Sticking to Your World’s Rules: Living and Dying in Space

I’m not going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi although it represents the usual type of film that I love to see. I haven’t liked most of the newer Star Wars movies and don’t write reviews when I already have preconceived notions about it. I went into the movie with an attitude and the plot more or less proved to be as out of touch with the first trilogy’s original ideas as I thought it would be.Man in space

Instead, I’m going to use this film to stress a point for writers. When you engage in world building, you create all the rules and ideas on which your setting runs. Every author does it whether they are writing space epics or a setting that mirrors our own world.  If you have superheroes in your world, then you need definite sources (aliens, radiation, spider bite… whatever) for those powers, well defined (and potentially limited) powers for your characters, and some idea of how the normal world reacts to them. When you have a spaceship setting, you’ve got to think about what the ship is made of; perishable items such as food, water, and air; if they are recycled or not; how the ship moves and is shaped; and what is the effect of the world outside the space ship. Writers must think about these things even if they never use that information in the story. They must really know and understand their created world and abide by those rules.

Break your rules and the audience will react like sharks smelling blood in the water. They will catch all the plot cheats and scream horrible things about your intelligence. Worse, they will throw the book against the wall in anger, trash-talk the movie, and resolve to never see or read your work again. Nothing angers audiences more than when a plot breaks some established world fact in order to get the beloved character out of a sticky situation. It is a cheap, tacky trick that is the sign of bad writing.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi had this kind of plot cheat. (SPOILERS) The scene where the entire bridge of the rebel ship is blown up, including Princess Leia, resulted in a tremendous screw-up. Leia, not char-broiled from the fireball or blown to microbits like everyone else in the room, is barely alive and floating in space. She somehow survives depressurization and no oxygen. Still unconscious, she twitches one hand and flies like Mary Poppins to the door and is let back into the ship. No one worries about losing air by opening the door to let her in. She is not damaged in any way and eventually comes back to consciousness healthy and whole.

This scene had me shrieking inside and I hated the movie from that point on. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Leia in the original trilogy. She was a strong, brave personality that would not be overshadowed by her male counterparts. She had the Force, but nothing ever indicated that she trained in how to control it or that she was as powerful as any master. Yet none of that background stuff really mattered. What mattered was one simple fact.

The Force was never powerful enough to cheat death. Even dear old, green Master Yoda would have died in space.

Remember the inky blackness is empty and lacks pressure. When the heroes opened the door to let Leia in, air should have been sucked out and pressure should have been lost. Everyone waiting for her should have died instantly. But fans might say, wait Carla, the films show open space ports all the time where the ships fly in and out while soldiers march around parked vessels. Audiences assume an invisible force field covers those deck areas. I agree with that. The original world-building ideas included a force field in those sections known to be open to space. Yet the writers of Star Wars: The Last Jedi created two world-breaking plot cheats here. The weaker one was the implication that whenever a ship part is blown apart, the force field against space instantly is formed to save everyone else. I’d consider that possible even though we’ve not seen that in any previous Star Wars movie.

The bigger cheat is Leia not dying nearly instantly in space. I’ve done some research for my own science fiction book and discovered that death in space is not asphyxiation as most folks assume. If it was, the person could be resuscitated if rescued within roughly two minutes. We saw that in Passengers when Jim Preston ran out of oxygen but was still in a sealed space suit. He wasn’t really exposed to space. The point on unreality in this scene is that having the Autodoc do everything to bring him back to life would probably damage the body more.

Real death due to exposure to space comes from rapid depressurization. According to this Popular Science article and other references, decompression causes water on skin and in the blood to boil and then vaporize within about 10 to 15 seconds. One assumes it is pretty painful but at least quick. In addition, the Force takes concentration whether you are lifting rocks or reading minds. If Leia was unconscious, she could not invoke the force. Boiling blood pretty much kills any kind of focusing ability.

To be fair, most movies don’t handle space death correctly. Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance, showed Peter and Gamora floating in space, ice crusting up all over them for several moments before they are sucked into Yondu’s ship and appear immediately healthy and ice free. The difference here is that this comic-book movie (an important distinction) had already established that Peter could travel through space or in possibly bad environments by simply donning his helmet. That is a part of the creator’s original world building. So when we see them surviving the ice-body scene, it is less of a break from the already established world rules.Moon shot

You may think I’m nitpicking about this one scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but I’m really not. Too many movies and books establish clear and concise rules for their world and then break them when the plot becomes too difficult to work out. If you want rooms open to space, then establish the invention of forcefields early on and not at the penultimate scene in your book. If you have a giant underground lake on the moon, then you should damn well explain where all that water came from, particularly if you’ve made a point about how expensive it is to lift anything weighty out of Earth’s gravity well. These things matter because science fiction people are smart. They don’t like it when writers try to con their way through a situation when good science can lead to a better resolution.

