Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Deep Bench of Tertiary Characters

I have to confess, there's a small part of me that cringes whenever I realize I need another character.  Or characters.  Especially a character with a name.  Because I know, each named character adds a new dimension of complexity, and with that, the risk of losing a reader who doesn't want to keep track of too many characters. 

Usually, such a character first comes into the story on a purely functional basis: I need someone for Colin to talk to in this scene.  I need Jeric to have a peer group among the Tarian initiates. I need Lesk to be building up his own crew of neighborhood flunkies.  Serving the mechanical needs of the story, keeping the gears moving.  This is fine, of course, but in and of itself, rarely dynamic. 

So I put myself in the frame of mind of my theatre roots: make every role interesting.  Think in terms of casting: what would a great character actor do with this part?*  How can I make it more than just functional, but without going off on a tangent that has little to do with the rest of the story? 

On top of that, it's often in these tertiary characters that the biggest surprises of the writing process is born.  Something that starts as functional blossoms into a more crucial role.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Deep Space Nine**: Damar.  Damar first shows up in the 4th season episode "Return to Grace", and his purpose is entirely functional.  He's the guy on the bridge of Dukat's ship who speaks, so someone can say those "Target at four hundred thousand, sir" and "Phasers ready" lines.  He's the personification of Dukat's whole crew, and little else.  But over the course of the series, he stayed at Dukat's right hand as Dukat became the de jure leader of Cardassia under Dominion rule.   And once Dukat's madness removed him from that position, there was Damar: now the puppet in charge, and the slow cost that had on his soul became a key storyline in the final season.  

Not too shabby for a character that starts out as purely functional.

And that, I think, is the key aspect when bringing any new named character into the mix: investing them with the potential to become something so much more.  I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've started a new scene and realized that the best choice of POV character for that scene is someone I hadn't even considered existing when I drafted the outline. 

The other key aspect?  Keep the names dynamic.  I know when I'm reading a book-- especially a sci-fi or fantasy book-- and there's some minor character named Vesslin and another one named Vettlan I am going to mix up which one is which.  Heck, when I was twelve and tried to reader Lord of the Rings for the first time, I couldn't keep Sauron and Saruman straight.  They were both bad guys with S-r-n name constructions.***

Right now on Way of the Shield I'm working on a scene where a functional character exists to bring a main character from Point A to Point B-- in a literal, "get him on a carriage and deliver him somewhere" way.  In writing the scene, I asked myself, "Who is this guy, and how did he get this job?", and in asking that, I found a common thread between him and the main character in the scene, which then helps build his story, and does a bit of worldbuilding work in the process.

Again,  not too shabby for a character that starts out as purely functional.

 *- An interesting effect of the success of the Harry Potter movies is how it managed to get some of Britain's greatest actors to do little more than oddly-dressed cameos. 
**- I do use Star Trek examples a lot, don't I?
***- Tolkien's habit of giving the same character multiple names didn't help me much either.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Space Opera Worldbuilding: Building the Non-Humanocentric Universe

You are probably familiar with the Bechdel Test*- while not a test of quality or even feminist credential, it is at least an interesting gauge to be aware of as a writer.  You're not necessarily doing something wrong if your story doesn't pass, but you should at least interrogate why your story doesn't pass.

Now, let us apply that thinking to science-fiction, more specifically that brand of space-opera where humans are part of a rich interstellar setting, filled with many alien species.  For that, consider the "Space Opera Bechdel", if you will.  To pass, a work must have a scene where:
  1. There are two alien characters of different, identified species
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than humans.
 For counterpoint, this is more the sort of thing you usually see when two different aliens talk:

Now, I'm not saying that's bad.  In fact, this scene is one of the best "aliens talk about humans" scenes out there, possibly because it doesn't raise us up to be the end-all, be-all, center-of-awesomeness that help define the interstellar region.  In Trek, humanity are a superpower, even if they are part of a multi-species Federation, it's very clear humans are the center of it.  Starfleet is mostly human, a carryover of an Earth-based organization, with its training academy in San Fransisco.  The capital of the Federation is also on Earth.

