Book Recipes: How to Write a Space Opera

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at space opera. Grab your laser sword and let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • The Chosen One
  • An assorted band of noble heroes. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The wise old sage
    • The gullible, bumbling innocent
    • Space princess
    • A loveable rogue who may or may not betray you later on
    • Team mascot
  • The Most Evil Villain Ever
  • Several unnecessary planets
  • Space war
  • A sweeping, epic romance
  • Vats full of DRAMA

 

Method:

  1. The Most Evil Villain Ever is threatening the galaxy. Oh no! If only there was a hero who could stop them!
  2. Enter the Chosen One, who almost never twigs that they’ve actually been chosen. They sit around doing nothing much important until…
  3. …the band of noble heroes arrive! The Chosen One dithers, but eventually gets in their spaceship.
tenor shopping
Much like this. (image: tenor.com)
  1. Time to dodge the villain’s henchmen and deliver some exposition! Bonus points if you can do so mid-laser battle.
  2. Kickstart the romance. There is a spark but alas, they cannot be together because reasons.
  3. Go to a different planet. Make sure your readers get a look at how weird it is.
  4. The Chosen One is doing pretty well! Have a little skirmish with some of the baddies so we can see how far they’ve come.
  5. But uh-oh, the villain has found out about them! Time for a sinister monologue.
  6. Go to another planet which is different from the other one. Don’t worry, it’s still weird.
  7. A trap!
  8. Kill off your wise old sage. It’s nothing personal, this is just what always happens to fictional mentors.
  9. Go to a different but still weird planet to do some soul-searching and maybe have a training montage.
  10. The romance is getting interesting! If only those pesky reasons weren’t in the way.
  11. But then A BETRAYAL! The Chosen One barely escapes, but everyone else is captured. Captured, not dead, because even villains know you don’t kill off the hostages when we’re heading for the third act.
giphy burgundy
It is. (image: giphy.com)
  1. The Chosen One flails a bit, but decides to accept their destiny. Time for THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN.
  2. Enter the villain’s lair (on a different and creepy planet). You won’t get shot when you walk in; the villain’s passed around the memo about the third act.
  3. Confront the Most Evil Villain Ever. Everyone else is tied up and dangling over a pit of lava, probably, but you’ve still got time for a chat. Get ready for a deep, dark secret to be revealed, but don’t take it to heart – we’ve got to wrap things up.
  4. FIGHTING.
  5. The villain presents you with an impossible choice: save your friends or thwart their evil plans. Oh no! HOW CAN YOU CHOOSE???
  6. You don’t. The Chosen One uses their powers, saves their friends, thwarts the villain’s plan, and hits the button which says ‘Disassemble Evil Empire’. The romance is resolved and everyone goes home for tea and medals.

 

THE END. Serve in SPAAAAAAAACE.

 

Tips:

  • Don’t forget the ‘opera’ part of the equation. Singing is optional but all your plots, characters and backstory should be needlessly melodramatic.
  • Stuck on the planets? Don’t bother making them all as geographically and biologically diverse as Earth, that would take ages! Just pick a thing and make a planet of it, like so: ‘ice planet’, ‘bug planet’, ‘cheese planet’, etc.
  • Don’t worry about explaining how stuff actually works. We’re here for spaceships and laser battles, not for physics.
  • Aliens are great for background characters, but never include them in your main group of heroes. How will your readers be able to tell if they’re good or evil if they’re slimy?
michelle-obama-ew-gif
Yes. (image: community.ew.com)
  • Forbidden romances are your new best friends. But don’t make them too forbidden. No-one’s going to want to read about a romance between a beautiful space princess and a giant floating nostril.
  • Don’t forget your future prefixes: ‘cyber-’, ‘holo-’, and ‘laser-’. Put them everywhere.
  • Only your villain and background aliens really need to have weird names. Alice and Bob are fine names for your band of heroes, but no-one will take the Dark Lord Billy seriously.

 

And here’s one I made earlier…

 

The moon of Frostilia glittered like a diamond. From her vantage point in the cockpit, Rin could see the vast blue surface of the planet. Below, the infamous trull-beasts would be stalking out of their snowy caves, searching for mukda fish in the nitrogen lakes and eating anyone foolish enough to disturb them. Not that they would. They had enough to contend with, what with Lord Qryk’akjuk’s spies.

Then, it exploded.

“Well that’s just great,” snapped Kai Aban. “Now how will we get paid? Gage, check the holo-stabilisers.”

Gage Sparx adjusted his goggles, tripped, picked himself up and went to check a thing that beeped and flashed. It was very important. “Cyber-drive capacity is at fifteen percent, Captain.”

Kai swore. “Fix it!”

Rin tore herself away from the glittery bits of planet. “I don’t understand,” she said, “who could do such a thing?”

“That’s the kind of thing we’re up against, kid,” Kai said, poking at the holo-dashboard. Something beeped, but in a bad way. “These guys ain’t playing around.”

“I got that, they just blew up a planet.”

Kai glared at her. “Leave the sarcasm to the professionals, kid. You just concentrate on your training.”

