The Dark Knight… sinks, badly.

Last night I went to see The Dark Knight Rises at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, London. I hated it.

I started my writing career by writing film, book and music reviews for the BBC Collective website (see portfolio). It takes a very different approach to writing than does fiction, but it shares enough in common. You need a point and you need structure. And the whole thing has to flow. I learned a lot by writing reviews. And after watching The Dark Knight Rises, or rather, enduring it, I came out so upset by the film’s failures that I wanted to write a film review again, for the first time in 6 years.

But a tirade of negativity just isn’t me. What’s the point in raving at walls? And then I thought… What if something positive could come out of it instead? What if rather than just slating it, we could learn from it? So let’s do that. Let’s break down the film and find out why it was rubbish, and how any writer can learn to avoid the same mistakes.

[Note: contains spoilers. But then who cares, there was so little tension in this film – indeed one friend fell asleep watching it – and it’s so crap, that I don’t care if this is full of spoilers. Batman falls in love with Catwoman and they live happily ever after at the end. There’s your first spoiler. You don’t believe it, do you?, because it’s so unlikely given the first two films. But it’s true. The last shot is the two of them acting young and free in Florence. What a crock of shit.]

A. The story

This has to be where it starts, with the story.  I’ll recap and then break down why it doesn’t work.

Bruce Wayne has lived in exile for eight years. Batman has not been seen since Two Face died, and is accused of his murder.

Bane, a hulk of a man who wears a mask over his face kidnaps a nuclear physicist and then disappears for ages.

A board member of Wayne Enterprises wants to take over the company. He steals Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, and has Bane place most of Bruce Wayne’s money on the stock market in a lot of dodgy deals. Bruce is penniless, his body broken, his will to be Batman at a low. The board member is then primed to take over the company. Except Bruce asks another board member, Miranda, to stop him. Apparently she does, though we don’t see any of this. It just happens, as if by magic. Then the evil board member is killed by Bane. Just like that.

Bane steals a fusion reactor that promises clean energy for everyone. He turns it into a neutron bomb. And then does not much with it for a while. Batman comes back for a bit. Bane faces off against Batman, and defeats him after a minor punch up. We jump to somewhere unspecified (somewhere in the Middle East by the looks of it) where Bruce is put into a dark pit. We are told there is no escape from this pit, and that only one person has ever done it. We are repeatedly told that it was Bane who escaped. Bruce has his back stretched, does a few sit ups, and then escapes. And somehow, without money or a passport, gets back to America. Oh and into Gotham, which has been closed off to everyone. But we’re not shown that. Perhaps it’s by magic?

Batman tackles Bane, who ends up dead. The bomb is still around somewhere. Miranda turns out to be the baddie, and runs off with the neutron bomb. Batman stops her vehicle, she dies. The characters stand around for a bit while the neutron bomb counts down to some supposedly tension-inducing final couple of seconds. And then stand around a bit more, snogging. Because you’d do that. Eventually Batman flies the bomb out over the sea, where it blows up in a big mushroom cloud. Everyone is saved, and some children look at the mushroom cloud and don’t appear to be upset by it. Bruce Wayne hooks up with Catwoman (oh yeah, Catwoman’s in this. But don’t worry, she’s not a character, just a plot device, so you missed nothing from the story synopsis). The end.

And, er, that’s it.

What’s wrong with the story?

What I described above is a sequence of events. Batman and Bruce Wayne are no more. Someone wants to blow up the city. Batman comes back and defeats them. Fine. The basic structure is there: a character has fallen low, there is a great threat, the character has to overcome their own limitations before they tackle the great threat. The character is triumphant. And so what? All stories do that. That doesn’t get you any points, for following Story Telling 101. So why does it fail as a story?

Let’s go into reverse a bit. “… the character has to overcome their own limitations…” Let’s start there, with some:

B. Character motivation

Your characters need a motivation, a reason to be doing something. Let’s go through the main characters and see what their motivations are:

Bruce Wayne / Batman

Bruce is bored and a recluse. He responds to a threat to Gotham because… because that’s what he does. Even he doesn’t really know. Then he keeps going because there’s a bomb that will kill people. There is none of the personal story of Bruce Wayne and his battle with his darker side here. It’s even exposed in the film. “You don’t fear death,” says one character. “That’s right,” Bruce may as well have replied, “I have no flaws. I do things because they’re right, I’m at peace with myself, and I’ll overcome these challenges after a bit of a rest.”

Bruce Wayne is perfect. He has no serious flaws any more. But that’s not what an audience needs. It wants a flawed hero. That’s what he is in the first two films. Flawed by the darkness inside him, flawed by his conflict with loving someone, flawed by his struggle with friendship. In this film he’s… Well, he’s come to terms with all of that. Even at the end when he hangs up his cape, it’s with no regret, no difficult parting, no tortured struggle within his being, his very soul. He just sods off to Italy, apparently now with some money (after losing everything in the film), and is very happy, thanks.

Where is Bruce Wayne’s struggle with his dark side? Where is his fight against adversity?

Bruce says to Alfred, “If Bane’s a hard nut, I’ll just be harder still. That’s what I always do.” And with that he completely undercuts any tension, any “will he / won’t he?” that might have followed. Bane captures Batman in Gotham, then suddenly we’re in the Middle East (I assume, there’s no explanation of how the characters get from Gotham to this mysterious place, they’re just there), and Bruce is put in a deep pit from which no one has ever escaped (* see Bane section below).

Bruce lies around for a bit, and we’re told that he’s going to have his soul tortured. That he will never escape, and will see his beloved Gotham destroyed. We don’t see any of this soul-torture. Bruce talks to Tom Conti, who does a bit of chiropracty on him, then he does some sit-ups, and is much better. And that point arrives where he could become flawed again, where the internal conflict could come back and make things interesting.

