Sci-Fi: Use the trope or make it yourself?

In my other post about swearing, I was considering that the language comes with the character.

In real life, there’s people I know who use cuss words every other word. And there’s plenty of people who don’t need those words. If your characters, who are broken and in conflict, do not sound authentic, we won’t believe them or you. For me, I’m writing about marines in space. Nobody has met a marine in space, but most people have a picture in their head of a marine, either someone they know or R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket or some other iconic marine. Marines are tough. Marines will fight you. Marines swear a lot.

That’s the stereotype. It -is- a stereotype, in that I know marines and former marines and while all of them are tough, some are gentle, some don’t swear, some swear only around other people but are considerate of the audience around them/kids, and so on. These marines do not necessarily make up the stereotype of a marine that most of the public carries around in their head.

My marines in space can be anything I want them to be. They don’t have to be USMC culture, or British SAS, or anything Earth has ever made or seen. I suppose I could do the hard work of creating something new, so that the words aren’t buzzwords surrounded by the current culture (such as fire team, squad leader, sergeant, marine, lance corporal, navy, lieutenant, etc.).

But the point here is that it essentially looks like the USMC in space. That’s hardly original, but because it uses tropes and stereotypes, it establishes an immediate picture for someone familiar with our modern culture. I don’t have to do the work to create the picture because the reader comes pre-loaded with the picture. I just use the correct words and phrases and the reader supplies a bulk of picture, with some careful descriptions from my end to tweak it in such a way that the picture doesn’t look exactly like the USMC or marines from Aliens or something else that is intrinsic and part of our cultural background.

Contrast this with a book in which the author carefully creates an entirely new military culture, with new rank names and positions, with new terms and policies and tactics and names for them. This means the author must do the heavy lifting and set up the initial framework, then put enough explanation in the book that the reader understands that framework enough to form the mental associations with what they do know (NCOs, officers, enlisted, organization of men and material, and so on). No matter how strange and fantastic you make your new sci-fi whatever widget military city alien race, ultimately the reader cannot relate to the whatever widget unless they can tie it in to something they have experienced. Imagination can make up the rest, but if you don’t know what the color green is, it’s just a nonsense word that means nothing.

We depend on Culture to Inform the Audience on What to See

The way that culture wraps around the stories we tell is also interesting. There are movies which every single person alive either has seen or should have seen. Thus, phrases like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” are used as the basis of jokes in other art such as written stories or cartoons or movies or visual art. When a cartoon like the Animaniacs does their humor, much of it depends on having seen the body of work of famous movies like Casablanca, ET, Star Wars, the Godfather, Gone With the Wind, and so on. Don’t see those movies? Don’t get the jokes.

I saw a cartoon done during WWII, where they tongue-in-cheek said, “Crime is down, except at clock shops.” The criminals break into a jewelry store and steal all the clocks and leave the jewelry. I didn’t understand it, had to look it up. It turns out clocks were no longer manufactured during the war because the factories were making parts and devices for the war effort, so people couldn’t buy new clocks. Thus, the thieves make off with the clocks. Without the culture to interpret the humor, I couldn’t grasp it (and it wasn’t funny).

Every Pirate Movie made from the 60s on Is Influenced by Treasure Island

Another trope in our cultural has to do with all the cultural baggage on horror monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, Wolfman, the Mummy, these early movies from late Victorian books set up decades of horror that continues to this day with genres entirely devoted to them, especially the vampire genre. Or zombies, which sprang from George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and spawned dozens of movies and hundreds of books. The premise is pretty bad, but people really like it, for some reason.

And some things are so prevalent in our culture, that for our characters to not acknowledge them in the books as we write would be weird. So, in a zombie apocalypse type of book, you always get the character who says, “you mean this is a zombie apocalypse?” and the other characters pooh-pooh it, but the first character is right. And it has to be mentioned because it’s all pervasive in culture and you cannot avoid mentioning it without it being a wee bit strange to the reader, who is immersed in zombies and expects that at least some of the characters in the book will figure it out and call it what it is.