Gage fiddled about with some wires. There was a spark, a bang, and he went flying across the ship. Rin ignored him and sat down in a huff.

“But I don’t understand,” she said. “How in all the galaxy could I be the one to defeat Lord Qryk’akjuk? Three days ago I was just a simple miner on my home planet of Quarri-27. Then, suddenly, Lord Qryk’akjuk’s troops invaded the mining colony, imprisoned my childhood sweetheart and told us all that unless we revealed the location of the –”

“Yes, we know,” yelled Gage over the buzz of a power saw, “we were there.”

Rin ignored him and put a dramatic hand to her forehead. “– and suddenly I began to glow, and felt a strange magnetic kind of feeling, and also I levitated off the ground for a little while. But surely that can’t mean –”

There was a puff of smoke. Kai flipped a switch and it snapped off. “Yeah, we know,” he growled, “we saw.”

“– and now, I find myself at the centre of a galactic intrigue, caught between the mysterious Princess Ashara and the evil Lord Qryk’akjuk, with nary a soul I can trust, and I don’t know when I shall see my childhood sweetheart again but I swear, my love, I shall return!”

She finished, dramatically gesturing at the ceiling.

“It’s no good, Kai,” Gage said, “we need supplies. Our laser-ports are at thirteen point four.”

Kai smacked the dashboard and swore again, because he was a maverick. “We’re going to have to make a pit stop. What’s the closest space-port?”

Gage pulled up the holo-map. “Formaggio? No, wait, Ellenidor. But we’d have to pass through the Brugdefsel Asteroid Belt. It’s risky, Kai.”

Kai grinned. “Risky is my middle name.”

“No it’s not,” said Gage, “it’s Roger.”

“Well I’m going to change it to Risky and then you’ll have to shut up, won’t you?”

Rin glared at them both. “Have you been listening to a word I said?”

“Oh, sure,” Kai lied, while Gage hid behind a cyber-spanner. “You raised some really good points.”

Rin beamed. “Great! I wanted to get your advice on something, though. As you know, growing up I was always an outsider. I never knew my father, who all said mysteriously disappeared the night I was born and has never been discussed since. But just last week, I found a secret stash of –”

Kai put the spaceship in gear and drove off. He would have to try very, very hard not to aim straight for the asteroids.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
Advertisements

Mary Sue: It’s a Girl Thing

It’s time for more Mary Sues. So far we’ve talked about what Sues are and why they’re bad. Feel free to refresh your memory of the previous two posts, but it boils down to this: Mary Sues are disgustingly perfect characters who, because of their own perfection, tend to ruin the stories around them. Most of the time you can’t really have a well-written story with believable characters if there’s a Sue involved, and it can also lead to dismissing some very serious real-life problems.

As you might have guessed, most Mary Sues are female. The character is set up to be female by default – if you want to talk about the male equivalent you have to be more specific and talk about Gary Stus instead. But from the moment the term was first used, it was set up specifically to talk about female characters. It was first used in the 1970s to parody a particular trend in fanfiction: a female (often teenage) original character falling in love with an established male character from an already published work. Paula Smith, who came up with the name, used it to talk about Star Trek self-inserts and unrealistic characters, but the fact that she chose ‘Mary Sue’ is significant. It explicitly signals that this is a problem seen with female characters. The clue is in the name.

giphy obviously
I feel like I really shouldn’t have to explain this one. (image: giphy.com)

The most notorious Mary Sues are female characters. Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, Jenna Silverblade, Atlantiana Rebekah Loren – these are all young female characters who were created to fall in love with male characters from Harry Potter, the Zelda games and Twilight respectively. A quick websearch will show you that most readers believe Mary Sues are female as well. All the artwork, fiction and writer resources relating to Mary Sues assume that the character in question is female.

But is this really fair? Perfection is hardly something that women have a monopoly on, no matter what the poets say. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that they are perfect, attractive, powerful and loved by all. These are not uniquely female traits and never have been. The other part is that their lack of flaws and central position in the story warp other characters’ reactions to them and, in the worst cases, the setting and plot as well. These aren’t uniquely female traits either. So why is it that Mary Sues are seen as a female phenomenon?

tumblr_nhc35oDdUa1tsg9ioo1_500
We don’t have a monopoly on sparkling, either. (image: tumblr.com)

Let’s take a brief moment to look at Gary Stus. Gary Stu, sometimes called Marty Stu, is the male version of his character. That’s what defines him. Other Mary Sues are defined by what they do: Villain Sues, Twagic Sues, Jerk Sues are all identified by their actions, appearance and the way they treat other characters. Gary Stu is identified by his gender alone. They’re much less common but there do tend to be a few differences: Gary Stus tend to be a lot more active and less prone to getting kidnapped.

