On Resonance in Stories

Publishers and readers alike want imagination – the kind that gives life to situations that possibly nobody in the world has actually been through. Especially in speculative genres, which by definition present situations that the author hasn’t been in.

Yet when a character or situation – or even an environment – is written with real knowledge of the experience, it’s always a richer account. And even speculative fiction doesn’t present settings completely invented anew. I’ve always found that however extraordinary the “otherness” of such tales, it’s the human resonance that gives them impact. The sense that they’ve captured some truth about human experience despite the obvious fictions – or even because of them. Because fantastical elements can draw attention to parts of human experience that are difficult to see in straight-up realistic narratives.

This criterion of “resonance” is difficult to pin down, but I can say that I get frustrated with fiction that misses it. Many of the stories I’ve read recently don’t seem to have enough depth to the characters or world for me to feel – much less care about – the ramifications of plot events. (I don’t mean a lack of detail; there are minimalistically told stories that have all the depth I could want.) And it’s disappointing, because some of these stories had imaginative concepts or invoked my personal interests and I really wanted to like them.

Sometimes it’s because I have real experience of something an author doesn’t, and it feels like they’ve given an inaccurate portrayal. Not necessarily because they haven’t done the research – often it’s clear that the author has done a lot of research – but the story misses the spirit behind the details. The author may have focused on surface things that are normalized to real people in that situation, or they may have missed implications which, in real life, completely change where people’s interests and tensions lie. Sometimes they’re just too influenced by their own (sub)culture(s) to grasp what it can be like in another. The result of it all is that characters’ emotions and responses seem miscalibrated, and the story just doesn’t ring true.

But this only accounts for some of the cases where fiction feels like it’s missing something. More often lately, I feel like I’m not even reading stories, but concepts or questions presented in the trappings of story. As if authors aren’t writing to “What happens to characters faced with X?” but “What audience discussion will X generate?” There’s something distanced, abstracted, meta. Certainly I like to think about ideas and themes in the fiction I read – but primarily, I want to feel the human experiences which make those ideas and themes important.

When doing academic research, I was given the advice that a proposal for study has to pass the test: “So what?” You have to have an explanation for why the thing is worth studying. I suppose I’m looking for something similar in stories; I want a human reason for them, something that goes beyond “this topic is hot right now” or “this particular thing is cool”.