Of course, it's easier to focus on humanity's role in a potential future.  We are who we know the best, and in trying to make aliens-- even really alien aliens-- the best we can hope to do is show aliens filtered through a fact of humanity, or focus on what humanity is not.  But we remain the lens we see the universe through.

For me, part of the solution is keeping humanity from being a superpower.  To put it in terms of metaphor, a lot of works make humanity the equivalent of the US in the later half of the 20th Century.  My tactic is to make them the equivalent of the US in beginning of the 19th: not a player on the interstellar stage, and regarded with a bit of respectful skepticism by the superpowers of the day.  

The other part of the solution is to do one's best to give each alien culture depth.  This doesn't mean working out a full history, all the separate nation states, religions, rituals, and so forth.  If you're populating a full universe, that's a herculean task that isn't worth it.  But every culture should have the potential for that depth.  For example, if said culture is in space at all, you have to be able to believe that they've had a history of scientists and adventurers who've pushed the envelope to reach the stars.  

Anything less will just seem lazy.


*- In brief:  a work has to have 1. at least two [named] women in it 2. who talk to each other 3. about something besides a man.  It was first come up with for movies, but I think it applies just as well to novels.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Failure of Book Trailers, and the Rare Exception

As I've mentioned before, book trailers are something I'm of two minds about.  As a novelist with a film degree, I really like the idea of them.  But, also,  as a novelist with a film degree, I really hate, for the most part, what I've actually seen.

With rare exception, the best I've been able to say about any book trailer is that it didn't actively impair my interest in reading the book it was advertising.  Though I have seen several that did actively impair my interest.

But I don't agree with the premise that I've heard from some corners, that book trailers are just wrong; that since they are using one medium (audio-visual) to sell a completely different medium (text), they are intrinsically doomed to failure.

I think they are doomed because, at the heart of it, most of them are being made by people who don't understand the video medium.  Many of them use static images-- either cover art or stock pictures*-- and have some Ken Burns effect and kinetic typography to give some sense of motion.  If there's sound, it's public domain music or stock effects. Whatever text it uses is either blurbs from reviews, or synopsis boiled down to Twitter-length. That isn't filmic; it's attempting to make a dynamic experience out of reading the back cover.  Furthermore, since the people making them don't understand filmic language, they don't pace it properly at all.  Trailers take up to two a half minutes to give thirty seconds of information. Add to that the frequent use of stock images and sounds, and the net result is something painfully generic. 

An overlong, uninteresting commercial telling me how your book is so unremarkable, it can be reduced to key words and generic pictures?  Well, I'll run to the book store for that!

But then, there is that rare exception:

This trailer for Warren Ellis's "Gun Machine" is narrated by Wil Wheaton and illustrated by Ben Templesmith.  Right off the bat, it's loaded with some professionalism.  That helps a lot.  What else do we have here?  We've got a solid narration that comes straight from the text, and it's loaded with hooks.  I don't know if this is the very beginning of the book or not, but it feels like it is, and it's got me intrigued. 

So, key point number one: instead of telling us about the book, it uses what the book is.

Secondly, we have original imagery that is specifically created for this video.   Even though the images themselves are static, it is made dynamic by seeing them being created.   They tie directly to the text.  It enhances what we're hearing.  It's specifically engaging and relevant to the audio. 

It clocks in at 2:30, and at no point does it feel like it's wasting my time.

That's how it should be done.
*- Which are often the same thing, sadly.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Worldbuilding: Great Forces of History

We present the following not as a matter of law, to be debated by a council of lords or ignored by a monarch, but as a matter of truth: the rights enumerated here are not granted by government or ratification.  They are intrinsic to every man, ever person, be they born on Druth soil, traveled from the far edges of the world, or dragged to our shores in chains.  They are immutable, given to any infant from the moment breath is drawn.  They cannot be denied or removed or decreed away, either by the whim of nobility, or by the tyranny of popular ignorance.

