Author Brad Anderson On How To Create Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
An Interview With Ian Benke
Toss in a compelling theme: Pulpy sci-fi aside, I think this genre was built for themes. Sci-fi is a fantastic tool to explore all the great questions of life. What makes a human human (e.g. Blade Runner), the nature of reality (e.g. Anathem), and all the other questions we think of when we stare into the heavens.
Science Fiction and Fantasy are hugely popular genres. What does it take for a writer today, to write compelling and successful Science Fiction and Fantasy stories? Authority Magazine started a new series called “How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories”. In this series we are talking to anyone who is a Science Fiction or Fantasy author, or an authority or expert on how to write compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad C. Anderson.
Brad lives with his wife and puppy in Vancouver, Canada. He teaches undergraduate business courses at a local university and researches organizational wisdom in blithe defiance of the fact most people do not think you can put those two words in the same sentence without irony. Previously, he worked in the biotech sector, where he made drugs for a living (legally!).
His stories have appeared in a variety of publications. His short story, “Naïve Gods,” was longlisted for a 2017 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. It was published in the anthology Lazarus Risen, which was nominated for an Aurora Award.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to writing over other forms of storytelling?
My brain is wired to tell stories. It’s how I have always expressed myself.
Though I wrote stories as a kid, I learned how to tell stories for an audience in my late teens and early twenties. I gained this exposure through, of all things, D&D. In the crucible of basement gaming rooms, I learned the art of pacing, creating compelling villains, and balancing short-term obstacles with long-term quests.
One of the highlights from those days was convincing one of our players playing a paladin that his character had gone insane and was, in fact, a serial killer. It wasn’t true, but I got the player questioning reality for a while. Good times.
You are a successful author. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Continual learning: I consume books, videos, and workshops on the craft. My wife likes to tease me about this, but I once watched a twelve-hour seminar on writing sentences! Success requires growth — continually striving to be better today than you were yesterday.
Resilience: Holy cow, being a writer seems to involve bearing the brunt of a lot of rejection and criticism. Maybe it’s me, but I’ve been told “no” a lot as a writer. From the hands of agents and publishers, I’ve received dozens and dozens (and dozens) of rejections for each acceptance I get. Reviewers, editors, and publishers shred my work. The motivational speaker in me wants to tell you that I view these experiences as learning opportunities. Every no, every critique helps me sharpen my writing. But I’d be lying if I told you it was painless.
Stubbornness: I am the tortoise, not the hare. I seem to be able to set a goal and then stubbornly grind away at it for years.
Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?
The last couple of novels I’ve worked on have been dark. Though they explored issues important to me, I am generally a happy person. I found the years in the dark corners of the human soul exhausting. And so, I’m focusing on writing quick and fun short stories.
The short story I’m currently writing is about a devil-on-the-shoulder who cheated through devil school and has no idea how to do her job.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define sci-fi or fantasy? How is it different from speculative fiction?
Ha! I’m unsure if anyone can answer that question without starting a fight. Wish me luck!
Both sci-fi and fantasy exist in fantastical worlds different from our own. What makes the world fantastic, however, differs between the genres. The miraculous nature of sci-fi flows from imagined advances in technology. In fantasy, the wonders result from magic. With a wink, sci-fi promises, “these amazing things could happen.” Fantasy admits from the outset that its magic is made up and forever outside the realm of the possible.
The settings of time and place differ, too. Sci-fi usually occurs in the future (the exceptions being time travel, altered history, and the like), while fantasy is set in a historical setting (with exceptions like urban fantasy). Sci-fi is usually an imagined future of our society (though Star Wars bucks that trend). Fantasy, conversely, often takes place in a wholly different reality from ours (though writers like Neil Gaiman throw a wrench in that distinction).
Alright, so what the heck is speculative fiction, then? (Isn’t all fiction speculative?)
I view speculative fiction as an element of sci-fi. Like sci-fi, speculative fiction takes place in an imagined future. The difference is that sci-fi leans on wonders generated from scientific advances, whereas the world of speculative fiction could happen now with no new technology.
Let’s look at some examples to clarify.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is science fiction. It takes place in the blisteringly far future. Through imagined technological, mental, or biological advances, characters achieve all “otherworldly” powers.
Brandon Sanderson sets his Mistborn trilogy in an imagined world where mystical powers exist that characters can channel. This is an example of fantasy.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an imagined future that could happen at any moment. No new technologies are required to create the nation of Gilead that the novel describes, making it speculative fiction.
Did I … Did I answer the question without starting a fight?
It seems that despite countless changes in media and communication technologies, novels and written fiction always survive, and as the rate of change increases with technology, written sci-fi becomes more popular. Why do you think that is?
