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Monthly Archives: March 2015

From Worldbuilding to Characters

Everyone rights in a different way. Everyone starts a story in a different way. Most stories (I think) come from an idea of some sort, contained in one of the three aspects of the literary holy trinity of character, plot, and setting. Some writers start with a character, and imagine the events in their life (plot) and the society (world) that produced them, and develop their story around that. Others start with a plot (I wanna write a story about a group of cyberpunk mafiosos fighting the cheese-loving lunar people!), and from that develop a world (cyberpunk future in which mutant mice have gained sentience and telepathy and taken over the moon and human cheese supplies) and characters (the head mafioso and the head mouse).

Then there are writer’s like me, who tend to start with a world and then build characters and plot from it. My large “Juxian Mythos” universe (which I write in far less than I should, alas) was created from this process. I started with a pantheon of gods (the Elders and Ancients), and from that developed a mythology involving the end of the universe, and then imagined the peoples that populated it. Before I had even thought of point of view characters or a plot, I had thought out the history of this world (billions of years of it, from the start of the universe) and the major historical figures, events, wars, and imperial expansions.

Once I had a firm grasp on the universe and world(s) I would be operating in, I was able to pick historically interesting times to set a story in. The discovery of earth and its integration in universal society? The Jakken Trilogy. The foundation of the space druids? The (very) work in progress Tal’kan Saga. The infamous S’kari-Aleuvite War? A Deadly Dance. By having the whole of history to play with, I was able to identify moments that would be able to house interesting plot for stories (and would allow me to flesh out this world with multiple stories).

Once the macro-plot for a story was chosen, then it was time to select characters. When creating characters, you are selecting a point of view, a perspective from which you and the reader will see the world and experience the plot. Sometimes these characters are historically significant figures (such as Jakken), but side characters can also provide a unique perspective on the world and its action, especially when a non-elite commoner is telling us what is going on (something I employ, somewhat, in Sundering Stars)However, in this process, it is usually important to have at least one character be historically significant; you want the character to accomplish something worthwhile, don’t you (especially in my space opera-style science fiction)?

After you have your character, you then have the ability to create smaller plots around them. By selecting the relevant event, you have the larger plot, but not your focal characters’ roles in it. You develop those through sub-plots and micro-plots, where your character is the driving force, rather than the history of the world. Thus, my own process of story generation creates two levels of plots: history-driven macro-plots that produce big ideas, and character-driven micro-plots that add depth to the world (this dual nature of plots I will discuss in a future post)!

That, in a nutshell, is how I generate stories; from worldbuilding to characters. It is similar to how I run roleplaying games; I create a sandbox for characters to play in and shape, except instead of players playing characters, I control them all. While this method is especially useful for world in which you intend to set multiple stories, you can also use this method for one off stories, especially if you are exploring sociological ideas. Though initially character driven, Sundering Stars developed along a similar process (the above description being more of an ideal type process). I knew I wanted to include one particular character, but then I created a massive history in the world she lived in, and created other characters based on the world, not on her.

So, the story-generation process is messy, and I’d be interested to hear how other people come up with the ideas for their own stories. But for now, happy writing (and reading)!

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2015 in Writing

 

Time Enough For Love and The Dispossessed

It’s been a while since I updated my readers (few and far between though you are!) on my reading list (or much else, for that matter). I have, of late, been tearing through Terry Pratchett novels (rest in peace, Sir Terry), which are as brilliant, witty, and insightful as always (though I must admit, Unseen Academicals disappointed me; it started so strong and went in a direction I was ambivalent about; I think there weren’t enough wizards in it, in the end). I also, a while ago, made it through two more science fiction “classics” written by authors at opposite ends of the political spectrum: Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, and Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

Heinlein’s novel is really a collection of short stories linked together in varying ways. Some of these short stories are told by one of Heinlein’s recurring characters, the inestimable Lazarus Long/Woodrow Wilson Smith, while others chart Long’s “present day” situation. The stories range from the charming (“The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail”) to the annoyingly technical (“The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t”), to the somewhat… unsettling (“The Tale of the Adopted Daughter”) to the bizarre (“De Capo”) to the thought-provoking (“Boondock”). Scattered throughout these stories are collections of Lazarus Long’s ‘sayings,’ some of which were amusing, some sensible, and most were annoying to someone who did not share his particular political beliefs.

As was the case with Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s work here focuses on sex, and particularly what people today would consider somewhat transgressive sex. Heinlein was a vocal proponent of free love, and his treatment of open sexual/familial relationships was thought-provoking in “The Boondocks,” even if the early sexualization of his clones was slightly off-putting. However, in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter” Lazarus (a thinly-veiled stand-in for the author) sleeps with his adopted daughter, and in “The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t” there is brother/sister-like sex (it’s a bit more complex than that, though). In the series’ finale, Long also infamously falls in love with and sleeps with his mother. Somewhat taboo subjects, some of which I will admit made me squirm, but I am glad that Heinlein made me do that and question by own thoughts about human sexuality. Kudos to him for that.

