As I start planning out my next project, I’m starting to think in terms of themes and ideas. I have characters, I have settings, what I need is a big idea. A concept to tie it all together. Then I can hash out the plot properly. There’s an old saying that ideas are the easy part, and there’s definitely some truth in that. As soon as I have one idea, another one pops along to knock at the door. Defining ideas is the hard part. Narrowing them down into workable concepts and finding the story that they serve best. But no matter how many ideas I have, there are some that keep coming back. With over half a million words of prose written, and thousands of hours of storytelling in other forms, there are some ideas that I just can’t let go of. Some are plot elements, some are themes, and some are just big concepts I want to include. So let’s take a look at them.
This is a big one, and I can pin down exactly where it started. Robots and androids have always fascinated me, but I don’t think there’s a story out there that handles AI as well as the TV series Person of Interest. In that show, an artificial intelligence monitors the world, and is programmed to provide the US government with information on terrorists. But a machine that sees all starts to learn from humanity, and not necessarily to our benefit. A lot of fiction shows AI trying to become human, or otherwise anthropomorphise them. Person of Interest generally stayed clear of that trope. The Machine is exactly that: A computer. It thinks and behaves differently. This idea has stuck with me ever since, and is the single biggest influence on how I portray supercomputers in my storytelling. I haven’t used it much in my prose, because it’s a difficult perspective to write, but it’s one I’ve explored in multiple RPGs. I don’t think I’m a skilled enough writer to pull it off the way I want to, but Artificial Intellects often crop up in my worldbuilding.
If there is one common thread running through everything I do, it’s the nature of civilisation. How do you build an interstellar empire? And how do you prevent it from collapsing? Reading Foundation in my youth left a big impression, and this more than anything else is the idea I want to explore. It’s what I wrote my dissertation on, and I am nowhere near done with the idea. Some of my ideas are purely academic, others have the seeds of story in them. The problem I keep running into is the fact that civilisations take decades, even centuries, to form and fall. In a world increasingly emphasising characters, it’s hard to write a story of that scope. Not to say it can’t be done, but I haven’t found a way to do that just yet. But I am working on it. The best idea I have so far is a future history. Multiple books in a single setting. Sadly, I think I need to write and edit one book before I set my goals further up.
From Dark Matter to Star Trek, a lot of my favourite shows feature a spaceship with a crew. This is rarer on the page, but The Expanse, Drew Williams, and Gareth L. Powell all show it can be pulled off. This is a dynamic that speaks to my RPG background. Diverse casts and a chance to write some fun dialogue make this one of my focuses. Having multiple PoVs also lets me flex my stylistic muscles, which is always nice. I’ve toyed around with Military SF but I don’t think I have the grip on that right now. At the same time, I don’t want to write about scrappy smuggler underdogs. It would be nice to have heroes on the right side of the law for a change. The ability to hit back at the found family trope in favour of something better is also a big draw for me with this one.
I have no scientific background whatsoever, which makes Hard SF an all-but-impossible genre to write. Quite frankly, most of it goes over my head. But I love playing around with physics. A lot of the time, you don’t have to invent space magic. Real life is strange enough already. What I take from Hard SF is not so much the details, but the ethos. I want to write stories where intelligence is rewarded. Not just cunning, but actual knowledge. Stories where science is respected, and can save the day. Maybe that is Star Trek speaking to me, but it’s talking a lot of sense. I don’t always understand it, but there’s a purity in the pursuit of knowledge that is missing in a lot of fiction. All too often violence resolves everything, and I’d like to be part of a shift away from that philosophy.
People Who Fail
If there’s one thing that RPGs have taught me, it’s that failure is often more interesting than success. I want to write about characters to fail. Who get things wrong. Sometimes this is the big picture. I love a tragic ending, and if everyone dies then it’s all the (bitter)sweeter. But I’m thinking of smaller moments too. When a plan needs to be made, what if the first plan fails? What if the scientists don’t get things right straight off the bat? Things fall apart, that is a fact of life. In interactions between characters this is doubly so. Show me the people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The relationships that fall apart. The friendships that are irrevocably broken.
Subverting expectations is old hat. It’s boring. there, I said it. Too much of modern storytelling is reliant on plot twists and subversion, and I do not care for it at all. By all means, go against expectation, but don’t make that the point. Tricking your audience is neither big nor clever. They should be in on the joke, or it’s not funny. I don’t want to write books where things are flipped on their head and the direction changed. I want to tell stories where I peel back the layers, and the two directions are onwards and deeper. This one is more a philosophy than a concept, but it’s one I’ve learned the hard way. Tell the audience everything they need to know, and don’t lie to them.
There are more ideas, of course. Character arcs and setting bouncing around inside my head. But these above are the big ones. The ones I really, really want to get right. if I can do that, I’ll be one step closer to where I want to be.