The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Space Opera Edition

It’s Space Opera Week. While a lot of people who love this style of story are content to read or watch them, a significant number of us want to make our own. There’s plenty of writing-specific advice around, so I’ll focus on those of us who want to game them instead.

So, you want a Superversive Space Opera? Where do you start? Well, if you’re not doing GURPS Lensman, you still want to have that book (or the novels it’s about) handy. That example will be the model you’ll find easiest to adapt for gaming purposes.

Your players play characters who champion their cultural traditions and institutions. This means you’re some sort of Galactic Patrol, formally or otherwise, because the standard gameplay scenario involves dealing with predatory actors seeking to undermine your people. As active agents, you have reason to seek out such trouble and put a stop to it.

Your players play pro-active characters. Be it by acting on orders from another, or one of the players coming to the table with a plan, a Superversive Space Opera relies on the characters being the ones driving the game and that means acting according during play. This is not a place for passive or reactive people; that’s for other media.

Your game has a solid moral core to it. Just like playing Pendragon Superversive Space Opera requires that the players engage with a solid moral foundation. This is best made explicit to the players at the beginning (again, like Pendragon) so you can have everyone on the same page and not waste time doing that after you’re underway.

Do that, and you’re golden. Now you see why I recommended having those Lensman books handy. These elements are not only present, but front-and-center where they can’t be ignored, which is what you want when you’re looking for a model to adapt to your game at your table. There’s plenty of others out there, so pick what you want to use and commit to it. The fun you have will depend on the work you put in, so have at it.

Bringing Home The Baycon (Or What I Learned From Being Blackballed)

Forward: I would like to thank the Superversive group for allowing me a platform for my voice to be heard. I wouldn’t be nearly as brave as I am in speaking out without people like them. Superversive fiction truly is changing the world of entertainment, and I look forward to it growing in its reach. – Jon Del Arroz 

A couple of weeks ago,  I found out that I had been blackballed from speaking at my own home convention, a place I’ve loved and cherished for almost a decade. This was a wanton act of discrimination, and perhaps more importantly, a show of utter disinterest in promoting prominent local science fiction authors. With a supposed emphasis on diversity, this act done to a Hispanic author casts an even darker shadow. It’s about as disturbing as it gets to see folk that you considered friends for years treat you with that level of disregard, while in the same stripe ignoring attendees who deliver me death threats.

Most shockingly, the event organizers (of whom I know very well and very personally) in question did not respond personally, but delivered a form letter to explain the ostracization. It’s disingenuous and displays a dismissal and dehumanization of which I could hardly conceive.

From a  global health of fandom perspective, it leads me to the question: if an organization such as the Bay Area Science Fiction Convention doesn’t stand for Bay Area authors, and doesn’t care about Science Fiction first and foremost, what is the point of the organization? If other cons across the country are operating similarly, does a change need to occur?

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How to Design Magic Systems

Souldancer of FIre
When two magic systems love each other, sometimes they hug.

A speculative element is what sets the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror apart from literary fiction. There’s no element more speculative than magic, and it’s become a common term of art to speak of an SFF universe’s “magic system”. By reader request, here is my philosophy of magic in genre fiction–with advice on how to handle magic in your secondary world.

Changing depictions of magic in SFF

Historically, there have been two general approaches to depicting magic in speculative fiction.

