“Beyond Dystopia: Crafting Characters with Diverse Social Power to Inspire Positive Change”

A Craft Essay on Climate Fiction

This craft essay was originally planned as "How to Worldbuild for a Brighter Future". It was my master's thesis pre-work for the creative project that I submitted this month. And yay! I graduate next month. It's a little academic and a lot long, but it really made me think so much deeper about character and story, so I decided to share it.

As I read the three books that I compare and contrast here, it quickly became apparent that it isn't the world that can make someone feel hopeful. Only people can do that. It was the characters that mattered. As they say "character is story".

Not only did the characters inspire hope and change, it was the different types of social power they weilded, from all levels of the social strata, that made change seem possible. That one was a lot tougher to tease out.

Hope you enjoy. Let me know if it sparked anything for you! I thought about it a lot as we crafted the first characters for The Lunar Light: Discovery.

Sorry about the formatting. This blog editor isn't very flexible.


“Beyond Dystopia: Crafting Characters with Diverse Social Power to Inspire Positive Change”

A new sub-genre of speculative fiction blasted onto the scene over the past decade in response to the current times. Climate fiction, or cli-fi, uses our environment and the threat of climate change as a major plot point. The term, first coined by author Dan Bloom, quickly took hold when Scientific American published an article about the genre in 2013. Unfortunately, “it seems the primary theme of books that are being recognized under the rubric of 'climate fiction' are essentially dystopian visions of a world decimated by climate change" (“A Look”). Luckily, some authors have chosen a different route to inspire change: they write stories with hope. To accomplish this lofty goal, they craft characters with diverse social power.

Dystopic fiction has long given readers a look at how bad things could get if we miserable humans don’t change our ways. From book burnings by the “fire department” and drug induced apathy in Fahrenheit 451 to forced childbearing in The Handmaid’s Tale, these novels rely on fear to motivate people to listen, pay attention, or even change their ways. All too often, those in power are ruining the lives of our hero, and not much changes, even if the hero wins the day. Fear is a great motivator, but is it enough to create lasting change? Only one emotion stands to trump it, and that is hope.

In order to inspire people to action through hope, successful authors use an ensemble cast of characters with different social power due to their varied stations in life. Social psychologists John French and Bert Raven were the first to classify five bases of social power in 1959. “They defined social influence as a change in the belief, attitude, or behavior of a person (the target of influence) which results from the action of another person (an influencing agent), and they defined social power as the potential for such influence, that is, the ability of the agent to bring about such a change using available resources. French and Raven identified five bases of power: coercive, reward, legitimate, expert, and referent. To this was later added a sixth: information power” (Bertram 1). These powers are important to consider when crafting characters.

Orson Scott Card points out in his craft book, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, the main character should be the one who has both the power and freedom to act (Card 67). Whereas “the lives of commanders (and kings) are generally above the most interesting action” due to the nature of their decision making and figurehead roles, they are still necessary for the reader to understand and root for in the fight against climate change. So too must the reader feel connected to the characters who find themselves in terrible situations with seemingly no power to change their plight. The difference between many of the cli-fi dystopic and flawed utopias is whether these characters with different types of social power are fighting one another, or banding together to fight the real enemy: in cli-fi's case, climate change.

Coercive power is based on the use of force, threats, or punishment to compel others to comply with one's wishes. The typical villain uses coercive power as a means to achieving their goals. The typical hero does not. Yet, not every novel is about a protagonist hero and an antagonistic villain. One might argue that Mother Nature as a character uses coercive power in regards to climate change and is merely an antagonistic force, though an extremely powerful one. The only way to stop her coercive acts is for the world to reduce carbon emissions. Coercive power can be wielded from all levels of social strata. When developing a character without any other type of power, coercive power might be their last resort. This is typical in the “man against a wall” character where they have exhausted everything else within their means.

Conversely, reward power is based on the ability to provide positive incentives or rewards for compliance. In order to possess reward power, one must have the ability to bestow rewards. Protagonists and antagonists alike use this type of power. Characters from all of the social strata typically can give rewards, even if very small, like giving a child extra play time for doing something. However, it is unlikely that a character of low social status would be able to bestow a desired reward on someone from higher social status. Like coercive power, it is a give and take. If you do something “good”, the person with reward power gives you something you want. If you do something “bad”, the person with coercive power will punish you. The other four types of power are used differently.