Preamble to "Rights of Man"
Geophry Haltom, Maradaine, 1011

In my first pass of the history of Druthal, I establish 1009 as a key year, equivalent to 1776 or 1066 in terms of critical importance-- but at that point, I didn't give it significant details.  The set-up was that, for three centuries, Druthal had shattered into many separate kingdoms, and the whole area was plagued with war, inquisition and tyrrany.  By the beginning of the eleventh century, things were at their darkest.  A conqueror known only as The Black Mage* swept across the petty kingdoms, eventually marching on Maradaine in 1009.  He immediately executes the elderly king (Maradaine IX), placing Maradaine X on the throne as his puppet.  For two months of brutal oppression, the Black Mage held the city, until he was finally ousted by a combined effort of rebellion.  With Maradaine X also dead by the end of this period, his young son was named Maradaine XI, and with the help of his various advisers, he reunified Druthal as a Parliamentary Monarchy.

That was the rough draft; "various advisers" was something I needed to flesh out.  You can give an elementary school understanding of the American Revolution with just the Declaration of Independence, 1776 and George Washington, and that was pretty much the level of detail I had worked out.  But that wasn't going to be enough for what I needed. 

I needed to rebuild Druthal, and of course that wasn't something that could just happen with the snap of someone's fingers in 1009.  Changing from a handful of weak monarchies to an elected body in conjunction with a monarchy would require great minds, and not a small amount of painful midwifing.  Messy and real. 

This is where Geophry Haltom comes in: a city alderman who raised up a rebellion within the city to throw off the Black Mage’s occupation, and then encouraged the newly enthroned King Maradaine XI to form the Parliament, to ensure that the rights of the people would stay in the hands of the people.  In addition, he wrote "The Rights of Man", as noted in the preamble above.

Now, I know that I don't write with the eloquence of, say, a Jefferson, Hamilton or Madison: but in any worldbuilding one does, it's important to realize that beyond just the kings and wars, history is made by the thinkers, philosophers and scientists. 

Since Way of the Shield is a political thriller, knowing those details about not only Druthal's politics, but its political origins is crucial.  Druthal didn't have Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson or Madison.  It did have Mikarum, Haltom, Jethiah and Inton, though.  It doesn't have the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but it does have the Rights of Man and the Articles of Reunification.  Understanding what those are, and more importantly, what those mean to the Druth people, gives me insight into the Druth political character. 

*- A name I'm kind of torn on now.  On one hand, I like the simplicity of it; on the other, it's kind of on-the-nose Evil Overlord.  I'm open to changing it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Worldbuilding: Complexity in the Political Landscapes

As part of Way of the Shield, I've been delving deeper into the politics of Druthal.  In doing so, I'm taking into account the same thing I said about strawmen villains, but taking that to a macro scale.  Sure, it would be easy to break the Parliament into two sides, and say, "This side are the right-thinking heroes, and this side are the villainous morons".  But then you don't have a story, you have a screed.  If a screed is what you want to write, go for it.  Didn't hurt Ayn Rand's sales.  But that doesn't interest me.

Druthal is a Parliamentary Monarchy, in which I've played some mix-and-match with aspects from traditional monarchies, parliamentary systems and healthy dose of US-style democracy.  It's not a perfect system.  It's not supposed to be.  It's a messy, flawed sausage grind, and that's what I like about it. 

The Druth Parliament probably has more in common with the US Senate than, say, the British Parliament.*   There are 100 members (Chairs) to the august body, 10 from each of the archduchies.  Each Chair serves a 5-year term, with no term limits.  Elections are staggered, so every year there are two chairs per archduchy up for re-election.  Chairs are ranked by seniority, so the 1st Chair of Acora is the longest-serving member from that archduchy, 2nd Chair of Acora is second-longest, and so on to 10th Chair for the newest member. 

Elections are not winner-take-all, since two Chairs are available in any given election.  Once votes are counted and illegitimate ones are tossed**, the top two candidates receive the Chairs.   Since no candidate needs an actual majority to win a Chair, there are more than two political parties holding Chairs in the Parliament.  In fact, there are six.***

Now, in designing these six, it was very important to give each party a valid platform that people can believe in.  No one is "wrong".