  1. The old-school way: Magic is mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.
  2. The new-school way: Magic works like a technology that we can systematize.
The first way can be seen in works as late as Tolkien and going back to the Matter of Britain and before. Tales like these make little if any effort to explain where magic comes from–other than perhaps hinting at divine (sacramentality; not magic) or infernal origins. Nor do they define any explicit limits on what magic can and can’t do.
Wizards in these stories are almost never central protagonists. Instead they pop into the narrative at key times to aid and advise the main protagonist before exiting the stage for lengthy intervals. Think of Gandalf and Merlin, and you’ll get the idea.
In terms of story mechanics, the reason why wizards like Gandalf and Merlin don’t protag much  is due to the needs of dramatic tension. A well-made story should elicit suspense in the reader over how conflicts will be resolved. Being on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero will get out of this one is the main ingredient for good pacing.
The difficulty with old-school wizards in lead roles is that there’s no inherent reason why they can’t just magic themselves around obstacles. Sure, you can set limits on a wizard’s magic to set up situations he can’t just cast his way out of, but you’ve got to establish those limitations early on to avoid cheating the reader.
And if you do set limits on what magic can accomplish, guess what? You just systematized it a little.
That’s why Tolkien’s wizards are kind of old and new-school hybrids. Gandalf is a superhuman spirit, but he’s explicitly forbidden from drawing upon his angelic power. Instead he’s got to work with the skills available to his human form. That’s a pretty big limitation!
New-school, aka Sandersonian magic
No, Brandon Sanderson didn’t invent contemporary SFF magic. But he is the most prominent advocate for new-school, systematized magic, so I’m sticking with the “Sandersonian” description.
A better candidate for the father of new-school magic is the venerable Jack Vance (though yes, others did it before him, but again, he’s more popular).
If you’ve ever played D&D, you know how Vanceian magic systems work. Magic spells are 5th dimensional formulae of such complexity that a human mind can only hold a limited number of spells per day, and when the knowledge is actualized, i.e. a spell is cast, it’s totally purged from the caster’s mind. If a Vanceian wizard wants to cast that spell again, he has to memorize it all over again.
The upshot of this system is that it allowed Vance to use his transient amnesiac wizards as protagonists while maintaining dramatic tension. A Vanceian wizard can still use magic to escape from sticky situations–but not if he’s used all of his daily spells or memorized the wrong ones.
Categories of Magic
I like to put the various types of magic systems into a few broad categories.
Actual Magic: the original meaning of the term “magic”, using preternatural powers to achieve natural ends. In its archetypal form, magic means asking demons to do stuff for you with their superhuman powers. Old-school authors usually meant this when they wrote about magic.
Technology: this can be anything from Clarke’s sufficiently advanced tech to methods of turning invisible or making things go boom that are otherwise indistinguishable from actual magic. The key difference is that the users aren’t petitioning demons but manipulating “forces”.
Here;’s the tech vs. magic litmus test: if your characters are channeling and shaping created or emergent energies, they’re dealing with an esoteric technology; not real magic.
The vast majority of “magic systems” these days are actually cosmic force-driven technologies. The Force and Sanderson’s allomancy are examples of technology-style magic systems.
Superpowers: this category is rather nebulous and tends to overlap with technology-based magic systems. I distinguish between the two as follows: technological magic is a skill that can be learned. Superpowers are abilities beyond the natural powers proper to humans which are intrinsic to a character.
Super strength, invulnerability, psychic mind-powers, super intelligence, unaided flight, eye lasers, etc.–all are commonly recognized as superpowers. But like I said, sometimes this category overlaps with technological magic systems, such as Star Wars characters who are born with Force-sensitivity (an innate superpower) that lets them learn Jedi skills (a technology).
Designing your own magic system
To design an original magic system for your book, ask yourself these questions:
  • How do I want the presence of magic to affect my story’s mood and tone?
  • Will there be magic user-protagonists?
  • Is my cosmology purely material, or are there beings that transcend the natural?
  • In my world, is magic the result of a pact with preternatural entities, a skill which harnesses natural forces that anyone can learn, or innate to certain characters?
The answers to these questions, in light of the info we already covered above, should give you a basic starting point for setting up your own magic system–if you want a system at all.
It’s also perfectly fine to have multiple magic systems. The Soul Cycle series features all three categories of magic, because I’m greedy that way.
Priests and Teth disciples deal with gods and demons.
Factors learn how to draw on cosmic prana energy to fashion Workings.
Nexists are born with the power to directly affect the world by will alone.
And because clearly delineating these systems would be too simple, there’s considerable overlap between all of them.
Here’s the takeaway: in magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader. Dramatic tension is a key ingredient of fun, so if you’re going to put magic users in lead roles, make sure to give them obstacles they can’t just magic their way out of. And if you’re going to limit their magic, make sure you clearly lay out what magic can and can’t do as early as possible.
I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself. See these principles in action in my award-winning Soul Cycle.
thesoulcycle1

And the Soul Cycle tie-in short story “Elegy for the Locust”, available in the new best selling anthology Forbidden Thoughts!

forbiddenthoughts

The Fear of Silence

How often do you enjoy silence? True silence, not only in the atmosphere around you, but in your mind as well. Do you appreciate silence, or do you find it a burden? Unless we seek it out, is there ever a time when we are not surrounded by distractions and noise?

The past century has brought many advances in technology and changes to the people’s daily lives. From radios, to television and Hollywood, and the internet, the world is far from where it once was. Even in my rather short lifetime, things have changed a lot. I remember before social media was so present in our daily lives, when cell phone were almost exclusively for making calls, back before people started documenting their lives on their devices. And yet now, practically everyone has their phone always with them. Hand held computers make distractions so very easy. So much entertainment and temptation at the touch of a button, anywhere, at any time. The perfect excuse to avoid real-life social interaction.

Why do people become so attached to the internet? To car radios? To social media? To the endless noise and things constantly going on around them? Because the noise is easy. If they are always moving from one thing to another, they don’t have the time to look closely at themselves. The noise keeps them distracted from the thoughts and questions deep inside them. Distracted from the feeling that something is not quite right, but you don’t know what the thing is or why it bugs you. Instead you pretend it’s not there, and use noise to drown it out.