“You do not fear death,” says a handy character. “To escape, you must.”

At that point it could have become interesting – plunge back into the fear he spent so long escaping. Bruce climbs a wall to escape the pit, and he has to take a leap of faith. Which on his 3rd attempt, he does, and he makes it. At no point does the struggle look difficult for him. And this climb out of a pit into the light is supposed to be juxtaposed with his fall from perfection. Darkness should re-enter his soul, the ultimate irony: he should fear death and mortality just as he emerges into the light. And does it? No. He’s magically back in Gotham, and fights and defeats the baddies.

Let’s summarise the character journey here: he’s happy with the world, he has no flaws, he does things because they’re right, he’s captured, he has to become afraid (not face his fears), he escapes from a pit with no real challenge, and then wins. No struggle, no tension, no valedictory triumph. Where is the “Dark” Knight? This is a “Shining” Knight.

Writers: Learning point number 1: your hero needs to be flawed, they need to go on a journey and overcome a great challenge within. That challenge can be externalised – in Star Wars, Luke must face Vader, not just his greatest fear, but later, we learn, his father. Luke must face his own fears and strike down his own father. Now that’s a journey to go on. In this film Bruce has to be… perfect. “I’ll be harder still,” says Bruce and lo – it came to pass, as we knew it would.

2. Bane

What’s Bane about? He’s the baddie, right? Oooh, scary big man.

Nothing, except that he looks cool and gives Tom Hardy a chance to create a bonkers character. Credit where credit is due – Tom Hardy is enigmatic on screen. And this is especially hard given that Bane hardly moves, you can’t see his face, and you can’t hear or make out half of what he says. There’s a physicality to Tom Hardy’s acting that draws you in. It’s just a shame it’s so wasted.

Bane is the baddie of the film, until he isn’t. He stomps around looking angry. He appears to have a plan. He wants to grab this fusion reactor and turn it into a bomb and kill everyone. Except he doesn’t want to kill everyone, he wants to free the people from their rich rulers and their legal oppressors (the police, upholding the rule of law). Except he wants to kill everyone, because the bomb can’t be defused. But he also wants to free everyone from their oppressors. But he’s killed the only man who can defuse the bomb, so everyone’s going to die. But he wants to free… Hang on a minute. Let’s skip this and get to the proper point.

What is Bane’s motivation? If he’s successful, what does he achieve?

Well, we’re never told. That’s right. Bane wants to free people (and kill them) for the purpose of… Um. Er. Nope, no reason is given.

He’s the film’s main antagonist. He’s set up as Batman’s nemesis. At one point, when he captures Batman, he says that he wants to make Batman suffer, that he is going to torture his soul. There isn’t really any reason given for this.

Both Bane and Batman are products of the mysterious League of Shadows. Batman left, discovering they were a bit mental. In the first film, where the conflict is really driven by Batman’s internal conflict (his dark side vs his desire for love and affection) we find the League of Shadows pop up in Liam Neeson, who wants to spread disorder and bring down Gotham’s rulers. There’s no real reason given there, either, and it’s the weakest part of the first film. But it wasn’t so important, because that story was about Batman and his struggle. The League of Shadows was incidental. It wasn’t the point of the story. It was the cause of some bad things happening (Arkham, the Scarecrow and so on) but it wasn’t the major plot device.

Here, well. Let’s leave it there for the moment. We’ll come back to it in a moment.

The other thing with Bane is that he’s just a monster. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. We learn that he’s a protector for the Miranda character when she was young. We’re encouraged to believe that he’s in love with her. But by the point we learn this, there’s no space left for sympathy for him – the misdirected lover, brought into a world of evil by his over-riding love for a woman? No. By the time we learn this, he’s a man in a mask who’s killed loads of people. We don’t like him, and he’s about to die. The opportunity to create a sympathetic monster has been lost. If we’d learned earlier that he was tortured, that he’d followed Miranda into the League of Shadows to continue protecting her, having been blinded by unrequited or promised love, we could be better terrified by his monstrousness. All of that intelligence and might, which could easily have been used as a force for good, channelled into anarchy and hatred. The conflict which lies within us all, the monster we could all have become, and so on. But instead he’s just a monster.

Let’s look at a different aspect of Bane: his face mask.

He wears a mask and characters keep asking why. “A-hah!” you think, “the mask will be important later.” And it is, so let’s find out why.

In story telling if a character in a story has a “thing” – a trick, a knack, something different – it has to be because it serves the story. Continuing with the comparison to Star Wars, Darth Vader is trapped inside his suit and breathing apparatus because it serves to remind us of a couple of things: one, that he is vulnerable, the suit keeps him alive; two, that he was once fully human but has become “more machine now than man” – we know that somewhere inside there is a human. This is underscored by Luke’s assertion that, “There is good in him.” It creates a tragic character. Terrifying to look at, but vulnerable, human, and in secret conflict. And three, because at the end Darth Vader chooses to sacrifice himself. He could survive after killing the Emperor, but he asks Luke to remove his face mask at the point when he needs it most. He completes his journey, his redemption, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Darth Vader wears a mask – has a thing – because it serves the story.

Bane wears a mask, and people keep asking, “Why?”. We learn the reason behind it – it is some sort of pain control device. Fine, but what’s the point of it in the story? At the end, Batman aims to punch off Bane’s mask (despite the leads coming out of it which you could easily pull out… but let’s gloss over that). And he succeeds! Ah, so now we’ll have some struggle with Bane. Now Bane is in pain, and he’ll battle against his sudden weakness and still try to defeat Batman, driven on by his rage only. He will… Oh no, Batman has him defeated. But Miranda turns up and, with a knife plunged between Batman’s ribs (which he conveniently forgets about a few moments later), plugs Bane’s mask in again. This is where the purpose of Bane’s mask is revealed, the reason it’s important to the story. Let’s change characters to find out why.