  • Traditionalists (or "Dishers", colloquially) believe in the fundamental necessity of archduchies (and below that, duchies and baronies) understanding their own needs.  They want to maintain and strengthen the local authority of minor nobility; a baron knows his own barony better than anyone else, after all.  
  • Loyalists ("Crownies") believe that Druthal needs to stand as a united nation, that a strong center, where everyone is given access to the same infrastructure, rights and opportunity raises the whole nation up.  
  • Free Commerce ("Minties") believe that Druthal grows by trade and business, and by providing the means for commerce to thrive (including secure, easily traveled roads, well-protected sea-routes and minimal taxes and tariffs), the average Druth has the opportunity to succeed on their own merits.
  • Ecclesials ("Books") believe in the fundamentals of community and moral centers, and that the grounding the church gives serves the needs of the people, on a local level, far more than any well-meaning directive from the capitol.  
  • Functionalists ("Frikes") do not hold to specific ideologies of "what is good for Druthal"-- what's good is what works; if it doesn't work, you don't keep grinding at it.  They do tend to believe that simple, small steps work better in the long run than grand, sweeping gestures, and that moderation is the key to functionality.
  • Populists ("Salties") believe that the people themselves are the backbone of Druthal, and that the core industries of day-to-day living (farming, ranching, mining, fishing, etc.) are the true center that everything is built off of.  By helping the people who do those things, all of Druthal is helped.
Now, in order to actually get anything done in the Parliament, of course, coalitions must be formed.  Loyalists and Free Commerce tend to vote together one way, and Traditionalists and Ecclesials tend to vote together the other way, and Functionalists and Populists tend to be swing votes.  In 1215, when Way of the Shield takes place, the Ruling Coalition consists of the Loyalists, Free Commerce and the Functionalists-- with the Frikes being the uneasiest of allies-- holding 53 Chairs.  Traditionalists and Ecclesials form the Opposition Coalition, with 41 Chairs.  The Populists do not belong to either Coalition, but with only 6 Chairs, they have the weakest voice in the Parliament.  However, since the Frikes are the least likely to vote with uniformity, the Populists can be a crucial swing vote on any given issue.

All of this, of course, is mostly the under-the-surface part of Way of the Shield; I've gotten more infodumpish here than I do in the actual text.  The important part, for me, is the shades of grey.  There is no these-people-are-right-these-people-are-wrong dichotomies.  I have heroes on both sides of the aisle, as it were, and villains as well.

And for me, that makes for a more interesting story.

*- This is mostly because I am American, and I'm far more familiar with our government than anyone else's. 
**- Most common form of this tends to be people voting for someone ineligible; namely, someone who is already serving and isn't actually up for re-election in that cycle.
***- At least, six that have members in the Parliament.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Villains Made of Straw

One of the easiest traps a writer can fall into is making their villains just be wrong.  Especially if your story has some kind of political slant to it.

I mean, sure, it makes things nice and simple for you: bad guys are bad, so good guys win by being right and good and awesome.  High fives!  Also: boring.  Since your bad guys only exist to prop up arguments that you, the author, think are stupid, you'll frame the argument in the easiest way to knock down.  And since your protagonist's arguments are just so filled with your righteous rightness, they never face up to a real challenge. 

That's really easy to knock some holes into.

Case in point:  I recently was reading a handful of reviews for a SF book that takes a decidedly political stance.  There were, to be fair, many 5-star reviews, written by people who share that political stance, because the book validates their worldview.  But there were also many 1-star reviews, hammering the holes in the heroes political system, and how the bad guys were made to look like incompetent buffoons propping up an idiotic regime. 

Another case in point: Heavily armed Stormtroopers defeated by teddy bears with spears.