It’s not only our entertainment and gadgets that keep us perpetually busy. Everyone has school and work and activities to go to. School, for example, seems to completely take over the lives of the youth. Certainly, it is important to be educated and able to read, write, calculate numbers, and other basic things to function in our society. But does it need to be at the point where they are at school all day, doing homework all night, stressing about assignments due, and left with no time to themselves? And even when they do have free time, they are so exhausted all they can do is rest and recharge. All their critical thinking is used up memorizing the material to repeat back on the test.

Couple that with the social pressures they are subject to in school and from peers, and the media in general, how do you expect the youth today to be able to think and really know who they are by the time they are an adult?

For me, especially in my younger years, it was rather easy. Mom never allowed us to sit in front of a screen or watch TV for very long. And being homeschooled, I didn’t have the hassle and stress from the school environment. So the majority of my childhood was spent playing games with my brothers and friends, or off exploring and doing my own thing.

Then we moved to a small farm when I was ten, and not long after I got my first laptop to write on. In the years following I certainly knew, and sometimes fell into, the temptation of wasting my time on the internet – of letting the “noise” go on and on. But what made the difference for me, was that I had animals to feed. Every day I would have to go outside and tend to my animals. This can take from twenty minutes to an hour or more, depending on the season. Occasionally I would listen to music while I worked, sometimes I’d sing to myself, but mostly it was just me and my animals.

I never really realized it until now, but that was my time for silence. It was my time just to be with myself, away from the noise. I believe it is what has kept me sane – as sane as a writer can be – and secure in myself and who I am and what I think.

Growing up in such a way allowed me to spend a lot of time with myself, and thus get to know myself very well. I am in no way perfect, but I understand my strengths and my weaknesses, I know what I am and what I am not. And when you understand that about yourself, it makes it much harder for people to tear you down.

Now let me compare that to the time that I call “my crash course in everything high school.” This happened two summers ago when one of my brothers, my good friend, and I attended a college workshop for high school kids. It was simple: two days of classes, one day was a fun field trip, and on the last day we all took a test. The students that did the best, got awarded a scholarships, and we all went home. This was the closest I’ve come to a public school environment, and it had all your typical high school stuff: the bus ride, the obnoxious kids, the ‘boy’, the girl drama, the sitting in classes, and the stress before taking a test. Like I said, crash course in high school. It about ran me into the ground.

The main thing I noticed, was how out of myself I became. There were so many people around, all the time. If you’ve ever meet me, you will know how much of a social butterfly I am and how much I enjoy being around and talking to people. However, usually the social butterfly side of me is balanced by my anti-social author side. But in this case, I didn’t have that balance. I didn’t have the time or space just to chill out and be completely by myself without distractions for a very long time. I was either in my dorm with my friend, or in class with a bunch of other people, or doing activities with other people. There never seemed to be a time that I wasn’t surrounded by other people.

But allow me to explain what this constant stimulation did to me.

I was overly-hyper, jittery, constantly talking, over stimulated, and as a whole, unbalanced. I had too much energy always focusing outward, and never enough time to bring the energy back inward. After that whole experience, it wasn’t until a couple days after I got home that I felt like myself again. I was just so wound up from all that social interaction – from all the noise – that I never had a chance to unwind. And so I became tighter and tighter wound and further and further away from myself.

See, I never understood that concept I had often heard preached at teens to “find yourself” or “be who you really are.” I just didn’t get why that was such a ‘thing’ that teens needed to do. But after that week, I finally understood. Because I had already known how to be myself, I had spent so much time by myself and out of the noise that I couldn’t be anything but myself. Yet now, seeing what that buzz and noise did to me after only a couple days, I can only imagine what it would do to me if I had spent my whole childhood in that. I’d be a totally different person. I wouldn’t have the space or freedom from the noise to be comfortable and grow in myself. It would be terrible.

 

In C. S. Lewis’ work the Screwtape Letters, there is an ongoing conversation between a demon named Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. Uncle Screwtape is encouraging and reprimanding his nephews’ work on tricking a human into eternal damnation. Allow me to quote uncle Screwtape’s comment about silence, .

 

And now for your blunders. On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this? The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality. Thus if you had been trying to damn your man by the Romantic method—by making him a kind of Childe Harold or Werther submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses—you would try to protect him at all costs from any real pain; because, of course, five minutes’ genuine toothache would reveal the romantic sorrows for the nonsense they were and unmask your whole strategem. But you were trying to damn your patient by the World that is by palming off vanity, bustle, irony, and expensive tedium as pleasures. How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? Didn’t you foresee that it would just kill by contrast all the trumpery which you have been so laboriously teaching him to value? And that the sort of pleasure which the book and the walk gave him was the most dangerous of all? That it would peel off from his sensibility the kind of crust you have been forming on it, and make him feel that he was coming home, recovering himself? As a preliminary to detaching him from the Enemy, you wanted to detach him from himself, and had made some progress in doing so. Now, all that is undone.

