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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Sharon Lynn Fisher on Honing Character via Physical Challenges

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Sharon Lynn Fisher! – Sarah Chorn

A Romance Writers of America RITA Award finalist and a three-time RWA Golden Heart Award finalist, Sharon Lynn Fisher lives in the Pacific Northwest. She writes books for the geeky at heart—sci-fi flavored stories full of adventure and romance—and battles writerly angst with baked goods, Irish tea, and champagne. Her works include Ghost Planet (2012), The Ophelia Prophecy (2014), and Echo 8 (2014). You can visit her online at

Honing Character via Physical Challenges

by Sharon Lynn Fisher

First of all, a huge thank you to Sarah for inviting me to be the first science fiction romance participant. I think this is a fascinating area of focus for a column.

I had a conversation with Sarah before writing this post, because none of the characters in my Tor book The Ophelia Prophecy have a disability in the conventional sense. Sarah pointed out that, in the broader sense of physical challenges, both the hero and heroine experience memory loss, and the hero undergoes some body modification for nebulous reasons. I realized there are some interesting bits to unpack there. I will try my best to do it without spoilers.

The Ophelia Prophecy is a post-apocalyptic biopunk Romeo and Juliet story. As the novel opens, the hero and heroine find themselves on a beach, neither with any idea how they got there. Asha, a human archivist, soon realizes that Pax is an enemy — a member of the Manti, a human/insect transgenic race created by human scientists. He assumes that she’s a spy and forces her on board his ship.

Essentially Asha is two characters. When she’s first abducted, she must cope with her predicament without the benefit of memories from the last several months — memories that turn out to be critical. When the memories return, she’s forced to reexamine the decisions she’s made since her abduction, and she discovers an immediate course correction is in order.

What particularly engaged me in writing her character was the moment she had to decide to whom she was going to be true. Would she continue as if she’d never recovered her memory, or would she assimilate the recovered information and start down a different path? Asha makes the choice probably most of us would in her situation, but there is serious fallout. The only way she can acquire the resources to salvage the situation — to come into her own as the story’s heroine — is to mend the rift between her “before” and “after” personalities.

The story’s hero grapples with a similar internal conflict, but for different reasons. Pax is a member of a proud family. His father, a general during the war with humanity, is now the Manti leader. His people have defeated their oppressors and taken their destiny into their own hands. But in spite of their insect enhancements, the Manti are human, and conflicted about their transgenic status.

When The Ophelia Prophecy opens, two sides of Pax’s nature are at war. His biology sharpens his senses and makes him strong, but he also has an overdeveloped sensitivity to pheromones that causes him to attack the heroine in the opening scenes. His shame about what he perceives as his inability to control this aspect of his biology guides his behavior for the rest of the novel, transforming him from attacker to protector.

Speaking of the Manti more generally, while they pride themselves on their insect biology, they can’t escape deeper beliefs that they are less than human, or somehow impure. They even refer to the surviving humans as “pure-DNA” humans. When Asha and Pax first meet, she notices scars on his torso and guesses they are the result of surgery. As her gaze rests on the scars, Pax grows uneasy. She’s focused on the parts of his body that most obviously identify him as Manti — or *would*, had the extra set of appendages not been removed.

The truth about the removal (at least according to his father) is that the appendages were not functional, and could be a disadvantage in a fight. When Asha stares at Pax’s scars, he’s reminded of how the two of them are different. And he’s also ashamed of the relief he feels that he can pass for human.

A final example of internal conflict derived from physical attributes is Pax’s ship, Banshee, a secondary character in the novel. She’s part of the Scarab fleet, one of the Manti’s most interesting biotech achievements. Banshee is part AI, part plant, and part animal. She’s a piece of technology created to serve the Manti, but when Pax gives her an order that requires her to use her own judgment, he accidentally ignites a transformation. Banshee begins to question orders, develops a fondness for Pax’s prisoner and becomes conflicted about loyalty, and even exhibits signs of a developing wit — of a developing *personality*. Is she ship or life form at that point? If she’s self-aware and can think and reason, isn’t she in some sense human? Will the fact that she was designed for a specific practical purpose — designed to *serve* humans — prevent her from ever achieving true selfhood?

You can find internal conflict driven by physical characteristics throughout sci-fi romance. There are cyborg heroes like Admiral Kel-Paten in Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command. There’s The Host’s heroine, a human involuntarily sharing her body with an alien. There’s the symbiotic alien Elizabeth in my debut, Ghost Planet, who can’t wander far from her host without excruciating pain. In a terrific recent example, the overweight heroine in The Last Hour of Gann, in which we see how the heroine is viewed by her fellow survivors (which is a tool for the development of *those* characters), the conflicted way she views herself, and the unique challenges she faces post-crash on an alien world.

I think people have a mistaken conception about romance. That characters are too perfect and lack depth. Romance, at its heart, is an exploration of character. Even world building takes a backseat to developing the conflict within and between hero and heroine. Sci-fi romance in particular can be a rich and layered exploration of the challenges a technologically advanced world (or technologically *reduced* world, in the case of post-apocalypse) can present for lovers, and for characters in general.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Sharon Lynn Fisher on Honing Character via Physical Challenges

  1. Great food for thought, Sharon. I’ve always thought that physical changes to characters in SF can stand in symbolically for issues people face in the current day. The X-Men have been widely seen as a metaphor for being gay (coming out as a Mutant) and I think aliens/nonquite humans whose bodies work differently with special challenges definitely will have resonance as well.

    • That’s a great point, Corrina. SFF gives us the opportunity to explore universal human struggles, both internal and external ones, in new and interesting ways.

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