3. Miranda

Just as Batman has Bane on the floor, mask compromised, Miranda turns up. She plunges a knife between Batman’s ribs (not sure how she got through is body armour, but let’s gloss over that…) and with Batman immobile, she painstakingly plugs in the two loose leads on Bane’s mask. The sort of job that takes 5 seconds, but we’re entering exposition time.

She spends three minutes explaining what’s actually been happening for the past 2.5 hours. Yes, instead of creating tension at the start, by setting up a goal for the bad people, something we want to avoid happening, it’s explained right at the end.

“Hi,” she may as well have said, “I’m actually the baddie. Surprise! So, you know that bomb and all the carnage that Bane’s been going on about? See how you never knew why he was doing it? It’s because of me. I’m the daughter of Liam Neeson’s character. What’s that? There would’ve been more tension if we’d learned this earlier? Oh shush now. Yes, so he was my father. Both me and Bane were in the League of Shadows, but Bane was kicked out, so fuck knows why he’s trying to carry on their work. And I was too, I think. I’m a bit vague on that, really. I mean, I was, but I don’t appear to know any martial arts or anything. But also, have I talked enough yet? No, let’s carry on a bit more then. Oh yes, Liam Neeson was my father. But he rejected me. So why am I carrying on his work of blowing up Gotham? Um, why do I need a reason? I just am. Ha ha ha! What? Blow up another city? But I want to blow up Gotham because. Well, there isn’t a because. I just do, OK? Have I talked enough yet? Still not? OK, let’s draw this out a bit longer. Yes, I just thought I’d free the people from the rich rulers, like Daddy wanted. Oh, I’ve no idea what I’ll do after that. That’s right, thanks for the reminder, I’ll blow them up. I mean free them. Blow them up. Oh dear, I’m just as confused as Bane on this one. But hey, guess what! Bane said that the bomb’s trigger had been given to an ordinary person. That was because the power to control one’s destiny has been taken from the ordinary people and placed into the hands of the rich. And I hate the rich rulers of Gotham, even though I’m one of them.  So guess what? As a very rich board member of Wayne Enterprises, I have the bomb trigger. That’s right. And I will explain away this contradiction by saying that “I’m a normal person, too.” And don’t point out how that means that the rich rulers are also normal people, because that completely undermines the point of removing the rich rulers. And stop asking why I want to remove the rich rulers. I DON’T NEED A REASON, OK? And I will free the people by killing them, and I don’t a reason for that either. Oh look, I’ve talked for three minutes. Now I’ll run away. Thanks.”

4. Bane (a slight return)

With your big baddie, you want there to be a struggle with the hero. In the ultimate fight, the baddie must almost win, until the hero finds that last ounce of strength, or makes that major internal breakthrough which allows them to rise up and defeat the baddie.

Here the resolution to the Bane/Batman fight is a Raiders of the Lost Ark lie. Catwoman turns up and shoots Bane mid-fight. We see him fly across the floor for about 0.25 seconds, and then – whoof! – we cut away and he’s never mentioned again. Talk about an anti-climax.

And what in the end was Bane’s motivation for killing so many people? We’re led to believe it was for the love of Miranda. Not that we see any compassion between them. At the end, when she runs away to get her precious bomb, she looks at him and says, “Goodbye old friend.” Ouch. Straight into the friend zone. What should have happened after was this:

BANE PAUSES

BANE

What did she just say?

BATMAN

Dude, she put you in the friend zone.

BANE

Bitch. I want my Blink 182 CDs back. BRB Batman. LOLZ!

BANE RUNS AFTER HER. THEY STRUGGLE OVER CONTROL OF THE BOMB. IT EXPLODES AND THEIR ANARCHY IS ULTIMATELY SELF DESTRUCTIVE.

That would’ve been interesting. But instead Bane doesn’t blink. He just tries to kill Batman, until Catwoman turns up – somehow knowing just where to find Batman – and shoots Bane dead, so ner! Is there a lingering camera shot over Bane, a remorseful comment like, “Love can blind even the best of us?” No, he flies across the floor, and before he even comes to a stop (or perhaps I blinked in that 0.2 seconds of screen time) we cut away and he’s never seen again.

Writers: the learning tips here are: even your monsters need a sympathetic side. A flawed bad person is just as interesting as a flawed good person. A “that could have been me in other circumstances.”  And if there is a terrific, final conflict between your baddie and hero, make sure of two things: a) don’t stop the conflict half way through to explain what’s been going on for the last 500 pages of your novel, filter in that exposition throughout your story, and b) let the baddie’s defeat be satisfying. Let the hero fight and be on the point of losing, but then find some hidden strength they didn’t realise they had. Oh, and if your monster has a trick, a knack, a thing like a breathing mask, don’t give it to them because it looks cool, make it serve the story. If it’s their weakpoint, make the hero struggle to reach it.

5. Catwoman

I wasn’t going to bother with anything on Catwoman, but she serves a useful point for writing. If you have a character, make sure there’s a reason they’re that character.

Catwoman serves one purpose only: so Batman can find Bane.

Now, any character can do that. It could’ve been a junkie, one of Bane’s crew who had a crisis of conscience, even a remote controlled bat-drone-camera flying down a tunnel. A device would have done it.

If you make the character apparently central to your plot, like Catwoman appears to be, give them some depth, some of their own conflict, and a compelling reason to be there. In this film Catwoman is completely one dimensional, until she experiences a very strange conversion near the end (or perhaps doesn’t, which I’ll explain in a sec).

