My education in science (psychology with a side of computer science and the merest hint, from across the hall, of neuroscience) is receding into the past at an alarming rate. I'm a writer now. But I often feel drawn to writing about science—and about scientists.
It usually starts out like this: a human dilemma occurs to me, preferably awkward, agonizing, and comfortably or uncomfortably erotic. I decide I'll try to write a story about the dilemma, because I like to read stories, and it's only fair to give back. At some point, the idea will offer itself and tempt me: Let's make this even better—let's make them all scientists. A few times so far, I gave in.
The first impulse for this is probably sentimental. I long to reconnect with my former self, the days of youthful exploration that seem so much more interesting in retrospect, especially now I'm free to apply fictional manipulation. Then there is the desire to appear knowledgeable and special: I'm good with words, but I also used to be able to hold my own in the presence of people who talked in equations! (Not really—I decided to become a writer for a reason.) How many writers are there with a background in science? It can't be more than a few thousand!
But science, both as a setting and characters' field, has a lot to offer beyond these shallow motivations. By making them all scientists, a writer can use the associations readers have with science in order to make a story more poignant. I don't mean the "evil scientist" cliché, but the opposite: the assumption that scientists are, if not actually good, at least rational, calm, and fair—the kind of person who turns facts over personal beliefs, and data over wishful thinking. My teacher Rachel Pastan, who is working on a novel about a fictional scientist based on the geneticist Barbara McClintock, said that she was attracted to the contradiction between the noble ideals of scientific pursuit and the sexism abundant in the labs at the time the novel is set. The contrast between the pursuit of truth and selective blindness, the challenge of depicting characters that fall just short of being truly good—these are powerful temptations for any writer, and good story ingredients. Science offers plenty of both.
Making them all scientists also gives the writer the opportunity of setting a story in a very specific culture with its own language, jokes, and mannerisms. Writers can play with code words and inside jokes, show the risk of breaking the unwritten rules and the subsequent embarrassment, and treat readers to the excitement of listening in to conversation that is understandable but opaque enough in places to be intriguing or even funny.
And here lies one of the greatest challenges for the writer, at least for me. One the one hand, the scientific concerns in the story mustn't be too opaque to the reader to care, especially if they are important to the characters themselves (e.g., if they are competing to be the first to solve a problem, or find a proof, or hunt down a legendary document. The stakes have to be clear). They also mustn't be so far off the wall as to be ridiculous—think here of the countless movie scenes in which some stereotypical crazy-eyed white-coat is raving about prime numbers or the Fibonacci series.
Most importantly, in my opinion: fictional scientists should not do too much of what real scientists do—lecture. And the writer shouldn't start lecturing, either. The urgency to add more information "because it's important, and no one will 'get it' if I leave it out" is familiar to anyone who ever tried to condense months or years of research into a paper or a conference talk. And it's true: to a scientist, the beauty of a finding often lies in one particular detail. The desire to convey the full significance of this detail is only natural. Helping the reader grasp a crucial mathematical concept or a surprising empirical result, or (
) is one of the most satisfying experiences a writer can hope for. Unfortunately, I myself am more familiar with the following feedback on my first drafts: "Reading all these technical details gave me a headache."
Personally, I try to do the following when I revise these headache-inducing first drafts. I want to keep the way the scientists in my stories talk believable and convincing. Part of this is that they do not explain the obvious. They share terms, assumptions, and a vast set of references. Their dialogue will resemble a match between practiced tennis players: Readers will be able to appreciate it without expecting to join in. I make sure to listen to real conversations before writing my own in order to get a sense of typical statements, sentences, the kind of jokes that are told, the sound and feel of these conversations—which will be short, a signal that this world is real, nothing more.
If a scientific issue is at the heart of the story, I will make sure to clarify what it is so the reader can appreciate it. If at all possible, I will do so in simple sentences and in a neutral tone (remember, this is revision, and my prime goal will be to cause no more headaches). I will leave it up to the characters to show the excitement, frustration, and the thrill of discovery. Real scientists rarely say, "This problem has been defying me for years, and I'm on the verge of giving up." They rarely shout, "Eureka! My life's work is now complete, and all the pain has been worth it." They all act differently.
I try to think of scientists as characters like any other characters. They shrug on their specific words and manners like an invisible coat, and at the heart of the story they get naked again. If they speak about strange things, that is fine—as long as the strangeness is true to the strangeness found in life, and the underlying emotional concerns are clear.