Reading is a collaborative art. The author paints the skeleton of a story. As the reader, your imagination fills in the universe. Close your eyes and imagine the main character in the book you’re reading. Imagine the bustle of the streets they walk, their smile, the smell of their apartment — that world is unique to your imagination. No two readers will have the same image in their heads. You and the author co-created the story you keep in your heart once you turn the final page. In what other art forms do you, as the consumer, have a hand in its creation?
Reading is an immersive voyage. Most art is consumed quickly — a passing glance for a painting, minutes for a song, hours for a movie. Finishing a novel, however, takes days, maybe weeks. It is a new universe into which you sink and luxuriate. You peer through windows into characters’ thoughts to see the truth of what’s in their heart. Storylines weave and collide. Even short novels paint sagas. Books capture truths whose complexities can only be revealed if you spend the time that reading a novel lends itself to.
That, I believe, is what keeps people coming back to books. That’s why so many readers are left disappointed when Hollywood turns their favorite novel into a movie. Spend all the money you want on special effects, they will pale in comparison to the richness of the world you created in your mind. A three-hour, bladder-bursting blockbuster can only hint at the novel’s richness.
In your opinion, what are the benefits to reading sci-fi, and how do they compare to watching sci-fi on film and television?
Both books and films tell great sci-fi stories. Movies have a visual element that can bring spectacle to life in a way that books cannot. Books, however, can explore ideas and worlds that defy translation to the screen. Consider, for example, Greg Egan’s Diaspora. It is set in a civilization of sentient AI. Characters are bits of code. How on earth would you create a movie about that?
What authors and artists, dead or alive, inspired you to write?
Good lord, if I could write like Guy Gavriel Kay, I’d consider it a super-power. His prose is gorgeous; his stories are haunting portrayals of the human condition.
I’m a fan, too, of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Ursula LeGuin’s sci-fi, I feel, is the epitome of what the genre should be.
If you could ask your favourite Science Fiction and Fantasy author a question, what would it be?
How do you get that first draft written?
I find pulling the first draft out of me about as easy as passing kidney stones. What’s the secret to climbing that mountain?
We’d like to learn more about your writing. How would you describe yourself as an author? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style?
I try to find imaginative ways into my story with unique ways to express my themes. The following is an excerpt from Duatero. In this passage, our protagonist, Kredo, is approaching a landmark called The Gates, which are the ruins of a once-mighty bridge crossing a vast river.
I have travelled to Lu Guang many times, yet every time I have seen The Gates they fill me with the wonder of a child seeing the sky lanterns at Rendezvous for the first time. And they fill me with a sadness that sits in my gut like a stone. I have contemplated why these ruins affect me so. I have seen the wonders of the Founders. I have seen the Tero Kreinto, once a force of change and salvation, now quiet. Why doesn’t that wondrous equipment fill me with the same awe and melancholy?
I suppose it’s that I can’t even begin to imagine how the Tero Kreinto once functioned. Tales of how they changed this planet, changing the soil through what might as well have been magic, were little more than myths. But a bridge — I know what a bridge is. And to see these ancient pilings, even in ruin still piercing the sky and catching the clouds, and to know in my heart such marvels are so far beyond what we could ever now create shows me the true face of how far we have fallen with such brutal honesty. What power the Founders must have possessed that they could turn something as mundane as a bridge into a wonder.
Based on your own experience and success, what are the “Five Things You Need To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Compelling characters: Your characters should have goals, but, alas, they have flaws that keep them from attaining those goals.
- An interesting premise: This is sci-fi, after all. An example of a neat premise is Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, where the Gethens are ambisexual humans capable of transforming into either male or female during their monthly fertility cycle.
- Toss in a compelling theme: Pulpy sci-fi aside, I think this genre was built for themes. Sci-fi is a fantastic tool to explore all the great questions of life. What makes a human human (e.g. Blade Runner), the nature of reality (e.g. Anathem), and all the other questions we think of when we stare into the heavens.
- Build a cool world: Again, this is sci-fi. Let your imagination fly. A great example is Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, where he created a civilization of giant, intelligent spiders (shudder).
- Have no mercy for your hero: Thwart your hero at every turn. A TV show that did this exceptionally well was Mr. Robot. Everything the protagonists did failed — everything! When they succeeded on that rare occasion, there was always an unintended consequence that knocked their plans sideways.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment, Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Hey, Guy Gavriel Kay, are you up for a coffee?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: Ian Benke is a multi-talented artist with a passion for written storytelling and static visual art — anything that can be printed on a page. Inspired by Mega Man, John Steinbeck, and commercials, I.B.’s science fiction writing and art explore the growing bond between technology and culture, imagining where it will lead and the people it will shape. He is the author of Future Fables and Strange Stories, the upcoming It’s Dangerous to Go Alone trilogy, and contributes to Pulp Kings. The CEO and Co-Founder of Stray Books, and an origami enthusiast, Ian is an advocate of independent, collaborative, and Canadian art. https://ibwordsandart.ca