C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

 

Uncle Screwtape is criticizing his nephew because he allowed his patient to enjoy silence. Wormwood allowed his human to find the peace in the silence, to relax and see the world around him. He allowed his patient to enjoy something good for it’s own sake. This is very dangerous to them, because it dispels the noise and self-centeredness.

Think about going to the top of a mountain. Imagine standing on a wooden balcony overlooking an entire valley. The tops of the mountain lost in low clouds, the variety of shades of trees covering the mountain face like an impressionist’s painting, the startling drop below you as you lean over the edge, looking into the life and layout of an entire town. Are not you in awe of such a sight? Is not your heart stirred? Is not your mind caught up in the grandness and majesty? Does it not make you feel so much smaller in comparison? But not even in a insignificant way, for it does not diminish you, but lifts you. It brings you to see the wonder and majesty of God’s creation, it brings you out of yourself; so you can see that even though you are not any less valued or significant, you are only one small part of this universe. It makes our problems seem so much smaller in comparison, and you see and feel the almighty power of God.

Basically, it brings you into perspective.  But this perspective cannot be achieved when caved in on ourselves and surrounded by noise that encourages us to stay that way.

As it says in the letter, when you are opened up to real Pleasure and Pain, the illusions we build around ourselves disappear. Many people get caught up in small dramas; like what their favorite celebrity is doing, their status on social media, and other things of that nature. In small doses those things aren’t that dangerous. But it becomes a slippery slope when those little dramas totally take over our minds and, we become obsessed with it.

When that happens, it becomes such a big part of people’s thoughts that if something undesirable happens it is the worst ever! However, if something truly bad happens – like a death, illness, or misfortune – it brings things into perspective, shatters the illusion, and leaves you much more sober.

And same thing with real pleasure. You wouldn’t be talking about it just to fit in. You’d truly be filled with joy and constantly be sharing and talking about it for it’s own sake. Because it is good in itself.

The characteristic of sin and the noise is to cave you in on yourself. When you focus on the little drama that seems like such a big deal, your focus becomes self-centered. And when you only look at yourself you miss the bigger picture and the needs of others. Exactly what the enemy wants you to do.

In the little dramas you look in at yourself in a superficial way: What I want, how I look, how much popularity do I have, what pleases me. These kinds of questions happen when there’s an event or trend going on.

Yet when you look deeper the questions are: who am I? Where did I come from? Why do I exist? What is my purpose? Now those kinds of questions come when you have a near death experience, a life changing event, or when you are in silence. Because those questions or always there somewhere in the back of our minds, it is when we are out of the noise that we can hear them best.

When those questions arise, some think of it as an existential crisis. And when you don’t have the answers, which most don’t, it can be quite scary to have these nagging thoughts deep inside you, the ones that challenge and call you. But if instead of facing these questions you seek to drown them out, you are taking the easy way. It is less painful to slip into passiveness and mindless pleasure than to seek out the the answers and pursue truth. And so, to be in silence is to look at yourself, but also look past yourself, to the one who made you.

This is what comes in real silence. And this is what people fear.

But no, we can’t take a hard look at ourselves, we must stay caught up in our daily stress, we must be constantly making things easier and more instant, we must forever be talking about the drama of others, we must be outraged at every new story the media pushes at us. Because if not, we might stop to think and tune out the noise. We might realize that the world and its problems are much bigger than our petty dramas. After all, in the end all is vanity.

Coming back to my point about silence in nature, here is a passage from Brave New World, in which they are explaining how they get people to go into the country, without actually wanting to see the country.

One of the students held up his hand; and though he could see quite well why you couldn’t have lower-cast people wasting the Community’s time over books, and that there was always the risk of their reading something which might undesirably decondition one of their reflexes, yet … well, he couldn’t understand about the flowers. Why go to the trouble of making it psychologically impossible for Deltas to like flowers?

Patiently the D.H.C. explained. If the children were made to scream at the sight of a rose, that was on grounds of high economic policy. Not so very long ago (a century or thereabouts), Gammas, Deltas, even Epsilons, had been conditioned to like flowers-flowers in particular and wild nature in general. The idea was to make them want to be going out into the country at every available opportunity, and so compel them to consume transport.

“And didn’t they consume transport?” asked the student.

“Quite a lot,” the D.H.C. replied. “But nothing else.”

Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes; to abolish the love of nature, but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it. The problem was to find an economically sounder reason for consuming transport than a mere affection for primroses and landscapes. It was duly found.