Overall, the collection was uneven; some stories were slow-paced or boring, including most of the “current day” stories, while others were much more engaging and really drew me in. Throughout, however, the writing was brilliant; I read this book right after a lot of Asimov, so I appreciated the flowing writing.

LeGuin’s The Dispossessed was almost perfect. While Heinlein deals with free love, she deals with free people – sort of. In her short novel (a part of the larger Hainish cycle), there is a planet and a moon: the planet (Urras) is a reflection of contemporary Earthly society, and consists of various nations dominated by a capitalist logic, while the moon is inhabited by anarcho-communist rebels, given the moon (Anarres) to settle as part of a deal with the larger governments on the planet. The story follows a brilliant physicist named Shevek from the resource-poor moon Anarres who travels to Urras in the name of science, only to discover the good and the bad of this alien society, having grown up without the idea of property.

What makes this novel work is the comparison between the two planets. The work is structured in alternating chapters, one detailing Shevek’s coming of age on Anarres, and one detailing his adventures on Urras, with the two meeting up in time in the final chapter. The two different timelines complement each other beautifully, and thoughtfully portray the culture shock of this switch, as well as how political power functions in a capitalist society, and in an anarchist one. Neither planet and neither society is a utopia (though LeGuin clearly favors the anarchist society, and I am inclined to agree). Even the theoretically utopian anarchist society has its problems in the form of pseudo-states and social vagrants.

The most interesting thing about the novel to me, though, was the language. On Anarres, there is no property, and the language used reflects this. For example, individuals never say “my handkerchief,” but “the handkerchief I use.” The author also made a nice distinction between property and personal possessions in the vein of Communist theory, which was appreciated.

The only thing that prevented it from being perfect was the ending, which felt like a cop-out with the Terrans and Hainish keeping Shevek’s science from being used for political gain in a deus ex machina. That being said, the ending didn’t ruin the novel, but made it less than it could have been.

I am now making my way through LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, but am having trouble with it because it reads like an ethnography (not surprising given that LeGuin was raised by anthropologists), so it feels like homework to me!

But until next time, ta-ta!

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2015 in Readings

 

The Plot of Dreadship Omnipotence

Hello everybody! It’s been a while (far too long of a while) since I last wrote a post here (and even longer on my poor EsoTarot blog… though that blog has consistently high views!). I’ve been rather busy of late with classes, TAing, and most importantly, working on my MA thesis, which I am proud to say is pretty much done at this point; I’ve just got to get the paperwork done, then start thinking about how to turn it into separate conference presentations and get two publishable papers from it! Then on to the preliminary exams and thinking about dissertation work…

But that aside, I have come to write that post I had promised oh so many months ago, and talk a little bit about the plot of my current central work in progress, Dreadship Omnipotence! I’m still chugging along on it (albeit very slowly), though most of my attention (creatively, at least) has been on the Eldritch Wastes. Most of my progress on Dreadship has been in the form of ideas and outlining.

I’ve talked in the past about the world and characters, and now I want to talk (or write) some about the plot! As a reminder (it’s been so long!), Dreadship Omnipotence revolves around a darker Firefly-style type band of criminals in a transhuman interstellar and many-politied human society.

The novel itself will be the first of three, and follows the exploits of this crew as they struggle first to survive in a world that they have rejected, and then as they try to save perhaps the entire human race in a shadow war against a horrifying godlike being from the future. Along the way, the novel will explore the histories of each member of the crew and examine the reasons behind why they have dropped out of a seemingly utopian society.

The defining elements of the plot are contained, I think in the words “cyberpunk space opera.” The plot is grand and involves gods and struggle over the nature of humanity (in a similar way to Neon Genesis Evangelion, actually), thus being a “space opera.” On the other hand, the plot – not just the setting – is also “cyberpunk.” So, not only does the novel take place in a world dominated by digital networks (not to mention transhuman modifications), the plot also revolves around a group of misfits raging against a society they see as marginalizing them somehow and who, eventually, seek to expose it for the dystopia it really is.

Unlike typical cyberpunk stories, however, the main characters aren’t the only enlightened individuals in a world of dopes. As the characters become more devoted to their quest to expose the sick underbelly of human social organization, they will all begin to discover that perhaps it is not that society rejected them, but the other way around. Society is by no means perfect, but neither are the individuals in it. The noble anti-heroes in our story, thus, aren’t entirely correct about the dystopian nature of society. For most, society actually works pretty well. Thus, in the plot, I hope to explore a more nuanced relationship between the individual and society, as the main cast struggles to figure out why they can’t live with society, and what parts of society work well, and what parts they think don’t.

Against this smaller-scale cyberpunk conflict (deviants vs. society) is a larger one, the space opera side. This conflict is in the spirit of H. P. Lovecraft’s famed opening to “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which he writes that “[t]he sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” As our renegades go gallivanting across various human polities, committing crimes and living on the edge, they begin exploring the deep secrets that society holds, and find themselves a conspiracy. This conspiracy is not what they expect, however; they find that there has been a secret war waged for countless years by a select group of politically powerful scientists against an alien entity from the future, and then find themselves drawn into this struggle rather against their will.