But these are surface differences. When you get right down to it, there’s no real difference between the male and female counterparts. Both Mary Sues and Gary Stus are disgustingly attractive, practically perfect in every way, and warp the plot around them just by their presence. Much like Mary Sues, the antecedents go back much longer than you might think: if Mary Sue is Cinderella, then Gary Stu is Prince Charming. We’ve seen archetypes of perfect male characters since storytelling became a thing, just as we have with women. What we haven’t seen is male characters getting called out on this.

giphy pooh
Oh I wonder why that could be?? (image: giphy.com)

Part of this is probably down to the differing ideals of male and female perfection. Bear with me, because I’m about to make several sweeping generalisations. Broadly speaking, the ‘ideal man’ in historical storytelling is strong, decisive and heroic. He’s a problem-solver who wins battles and can make great speeches. Contrast this with the ‘ideal woman’ in historical storytelling, who is passive, pretty and quiet. She doesn’t make speeches; you’ll be lucky if she says anything at all. In recent years women’s roles, both in fiction and in real life, have moved away from this. Unfortunately men haven’t been so lucky. In some areas we still expect the same things from masculinity as we did decades ago and as you might suspect, this can be really damaging. It could be that part of the reason we don’t see as much backlash against Gary Stus is because they still fit with predominant ideas about what a man should be.

Allow me to illustrate my point. There’s this character you’ve all heard of. She’s so unbelievably cool and always has the latest tech. She always looks good no matter what she’s doing. She speaks several languages, drives amazing cars, is trained in more weapons than you can even name and she’s a total badass who could kick the Incredible Hulk into next week. She can get with any guy she wants, and they all want her. She’s been all over the world and has saved it more than once. She knows about fine wine, poker, and always has a quip handy even if she’s just jumped out of a plane. She can talk her way into anything and fight her way back out again, never lets the bad guys get away with it, and does it all for Queen and Country.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s James Bond.

108765
IT COULD HAPPEN LET ME HAVE THIS (image: Radio Times)

James Bond is one of the most popular characters in fiction. Millions of people turn out to see the Bond films whenever a new one is released. But when you get right down to it, Bond falls into a lot of the same characters as a Mary Sue does. He’s unrealistically cool, can have any woman he wants and doesn’t have any flaws that hold him back. He’s not an exception, either. Tarzan, Batman, Luke Skywalker and Zorro have all been described as Stus too, but on them this isn’t really a label that sticks.

So why have Mary Sues manifested themselves as a female problem? I expect that part of it is because of the rise of fanfiction, which is often written by women rather than men. Obviously it’s difficult to dig up statistics confirming this, but those we have available (which are, of course, limited by online anonymity) suggest that this is the case. According to this survey, three-quarters of all users on fanfiction.net are listed as female when their gender has been made public. The vast majority are also in the 13-17 age bracket. So if the vast majority of fanfic is written by teenage girls, we can expect to see a lot of fanfic about teenage girls. This may also account for some issues with characterisation and quality, too. I know the stuff I was writing when I was a teenager was really awful, at any rate.

But if Mary Sues aren’t a uniquely female problem, they certainly aren’t one that’s unique to fanfic either. There have been Mary Sues since storytelling began. Unrealistically perfect women have been cropping up in stories since the Dark Ages, and they don’t show many signs of stopping. Two of the most notorious Mary Sues of recent years are Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele – both of whom are characters from original fiction.

Anastasia-Steele-and-Bella-Swan-fifty-shades-of-twilight-E2-9D-A4-39812042-500-374
Fun fact: they’re also my nemeses. (image: fanpop.com)

So why is this ‘a girl thing’? Is it just that more women write Mary Sues, or that more female characters tend to get called Mary Sues? I’m not sure. Getting into why people write Mary Sues is always going to be a tricky question. It could just be that more women are into reading and writing as a hobby. This has some basis in fact: most surveys agree that women read more than men, something which appears to have its roots in childhood. It could be that more women write Mary Sues because they don’t see enough characters they want to emulate in already published fiction. It could be escapism. We’ll probably never know for sure.

What we can confirm is that there does tend to be a much stronger backlash against female characters than male. Look at the Ghostbusters remake, whose stars were harassed online. Look at Rey from the new Star Wars trilogy, who’s been called a Mary Sue when she’s actually following Luke Skywalker’s role pretty closely. Look at Twilight. Bella is a Mary Sue, there’s no question of that, but the sheer amount of hate the series generated was astounding. The one thing these have in common is that they’re are all female characters at the forefront of their stories. I can’t remember the last time I saw backlash on that scale against a male character. Perhaps the reason why Mary Sues are so exclusively seen as ‘a girl thing’ is that there’s still a lot of underlying sexism in the way we talk about fiction, and what’s seen as a problem for female characters is glossed over when talking about male ones.

tumblr_njn3nxMxRs1s8b3ieo1_500
DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)

So is Mary Sue an explicitly gendered term? I think so. The male equivalent doesn’t receive anywhere near as much attention or backlash, and I think people’s attitudes to women definitely play a part in that. Mary Sues do cause problems, but it’s not because they’re female characters. Gary Stus cause problems too, but far less people talk about it.

But despite all the problems that Mary Sues can cause, are they really all that bad? Next time, I’ll talk about that despite all their drawbacks, Mary Sues can actually be…a good thing.

giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUUHHHH. (image: giphy.com)