Here, Catwoman is a thief, and unrepentant. That’s what she does. She sells out Batman for what she can get out of it. Her character is caught in a bizarre trajectory of committing larger and larger crimes, none of which she’s indicted for, so she can get a computer program to wipe her criminal record, so she can stop committing crimes. She’s not a tragic character, just a stupid one.

At the end, she is ready to flee the bomb. “You’re better than that,” says Batman. “I’m not,” she replies. Flip forward a few minutes, and with no hint of internal conflict, she turns up to kill Bane.

What a strange conversion. No hint of conflict at all. But then there’s the end. In the closing few shots, we see Bruce Wayne and Catwoman apparently in love, and carefree. There is no hint of this through the film (or if there is, it is poorly acted and represented on screen, and not developed), until right near the end when Catwoman kisses Batman for no good reason whatsoever. Then that end shot, of them carefree. Perhaps she hasn’t changed, perhaps she just smelled money on Bruce Wayne, and decided to steal him to end her life of crime? Or… Nah, that’s too deep.

6. Other characters

Commissioner Gordon spends most of the film in a hospital bed, looking relieved to be out of the film. At the end he has some action, but looks bored and confused.

A police man keeps turning up at the right place and the right time during the film. He serves no use to the story, except that at the end we find out he’s called Robin, and he discovers the Batcave. So, you know. Franchise. Oh, and he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne, because as a 10 year old child he worked it all out and everything, so there.

There’s a police commander who gets very confused. Bane has just killed lots of people at the stock exchange and driven off with live hostages. He’s hacked into the stock exchange, for what reason no one knows – but as it’s a stock exchange, you have to accept the risk that it could bring down the global economy. One of the minor characters even says so. And with this as a backdrop, what does he do? Send all of the police to catch Bane and halt the story 30 minutes in? Nope. Batman turns up, so he chases after Batman instead. You know, with Bane having killed everyone and potentially causing global economic collapse. Because that makes sense.

Alfred’s in it, and Michael Caine steals every scene he’s in. What a wonderful actor. Only Alfred leaves about 30 minutes in, when it all starts crumbling into a dreadful film (well done, Michael Caine). We leap from Alfred exhorting Bruce Wayne to wake up to himself, through a very weird edit, to the two of them suddenly shouting at each other on the stairs, and Alfred saying he’s leaving. Just like that. He turns up at the end to preside over Bruce Wayne’s grave stone and see Bruce in Florence, all loved up with Catwoman. Because happily ever after is what happens to Batman.

Writers: if you have a character in a story, make sure they’re there for a reason. Catwoman could easily have been a drone, a tracking device, a Star Trek guy in a red shirt. It was inflated to a lead role because… Because you need a lead female character who looks hot in a catsuit? Surely Christopher Nolan can leave that kind of scripting to Transformers? And if you have returning characters, like Commissioner Gordon, so well portrayed as a troubled, layered personality by Gary Oldman in the first two films, then give them the same role if you bring them back. If Gary Oldman was too busy to shoot the film, then don’t put the character in. Ask yourself as a writer: why is this character here? If it’s “so the bad guy can escape”, then make sure letting the bad guy escape is within the character’s normal behaviour – a second in command police commander who goes chasing Batman when there’s grand larceny, murder and kidnapping going on isn’t a good example of this.

C. Editing

The Dark Knight Rises falls prey to George Lucas disease, which is increasingly affecting Hollywood. Combat scenes are drawn out and receive long camera shots and a lot of screen time. Exposition and story telling are reduced to micro-scenes, savagely cut and presented on screen in a series of disruptive lurches. The flow of character development and story telling in this film is awful, and some of the editing cuts scenes so far back that they have no room to breathe. It’s almost like there’s an editorial decision of “ARGH! STORY! Get it off screen as quick as possible!”

There’s always a tension in writing. Writers often want long descriptive scenes – Umberto Eco does it particularly well – whereas audiences want to be entertained. But sacrificing story for the sake of explosions isn’t the way to do it. If your audience (has been forced to believe that it) needs some action every 36.7 seconds (or whatever), then use the action to push forward the story.

At one point we have a great opportunity for some deeper, darker character development, when Bruce Wayne is cast into a pit. Tom Conti turns up and starts helping him (we aren’t told why). The sequence is essentially reduced to a montage of training, and is all the worse for it. Important parts of Tom Conti’s role are chopped up and spliced throughout the rest of the film, when placed together in a slower, intense sequence, they could have given Bane and Miranda some real character depth. A love forged in the dark and shadows, become tragically twisted by the rejection of Miranda by her father. But no.

Writers: pace is important, of course it is. Heavy exposition scenes (“Let me just explain my master plan, Mister Bond,”) can feel forced. It takes practice, and it needs feedback from your audience. Go by what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” Don’t leave the important information out, and don’t leave it so late in the story that no one cares any more. And don’t compress your character development scenes as if they’re annoying. They may need editing for pace, but they don’t need sacrificing for explosions.

D. Some other things while I’m ranting

In the film, a Special Forces team turns up to help the people of Gotham. They are killed immediately. So why have them in? Useless.

Bruce Wayne walks with a stick in the first part of the film. We even see him get a device which goes over his knee to help him walk. Then he’s thrown into a pit, wearing just rags. And… he can climb walls and walk just fine, thanks. Um.

We’re set up to care about some characters, like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Near the end we see him struggling to escape a chamber being flooded and… Um. What happened to him? Apparently he escaped, because he pops up later, but otherwise, we don’t see his struggle to escape. He just gets to a ladder and looks a bit panicked.