If you’ve ever watched a pirate movie, there is always some aspect that will point back to Disney’s Treasure Island, with Robert Newton performing as Long John Silver. Where does the pirate accent come from? Robert Newton, who got it from his grandmother who lived in a remove part of Britain where the dialect was unchanged from several hundred years before. I’ll bet some of you were playing with “Talk like a Pirate Day” yesterday, and you were, whether you knew it or not, mimicking Robert Newton’s dialect from Treasure Island.


Crumbling Empire Placeholder for Chapter 6

This was where Chapter 6 was, which is the confronting-the-past chapter.  Which it didn’t do. It skirts around that issue and tries to figure out why Yuen looks like someone else. I bet you can guess.  Go ahead. Why does she look like someone else? Why, indeed? Maybe it needs explosions.

If you are new, Chapter 1 is here.

As of 1/18/16, I’ve removed it. I left the comments here because those are useful.



Random Positive Trait Creator Success in Excel

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased Ackerman and Puglisi’s excellent Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes a few weeks ago.

There are a lot of positive traits, I must say.  They have these columns listing them, and then there’s four different categories.


So, you pick from each category.
Me, I hate all that choice. There are 80 traits in the interactive category alone. I dunno, I gotta pick one from each?

Enter Excel!
I entered the traits into Excel (I won’t say how, but it’s pretty obvious) and stuck a random number generator at the top in cell A2, which looks like:


That gives me a range from cell A4 to A47, where I have the Achievement traits. Note that the random number generator creates an integer with up to 3 decimal places, so I use the round to round it off. If you don’t have that, when you try to grab the integer later it won’t have a good cell address.

Then for the paydirt, the thing that grabs whatever it is out of the column according to whatever the random number generator created.

In cell A1, I have this:


I copy the formulas across 4 columns with the numbers adjusted for the stuff in the column.

This gives me the result:

Idealistic Honorable Introverted Obedient

Some of the positive traits aren’t compatible with others, but I haven’t figured out a simple way to tell it “don’t use these results, they’re wrong!” I certainly could program it to do VBA and put in a string after each term with the opposites that may cause conflict, i.e. for Analytical, these traits aren’t usually compatible: adaptable, adventurous, illogical, impulsive, melodramatic, paranoid, sentimental.

Or just eyeball the result and decide on my own without a machine’s help. I can also program it to randomly select the negative traits, as well.  Ultimately, it’s a nice starting point.


Alert Enthusiastic Whimsical Humble

Don’t mind me, but I couldn’t help but see that you were standing over here with a blog. I love blogs! Maybe you could paint it blue.

Creative Optimistic Flamboyant Responsible

That one doesn’t look real. Creative AND responsible? Doesn’t fit the stereotype.

Chasing Shadows: Choosing Fantasy Names

I like to wander into those random name websites and have ’em spit out a dozen names. Then I pick ones that work for me. If I think, “I need a Russian name,” I can pick out a few Russian names. Or Brazilian. And so on.

Behind the Name has a pretty decent log of names, though they may be not so good if you’re picking a tight genre or a nationality for which they don’t have that many middle names.


Yar, anyway, that’s mostly it. With my characters being military, they have nicknames which may or may not have anything to do with their name or their appearance. For instance, Cruikshank is “shank”, but a tall character is called “Stalk” (short for beanstalk), and I’m going to name some guy claymore, which will describe him getting sick one night drinking with his buddies. See? It’s funny.

Strange naming conventions may be hard if you have a bunch of consonents and apostrophes. What a mess! It takes longer for the reader to track those, I’m pretty sure, because they’re strange. If you’re doing fantasy, it needs to be usable, and maybe if you’re making something up, figure out the short version, the nickname. JRR gave most of his characters strange names, like Thorin, Elrond, Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and Bill. Whoops. Did I say Bill? Yes, Bill. And his unforgettable troll name: Tom. And Tom Bombadil. Hmmm. Right, well, most of the names aren’t common or “real.” Notice that the names are all one or two syllables.

