I’ve been working my way through the Honorverse by David Weber, a military science fiction series focused on the life and career of Captain Honor Harrington. The books centre on her actions during a war between two great empires, the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Republic of Haven. There’s adventure, politics, love, loss, friendship, betrayal, and of course, giant spaceships blasting the hell out of each other in epic battles. While it has been going since 1992, as I read I realised something about the books that is just as relevant in contemporary fiction today. What makes the books so great to read, so engaging, is for all the vivid action and epic plots, it is the human stories the books tell that make them amazing.
You might think in a military SF it would be all about the ships and the conflict, and while that is a big part of it, some of the novels only have the last few chapters dealing with the actual combat. The preceding several hundred pages before the big fight are filled with intricate plots and dozens of little sub stories that emphasize the essential humanness of the characters. Weber crafts relationships of fascinating depth and complexity, not just for the main protagonists but for every character that the narrative touches on. Whether it’s the long and bitter feud between the protagonist Honor and the vengeful captain Young, or the banter between two engineers over the dropped spanner incident, the characters come across incredibly realistic.
In fantasy and science fiction it is always a worry that the characters become subsumed by the other elements; the authors gush over the amazing powers, the cool technology or whatever else they think the reader wants to see and leave the characters underdeveloped. In Weber’s books it seems every chapter has a scene that gives a little more depth to one of his cast, it could be a tense meeting riddled with subtext and bitter emotional frustration, a small moment of triumph over a solution, or an officer playing a trick on one of their subordinates. The books show not just the characters as their place in the plot, but as if they had real lives and interactions. These stories are not mere filler, they arise organically from the narrative and Webber’s skill ensures that they are both interesting in of themselves and serve to advance the story.
It also serves to ground the narrative in character when plot events come as the result of human actions or mistakes. (Spoilers for the series follow.) When Honor and her crew capture a prison world and set about rescue the reader expects there to be obstacles to their escape, but an unexpected issue comes in the form of a blustering admiral who tries to take command because he outranks Honor, even after her success in freeing prisoners and capturing the prison. Despite the stakes the admiral will not relent and works to challenge and undermine her even at this crucial time. Not only does it build the tension in the narrative by adding yet another problem, but the way it’s accomplished, by focusing on the petty pride and arrogance of one man really focuses the story on the characters and their interactions. In amongst all the grand events it brings drama and conflict in a way that perfectly expresses human nature and provides a sense of deeper realism with all the problems and flaws that entails.
With its focus on human stories, the books encourage the reader to engage with the characters in a way that abstract plot events cannot. Objectively a reader might be opposed to an invasion or oppressive regime, but they won’t feel it unless it begins to affect some of the characters that they care about. If a reader can be encouraged to engage with characters on a human level, by developing the characters through stories and scenes, then the epic events that occur will affect them more. The previous build-up becomes important for the weight of all that history is what makes us care when the characters are in danger. This method can also add an extra layer of complexity when it is applied to both sides of a conflict, Webber makes sure Honor’s foes are equally well crafted to provide an effective counterview to the main protagonist. There is a scene where Manticore unleashes a new weapon that devastates the People’s Navy, and a lowly tactical officer tries to fight back as his friends die around him. He is just an ordinary solider, his motivations are understandable, and the reader feels a moment of triumph when he strikes back despite the situation, a feeling that only grows more conflicted when we realise he just killed some other characters we like. (End Spoilers)
Human stories engage us, they encourage us to take sides, in amongst all the wonder of the story world they provide a relatable frame of reference, they give life to the narrative and our characters. Sure, we know Honor is a brave captain and great strategist, but after seeing how she fights for her friends, stands up to her problems and jokes with her pet, we’re willing her to succeed. When a self-obsessed politician bars her path we hate them right along with her because we’ve been drawn into the story, into their interactions and relationships and drama. We care. So when you’re writing your novel, amid all the explosions, dire happenings and vast armies, remember to spend a little extra time on the characters. Stories are about people, make them connect with each other, with the reader, make us believe in them.