Thus, the plot of Dreadship Omnipotence operates at two levels: one concerning individual-society relations, and the other society-universe relations. Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up in a few days, and I hope to get at least another 25,000 words done for it! Until next time, I leave you with this excerpt:

***

A run-down, rusted airbus clattered by overhead, and Idim had to dodge a falling screw as it fell from the bus and ricocheted off a nearby wall. At least the walls are mostly clean, Idim though to himself as he continued to walk through the city. I bet this used to be inhabited by the planet’s richest, and when they left to go up into space – probably to escape this awful gravity, urgh – they just left this city undefended, and the rabble moved in. Or else they helped the rabble move in to exploit them more. That would explain the shiny building here in the center of town… leftover, state of the art buildings from decades ago…

“Oh, Utopia,” Idim said under his breath. “Where did you go wrong?”

“Oh, Utopia was never right, sir,” a sweet voice said behind him. Idim whirled around, hand resting on the handle of his energy pistol – only to find it wasn’t there. Instead, he found himself facing a little girl, a mischievous grin plastered over her face.

“Wanna see a magic trick?” she said, eyes flashing. “It’ll only cost ya’ five credits.”

“Or I could just beat my weapon out of you,” Idim said. “My counter-offer is rather reasonable; you give me my weapon back, and I let you live.”

“Oh, I don’t have your weapon, mister,” the girl said. “But I can get it back for you with my magical powers.”

Idim sighed. “Street artist, are we? Entertaining the poor folks of Utopia who can’t even afford it?”

“Oh, we can afford it all right. It really isn’t so bad here. Actually, it got much better once the ‘stocracy left us well enough alone, and let us run our own affairs. We just let them think they’re ruling us from their plush little castles in the sky. They’re weak and fat and utterly clueless; they don’t know how to control the local wires. That’s what Rubyn does; messes with their wire feeds. Utopia’s ours now; the ‘stocracy’s trapped in its own little prison, mostly, and so we leave each other well enough alone.” The little girl grinned. “So Utopia’s never been right, but it’s been a lot worse. We’re rebuildin’, see, and the folks ‘round here need some cheerin’ up from us ‘tainers. So, do you wanna see my magic trick or not, mister? Ten credits.”

Idim snorted. “No trick of yours is worth that much. Your story wasn’t worth much, either; in fact, I think you should pay me to listen to your little propaganda piece.” In one smooth motion, Idim scooped up the girl, ducked into an alley, and pinned her against the wall, holding her up by her throat. Her eyes bulged out. Idim smiled as sweetly as he could. “So, little lady, I’ve got two questions for you. The first is when are you going to give me back my pistol, and the second is who do you work for?”

“Told… you…” the girl gasped. “I… don’t… have… it… and… I… work… for… myself!”

“I’ve got the weapon, mister,” said a small yet confident voice from behind the captain. “Drop the girl.”

Idim turned around to see a second girl, his rifle in her hand, aiming it at his head. Idim tensed his muscles to move, and the girl fired the weapon. The energy pulse went right by his head, missing him by an inch, and scorched the metal wall of the building slightly. Idim narrowed his eyes and released the other girl, who fell to the ground, clutching her throat and coughing.

“Hands in the air,” the armed girl said. “And why don’t you just go ahead and transfer five hundred credits to the public transfer account you’re being invited to.” The girl grinned. Idim looked briefly at the invitation to pay, and then dismissed it. Immediately, the girl in front of him frowned. “Do you want me to shoot your ears off? I’ll give you one last chance.”

“I bet you will,” Idim said, and then he turned around and reached down the half-choked girl’s dress. The girl shrieked and batted at his hand, but Idim ignored it, pulling his pistol out from between the space where her breasts would grow. “A bit young to use that as a hiding place,” the captain said.

“Drop the weapon or I’ll shoot!” the other girl said.

Idim straightened up. “You two are a bunch of crooks and scam artists. She’s a good pickpocket though,” he said, gesturing to the shaking girl on the ground. “You should treat her better. She’s more adept than you. And cuter.”

“Shut up!” the girl said, and shot her pistol again, scorching another spot on the wall.

“Though your forced overlay alterations aren’t bad,” Idim continued, walking towards the armed girl, “you made a few crucial mistakes. One, though the gun’s energy pulse went right by my face, I felt no heat. You should have aimed further away. Reduced effect, I know, but more convincing. Two, you painted scorch marks on chromstel. Chromstel doesn’t burn or rust. And third, what the hell kind of pistol goes ‘splort?’ Couldn’t you have found a better stock sound?”

“I was in a hurry,” the girl muttered. The gun vanished from Idim’s sight, and the girl crossed her arms. “You can go now.”

“Can I? Oh, thank you; your beneficence knows no bounds.” Idim bowed graciously, and then kicked the girl’s legs out from under her before sauntering away. “Pick your prey better next time,” he called back as he walked back out into the main street, hand firmly resting on his pistol’s handle.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Writing