Gotham is threatened with a neutron bomb. This is later confused with an atom bomb. The two things are different. A neutron bomb would kill all the people, but leave the buildings standing. They are banned by international agreement because their purpose is to specifically kill people, rather than destroy infrastructure to impede an enemy. I don’t want to get in a discussion about arms control, but the reason a neutron bomb is used in the film obviously had some relevance at some point. It’s never drawn out, though. Maybe this is what the League of Shadows wanted? To kill everyone in Gotham so they could take over the buildings. But then… how would they do that? Oh yes, it’s never explained, because Bane and Miranda have no reason for doing what they’re doing, other than that Liam Neeson tried to do it in the first Batman film. You know, you kinda want to send them back to How To Be A Bad Guy School and have a conversation with them:

TEACHER: So, Bane, Miranda, which of you wants to tell me what your plan is for Gotham?

BANE: We want to free the people.

MIRANDA: That’s right. And blow them up.

BANE: Oh yeah. Blow them up.

TEACHER: I’m sorry, kids, you can’t free them and blow them up. Try again.

MIRANDA: Free them, then.

TEACHER: Good, and how will you do that?

BANE: By giving them control of a bomb that will blow up anyway, regardless of what they do?

TEACHER: Let’s go back again. What is it about these people that shackles them?

BANE: Um, oppressors. The police.

TEACHER: Good. And what do the police do?

BANE: Put rapists and murderers and thieves in prison?

MIRANDA: We want to free them of the rich people, stupid.

BANE: Oh yeah. We want to kill the rich. Miranda, you’re pretty.

TEACHER: Let’s stay focused. Once you’ve freed the people of the rich people controlling them, what do you want to happen?

BANE: Um. We kill them?

TEACHER: Sigh.

MIRANDA: I want my daddy.

Writers: Final point. If you write a script like this and it gets made into a Hollywood blockbuster, then well done you. Enjoy your big house and gold-plated pension. But if you want to keep your audience and be respected in the longer term, don’t write a script like this. It’s fucking terrible.

Character profile: Win Ho-Yung

So, for a few blogs I think I’ve promised to go back to talking about some of the characters in planetfall. The last blog post was about updating the storyboard for book 2, which may need further updating after I wrote to the end of chapter 3 yesterday and found the story writing itself into an interesting place. It’s not the forward storyboard that will need updating, it’s what’s already been written: probably just needs a minor tweak here and there and some extra character development and scenes to make it feel complete. But I digress. Let’s get onto a character from the first planetfall book.

In this blogpost I want to talk about Win Ho-Yung, and from the perspective that (at the time of writing) the book isn’t yet available, and so you haven’t met him. Let’s consider this an introduction, then, and avoid any spoilers (sweetie).

The first thing I want to talk about here is the name, “Win Ho-Yung”. All the characters in planetfall book 1 have names that either cropped up naturally (cf: Kate Leland) or which I constructed to have a specific meaning (cf: Sophie Argus) or which are a nod to cultural issues outside the book (cf: Masjid Currie, named after Marie Curie). Not so for Win.

Win’s name I agonized over for a quite a while. It is a made up Chinese name; actually within the context of the book it is a Qin name, the evolution of the Chinese society, which allowed me to take some licence – I have no idea if “Win Ho-Yung” would be a real Chinese name, or indeed if the names are more suited to nearby Oriental language groups, like South Korea.

I struggled with the name because of its obvious English meaning, “to win”. What I didn’t want people to do was associate the name with that English meaning, to think that here was a character whose name predicated their role (there is some of that in planetfall, just not for this character).

The name “Win” first appears in my Moleskine notebooks on 25 May 2008, and I’ve copied in some of my preparatory and biographical notes below. You also have another picture of my atrocious drawings, you lucky people. I didn’t record where it came from or why it was the only name I considered. I only know and remember that after much thought (translation: staring into space) that this was the name that I came up with. It felt right.

So the name has no specific meaning, but it is the only name I ever considered. In my notes there is no alternative, which is different for Djembe (I will cover that in a separate blog) and Kate Leland, for whom I have already talked about wobbling between Karen and Kate for a while, knowing only that the name had to start with a hard k sound. It’s also different for Sophie Argus and Masjid Currie, who will also be discussed in future blogposts.

Well who is Win, then? Enough about the anxieties of the author, and more about the character. Here are some heavily edited notes, originally written on 25 May 2008 in Costa Coffee, Crouch End, London, UK

Name: Win Ho Yung (note, no hyphen at this stage)

Age: 42

Born: Habitat in the Orion I system.

Biog:

Win Ho Yung’s ancestors remained in Qin space (the area occupied by the former Qin Empire, itself a closed-border volume of space created by Chinese peoples fleeing Earth’s environmental collapse in the book’s history), venturing out just three generations previously (before the book’s start). This conservativeness remained in their son, who was unambitious, despite his great skills and understanding of environmental systems. He was a person very much of his background, born in a Habitat, between Qin space and the rest of the human settled space. A Habitat between systems, but comprised itself of interlocking systems, asteroid and metal and farming pods, carefully balanced and carefully maintained. He wished not to go back to his ancestors’ roots, but neither to venture forth on his own. He had no desire to imagine different futures for himself. More important was understanding what was around him. How his environment worked, fit together, was influenced and influenced in turn. Win was a person of the moment, his sense drawn around his immediate presence and wholly focused on it. That allowed him to sense when something changed, not because he was out looking for it, but because it stopped affecting him. And that was also his weakness. If it stopped affecting him, he effectively became blind to it.

With an initial understanding of his background, I then tried to represent this as a picture. The photo below shows some of this, with the necessary explanation below it:

Planetfall notes on Win

Initial attempt to capture Win's character

Let’s take this picture from top left, go across the page, then drop down briefly to the bottom.