So otherworldly, sure, but take a cue from the Indians who do tech support for Americans. It’s never Rajeesh calling, it’s Bill. We know Bill. We like Bill. We know people named Bill. We -might- know a Rajeesh, but what are the chances.


I spoke a couple of weeks ago about some of the potential pitfalls in character naming and when writing my novel, Chasing Shadows, this was a topic I dealt with almost daily. As a fantasy book with fantasy characters, I felt it was only appropriate to use fantasy names. No one is going to take a grim reaper seriously if his name is Derek, I thought. But this brought me a whole bunch of new challenges.

I wanted to use names that sounded appropriate for an otherworldly creature but I still had to make sure that they were pronounceable and easy to memorise. One option would have been to make up names; that certainly would have made them unique. But it was very important to me that these characters had some relevance to the real world and so the solution I eventually decided on was to use names of…

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22 Rules of Storytelling

This is splendid and I will be going back through these.  Jen at Jen’s Thoughts posted these rules from a list composed in 2011, by then Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats. While they aren’t linear, it does bode well for formulaic writers. Do each of these things and you will write a successful story. Some seem simple, others may stretch you. If you want just the straight list (text) without the pictures, it follows the pictures at the end.

Jens Thoughts

I wanted to share this article with everyone. To me, it’s a gold mine that you can review over and over. I hope it inspires you.

Back in 2011, then Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats (now freelancing) tweeted 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar. Coats learned the ‘guidelines’ from senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories,tweeting the nuggets of wisdom over a 6 week period.

Last week, artist and User Experience Director at Visceral Games (a subsidiary of Electronic Arts), Dino Ignacio, created a series of image macros of the 22 rules and posted them to Imgur and Reddit.

Below you will find the list of image macros along with a text summary of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling at the end of the post. Enjoy!

[Sources: Emma Coats, Dino Ignacio, The Pixar Touch]


pixar's 22 rules of storytelling as image macros (2)

Written by Emma Coats | @lawnrocket

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Who is the toughest audience for military sci-fi? Vets.


I’ve been slowly writing. We’re up to 10 k. I clearly need a word count widget, then people can check in to see the thermometer: “We’re this far toward our goal.” Aw, shoot.

I handed the first four chapters to four military vets: USAF NCO, USAF Officer (in satellites, no less), US Army MP and current LEO, and my steadfast mentor, Canadian Army tanker vet.

The first critique came back, and he’s saying I need to tell more about the environment.  Yar. And that I need to make the speaker tags clearer where I don’t have it. And he hates the scene where the protag removes her armor and lays down her weapon, and I can see why, so that gets a rewrite.

I’ve rewritten some sections and added more thoughts by the protagonist so we can get inside her head a little more, maybe form that emotional connection so we give a flying you know what about the character and read a little further just to see what happens.

Second guessing your manuscript based on other works you see

I read a review of Kathy Tyers’ Firebird series and thought, “this sounds erudite and wonderful.”

Then I looked at my manuscript. I frowned. I considered Firebird. Sci fi, written as a creative project for a doctorate.

My manuscript. Written as a creative project for not-a-doctor me.

I can see where this thinking is going to take me. Not a good place. So ignore the Tyers example and move forward. Get up, get vertical, get off the beach.  But there’s shell fire and machine guns. Doesn’t matter. Get off the beach. Go.

How can I make it better?  Get off the beach. Learn as much as possible. Keep moving.

Clearly I need to finish reading the characterization books. And stop using so many adverbs. Off the beach. Move forward.

Oh, and you readers? Move up and flank ’em on the left side. I want a poet to establish a base of fire here, and start free forming it at the enemy, maybe throw some iambic pentameter at ’em.  I’ll also need some of you short story people to lob in some artillery, maybe some novellas. Get some special forces operators with some haikus to sneak in, and we’re set. We’ll need overhead (book) cover(s) from some artists!