“We condition the masses to hate the country,” concluded the Director. “But simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time, we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport. Hence those electric shocks.”

“I see,” said the student, and was silent, lost in admiration.

 

Aldous Huxley Brave New World

And again you see it is an “I”. I want to go play golf because it is a sport I enjoy. Nothing wrong with that. But as you seen in the conditioning, that is the only reason they go into nature. The people of Brave New World would never dream of going into a field of flowers and enjoying it simply because it’s beautiful. Admiring true beauty for the sake of beauty and wishing to be silent in it is a danger to a stable society.You might get people thinking!

In our world today, we are surrounded by beeping buttons and flashing light. Our attention is being pulled a hundred ways at once. There is almost no way to get away from all that noise. And because in the noise it is so hard to get to the deeper core, it is all just static. Because of that, it is easiest to just go with with is the loudest signal, and what is loudest is usually from the people with the most power. And there’s always an agenda behind that.

For people with a lot of power and something to push, the noise works very well for them. They can easily manufacture noise, they can stir up riots, they can control the media, and whatever else to get emotions of people running out of control. Because if they get people to stop checking their gut reactions and think through things, they can swings those reactions the way the want.Thus adding to the noise. Then while everyone is distracted, they can push their agenda.

Although there are plenty of corrupt people willing to take advantage of this and manipulate events, they can only really control what is in their lifetime, which is relatively short. No human can guide the events over generations. One could try but it would be imperfect, since this job would have to be passed from person to person. But if there were someone immortal being that had a grudge against all things good and holy…..

If you look back on the last century, there are some disturbing trends. There are things that have fallen in line in the past decades that would have had to be set in motion many generations ago. To think that the corruption in our society today was conducted only by human hands would be wishful thinking. For although there are human powers that have played a role, I have no doubt something more sinister is leading this march of distraction.

Now allow me to conclude with another excerpt from Brave New World. It is a scene with two characters going on a date. I believe it does an excellent job illustrating the person desiring something beyond himself, and the person who is far too complacent and happy in her conditioning, who fears the silence because it is something she can never understand.

 

Pretty harmless, perhaps; but also pretty disquieting. That mania, to start with, for doing things in private. Which meant, in practice, not doing anything at all. For what was there that one could do in private. (Apart, of course, from going to bed: but one couldn’t do that all the time.) Yes, what was there? Precious little. The first afternoon they went out together was particularly fine. Lenina had suggested a swim at Toquay Country Club followed by dinner at the Oxford Union. But Bernard thought there would be too much of a crowd. Then what about a round of Electro-magnetic Golf at St. Andrew’s? But again, no: Bernard considered that Electro-magnetic Golf was a waste of time.

“Then what’s time for?” asked Lenina in some astonishment.

Apparently, for going walks in the Lake District; for that was what he now proposed. Land on the top of Skiddaw and walk for a couple of hours in the heather. “Alone with you, Lenina.”

“But, Bernard, we shall be alone all night.”

Bernard blushed and looked away. “I meant, alone for talking,” he mumbled.

“Talking? But what about?” Walking and talking-that seemed a very odd way of spending an afternoon.

In the end she persuaded him, much against his will, to fly over to Amsterdam to see the Semi-Demi-Finals of the Women’s Heavyweight Wrestling Championship.

“In a crowd,” he grumbled. “As usual.” He remained obstinately gloomy the whole afternoon; wouldn’t talk to Lenina’s friends (of whom they met dozens in the ice-cream soma bar between the wrestling bouts); and in spite of his misery absolutely refused to take the half-gramme raspberry sundae which she pressed upon him. “I’d rather be myself,” he said. “Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.”

“A gramme in time saves nine,” said Lenina, producing a bright treasure of sleep-taught wisdom. Bernard pushed away the proffered glass impatiently.

“Now don’t lose your temper,” she said. “Remember one cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments.”

“Oh, for Ford’s sake, be quiet!” he shouted.

Lenina shrugged her shoulders. “A gramme is always better than a damn,” she concluded with dignity, and drank the sundae herself.

On their way back across the Channel, Bernard insisted on stopping his propeller and hovering on his helicopter screws within a hundred feet of the waves. The weather had taken a change for the worse; a south- westerly wind had sprung up, the sky was cloudy.

“Look,” he commanded.

“But it’s horrible,” said Lenina, shrinking back from the window. She was appalled by the rushing emptiness of the night, by the black foam-flecked water heaving beneath them, by the pale face of the moon, so haggard and distracted among the hastening clouds. “Let’s turn on the radio. Quick!” She reached for the dialling knob on the dash-board and turned it at random.

“… skies are blue inside of you,” sang sixteen tremoloing falsettos,

“the weather’s always …”

Then a hiccough and silence. Bernard had switched off the current.

