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I am writing a science fantasy novel, but I think I should re-write it completely. Let me explain the situation.

Here's the concept of my novel: The story takes place in an alternate world where a minority of residents are "angels". Each angel is an embodiment of a branch/concept of science, and unlike humans, they can cast magic. Teaching science to humans is their duty.

What I'm trying to achieve from this setting is to have an educational effect on the reader. The angels act as science teachers not only to human characters, but also to real humans who are reading the book.

The problem is, my novel is becoming just a science textbook in disguise. I've taken Der Zahlenteufel (The Number Devil) as the reference to take ideas from, and just like how this novel is just a math textbook (for children) in disguise, my novel is becoming one for science.

That said, let me show the plot. The protagonist is Berta Newton, the alternate-world counterpart to Isaac Newton, and is an angel. Her student is Joseph-Louis Lagrange, a human. Berta is to teach Lagrange Newtonian Mechanics, and Lagrange is to develop his own theories (Lagrangian mechanics) to be encrowned to an angel too.

I think the reason of the problem is the lack of building the antagonist. I still haven't succeeded in finding who this would be, and what they would do to compromise Berta's and Lagrange's mission. There are some unsure options:

  • Maybe the antagonist is a pseudo-scientist advocating their own pseudoscience, and Berta is to debunk them.

  • Maybe the antagonist is an anti-scientist disparaging Berta's works, and Lagrange is to defend her.

  • Or maybe... just let the antagonist be a chaotic evil destroying the world, and let Berta act as the hero, using her science magics.

These options will result in completely different stories. What would be the best option when my novel is meant to teach the reader science? Are there any other fitting options?

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  • It's a kinda ironic idea that beings that represent science do so by using magic, which is an inherently anti-scientific concept. Although that could of course be handwaved by Clarke's 3rd law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic").
    – Philipp
    Apr 5, 2023 at 10:37
  • @Philipp Well, though being an embodiment of a science, Berta would consider her magics as just tools of teaching science. If magic helps, it helps. Apr 5, 2023 at 23:01

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If you want to write a novel where you want to teach the audience certain virtues, then the most obvious shtick for a villain is when they eschew those virtues. A good example is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. One pet issue of the author is "people should read books". So he often describes sympathetic characters as "well-read", while villainous characters shun reading books.

You could do the same. When the message you want to give to your audience is "Science is good", then the villains should have a theme of being anti-science. What are typical anti-science character traits?

  • Trust your gut instinct over facts and data. Refuse to believe things that just don't seem right to you. "I don't care about your statics calculations. That bridge looks perfectly stable to me".
  • Hate people who try to convince you that what you believe is wrong, and actively prevent them from even trying it. Take it as an insult and personal defeat when they succeed anyway.
  • Glorify your lack of scientific education. "I am not one of those science nerds who keep learning useless stuff all day and answer questions nobody asked. I do real work and make real accomplishments".
  • Take pride in not faltering in your believes. "Nothing will ever convince me"!
  • Hold the opinion that certain knowledge should be taboo and not be taught to people. "If we teach people about this scientific principle, they are just going to abuse it".
  • Be afraid of innovation. "We have always done it that way".
  • Intentionally spread scientific misinformation that personally benefits you. "My homeopathic remedies work. Here is a scientific study I totally didn't make up. Only today, everything 50% off"!

As you can probably imagine, people with those character traits can generate a lot of conflict. Especially when they are in a position of authority. And they are all character traits that unfortunately too often appear in real people. Probably in some people your audience knows from the media or from their personal life. So they are traits you can easily give to characters without making them seem implausible.

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When the goal of the novel is to teach the reader, then lack of understanding can be the antagonist in the novel, too. The protagonists in the novel could be up against a problem, and to resolve it, they might need to learn something first.

Simple example:

A kid (the protagonist) wants to participate in and if possible win the annual school bike race (goal) to impress a girl who loves to do bike races (stakes), but his bike has a flat tire (antagonist). So the kid has to learn to repair his bike. He repairs his bike, but doesn't win the bike race. But some time after the race he sees the girl with a flat tire on her way home from school. He approaches her and offers to help her. While they push the bikes to his home and repair the bike, they get to know each other and decide to go cycling together. Eventually the girl falls in love with him (happy end).

There are many stories, for adults and kids, where solving a technical problem is crucial to the plot. Think of all the scientists that provide the decisive clue in crime fiction or the technicians that keep space ships from losing air or crashing into the sun. Often the details of the science or technology are glossed over or fictional, but you can easily use such a story pattern and use it to explain real science and its application in detail.

For example, in a book someone might have to build a makeshift bridge over some chasm. You can then explain the principles of tension forces and how they change with the angles of the ropes. Later they have to lift something heavy to free something below it and have to find a stick long enough for the task. You can now explain forces and levers. Later they build a block and tackle. Or calculate break distance. And so on. In that way you can have many situations spread over a narrative in which you sucessively explain more and more about a certain aspect of science (in this case force) without the explanation overwhelming the narrative completely.

At the same time, there can be an additional living protagonist. The kid reparing bikes can be competing with another boy for the girl. Or the kids using their understanding of forces can be part of some middle grade detective adventure where they attempt to solve a case and catch a criminal.

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    Agreed here. Remember an "antagonist" need not be an anthropomorphized thing. Consider that the plot of any episode of "The Magic School Bus". One of the kids has a pet project that goes awry and the class investigate the science about what is really going on behind the problem and have to apply what they learned to the solution.
    – hszmv
    Apr 4, 2023 at 17:16
  • @hszmv Thank you for the great example. I think OP could profit from watching a couple of episodes of that series or reading a few of the original books: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magic_School_Bus_(book_series)
    – user55858
    Apr 5, 2023 at 6:50
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    It needs to be stress that Antagonism is not the same as Villainy. Antagonists need not be malicious towards the protagonist, they just need to be obstructive to the protagonist's goals. Villains are characters who are capable of human rationality and morality and are demonstrated to be morally bankrupt by the story. They are usually antagonistic but can be propagandistic in stories (Walter White from "Breaking Bad" or Anikan Skywalker in the prequel Star Wars films).
    – hszmv
    Apr 5, 2023 at 11:19
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I've never met a human person who is anti-science. I've met plenty who subscribe to ideas that are archaic, ambiguous or even wholly disproved, and plenty of them carried doctorates. Sure anti-intellectualism is a real problem, but the solution is not anti-spiritualism. Sagan made this point repeatedly and eloquently; be a steward, not a savior... (also be a humble teacher, which ties into your theme).

So personally, I would find an anti-science or Eville McBadbooks antagonist uninspiring and trite. Give me a dogmatic scientist who ignores new evidence because it is unproven, and/or because it undermines their foundational understanding/motivations, and/or uses ad hominem to attack the MC rather than consider possibilities with healthy, skeptical curiosity.

After all, it's both common and quite easy to misconstrue even the most sciency science. A quick google search of Stephen Jay Gould quotes would illustrate that. One of my favorites:

"In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.' I suppose that apples might start to rise in place of the sun tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."

And various renditions thereof.

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