I’m trying to say is consider what all these examples tell you about the society they come from. No great levels of description needed, just certain thoughts or reactions on the part of your characters and you’ve added quite a bit to the discerning readers’ understanding of the world you’ve created (or in the cases above, the world the writers lived in).
So use your characters wisely. It’s nice that you’ve described all the scenery, gizmos and politics of your world, but if you then populate it with cardboard characters who all think like 21st Century people you’ve missed a golden opportunity to deepen the readers’ understanding of that world.