AMA about allowing characters to create themselves in alternative Sci-Fi cultures.

Wesley Britton
May 12, 2018

Three Earths. Three visions of humanity.   How can a writer juggle all that?

While creating the alternate earths of the Beta-Earth Chronicles, I needed a wide cast of characters who would not only be interesting as themselves, but also as representatives of their cultures, countries, and very different backgrounds.

 I’ve often said most of my characters created themselves, and that is somewhat true.  I create the setting, scenario, and needed characteristics, and then let the character step into the picture and let them often take it from there. 

Of course, it’s rarely as simple as that. But I do think new characters need the space to stretch, grow, and assert their own personalities, tastes, needs, desires.    For me, watching a new character come to life is one of my favorite creative joys.

I'm here to answer any questions you have about the craft of writing and world and character building in fiction. I look forward to interacting with you.

Starting in fall 2015, Wes Britton’s science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted with The Blind Alien. Throughout 2016, four sequels followed including The Blood of Balnakin, When War Returns, A Throne for an Alien, and The Third Earth. Return to Alpha was the sixth volume of this multi-planetary epic with a new novella and short stories to come in 2018.

Britton earned his doctorate in American Literature at the University of North Texas in 1990. He taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College until his retirement in 2016. He serves on the Board of Directors for Vision Resources of Central Pennsylvania. 

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Beta-Earth Chronicles

 

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What do you feel is the purpose of the non-fiction books and what matters to you about these books?
May 19, 11:22AM EDT0
How do you improvise your draft and what is the best way of doing that?
May 19, 3:13AM EDT0
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
May 19, 2:06AM EDT0
What cultures or groups of people played the biggest inspiration in the creation of the Beta-Earth Chronicles?
May 17, 12:18PM EDT1
Do you personally believe in the existence of aliens? Did that influence the types of characters created in the Beta-Earth Chronicles?
May 17, 11:50AM EDT0
How does the constant advancement of modern technology change the outlook on the sci-fi genre?
May 17, 9:04AM EDT0

I suppose I can best answer this by discussing how evolving technology affects my own writing.

I’m constantly seeing news stories about scientific breakthroughs that point to current changes and possibilities likely to be part of our future in a relatively short time.   Our technological age moves quickly pretty much daily—who can keep up?

Since I’m currently working with stories set 40 years in the future, I want to present believable technology that isn’t going to be out-of-date in real life four decades from now. I think of AI, robotics, transportation, sheltering us from the elements, and miniaturization.  At least, these are matters I’ve worked with adapting my ongoing stories.

In my case, all my stories are earth-bound, albeit three different earths, so I’ve tried to adapt possible but nonexistent technology on the other earths to make them more alien. I don’t have to work with spaceships or exotic weaponry or radically different species of aliens. I’m not a “hard science” writer.  I’m not knowledgeable enough for that.  I more emphasize different cultures, characters, geo-politics, the like.

May 17, 2:22PM EDT0
Do you write notes on the character development for the characters of the Beta-Earth Chronicles before the writing process begins?
May 17, 5:36AM EDT0

Well, I don’t sit down and write up notes, but I do like to think out my starting points and beyond when thinking about a new character. For example, when the Joline character came to mind,  I knew the paparazzi were going to be a new pressure on the Renbourn tribe in The Blind Alien.  When I think of the paparazzi, I think of Princess Di, so Joline’s physical description mirrors the ill-fated Princess of Wales. I also wanted to give her an exotic background, so I had her people be cliff dwellers in the northern “Ice Countries” she is ultimately exiled from. I wanted to give her characteristics no other character had to that point, so I made her very creative,  taller than most humans on Beta-Earth, I forget what else.

So with these starting points, I was able to introduce Joline and let her tell her own story, just as I did for the other characters. I admit some characters were created to serve specific purposes; Kalma had to be the “sacrificial lamb” from Balnakin, Sasperia had to be a character that gave the Renbourn tribe all sorts of trouble from within the family.

 So I have imagery and any number of descriptive thoughts in mind when shaping a new character. How about you?