Yet another: The West Wing is now streamable on Netflix, and the strawmen don't get much more scarecrow-like than Gov. Ritchie, the Republican candidate Pres. Bartlet faces in his re-election campaign.  Ritchie is a stuffed shirt, and you learn all you need to know, all there is to know, in his response to hearing about a Secret Service agent killed in a random bodega robbery: "Boy, crime.  I don't know."  This is a guy who literally has nothing to say.   It sets up a satisfying slapdown*, but it doesn't create an adversary that's worthy of Jed Bartlet.

That's the key: nothing makes your heroes more interesting than giving them who is not only worthy of them, but who also can make a cogent argument explaining that they just might be right.  Give me a real, detailed antagonist that you, the writer, can believe in as much as your hero.  Then you've delivered something interesting.


*- "For the record, 'Boy, crime, I don't know' is when I decided to kick your ass."

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Worldbuilding: Space Opera and the Future of Food

 I take the food aspect of worldbuilding pretty seriously, as you can tell.   This is just as true in Sci-fi and Space Opera as it is in Fantasy. 

On some level, I've often been disappointed by a lot of the SF I've read and watched along these lines.  Not that I necessarily want some sort of long infodump of alien farming, but food sourcing gets elided quite often.

Take, for example, the Replicators on Star Trek.  I kind of hate them.  They're a cheap answer to a major element of civilized culture.  On TNG, it even gives them the "high ground" to look down their nose at another species that still, you know, eats actual meat.  Because in their enlightened future, they don't need to deal with any messy reality of food production.  How do we feed ourselves?  We talk to a hole in the wall, and it appears like magic.

But taking magic tech out of the equation, the practical realities of how people produce, store and prepare food-- especially on long, deep space flights-- should be a worldbuilding element the writer is aware of, even if they never talk about it much. 

A fantastic resource Space Opera writers should check out is Mary Roach's Packing for Mars.  In it, Roach digs into every little practical "but what about this?" question that NASA was thought of (and they really thought about all of them), and solutions they've come up with, as well as the ones they still struggle with.  Food supplies for a manned mission to Mars is a major concern.*  The whole book is worth the time.

Alien foods are another thing to consider, specifically in terms of humans eating alien foods.  Now, biochemistry is not even remotely a strong suit of mine, but I'm given to understand that it's highly unlikely we'd be able to digest alien biomatter, let alone extract useful nutrients out of it.  Presuming no negative reactions**, it would just pass through our systems untouched.

However-- they still may be interesting to eat. Spices, for example.  We don't really get useful nutrients out of pepper or cinnamon or cumin, but they all make food more interesting. Alien spices can create unique culinary opportunities.   And that's also where xenobiodiversity can come into play, especially in terms of interspecies trade.  In the future you build, the trade of raw materials will, of course, be crucial, but there's nothing unique to, say the gold or molybdenum*** found on Earth compared to the gold or molydbenum on Starkasia or Paxica or wherever else people go in the galaxy.  But paprika?  Now that's something you can't get anywhere else.  That could be worth quite a lot out there.


*- As is the human waste element, which Roach gets into as well.  There were NASA scientists who suggested the possibility of having the problems solve each other: the waste material could be purified and used as a raw protein base to be repurposed as a food supply.  Scientifically possible.  But astronauts in the discussion shot this down: "We're not eat shitburgers on the ride home."
**- Which, I would imagine, would be more likely to be allergic reactions rather than toxic ones. 
***- Or whatever matters.  "Molybdenum" is just a fun name.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Worldbuilding: Alien Perspectives and Communication

I've been thinking of late about how aliens, upon first meeting, would establish communication, as well as how communication continues once those baselines of communication have been laid down. 

As far as starting things out, there's plenty of talk of using the language of math and science to establish initial codes.  For a very rudimentary example of this:

Now, just about any species capable of, say, achieving
spaceflight should be able to look at this and decode-- from the top part-- the mathematical truism that is the Pythagorean Theorem.*  Then looking at the bottom part, they should be able to decode that it's saying the exact same thing in another way... and from there, discern details about the English language, how it's constructed.  You construct several of these images, and transmit them to the aliens you hope to talk to, and cross your fingers that those shoulds line up, and that you don't offend said aliens who think you're trying to patronize them and teach them basic math.