“I want to look at the sea in peace,” he said. “One can’t even look with that beastly noise going on.”

“But it’s lovely. And I don’t want to look.”

“But I do,” he insisted. “It makes me feel as though …” he hesitated, searching for words with which to express himself, “as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body. Doesn’t it make you feel like that, Lenina?”

 

 

However, Lenina does not understand, and never will. She does not feel the pull of something beyond herself. Lenina is far too attached to her conditioning to understand the longing that Bernard feels.

Bernard wishes to do things in private, like to go on walks alone and just talk. He wants to sit in silence looking at the sea. He is looking for intimacy deeper than the constant activity and casual sex.

Lenina doesn’t understand this. And because she doesn’t understand the silence, it frightens her. It frightens her because the silence invites her to deeper thoughts and feelings, the kind she would rather take soma to forget about.

And so you see, there are many things to keep us from silence. There is always something fighting for our attentions – tempting us to take the easy way and go with the noise. And yet it is paramount that we seek out and acquaint ourselves with silence, not only for our mental health, but for our physical and emotional health as well. We need silence to properly think. That’s why people are so afraid of silence. Because it takes away the static. It takes away the convenience of following the loudest signal. It makes you question and have to listen for that whisper of truth.

People are afraid of silence because that is when the truth that is ingrained in all of us is the loudest. And truth is terrifying.

How to Handle Character Agency in Your Writing

fork in the road

Continuing my loose series on advice for aspiring authors, it’s time to address a subject that will leave hardcore outliners scratching their heads, but will have organic/discovery writers nodding in commiseration.

That subject is character agency. Or, as frustrated writers lament: “What should I do if my characters want to take actions that will sabotage my plot?”

Again, pure outliner-architects will be totally baffled by this question. “Your characters are just extensions of your own will,” they’ll say. “How can they ‘want’ anything that you don’t want?”

This misunderstanding stems from the technical differences between authors who construct meticulous outlines before they even start writing, and authors who just dive in and let the story unfold as the spirit moves them.

Hardline architects won’t be confronted with a branching plot thread due to character agency, because the characters already had their say (and were probably vetoed) during the outline phase.

But for discovery writers, having their characters hijack the story can be a substantial roadblock. Hopefully I can offer some advice to help writers avoid this problem–or if it’s too late for prevention, help them solve it.

Character-author conflict

Full disclosure: I’m predominantly an outliner, though I do discovery write about 40 percent of a given project. It’s a high enough ratio that intransigent characters make themselves a problem from time to time.

The source of the problem

At least in my case, characters tend to get uppity when I’ve gotten myself into a nice groove writing an interesting character. I’m pretty deep inside the character’s head to the point that I’m essentially role-playing his thought process and writing it down in real time.

Then, perhaps long after the fact, I’ll think “Wait. This guy is mucking about here when the action is supposed to be happening way over there!”

What happened? Chances are I haven’t developed the character’s motivations well enough. If he’s in a story about X, but he’d rather do Y, I probably haven’t given him a compelling reason to do X.

Alternate (disturbing) theory: some characters are more real than they seem.

I’m gonna take a pretty weird detour here, but a model derives its worth from its explanatory power, so follow me on this one.

By definition, fictional characters don’t exist. But can fictionality admit of degrees?

Tolkien coined the term sub-creation to describe the creative efforts of humans in imitation of God’s sovereign creating power. He even illustrated the concept in the Silmarillion.

The story goes that Aule tried to create his own race, but they could only move or think when he focused his thought on them. The same can be said of authors and the characters in their books.

If Aule’s story ended there, it would make a fine parable on hubris. But since it’s from Tolkien, this tale has a metaphysical twist. Eru confronts Aule about making a race of mindless homunculi. Aule points out that he was just imitating his Father–the highest form of flattery. Eru grants Aule’s creations autonomous existence, and BAM! Dwarves.

Tolkien, being a learned Catholic, knew that his story had a venerable precedent. In Genesis 2:19, Adam gives names to every creature, and God backs him up. This, by the way, is a form of prophecy. Prophets don’t always make pronouncements dictated to them by God. Often, the prophet gives an oracle and God ratifies it.

Is it possible that a fictitious character could be made real through divine action?

I hope not. If my characters came to life, they’d track me down and murder me. That’s if they decided to let me off easy.

We can get even weirder with this. The brother of a friend once solemnly assured me that, due to multiverse theory, every fictional character is real, and authors are just reporting the adventures of people living in parallel universes. James Bond, Dracula, Wolverine–they’re all out there somewhere.

I nodded and smiled politely while thinking that he was totally off his nut. I still do, but since becoming a writer I’ve had cause to wonder about that long ago conversation more than once.

It’s a logically inescapable fact that fictional characters are just mental constructs assembled from an author’s personal experience, literary influences, and hang-ups. Hell, most of them are thinly veiled versions of the writer’s coworkers and friends.