On the top left is a little graphic. In the middle is a dark dot, which represents Win, and out of it come a number of arrows. The strong arrows pointing up & down represent Win’s character trait as described: “Win was a person of the moment, his sense drawn around his immediate presence”. He looks left and right, to his immediate surroundings. A faint dotted line arrow can be seen pointing to the right, representing his limited traits of being a far-sighted person or thinking strategically. You can also just about make out an arrow going backward, which represents Win’s use of scientific data – already established facts, or “knowns” as I phrased it in my notes on the right hand side of the picture.

What you can also see in the picture is that I got confused between Djembe and Win’s characters when I was trying to represent them graphically. The crossings-out at the top and very bottom of the picture show the names being swapped around so that the drawings better tied up with the character biographies I’d written immediately above. What can I say? Sometimes we don’t concentrate on our work as well as we should.

Setting up these early character notes and biographies helped me in understanding how Win would respond to a situation. For example, because he is tied into the moment and the surrounding environment, he is very aware of people’s emotions; it allows him to be a more empathic character. And because of this tendency to empathy and emotional awareness, Win was the first character in the book for whom I developed any conception of family. He is married and has a son (you find this out in the book, and it’s not a spoiler). And because of that, he was my first attempt at creating a character with a tangible emotional centre. My approach was, “If I can get the emotional content of this character right, then I can use the experience to develop the emotional life of the other characters”. I think because of that I formed an emotional attachment to Win, and in planetfall book 1 he’s my joint favourite character (along with Verigua, the Colony’s Artificial Intelligence).

In trying to work out the rest of Win’s character I didn’t have far to look. Having already blogged about the cultural references in planetfall, it will come as no surprise – given my teen years in the 80s – to find that Win is based on the character Data from the 1985 film, The Goonies, but grown up and now aged 42. (For those who need a prompt, Data was played by Ke Huy Quan, and carried about his body a number of ‘wacky’ scientific inventions.)

In planetfall Win’s role is as environmental analyst and general inventor-of-cool-tech-and-weird-virtual-reality-simulations. He gives a lightness to scenes and acts as a foil to Djembe, who is very much a straight laced person. The two play off each other, and while they are very different characters, they are shown to be good friends, both admiring the other’s skills. Because of Win’s character trait of looking to facts and knowns, he is also the major character for filling out the history of planetfall, and for bringing in plot devices by interacting with his environment (translation: he runs around and pokes stuff).

In proof reading, it is Win who is mentioned most often as people’s favourite character, which is very pleasing. Scroll back several paragraphs to where I said, “he was my first attempt at creating a character with a tangible emotional centre”, and you’ll understand why this is pleasing.

So there we have it. Here is another character biography. Was it what you wanted? Would you have preferred to understand how the character developed as I wrote the story? Or about other interactions? If you have any feedback, please use the options on the page to let me know.

Kate Leland & women in sci-fi

In the last blog post I posted a teaser pic from my storyboards! The written blogpost before that was about getting feedback on planetfall book 1, and dealing with other people’s views of characters. In this blogpost I want to pick up from the feedback angle, and go into a little bit of detail about Kate Leland, the principal character in book 1:

I recently received a critique of the current draft of planetfall book 1. Amongst the various comments noting what worked and what needed more work, was a comment about the characters in the book, “I liked that women held many of the positions of power.”

Sci-fi has traditionally been a male preserve – or if not a male preserve, at least perceived by the vast majority of people as a male preserve. There have been few female role models or characters in sci-fi.

Two of the highest profile female characters in popular sci-fi are often singled out for the most criticism. Princess Leia Organa and Queen Amidala / Senator Padme Amidala, both from the Star Wars films, start off as strong characters, helping to drive the plot. In both trilogies (episodes IV-VI for Leia, and I-III for Padme) the lead female character becomes weak, insubstantial and subject to the whims of men. For Leia, she starts as an Ambassador to the Imperial Senate, is then revealed and seen in Empire Strikes Back to be a leader in the rebellion, and ultimately is reduced to a bikini model in Return of the Jedi, ineffectual, and desperate for the love of Han Solo. By the last film her leadership qualities have all but disappeared from the narrative. She is rescued by men after being subjugated, is desperate for Luke’s emotional bond, is repulsed by her connection to her father, is shot, injured and cared for by an ascendant Solo, who by now has turned from smuggler and rogue to dependable General, father figure and provider.

And so for Padme. In her first film she is a queen, a strong figure defending her people, and starts the first rebellion against the Trade Federation, personally leading her people into battle. In …Clones she is a senator to the Republican Senate, resists Anakin’s advances, and at the end is a warrior alongside the Jedi. Her tumble from the gunship at the end of the film foreshadows her loss of power in Revenge of the Sith. By the time of this film she is pregnant and emotional and clings to Anakin. To be fair, in a pregnant state, many women will want to be nesting and have the father around to provide stability. But her role as creator of the rebellion is missing from the film. The scenes were filmed, the political aspects of the film – which would round it out and make it a more mature piece – are left on the cutting room floor. We are left with Padme as a weak person, wobbling around with a swollen abdomen, unable to save the man she loves from becoming a murderer, unable to stop him from committing infanticide even as she carries his own children, and unable to stop him from turning to the Dark Side. Until eventually her desire to save the man she so long resisted results in her death at his hands.

One reasonable reading of this, is that no matter how strong women start off, they will end up as weak and ineffectual, in thrall to more charismatic men, while those same men go off and continue to decide their own fate and those of others (for good or ill).

In planetfall I deliberately wanted to avoid this.

The main character of book 1 is a woman, Kate Leland. Her character is intended to be the best of women in sci-fi. Strong, forthright, intelligent, and compassionate as well, but without that compassionate side being her undoing. Similar, in restrospect, to Captain Janeway in Star Trek Voyager.