Expert power is based on one's knowledge, skills, or expertise in a particular area. As it relates to climate change, scientists and economists are the characters in the best positions to use expert power to great effect. In order to create global social change, people must believe there is an actual problem, and at this point, before it has become a major problem in their own lives. Characters with expert power can help achieve this by explaining what is happening.

Referent power is based on one's personal qualities, such ascharisma, likability, or trustworthiness. It is another type of power, like coercive, that can be used by characters at all levels of the social strata. This type of power can create a leader with followers dynamic, where the followers share certain values and beliefs with the person holding referent power. The leader with referent power can also change their followers beliefs using charisma alone, but other types of social power are typically gained along the way. Building referent often leads to gaining legitimate power.

Legitimate power is based on one's formal position or role withinan organization or system. It is unlike all other powers in that it is formally bestowed by means of birth, promotion, or election. It can be earned, but that is only possible through using other forms of social power to convince others that one deserves the legitimate power. In many ways though, as Card pointed out in his craft book, having legitimate power limits a character’s ability to act and react. There are a set of rules and guidelines, both explicit and implicit, that one must abide by in order to maintain their power. It is the kind of power bestowed on royalty and world leaders. While many novels show these types of characters doing heroic things, it is not realistic in our world. Thus, for climate fiction to inspire change, characters with legitimate power cannot be the true change makers, instead they are needed to vocally support those who are doing the work.

Finally, informational power is gained through one's access to orcontrol of information. This type of power is limited by time in most cases. By its very nature, once information is made public, it no longer holds power. It is another type of power that can be used by characters from any walk of life. Legitimate power generally includes some level of information power. Expert power is based on knowledge that is not as timebound as information, therefore this sixth and final type of social power was added years after the first give were recognized. Together, the six types cover most human social interactions and allow characters to act and react to one another based on the power they hold or do not hold over the other.

Climate fiction bears the gargantuan goal of creating social change ona global scale because, according to author Kim Stanley Robinson and multiple climate researchers, slowing and reversing the effects of carbon emissions will require more than one solution. By balancing their ensemble casts in terms of social power, both Neal Stephenson in his novel Termination Shock and Kim Stanley Robinson in The Ministry for the Future allow readers to connectwith a story that is inclusive of multiple types of people from diverse walks of life and social power. Both novels show dystopic effects of climate change through a lens of utopic hope, solutions, and collaboration. In contrast, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi paints a dystopic future where even those who believe they have power are proven to not be able to save themselves without hurting others, while those in power remain elusive and unredeemable. The biggest difference is the nearly exclusive use of coercive power by the characters in Bacigalupi’s world, generally as a reaction to coercive means used on them.

The Water Knife introduces three main characters whose lives intersect in a searing, water scarce version of a dystopic future in Phoenix, Arizona. Water rights are sold, bartered and stolen by organized groups like California and Las Vegas’ Catherine Case, the boss of one of the main characters. Angel is a “water knife” for Case, meaning he cuts water supplies to cities that have fallen behind in payments or had their water rights revoked. He's a former a gang member who was imprisoned in Texas and set free by a hurricane made immensely powerful by climate change. Angel is sent to Phoenix to investigate the death of a man named Jaime, which is when he first meets Lucy. Lucy is an investigative journalist, drawn to the drought-laden sandstorms of Phoenix where she writes about Texan refugees, murder victims dumped in empty swimming pools, and the ongoing human crises stemming from massive water shortages in Mexico and the United States, using the apt hashtag #PhoenixDownTheTubes. We also meet Maria, a Texan refugee who lost everything and everyone she knew when San Antonio ran dry years before, manages to get by selling water and doing odd jobs before selling herself in a desperate attempt to fend off a landlord who stole her money.

The plot centers on the discovery of some original water rights by Jaime, a low-level employee and friend to Lucy, who decides to sell them to the highest bidder. He makes a deal, double crosses the buyer, and is murdered. His co-conspirator is also murdered, along with Maria’s roommate, after a night of selling themselves to the man to make rent. Unbeknownst to Maria, she escapes his apartment with the rights hidden inside a book the man gave her before he died.

Lucy attempts to uncover the cause of Jaime’s death. Meanwhile, Angel is sent from Las Vegas to check on a colleague who is behaving strangely. They all stumble upon the murdered victims and race against time to recover the rights and outrun those who are now out to kill them.