That’s what I firmly believe–until a character springs fully formed out of my head with a complete background, personality, and appearance all in place. They even tell me their names. It’s far less like creating something and more like meeting someone. This has happened multiple times, with zero mental effort on my part.

Is it just my unconscious mind? Probably, but that raises the equally odd question of how there can be a part of my consciousness that I’m unconscious of.

What are characters–really, and where do they come from? I’m prepared to admit that I don’t know.

It’s really not important, since we can make the little bastards do what we want, anyway. Here’s how.

Getting your characters back in line

Are you halfway into a manuscript, only to find yourself facing a character revolt?

Don’t despair. It’s happened to me, and I’ve found a number of effective solutions.

Retrace your steps.

Is your plot spiraling out of control, or branching off on weird tangents that have stalled your main plot? Simply read back to the last point where the story was still on track. Identify where the narrative started to diverge from the intended plot. It’s probably because a major player did something that was in character but conflicted with your plan for the story.

Examine character motivations.

Take a close look at the rebellious character’s choices. Are they really in line with his personality and background as established in the story thus far?

If not, all you need to do is change his decision to reflect his true motivations, which should be compatible with the overall story. If they’re not, however…

Harmonize the character’s motivations with the story.

If you want to tell the tale of an underdog resistance group fighting against an oppressive aristocracy, a main character who comes from a noble family, is devoted to tradition, and stands to reap the greatest benefit if the current regime stays in power probably shouldn’t be expected to shake up the status quo–not without grave intervening reasons.

In cases where a character’s motivations are throwing a wrench in the plot, go back and rework the character so he’ll be more willing to cooperate.

Change the story.

Say you’ve tried to make an unruly character’s motivations fit the story, but it just isn’t working out, Perhaps you’re telling the wrong story.

If changing the character would make him less interesting, and the path he’s leading you down is more entertaining than the original story, go ahead and follow his lead.

Brute force

If the character is acting contrary to his established motivations–or even if he’s not, but having him act out of character would be more entertaining (no one’s behavior is 100 percent consistent), go ahead and make him take the path that’s more fun. You’re the writer. It’s OK to veto your characters’ choices as a last resort.

These are the solutions that have helped me slap my characters back into line. But again, I’m an outliner. If any self-professed discovery writers have other effective approaches, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

I also practice what I preach:

Why Authors Need to Be Readers: Books that Informed Star Wars

McQuarrie Star Wars concept art
Star Wars concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The best way to prepare for a writing career, besides writing every day, is reading at least as often. The importance of broad and deep reading for good writing strikes me as so self-evident that it baffles me whenever I ask aspiring authors how much they read, only to hear that they don’t.

At this point, I could deliver an essay on the rich lessons of the great books, the necessity of developing a keen eye for characterization, pacing, and dialogue; or stocking your literary toolbox with tricks learned from other authors.

Instead, I’ll point to the best example of how properly managed literary influences produced a masterpiece far greater than the sum of its parts: the original Star Wars trilogy.

Books the Influenced Star Wars

The Star Wars galaxy didn’t just pop fully formed into George Lucas’ head one day. Prior to creating his magnum opus, he’d spent decades devouring a catalog of works containing everything from Homer to Jack Kirby; from Shakespeare to Frank Herbert. This eclectic reading list informed Lucas’ ideas and provided a solid foundation to build his space opera world on.

Here’s a partial list of books that cinema scholars and Lucas himself cite as influences on Star Wars.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series: starting as a series of short stories published between 1942 and 1950, Foundation features a Galactic Empire very similar to the one depicted in the original Star Wars trilogy. There are even characters named Han and Bail.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: besides Obi-Wan Kenobi filling much the same role in A New Hope that Gandalf did in The Fellowship of the Ring, early drafts of Star Wars had an even closer resemblance to Tolkien’s beloved tales. At one point, Lucas toyed with the idea of casting dwarfs as his main characters.

Arthurian Legend: there are many parallels between Luke Skywalker and King Arthur. Both Obi-Wan and Yoda resemble Merlin in several respects. Anakin Skywalker shares much in common with Uther Pendragon.

Frank Herbert’s Dune: the most frequently used setting in Star Wars is a desert planet. There are multiple mentions of spice, and many Jedi powers are similar to Bene Gesserit techniques. Herbert himself pointed out 37 direct Dune references in Star Wars.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World: the original run of Kirby’s New Gods stories was published by DC Comics from 1970-1973. A major theme of the Fourth World comics is a hero destined to defeat an evil tyrant who turns out to be said hero’s father. Roy Thomas, then an editor at Marvel, allegedly pointed out similarities between Kirby’s series and an early Star Wars synopsis during a 1972 dinner with Lucas.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces: Lucas’ appreciation for folklorist Joseph Campbell’s seminal book is well known. Campbell’s treatments of monomyth and the Hero’s Journey are baked into the themes and plot structure of Star Wars.