Of course, getting those shoulds to line up still makes assumptions.  For example: "look at this".  What if said alien species is, as we would understand it, blind?  Would they even have developed the equivalent of Euclidean geometry? Or, at the very least, would it mean the same thing to them?  What about a species that relies more on, say, echolocation and perfect pitch?  Would their Euclid equivalent instead come up with fundamental mathematics based off of musical pitches and frequencies? 

Even presuming we can get all that, then there's culture shock.  I'm still figuring out where to start with that.  Take, for example, how we and other species might process "scary".  A species that's eight feet tall, with six long, spindly legs, winged arms like a bat and a face like a lamprey would, probably, on first meeting, look terrifying.  But at the same time, our beauty-contest winners would still look like just another rat to them.  We might both react with fear at seeing each other, and that fear could seem utterly rational, but at the same time be completely unexplainable to the other party. 

So how hard is going to be, opening a dialogue with someone who makes you want to run screaming from the room, and the same time they think that you think they need to study 5th grade math?

There's a great short story by Kij Johnson, Spar, in which a human woman is stuck in an alien lifepod with an alien creature.  There is no meaningful communication.  There's only, from her perspective, constant sexual activity that wavers between consensual and non-consensual.  She doesn't know if what it's doing to her is, as far as it's concerned, a sexual act.  She isn't sure if it thinks of her as an intelligent being.  She's not even sure if it is an intelligent being; she might be having sex with the alien equivalent of a cat. 

And that might be what it comes down to: just not knowing anything, because there's no common ground at all.

*- Completely tangential**, but every time the Pythagorean Theorem comes up, I can't help but think of one of the dumbest moments in early Star Trek: Next Generation.  Having assembled Data's evil brother Lore, the crew (not knowing Lore is evil) is showing him how the helm on the Enterprise works.  Riker brings up the first half of the Pythagorean Theorem, which Lore automatically finishes, before stopping himself and feigning that it was something he had overheard but didn't really understand.  I'm not sure which part of this whole exchange is dumber: that Riker thought that tricking Lore into revealing he knew the PT was a clever trick at all, or that Lore thought that pretending he, an android, didn't understand middle-school geometry, was somehow a clever ruse. 
**- Ha!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Story Sale and other Small Victories

So, to start, I got excellent news on New Year's Day.  Namely, I sold a short story, "Jump the Black", to Rick Klaw's upcoming anthology "Rayguns Over Texas".  Rayguns is an anthology of original science fiction by TX authors, is scheduled for release at LoneStarCon 3 (aka the 2013 Science Fiction Worldcon in San Antonio, TX).  It'll also have stories from Michael Moorcock, Neal Barrett, Jr., Joe Lansdale, Aaron Allston, Don Webb, Stina Leicht, and many other people who are far cooler than me.  Seriously, if it was Ocean's 11, I'd be the Matt Damon of the group. 

Obviously, I'm thrilled.  This literally happened on January 1st, and I'm taking it as a sign for the year to come. 

Here's one thing I've learned in the process of cutting my teeth in this business: take every small victory.  This particular one is a great one, and it's an easy one to crow about.  It has a tangibility I can point to: there will be a book with a story I wrote in it.  Other victories, other little milestones I have passed, don't have that same sense of accomplishment.  At least, not the way you can really explain to people who aren't/haven't done the same things. 

Back when I was still querying, for example.  Getting a full-request was a pretty big deal, something that puts me in the top 0.1% of everyone who says, "I'm gonna write a book."  But it doesn't actually put a book in bookstores or money in my pocket.  At the time, I was pretty proud of that milestone, but it wasn't something I felt I could make a big deal out of.  However, around that time, I ran into an actor friend I hadn't seen in a while, and when I mentioned it-- as well as that feeling that it wasn't really much of a victory-- he said, "I know exactly what you mean.  It's like getting a 3rd Callback, where you know the part is down to you and a couple other guys.  It gives you some validation, that you have talent... but it still isn't a job booked."

Still, I savor these moments.  The big one is coming.  I feel it in my marrow.