The story centres around Kate’s desire to discover alien life forms, in a galaxy apparently barren of them. Early in the story (no spoilers, don’t worry) she is sent to investigate an apparent first contact situation. And she is sent against a powerful man. A man of no little dark mystery, who puts Kate in the way of conflict and inner turmoil.

I never considered that the main character in this book would be anything other than a woman. In fact I had no choice in the matter.

The first draft of the first 30 pages centred on Daoud, to set the scene on the Colony world of Fall. The character Sophie Argus followed within about 2 pages. Sophie was designed to be a strong character, someone who has more power than is at first apparent. She does in fact have more power than is apparent in book 1, but that, I hope, will come out in future books. For a short while Sophie was going to be the lead female character, and the more I dug into her character, the more I realised planetfall was all about her – and that this wasn’t the right book to make her the dominant, lead character. So she has a supporting role, and that left a gap in the story.

For a couple of months I was stuck at around 30 pages into book 1. I knew the overall storyboard, I knew who Daoud was and what he was up to, and I knew that he needed a foil, an equal, someone with whom he could dance through the narrative. I never considered that his foil would be a man: it had to be a woman. But if not Sophie, then who?

After a couple of months of struggling, I had a realisation about the way I was writing. My imagination was on the planet, in the colony, waiting for someone to arrive. Every time I looked out of the planet, up into its skies, I could see a ship approaching, but not who was in it. I could see into the future of the story and see someone arriving, but the details were missing, lost in darkness.

Eventually I realised I could just change my perspective. Rather than looking from Fall up into the skies, from Daoud’s perspective essentially, why not look the other way – from the perspective of the person approaching Fall. This realisation, this shift in perspective, took about 2 seconds to have an effect. With that re-alignment of the story’s camera, I was suddenly on a space station, with a team of 3 people. And sitting, in reality, in a coffee shop in Crouch End, I zoned out, my eyes blurred, I was locked into my mind’s eye, and – BANG! – out of nowhere, this woman walked into my head, fully formed, fully imaged, her character almost complete. Her name followed in the next minute or so. I knew it would start with a hard sound, something substantial, not a soft thing like ‘m’ or ‘w’ or a baby sound like ‘b’ or something weak like ‘f’. It would be a hard sound, to give the name an immediate punch. A hard ‘k’ sound popped up naturally. In the first month I hadn’t decided what the name was, and in my notebooks she wobbles between Karen and Kate. I eventually let go of the name Karen because it’s too lyrical, it rises and falls after the ‘k’ sound. Not so with Kate. It’s short, punchy, one syllable long, and ends with a similarly hard sound, ‘t’. Kate’s surname, ‘Leland’, just popped into my head once I had the ‘k’ sound to start the name. In the minutes afterward I tried to reason where it might have come from, and while in my subconscious there may be some proper explanation, as far as I can tell consciously, it just popped out. My back-casting would say it’s based on Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. Or that it’s a nod to the defunct British Leyland brand, a sign, once, of solid engineering. But it’s neither of those things. ‘Kate Leland’ was just the name that popped out, and it doesn’t really bear closer scrutiny than the sounds of the first name.

Kate is the principal source of tension and conflict in the story. Her character has a journey to make, and a choice, too – she is presented with a dilemma by Daoud. Now Kate could quite easily sidestep the tension if she could think more strategically. Indeed, any major character in any book could avoid most of the tension and drama if they could just make certain connections quicker – but where would the fun be in that? And besides, it would make them gods, able to understand everything going on and able to influence it with omnipotence. I found, in the first few weeks of writing about Kate, a tension within myself. I wanted her to be strong and intelligent, and I wanted a decent female role model. And that meant not giving her any weaknesses. But of course we are human, and we all have weakness and lesser abilities amongst our strengths and capabilities. The challenge I found after that was how to make her all too human and keep her strong, while handicapping her so that the principal, central conflict of the story was maintained.

I found the answer in two places, which both led to the same answer: the first was a person I once worked with, an intelligent person who couldn’t see the wood for the trees, who was mired in their own prejudices, which would blind them to more strategic thinking. And second in my initial ability to know that someone was arriving on Fall as Daoud’s foil and the role they would play, matched to my inability to know who that was specifically. Kate’s weakness would be the same – far sighted enough to see the outcomes and consequences of events, and to make intelligent predictions about the future, while missing the key fact that would help her. This is reflected in parts of the book, for example, the sequence of Kate going into the tunnel:

“She gazed, searched, squinted into the darkness, the deep black with its mysteries so close, so hidden.”

There are examples in the first half of the book about Kate being unable to see, of her vision being obscured. The light that she really needs to illuminate her is missing – it is no coincidence that she is surrounded by holograms, which for the most part are insubstantial light, unreal and outside her body. They are are a false light, externally supplied information, where what she really needs is insight, internal illumination.

In the second half of the book, Kate’s character has a turning point, although its consequences are not fully realised in book 1. When she commits herself to a journey in the dark, the tunnel-as-metaphor, she makes a mental breakthrough, and her vision starts to clear. It doesn’t clear quickly enough to avoid the events of the book’s end, of course! The point where her character makes that leap in understanding is at the end of the tunnel, in the chapter, “Something wicked this way comes”, when this happens:

“Kate turned around, her eyes wide, still accustomed to the dark, to the claustrophobic airlock, the lightless pasage beyond, adrenalin coursing through her, and faced a bright, blinding light.”

Here she is still trapped by her inability to see what’s coming. She has approached but is blinded by the light, incapable of seeing what’s in front of her, what’s staring her in the face. Her journey through the darkness of the tunnel ends with a bright light. And here she has a final choice. Go back into the darkness, be “claustrophobic”, stay in the darkness the rest of her life, or go into the light, be ‘enlightened’, and learn a greater truth. Our major characters have to go through some test of faith, or even several tests, to prove themselves worthy of our admiration. Kate eventually commits to a course of action:

“Kate blinked, closed her eyes to slits and took two confident steps forward. She didn’t want to show weakness or panic again.”