The main characters in The Water Knife use their various social powers solely for personal survival with no thought toward solving the larger climate issue that caused their fight for survival in the first place. Maria attempts to use informational power by timing water price fluctuations and is quickly overcome by gangsters using coercive power, or threats of violence, to steal all her gains and tell her she owes them more money, a common theme in the novel. Angel wields coercive power in the form of cutting water supplies to towns and legitimate power vested in him by his boss Catherine, until she becomes suspicious of him and puts a price on his head. Lucy wields the power of the pen, which would be legitimate power, except coercive power looms over her. The threat of being found dead in an empty swimming pool, is used against her to stop her from writing stories about those who are the most powerful. She finally must resort to coercive power to save her sister who was kidnapped, and to steal the water rights back from Angel in the end. None of the three are people of great power to change things, with the exception of Angel in the beginning, and he chose not to use his power for good.

Aside from knowing the name of Angel’s boss, those in major positions of power all remain nameless, ruthless, and uncaring about the damage they wreak. They also rely predominantly on coercive power as their main means of persuasion. Possibly the only similarity in this dystopia, to the worlds created in Termination Shock and The Ministry for the Future, is that Lucy has caught on that the “power players” are making it all up, just as the power players trying out anything and everything to stem climate change in the other books do. The power players in The Water Knife aren’t relatable nor are they attempting to solve the root problem, which leads to a dystopic, hopeless feeling that is responded to in a coercive manner by all of the characters highlighted in the book.

Lucy sees those in power only through shadows, the “shadow play”. Rather than those with and without official power learning to understand one another and show mutual respect, only dysfunction and dystopia are possible. It isn’t until the end of the book that the reader loses all hope after Lucy betrays Angel and he betrays her back. She laments that she:

…had felt that she was scrabbling around on the outside of a story, trying to ascertain truth through dust-caked windows, but all she’d been able to discern had been the shadow play.

She could make guesses as to what all the power players were doing, and why, but she had never known. And in many cases she came away without any sense of meaning at all.

They have no idea what they’re doing. These are the people who are supposed to be pulling all the strings, and they’re making it up as they go along. (344)

Conversely, in The Ministry for the Future, the cast of characters and their points of view are vast. While Stephenson tells the story via more than 50 points of view, including characters such as an atom, and a narrator that gives solely exposition about multiple people and events, the story follows two main characters from very different stations in life whose paths ultimately intersect. Frank, a former clinic volunteer in India, was the only person to survive a heat wave that killed millions. He feels powerless to help solve the problem and turns to coercive power, accidentally killing a guard by hitting him with a chunk of wood, then kidnapping the other main character at gunpoint. Mary is the appointed leader of The Ministry for the Future in Geneva, a position with seemingly legitimate power, though very little has been granted to the institution and she must rely on all of the other types of social power in order to affect any change in environmental policies and actions. Both characters are attempting to solve problems in the world rather than contribute to them. Robinson uses this juxtaposition to create tension, and then understanding by the characters of their limitations to act.

By kidnapping Mary, Frank is able to influence her to change her actions. Initially he uses coercive power, the gun, to force her to listen. Then, as they speak and learn about one another, she begins to listen because of his other types of power. He has the expert power of having been the sole survivor of the heat wave in his town. He has volunteered in the many refugee camps necessary because of the large numbers of people fleeing uninhabitable homes. He has expertise and information from direct experience, which Mary finds valuable. By sharing his story, he creates referent power with Mary because she begins to like and trust him. He doesn’t want to hurt her it turns out. He simply wants to get through to her, as evidenced in this exchange:

“But it isn’t working. You’re trying, but it isn’t enough. You’re failing. You and your organization are failing in your appointed task, and so millions will die. Every day you let them down. You set them up for death.”

She sighed. “We’re doing all we can with what we’ve got.”

“No you’re not.”

His face flushed again, he stood up again. He circled in herkitchen like a trapped animal. He was breathing heavily. Here it comes, she thought despite herself. Her heart was really racing.

He shook his head, staring at her all the while. “No. You have to stop thinking with your old bourgeois values. That time has passed. The stakes are too high for you to hide behind them anymore. They’re killing the world. People, animals, everything. We’re in a mass extinction event, and there are people trying to do something about it. You call them terrorists, but it’s the people you work for who are the terrorists. How can you not see that?” (Robinson 97).

While Mary initially chooses not to use coercive power, she learns she must when the situation calls for it, and that coercive power can be used for good.