May 17, 2:25PM EDT0
How can character development skills in the sci-fi genre be utilized when writing other genres of fiction?
May 16, 1:45PM EDT0

To be honest, I don’t know why character development in one genre should be any different from other genres.  True, you might want to keep close to potential reader expectations if you’re sticking closely to tried and true formulas. For example, I presume most romance novels require at least one attractive heroine and several suitors to battle over the fair maiden in one way or another. Being inventive might be limited in such genres, but readers of such books might not be looking for radically different types of characters from what they usually find in their reading.

 In sci-fi, there’s a much wider spectrum of possibilities for creating inventive back stories and cultures for alien beings who may be humanoid, maybe far from it.   So opportunities to let your imagination and creativity go wild are much greater than a novel set, say, in modern day New York City.  Still, the basics are going to be the same—readers need to visualize what the character looks like,  get some depth of understanding of what makes that character tick, on and on.

 In my opinion . . .

 

May 17, 2:21PM EDT0
Why do you think there aren’t many books that portray strong female characters while also being capable of great romance?
May 14, 10:39PM EDT0

I know this was the situation for many years, but not sure it’s true anymore. I can think of female sci-fi writers with strong female protagonists, even if I can pull few examples off the top of my head.   Tosin Coker, the U.K.’s first black sci-fi novelist, springs to my feeble mind.  I also think many, many male writers have evolved with the times and create strong women leads, partners, and villains.

 Let me offer my own Beta-Earth Chronicles, each of them chock-full of very strong, individual, distinctive, talented, and often strong-willed women.

May 15, 7:25PM EDT0
What do you consider to be the three most annoying character traits writers use when creating a supporting character?
May 14, 10:13PM EDT0

You got me on this one.  I can’t think of one annoying characteristic that more than one author might use, much less three.

 Well, one thought springs to mind.   Using stock characters that are clearly there to serve some short-lived purpose with no need of depth or development could be lazy writing.  Can’t think of a single example this morning, sorry.

 

May 15, 7:25PM EDT0
What has been your most emotional reaction to a character and what about that character made you react in the way you did?
May 14, 6:27PM EDT0

I presume you’re talking about me reacting to one of my own characters.

If so, my answer is easy.  The most important scene in my second novel, The Blood of Balnakin,  is when Bar Tine Renbourn is murdered.  It was one of those moments I had to write although I didn’t really want to.  Bar was the very first character I introduced in The Blind Alien and she suffered a lot for her soft heart.   She had a very special place in my heart.

But sometimes an author has to bite the bullet and kill off a major character.  The moment spun off all sorts of important consequences that ran through the rest of the series even if Bar Tine—in the flesh, at least—isn’t there.

 Now, if you mean someone else’s character, that’s a toughie.  Off the top of my head, I’ll say Oedipus. Blinding himself to partially atone for his unintentional sin is a powerful scene in literature.   For me, so too is the death of Hamlet.  Hmm, not so tough after all—

May 15, 4:36AM EDT0
In what ways does the era in which a book is written affect the characters created for that novel and why is it important to establish this before attempting to develop anything else about the story?
May 14, 2:41PM EDT0

Not sure I accept that premise—that you have to establish an era before doing other things to set your stage. The era can be demonstrated while you’re having action taking place, as in watching fugitive slaves on the run or watching soldiers firing their weapons.  A conversation or character description can accomplish multiple things, including making it clear where or when things are happening. 

 But I do think historical contexts are very important to shape characters in hundreds of ways. What are the relationships between the genders? Are there class distinctions with cultural expectations involved?  Do the characters appear in known historical events and do they play important or supporting roles in these events? Is the vocabulary any different from modern usage?

 I think research and immersion in a particular historical period is crucial before trying to write a novel set in a recognizable past. I think that’s part of the pleasure of writing historical fiction.

 In other words, most of the time our characters have to act believably doing the sorts of things and saying the sorts of things that fit the time and place they exist in.    If you’re going to do something that’s a bit anachronistic, that needs to be explained.

May 15, 4:32AM EDT0
What was the best writing advice you ever received with regards to character building?
May 14, 2:25PM EDT0

I  suppose that was when one teacher told me writing character sketches was a good way to practice the writing craft even if I didn’t have a story or situation I wanted to really develop. Writing character sketches allowed me to try out different ways to introduce a character, describe a character, and perhaps reveal things that shed light on what made those characters tick.

