Do I Have to Be a Scientist to Write Science Fiction?

Is it just me, or can the science part of science fiction be pretty intimidating?

I mean, I got through high school chemistry and all that, but science has never been my best subject. I don’t spend a lot of time reading about astronomy or physics or anything seriously technical. I’m not an engineer. I’m definitely not a rocket scientist. I couldn’t even fix a car engine.

So how could I possibly write a science fiction story?

The first answer that comes to mind is by researching stuff. Of course, that idea’s immediately followed by a sense of overwhelmed panic at the sheer amount of information out there. Do I need to know how rocket ships work? What about space travel? Does that mean I need to read up on scientific theory?

Well…

If that’s your thing, that’s great – and I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. Knowing a lot about current scientific theories and technologies is a great way to add details and inside jokes to the story. And a lot of authors do base their innovations off of current theories and technology. That doesn’t meant that you have to. In fact, even if you do, that doesn’t mean that you have to go into detail about how it works.

It kind of depends on who your main character is – and what. If your main character’s a scientist/engineer/whatnot, then you’re going to have to go into a lot more detail. After all, the story is framed by the main character’s perspective, and an engineer is going to think about the technical aspect of the space travel a lot more than say a soldier, reporter, artist, deathwalker (cough), etc. who doesn’t know much about all the science behind the stuff they use.

Think about your own day-to-day life. You probably drive a car or use a train, but unless that’s your job or your hobby, you’re not going to know much about how those vehicles actually work. The same goes for your cell phone, your computer, your refrigerator – everything is so specialized today that people are lucky to know how to operate their technology, let alone know how it all works.

That’s why picking your main character can totally change how difficult writing your science fiction story will be. Describing how to use something is much easier than describing how something works, especially something that doesn’t exist yet. Because if you really knew how it worked, you’d build it, get the patent, and make ridiculous amounts of money. Instead, if a science fiction author wants to get into that level of explanation, he or she has to make it up (based on science, but still).

And that has its own dangers.

Going into too much detail on how space travel or special gadgetry works can actually kick your readers out of the story if it’s done wrong. Remember that a lot of the people who read sci fi are into science. That’s part of the draw for them. Because of that, they tend to know their stuff. If the science is too far off, it’ll kill their suspension of disbelief.

My advice? Don’t be afraid of the science and don’t feel like you have to learn everything either. So long as you pick a main character and story that suit your knowledge and researching interest, the science part of science fiction will be the least of your concerns. In other words, you’ll get to focus on the story itself. As writers, that should be our focus anyway, right? Science fiction or not.

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One thought on “Do I Have to Be a Scientist to Write Science Fiction?

  1. Pingback: Word Choice a la Mark Twain: The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word | Words & Deeds

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