In Termination Shock, we are introduced to the two main characters in the first chapter when Rufus, a wild hog hunter, saves Saskia, the Queen of the Netherlands, from both a hog and a massive alligator on a runway in Waco, Texas. He is there to avenge the death of his daughter by killing the massive hog that ate the girl. Saskia is in Texas to see what billionaire T.R. Schmidt has devised to help fight rising ocean levels that threaten The Netherlands and the homes of the other magnates he has brought to Texas. T.R. is, in ways, a stereotypical billionaire who wants to save the world, and his own financial interests in Houston, by eschewing authority and solving the problem himself. The “solution” is a huge gun built into the desert floor of west Texas that shoots sulfur into the upper atmosphere where it can reflect some of the sun’s rays back into space. He calls in Pinatubo, after an earthquake that lowered the global temperature after blasting fifteen million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.

It isn’t until halfway through the book that Rufus aka Red asks Saskia about the power that she, and the other dignitaries invited to Texas, wield. The two characters are very distinct in their language, which goes beyond what they are saying to how they are saying it. Saskia takes a more formal tone while Red is relaxed and a little colloquial. Respect is shown on both sides, regardless of their very different stations in life. This is an important "how" in creating varied characters.

Consider the language in the first two lines below. It sets up the rest of the passage. Red refers to a noblewoman as “that Cornelia”, showing that he is not a member of their class. Saskia reveals the levels of legitimate power, hers being the highest.

“’Royal’ means actually a king or queen, or someone in their immediate family. I am the only such person here.”

“What’s up with that Cornelia?”

“She has a royal bearing and she comes from a family that is much older than mine. But Venice never had royals. They did have noble houses, self-selected, who elected a leader. That’s where she comes from.”

In regards to describing the Lord Mayor of England, Saskia explains that his power, while still legitimate, is gained not by birth, but by election. The resulting difference is that the Lord Mayor holds more policy making power where royals and noblemen do not necessarily.

“The Lord Mayor?”

“He’s selected. You don’t inherit that job. But once you win the election—which is avery strange one, very English—you become a Lord. Still, quite different frombeing a royal.”

“How so?”

“Broadly speaking, royals have tended to be like this with the nobility in most times and places.” She was banging her little fists together.

“Oh, see now that’s a new idea to me because I thought they were all on the same side.”

As to her own role, Rufus comments that,

“According to Wiki it’s more of a symbolic role.”

“Well, for one thing, I personally own a significant portion of Royal Dutch Shell.”

“Shell? The Shell? The oil company?”

“Yes. So, even if I were not the Queen of the Netherlands, I could exert some
influence over who sits on their board and so on.”

“And Shell has a lot to answer for, global warming wise.”

“Indeed we do!”

“Well, that is interesting. But you are.”

“I am what?”

“The Queen of the Netherlands.”


“And in that capacity—”

“I can do nothing,” Saskia said, “except change my facial expression while reading an annual speech that is written for me on Budget Day.” (Stephenson 269-270).

Saskia’s final comment about being able to do nothing, mirrors what Orson Scott Card writes about character development and plot in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. He proposes that it’s difficult to create a character with agency out of someone with a lot of official power, as their lives are not quite their own (67).

Rufus is just the type of character who can act, and does, when T.R. asks him to join the crew in west Texas. Rufus’ expert power in hog hunting saves the day when the compound is attacked by people wanting to shut down Pinatubo, the sulfur gun. Saskia and T.R. are rendered powerless to act when the coercive acts of the attackers trap them inside the chamber of the massive gun. That is when T.R.’s team uses their expert, informational, and coercive powers together to save the Queen and the billionaire.

To fight a foe like climate change, it takes people with all types of social power to enact the kind of massive changes needed and thwart those who stand in the way. Some characters in cli-fi novels are there to stimulate or inspire change, like Frank in The Ministry for the Future. Others are there to influence, like figureheads Saskia and Mary. Some must enforce. The rest, those who are not main characters, must ultimately conform. It is difficult, if not impossible, to write a story that includes climate change without it being dystopic unless it includes characters who hold each type of social power and weild it to affect positive change.

Works Cited

“A Look at the Growing Genre of Climate Fiction.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-look-at-the-growing-genre-of-climate-fiction/17 December 2013.

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Water Knife. Vintage Books, 2016.

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Writer's Digest Books, 1990.

Raven, Bertram H. "Power, Six Bases of." SAGE Publications, 2019, https://study.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/reference1.4.pdf.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit, 2020.

Stephenson, Neal. Termination Shock. William Morrow, 2021.