 In the beginning, I think it’s useful to describe real people you actually know. You don’t have to invent characters from your imagination,   but rather try to capture friends, family members, or that stranger sitting down by the water fountain. It’s kind of like what an artist does when they sit down and sketch out things they see that they might want to later fill in with colors and textures. Or just leave in an exercise book.

 

May 15, 4:33AM EDT0
How do you find the writing process to be illuminating? Does it help you get to know yourself, or it offers you a different perspective on everything else?
May 13, 11:31AM EDT0

Wow, what a probing question! Not one I can glibly and lightly respond to, so I’ll have to invest some thought in this one.

First, after I came to accept the idea that the character of Dr. Malcolm Renbourn is more based on me than I once cared to admit,  I did gain some insights into myself. At least, the character in the first chapters lives a rather parallel life to my own. But after he escapes across the border from the slave-holding Balnakin to the free country of Rhasvi, he’s his own man in most ways. I still don’t think I’d have dealt with many situations anything like he did. I doubt I’d have been as resistant to the polygamy that seems to worry him so much. 

 More to the core of things, I ad to accept that the character so full of a sense of failure at the beginning of the book deeply reflected that same sense of failure I felt, and for much the same reasons.   In fiction, this helped me offer a character who was at the bottom of the social heap with an unhappy emotional make-up.   I wanted him to be so physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually beat up to compare with the changes in his status that would evolve dramatically as the series progressed.  Of course, that’s good for the story, not especially illuminating about myself. After setting him up on the stage, my life was never remotely similar to the journey of Malcolm Renbourn on Beta and then Serapin earths.

 Perhaps most illuminating for me was realizing how I could come up with characters, scenes, plot lines, and settings that seemed to come out of nowhere.   Some matters had starting points for me, like Joline growing up in a cliff village very much like Colorado’s Mesa Verda.  On another level, I had no interest in fashion or clothing styles, but found the storyline about such matters had to follow that trajectory because it helped shape the early Renbourn tribe. In other words, I learned that writing fiction is often following a road you didn’t expect to follow. That was illuminating in each of the first four books.

 Different perspectives? The books are chock-full of them.  I have characters from a wide variety of cultures trying to come together as they keep moving from culture to culture, country to country trying to find a secure home.   Sometimes that made me deepen the “bad guys” by looking for ways to make them sympathetic and something beyond being mere adversaries to the Renbourn tribe.

 Not sure if I hit on exactly what you were asking, but the above is what your question sparked in me.  Perhaps I’ll dig deeper later if I find another way to look at your query.

May 14, 7:19AM EDT0
What social media platforms work well for increasing the reach of your content and books for promotional purposes?
May 13, 5:13AM EDT0

I’m finding the usefulness of social networking is very difficult to gauge.    You can get large numbers of clicks and hits in any given campaign, but that doesn’t always translate into sales or downloads.  Any moves forward I attribute to my publicist, Karina Kantas.  She runs Author Assist which is a  A la carte  of author services. She works with everyplatform, FB gages and groups and Twitter, of course, blog tours, radio and blog interviews, YouTube trailers, and an FB page. Before Karina came around, I already had a website and a Goodreads blog that never got much traction; for some reason, my much newer Book Likes blog got more followers rather quickly.

 My personal opinion is that there is such a glut of new books coming out each day that trying to get heard in the crowd is hard, hard work.  Especially when you offer something that is radically different from more established genres and sub-genres. After all these years, I am still learning and wanting to learn more. So how has social media helped you in your publicity efforts?KKantas Author Assist

May 14, 7:23AM EDT0

Hi Wesley! Thank you so much for your help. As soon as I read your answer, I could see my main character in the middle of a campaign at some later stage of the story. Suddenly, I was there again and ready to watch the action flow. Oddly, I seemed to have a fixation on continuing from exactly where I had left off and I have been totally stuck for a year on this and keeping busy with other projects. Due to your advice, - 'Kiara, - the goblin wars' might actually get written! Many thanks, Patrick.

May 13, 2:47AM EDT1

I am so delighted some of my advice was actually useful! Look forward to reading the final product!