Not one step forward but two. Far enough that she can’t take a simple step out of it.

By the end of book 1 she grows into a more mature character, is caught between different courses of action, each with horrendous consequences, and tries to navigate a course through them. And while there is a completeness in her actions at the end of the book, Kate’s story is unfinished. The outcome of her decisions are explored in more detail in book 2. And for that … you’ll just have to wait.

Creating the planetfall universe

In my last blog post I gave an outline of how planetfall came about – its genesis as a short story, as a writing exercise, and then its evolution as my own writing skills improved: the story of a Marine stretching to 200 pages, edited down to 35 pages, grown again to 75 pages, abandoned for a few years while I wrote a sub-plot, the realisation that the sub-plot was a book in its own right, and the eventual return to that Marine.

But how do you write a sci-fi book set one thousand years in the future, stretching across two books-worth of material (even if half of that has now been deleted)?

Some authors literally make it up as they go along. Or so they say. I often wonder how they develop complex characterisation and a realistic environment by making it up as they go along. I can’t believe there isn’t a little bit of planning in there.

My approach with planetfall started off like this – make it up as you go along. And I quickly realised that wouldn’t work. To make a universe realistic from the first page, the first paragraph, sentence – the first word – it has to seem lived in. It has to feel realistic to the reader. It has to feel like there’s an internal logic, even if the reader hasn’t yet discovered it.

I spent time developing a one thousand year history for planetfall. It starts from around 2050, covers humanity’s first foray to the edge of our solar system, and then its spread out into the galaxy. The major socio-political events are mapped out, the great technological turning points are described, and the artistic periods are mapped and named. Half-page to full-page mini stories, in the style of Wikipedia, exist to describe specific events that form the backdrop to certain characters. For example, Daoud, the Administrator of the Fall Colony, has several pages of character development. His story concerns a trip to Jupiter, and subsequent arguments with the shadowy Cadre which runs society.

For much of planetfall it should seem like references to the broader social universe are consistent – technology, feelings, cultures should all go to a common reference point, regardless of what the characters’ views are on them.

Sometimes there are points in planetfall where I realised there was a hole in history – where the story needed to reference cultural norms or events of the past which I hadn’t written. At those points I had to make decisions – do I make a throwaway reference and hope I don’t need to use it again, or do I take time out to flesh out the universe’s history?

In some cases – the trip Kiran takes out of system – I used throwaway references. The great thing with a galaxy of planets and stars is that you don’t have to return to them. With others – like the AIs and their levels and complexity – I had to sit down and figure out what they were, their characters and relationships.

The most important aspect of pre-writing development, however, is concerned with the characters. Characters in books need to be consistent (even if they are unpredictable, their unpredictable nature is at least predictable) so that the reader can form a relationship with them. In planetfall there are biographies for Daoud, Kate Leland and Sophie Argus, and lesser biographies for Win Ho-Yung, Djembe Cygnate and Doctor Currie – the six principal human actors of the story. Only one character has no developed character biography – Verigua, and that simply because the character wrote itself, and it essentially has no background. Kate, Win and Djembe also have drawings associated with them, which detail my initial thoughts on their view to life – are they people who look backward, who look forward, or who are happy in the moment?

For all the character development I carried out, characters still have their own life in the same way that sometimes new cultural reference points, historical events or places need to come into being to suit the story as it’s written. Djembe was the biggest surprise here.

I do not particularly like the character of Djembe. For many months I fought against the character and tried to make him less straight-backed and rigid and systematic. In the end I gave in and let the character write itself, and the writing became much easier. A salutory lesson in writing characters – they have their own life, they find their own place in the story, and regardless how much character development and universe creation I carried out,  the interaction between characters and environment always brought about story elements that I could never have predicted. Djembe’s antagonistic relationship with Verigua is one of them; Sophie’s fate is another (she had a different fate planned for her which I had to scrap when the story turned a different way).

There’s a common thread coming out here – sometimes the story writes itself, but only, I think, when the author has a deep understanding of it. I’m not sure if non-writers believe this. In many, many places of planetfall I do not feel I was in conscious control of the writing. Many times I would sit in a coffee shop (usually Costa Coffee in Crouch End) and simply read the story at the pace my hand was writing it. It was as new to me as a reader picking up the book for the first time. This is an amazing feeling, and I presume what people are referring to when they talk of their ‘muse’. When the story elements combine so well and are so embedded in the psyche that their immanence flows directly to creation of the story, bypassing the conscious mind and flowing straight from mind to hand.

This doesn’t happen without development and planning. And it also doesn’t happen without letting go of the story and characters and letting them interact on their own terms.

Some places in planetfall are completely planned – the sequence with Djembe and Verigua in the corridor was very carefully planned and measured and drawn – while others flow from letting go of the story – pretty much all of Verigua’s sections (bar the one just mentioned) and the events in the very last chapter (a complete surprise to me, and I almost did a little wee with excitement at one point when it went all 50s sci-fi B-movie on  me). However all of it exists within a framework, a story board I developed right at the start, which in around 20 frames tells the main story points from start to end: arrival on Fall, the trip to the surface, Kate’s travel through darkness, the arrival in the sky.

I guess the realisation I’ve come to is that I have a preferred writing style. I like to know what the universe is like before I find the story within it. Making up the universe is fun as you can put whatever you like in, and then the story can write itself, within a broad and flexible framework, over the top of it. And that broad and flexible framework has to provide enough room, space and air for the story to create itself, to write itself into being.