Happy Christmas, JWST!

It seems a little bizarre – even to me – that one of the things I am most looking forward to this Christmas is a successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s been a long time coming. Early mission plans scheduled the launch for 2007 and its cost has ballooned by a factor of ten from original estimates. But now, in literally just a few hours from now, everything reaches a culmination of that huge investment in time and money.

I’ve followed the progress of JWST off and on for a long time. There’s no doubt that its successful launch and deployment will usher in a new era of astronomical and cosmological discovery. But it’s the sheer engineering challenge that I find equally fascinating. The much-reported 334 individual single-points-of-failure in the launch, deployment and commissioning phases underline just how daring a mission this is. (This is about three times greater than the single-points-of-failure for the recent US Mars lander programme.) The space agencies involved could have chosen to build several much lower risk missions, probably for a lower combined budget. And though they would have been worthy instruments in their own right, they wouldn’t have the breadth, power or reach that JWST will have if all goes well.

There’s undoubtedly a lot at stake today and over the next few months as JWST is gently coaxed into life. Things may not go to plan (though I fervently hope they do) but the sheer audacity of the vision and ambition of the JWST is a shining example of what humanity can achieve. Here’s hoping we give ourselves a wonderful Christmas present that in the coming years will reveal incredible new insights into the universe.

When Characters Decide

Lately I’ve been mulling over the importance of having fictional characters make decisions. It’s something that’s easy to overlook as a writer (I know I sometimes do), caught up as we are in the logical flow of the plot and trying to wrangle the story from this scene to that scene in order to reach a satisfying story conclusion.

The decisions a character makes within the context of a story paints a vivid picture of who they are: their ideals and motivations and all the things that matter to them. For a reader, seeing which way a character jumps when faced with a critical choice is probably far more illuminating than any amount of description or self-reflection through interior monologues. We cheer when they decide to act in a way that feels right to us, and we cringe when bad choices are made. The consequences of those decisions – right or wrong – are often what keeps us reading.

Pushing a little deeper, it’s not hard to see that there are many different kinds of decision, for example:

  • The unexpected decision which puts a character on the spot. What is their instinctive reaction to a situation (and what has shaped those instincts)? Do they trust their own instincts? Can they think on their feet or do they become flustered and confused?
  • The tortured decision. A character knows what they must decide, but it comes at a cost – often a great cost. Do they do the ‘right’ thing (and who has decided what the right thing is?) or do they rebel?
  • The head versus heart decision – perhaps not so different from the tortured decision. Does the character act according to rational principles based on hard facts, or do they throw caution to the wind and take a leap into the unknown?
  • The carefully planned (but oh so wrong!) decision. This slow unravelling of their hopes may be based on a character’s self-delusion or the lies and misinformation they’ve been fed by others – leading to dire consequences (or so we hope, as readers!)

I’m sure there are many other types of decision we could categorise, but the point is these decisions must be made in a way that is true to each character. If you’re a ‘plotter’ and have a story outline to follow, that may not always work out the way you intended. But let the characters decide in their own ways! Let them be true to themselves. Characters who make different choices about the same thing create the conflict that propels a story forwards.

Arguably, this is where those writers who don’t follow an outline (aka ‘pantsers’) have the advantage. Their stories flow from character actions (and interactions) – often in completely surprising directions – because the writing is drawing on an intimate understanding of their attitudes and behaviours which determine the choices they make. The danger is that the thread of the story wanders, or the plotting is vague and doesn’t hold together – which is where plotters score, because they always have a roadmap to refer back to, even if the story wanders away from it now and then.

So. Characters deciding things (actions, goals, how they feel about places, events and people, how to best achieve those goals) – these are the things that draw the reader along for the ride. They may not be decisions the reader agrees with – in fact, it’s often better if they’re not – but they need to be self-consistent with all that we understand about that character. Get that right and you’ll trigger the best possible reaction in your readers: And then what happened?