Gone with the Wind: seriously. Watch The Empire Strikes Back and pay attention to Han and Leia’s dialogue. H/t Tom Simon.

These are just a few of the literary influences on Star Wars. The message is clear. If you hope to create a beloved cultural touchstone some day–or even produce minimally competent fiction–you need to start reading everything you can get your hands on.

How to Know if You’re Ready to Self Publish

published books

Today, new technology has blessed authors with unprecedented advantages. But these blessings pose serious questions, and as always, wrong answers may invite curses.

Foremost among the career-defining questions that aspiring authors must answer is this: should you self-publish?

Industry professionals far wiser than I am have given sound reasons why, except for a small minority of authors, the future of publishing is indie.

I agree with their assessments. However, I’m going to add a caveat which I’m sure Joe and Jeff agree with, but which doesn’t seem to be emphasized enough these days.

Not everyone should self-publish.

The barriers to entry are gone. The wide gulf between “can” and “should” remains.

Dr. Ian Malcolm

The early gold rush when you could upload a raw MS Word doc to KDP and sell a thousand copies per month is over–if it ever happened. Besides unburdening themselves of that illusion, the main lesson that hopeful indie authors must learn is that being a self-published author means taking on all the responsibilities of both an artist and a publisher.



I don’t mean to scare anyone off. Indie publishing offers better working conditions and royalty splits than professional writers enjoyed at any other time in history. But I can tell you from hard-won experience that reports of the coveted Free Lunch are greatly exaggerated.

Answer these questions before you decide to self-publish.

Do you have formal business training? An MBA, an accounting degree, or even a couple of marketing courses will help you with pricing, organization, and promotion. Accountant turned self-publishing black swan turned Baen golden goose Larry Correia credits his business background with a large portion of his success.

While starting with business expertise will give an indie author a major head start, lacking it isn’t the kiss of death. My formal education didn’t provide me with much business knowledge. As a result, I’m taking extra time to learn as I go. Having an MFA doesn’t disqualify you from indie success, but as Michael Corleone told Gardner Shaw, take a few business administration courses just to be on the safe side!

Do you understand salesmanship, and if so do you have any qualms about using effective sales techniques?

Unlike business theory, which fascinates me even though I initially sucked at it, I hate sales despite having a natural aptitude for it. It’s probably because I have really high marketing resistance. I can spot most attempts to sell me something immediately, and I have a deep-seated aversion to using techniques designed to make people buy things they don’t really want. (NB: do not buy extended warranties from retailers. Avoid retailers’ gift/credit cards.)

On the other hand, I love sharing my interests with people. If I’m passionate about something, it’s easy for me to make my excitement contagious. When I held sales jobs, I used this self-knowledge to my advantage by recommending products that I genuinely liked. If you’re an author, it should be easy to harness your natural enthusiasm for your book. If not, there’s a problem. Why should I buy your book if even you don’t believe in it?

Luckily, hard sell “push marketing” doesn’t sell books. Earning the trust of communities where your core readership hangs out is the key. Speaking of which:

Do you like engaging with your audience?

Authors are justly notorious for being introverts. Know your social strengths and weaknesses, and capitalize on your strengths.

Does your razor wit electrify large audiences? See if you can get on some podcasts and convention panels. Does the chatter of crowds wrack your skull like a dentist’s drill? Then you’d probably do well to avoid signings.

Reader engagement is one area where technology has been a huge boon to authors. People in this business tend to focus on how the gates between authors and publication have been thrown down, but it’s just as revolutionary how the walls between authors and readers have fallen.

Last week I serialized a short story on this blog. My readers gave me instant feedback, some of which I used to issue a new edition of the story on the same day it was published. A process that once took a great deal of time and money can now be done basically for free in an afternoon.

The upshot is. even if you’re a sociopathic misanthrope, social media offers you a way to engage fans without all of that messy physical interaction.

Have you researched the pros and cons of traditional vs. indie publishing?

As I said before, indie is not a free lunch. Some authors may still be better served by trad publishing, especially those who have no business or sales acumen, hate social interaction of any kind, and belong to certain minority groups/ espouse particular political ideologies.

Before self-publishing, learn all you can about how both indie and traditional publishing work. Learn how trad publishers handle marketing, book design, royalties, and contracts. Learn about mailing lists, Amazon’s ranking system, and their various promotional tools. Find out what you can expect to earn via either route. Make sure your decision is as well informed as possible.

Those are a few useful questions to ask yourself before self-publishing. Next I’ll lay out some nonnegotiables for indie authors.