So remember when you are writing your space epic or fantasy story, define your world’s principles and rules, then stick to them rigidly. Resist the temptation to bend them to create a deus ex machina plot twist. It is the cheap and easy way to get your character out of a difficult problem but it reflects poorly on your writing. You’re better than that. Do your research and actually let that shine through in your writing. Your audience will love you more for it.


Urban Fantasy Characters: Rules and When to Break Them

Although I like focusing on fiction writing in general, today I want to hone in more on my preferred genre of urban fantasy.

Writing for certain genres, such as urban and high fantasy as well as science fiction, has additional challenges beyond those faced with literary work or thrillers. For instance, the authors must create the rules of their imaginary setting based off of the laws of the known world yet add changes that the audiences will accept as reasonable.

What do I mean?

Gravity must always work. You can have workarounds, such as magic or advanced technology, but things must still fall to the ground. Men form hierarchies and act in specific ways. Therefore, they are not likely to sprout flowers out of their chest or kill all their neighbors. We live in worlds, societies, and cultures that have established rules and practices that guide how we see our environment. Audiences expect those same regulations and restrictions in fiction and often rebel if the writer breaks them without a good reason.

How does this apply to urban fantasy characters?

Simple. Whatever creature you are writing about, elves, vampires, ghosts, or something else, you must respect the history, lore, and traditional facts that define these creatures.

“But,” you might say, “That’s ridiculous. They’re not real so I can make up whatever rules I want about them.”

No you can’t, at least not without stretching your audience’s belief to the snapping point. For example, the vampires in Twilight did not fit into some of the audiences’ belief about the undead. I’m using the movie interpretation since I haven’t read the books. The archetype vampires sparkled like diamonds in sunlight and were unaffected by the rays. The fans overlooked this fact, but the critics pointed to it as one of the irritating problems of the characters. The accepted rule was that sunlight kills two-legged tick-men.

To apply the idea of rules to other creatures is pretty easy. A ghost should never step back into an X-number of years-old body and come back alive without any repercussions. The audience won’t buy it because the idea is a cheap plot trick to get around an inconvenient truth: the person is dead. In the same vein (sorry for the pun), vampires are, by nature, predators, even if they drink synthetic blood. Therefore, no one will believe a vegan, passive vamp.

A little research will reveal that most creatures, monsters, or character archetypes have a history of beliefs and rules that the readers are aware of and comfortable with. The best writers continue to abide by them, expand on those ideas, and use the special features of these creatures to drive the plot along. After all, why feature a ghost in a story if they are just background decoration?

One of the queens of urban fantasy, Anne Rice, stuck pretty close to accepted lore for her early vampire books. They were simple, long-living bloodsuckers that couldn’t enjoy the sun, stalked prey, and were killable in certain specific ways. They didn’t fly, turn into bats, wear opera clothes, or mesmerize anyone. They also weren’t great sexual athletes either although her books were highly sensual in the settings and descriptions.

This brings me to my next point. When do you break the rules? Don’t make the creatures in your world a simple rehash of the same old, dusty monsters. What fantasy types are and how they act has evolved over time, largely because authors took chances and changed the archetype in thoughtful, methodical ways. The original film vampire was an ugly demonic man (Nosferatu 1922) but by Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi brought a more “everyman look” to the character along with a suave demeanor. Later renditions of the character became more handsome, highly sexual, and multi-talented as he took on aspects of changing to bats, wolves, or mists.

Rice followed this same idea. She firmly established the rules of her world and then began to expand them by breaking one or two. The one factor that comes to my mind is that some of the ancient vampires in Queen of the Damned could fly. She introduced this change in a very specific, plausible manner as a reasonable twist in the plot and limited the “new” abilities to a subset of her world’s monsters.

Jim Butcher, in the Dresden series, took a different and very imaginative approach. He embraced multiple versions of vampires by stating they were variations or “courts.” Each court represented some aspect of vampire lore with the White court being the succubus style, the Red being the more standard Dracula type, and the Black Court looking like the demonic characters.

The trick in breaking the rules is doing it in creative ways that make sense in the story’s world and then staying consistent within the new rules. If your vampire can leap high, like Lestat, then escaping most pitchfork-wielding villagers should be easy. However, even Lestat couldn’t jump so high as to scale the Empire State Building in one bound. He isn’t Superman and Anne Rice’s readers knew that.

So before you write your elves-in-our-world saga or werewolf lover story, really figure out your character archetypes. Know by heart their strengths, weaknesses, societies, and personality flaws. Explain to yourself how they fit into their own hidden society as well as inside the greater human environment. What challenges does that create? With all these factors in mind, you’ll find it easier to write a great story that won’t include any weak plot tricks that kill your audience’s interest.

I’ll expand more on urban fantasy archetypes in future blogs.