May 14, 7:24AM EDT1
Who was the first to read your work and what was their comment?
May 13, 12:03AM EDT0

The first reader was my wife who had lots of comments on the family relationships.  She wondered if the wives ever played tricks on each other.  She wondered why the children weren’t more underfoot.  Her responses led to a lot of added paragraphs in the latter parts of the Blind Alien and much more domestic depth in the second book, The Blood of Balnakin. That’s where playing tricks on each other kicked into high gear.

 

May 14, 7:24AM EDT0

Hi Wesley! I have written a novelette called Kiara and I want to write a full-length sequel. However, I am having real difficulty in even beginning the first page. Do you have any advice for me? Regards, Patrick.

May 12, 5:19PM EDT0

Whew, you would have to ask a big one!   Let me try to help you with your logjam.

 First, if you want to write a sequel, that means you have a lot of your “world” and presumably characters already established.  So you got a foundation to work with, a well to draw from. That is a huge advantage for you.

 One idea that helped many of my students over the years is that there’s no rule that says you gotta write page one first, then page two, and so on.   For pretty much every author, that first blank page or screen is the most daunting. Why not start from the middle?  You can “build” your story inside out, that is, writing scenes, chapters, character sketches, events, or episodes that occur later in the book and then you can craft the introductory material. In fact, it might be easier to write the first pages after you know where things are going to go.

 Do you already know your storyline or is that yet to come?   If you do, drafting your map so you know where things are going to happen can give you a scaffold or structure you can begin to fill out as you go.

 Something that helped me in this situation was to put aside one writing project and work on others while I waited for my creative tank to refill.   That was why I worked on my spy books and sci-fi books at more or less the same time.   When I felt tapped out working on one book, I changed hats and worked on a different one. Or worked on writing book reviews, essays, poems, short stories, anything to keep my writing mind active as I waited for what I needed for the Beta-Earth books to come to me.

 And there’s no substitute for reading and reading when my writing self seems clogged.  Often, I end up doing research without intending to be doing research—reading books on the same geographical region I want to write about, the same kind of cultures, you name it. I often pick up little tidbits that might not jumpstart page one but add little details for later in the story.

Any of that of any use?

May 13, 1:58AM EDT0
What is the book you've read and you wished you had written? Why?
May 12, 5:06PM EDT0

Hmm, so many choices. But I must admit, Dune by Frank Herbert is the one that really impacted my life as a writer.  That’s because it came out at a time when my interests included English literature, world history, and anthropology.   While I was earning my B.A. in English, I was spending a lot of time taking anthropology classes and spending summers at excavation sites of hunter/gatherer indigenous peoples.

 Dune’s epic scale seemed to embrace my interest in long-term history and cultural anthropology which had a lot to do with my desire to write my own epic, although nowhere near the scale of Herbert and so many others. I kinda hate talking about the masters as I want no one, no one to think I’m putting myself anywhere near their level.

May 13, 1:59AM EDT0
Having a PhD in literature, it is somewhat unusual to be in the Sci-Fi sphere of writing. How did this genre come to you?
May 12, 12:32PM EDT0

Having a PhD in literature, it is somewhat unusual to be in the Sci-Fi sphere of writing. How did this genre come to you?

 

That is a very good question as I remember debates in grad school about whether or not sci-fi should be considered literature at all. I never saw a problem as in the works of Poe and Hawthorne. Some professors didn’t want to brand certain books like Clockwork Orange or Slaughterhouse Five as science fiction. There was something about these works that rose above the sludge of SF. To them.

 I had been reading sci-fi since grade school and knew some of it was pure escapism but other works had more depth. Like Comparing Star Trek to Lost in Space. In the main, I didn’t care about labels. I liked Riverworld, Lord of the Rings, The Lathe of Heaven . . . what need was there to defend my tastes?

 I can’t really say sci-fi came to me when the Beta-Earth Chronicles began to take shape.   The characters, the story just filled my mind and sci-fi was just the most obvious genre to try to define it all. I was delighted when early reviewers noted my books aren’t traditional sci-fi as they discussed all sorts of aspects they saw in The Blind Alien. I love it that I defy expectations.

May 13, 2:01AM EDT0
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