Characters are the Real focus of the SciFi novel Ground Control


While author Karen Hough does a lot well with Ground Control, one of the key elements she gets right is this understanding of conflict. Grant and Sarah are fully imagined characters, and Hough takes the time to develop each of them. Key to that development, of course, is understanding what drives these characters, and so what forms their wants and needs. This, Hough and most authors understand, is what drives conflict. What Grant wants is to make this mission to Mars. Its incredibly dangerous and could mean he'd never see his family again, but he wants this because this is what he's worked for his entire career. Sarah wants only to keep her family safe and together, and to maintain this life that she has built with Grant here on earth. It is a good life, they are both already successful, so this trip seems like an unnecessary risk.


Of course, these aren't their only wants and needs, which means these aren't the only conflicts portrayed in the novel, and even with the resolution of these conflicts (Not a real spoiler alert: The book is Sci Fi and called Ground Control, so guess who's going on this Martian trip), more conflict is bred. Because that's the way it works. Resolution to one problem often lets more problems arise.


Hough does this well, and lets this drive the plot, as it should. Her characters are fully realized and her vision of this world and the people in it is full.


But that can cause an issue, and one that a lot of authors living in this age are dealing with. Where do we pause the story to offer up a description, and where do we let the imagination run trusting that our readers have seen similar scenes in movies and TV? What is "just enough" description. Too much and you risk being showy, and your book reads like a technical manual. What's the rule? If you do research for a book, let it be as far in the background as possible? But not enough description would have the opposite effect. Oh, this author has watched too many movies.


I feel like, for the most part, Hough walks that fine line pretty carefully, though there were a few times in the novel I would have liked a bit more description. For example, when Sarah met with Nancy and John in Chapter Eleven, I wanted to see more about the restaurant they meet at. Not a lot more. I know it isn't integral to the story, but I wanted an idea of where they were meeting. Perhaps a quirky detail about the place. Such details and little things could say a lot about a character. The restaurant Nancy and John suggested could reveal something about their characters that we wouldn't get through dialogue or through Sarah's stream of consciousness.


This is something I look for in writing, but it doesn't mean everyone does. Hough also has a habit of starting chapters with "she" or with dialogue where I try to start scenes with character names and narration. Now, as this novel is limited third person, it can be easily assumed that the "she" is most always Sarah, but I'm speaking towards preferences. In terms of craft, these aren't egregious or even universally recognized, but are basically author preferences.


While this might not work for every author, in Hough's novel, "she" or scenes opened by dialogue or minimalist descriptions don't deter from the book. If anything, it keeps the focus on the characters. This is where it should be. Starting a scene with dialogue lets the reader jump into the action and lets the reader jump into the CONFLICT. We see what the characters are engaged in and how they are relating to each other. And rather than inundate us with needless descriptions that do nothing for the narrative, Hough lets us live in Sarah's head. We see what she sees. We remember what she remembers. We feel what she feels and think what she thinks.


This is, in the end, a successful character study of a woman and the upheaval of her life. Sure, it has a Sci Fi bent, and while the Sci Fi drives the story and grounds the story (and I love a good Sci Fi story), it is the characters that are the real heart.


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