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.

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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.