High concept, as best I understand it, refers to a story in which the ideas underlying the plot take precedence, perhaps even to the detriment of character development. Star Wars is sometimes cited as an example, as with its epic space-battles, Empire vs. Resistance theme, and surplus of action and adventure, there was little room – especially given the time limitations of the film medium – for character development. Yet Star Wars was successful for its concept, one that spawned many a spin-off, from comic books to video games, not to mention the six films.
Certainly high concept and character development need not be mutually exclusive, as evidenced by Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. I anticipate that many will argue my classification of the book as high concept at all. Who Fears Death is a speculative fiction novel set in post-apocalyptic Sudan. The apocalypse is so “post” in fact, that we never learn, nor does it even matter, what circumstances brought about the end of the world we know, replacing it with a seemingly endless expanse of desert and a peppering of ruined technology.
The focus, instead, is on the future. The narrator, Onyesonwu, is about to be stoned to death, and she is recounting the tale of how she came to be in that situation. As the readers, we are permanently invested in how the story’s present will lead to those circumstances, and as such are pulled along towards an inevitable conclusion.
This made for an interesting narrative strategy, because while on the one hand it created a sense of urgency and anxiety, there was also a loss of suspense, because regardless of what dangerous circumstances found her, we could disregard anything that did not lead Onyesonwu to the execution chamber. There was the prevailing sense that like in the Great Book heralded by the people of the story, everything that was to happen was already written. Of course, literally, every story we read is already written, or there would be no book, but that sense is not necessarily present in the reading. This kind of thing is often subverted when the narrator’s own expectations are defied for how things will ultimately play out. But in Who Fears Death, there was the sense of an inescapable fate. One perhaps, preordained by an almighty force.
Coming back to the idea of “high concept”, Who Fears Death, for its fatalistic structure, could have easily fallen into the trap of giving the overall plot precedence over the characters. Yet, on the contrary, the vast majority of the book was spent developing the characters as they traveled – no, were pulled along – towards their fate.
We come to regard Onyesonwu as a woman of indomitable will and purpose, yet in spite of that, the sense prevails that for all her strength, there is nothing at all that she can do to avoid her fate. The story – the concept – is in fact, stronger, and no matter how she struggles, she is to be merely whipped about in the figurative sandstorm. The prospect of Onyesonwu’s death hangs heavily over the entire story, reinforced by the characters’ own awareness of their fate by way of prophetic visions. It becomes almost oppressive in its inevitability.
Yet Who Fears Death is a study in contrasts, because while the characters are ruled by their circumstances, they are developed into fully-realized, living, breathing, believable people. It may be for this reason that the tension created by the sense of unavoidable fate is so strong, because most of us do not subscribe to such fatalistic notions, and so therefore neither should those characters with which we identify.
There is also a contrast that comes as the plot itself is turned on its head by the actions of the characters. Before she is executed, Onyesonwu manages to “rewrite” the Great Book – and again, how this happens seems to be completely beyond her control – in the process altering the fate of the world and its characters in subtle ways. Ways that left room for the changes to be perceived by those who were attuned to such things – as were other sorcerers like Onyesonwu herself.
The novel ends with a rewrite of the first chapter, in which Onyesonwu is not stoned to death, but rather destroys her captors and escapes, heading off in search of those she had lost: her lover, her friends, who fate had cruelly wrested from her before taking her life. But could they, who died before the point of revision, still live elsewhere, in a world literally outside of the story told in the Great Book? Perhaps.
This interplay between fate and self-determination, the meta-concept of a novel about a Great Book that once rewritten changes the structure of the novel itself, is an absolute mind-fuck, albeit a good one. And it is for this reason that I would call Who Fears Death a high concept novel. Yet for the precedence of its ideas, it remains a book full of strong characterizations, ones that both determine and are determined by the course of the narrative.