Worldbuilding 102 with Jason Fry


Welcome to the second half of Worldbuilding with Jason Fry! In lieu of imminent Star Wars news, this interview serves any aspiring authors out there as a primer on the development of a fictional universe, based on the lessons Jason has learned from his ongoing series The Jupiter Pirates. On Friday, we began with the broadest of strokes, namely the fictional history of a future-set story and how you get from Point A to Point B (spoiler: start with B), and moved on to original characters, and how to approach the morality of your protagonist and supporting characters. Below we’ll continue that line of thought, then move on to superficial details (or are they?) like character names, and what to do when you’re tempted to retcon something. Enjoy!

While we’re discussing morality, I want to close out this section with something that’s been in the back of my head since I read the first book, Hunt for the Hydra. Even in a universe that’s billed as space fantasy—meaning not especially subject to realism—it’s always sort of uncomfortable for me to read a story set in a future that’s not explicitly dystopian but nevertheless seems to have regressed in social areas.  What I’m thinking of specifically is the crewers aboard the Shadow Comet; they come across very clearly as a lower class than the Hashoones, often if not always less educated and mannered, and in some cases are even the second or third or god-knows-what generation of their family to serve as gunners or cooks or what-have-you for the Hashoone family. There’s no indication that they’re particularly unhappy or underpaid, but nevertheless it’s very easy to get a whiff of “indentured servitude” here—and I can only imagine how much worse it is on other ships.

In an historically-set pirate story I’m sure this kind of thing would be very accurate, but I have to admit it’s sort of depressing to read about a society this far in the future that still has such gigantic class disparities, and it’s always in the back of my head when Tycho and Yana are ordering around people two or three times their age, or visiting slums on what seems like every moon they come across, or fending off press gangs in your short story “The Trouble With Crimps”. Am I overthinking this? Do you see it as a necessary evil for a pirate story that you worked backwards to justify, or worse, do you think the story is subtlely making the case that this is something we’ll never get past?

It’s both, and deliberately so.

It started with working backwards: I wanted the O’Brian-C.S. Forrester air of “wooden ships and iron (wo)men,” and child officers ordering around old salts is a pretty fundamental trope of that fiction. So in Hunt for the Hydra the class considerations were basically a quick bit of matte painting to make that dynamic work. Curse of the Iris was where I started delving into the complications and thinking about what they meant, and had to find out if I had the courage to follow the dominoes I saw falling.

We live in an era with really interesting contradictions. On the one hand, we’ve made major strides against racism and homophobia and I think gotten a lot better at starting to wrestle with what true inclusiveness and diversity might mean. On the other hand, though, it’s becoming harder and harder to say with a straight face that America isn’t a class-based society. When I was a kid there were first-class seats on airplanes and a few rich people had drivers, but now there are visible and commonly understood class distinctions everywhere — you confront them when you line up at airport security or decide how to get across town, in ways I think we would have found surprising and a little off-putting a generation ago. What’s far more troubling is that it seems like it’s getting more difficult for generations to “move up” in terms of achievement, no matter how smart they are or how hard they work.

jp-hydraThat’s interested/troubled me for a long time, and Jupiter Pirates seemed like a logical place to wrestle with it. So I let myself imagine what might happen if both those trends continued — if you turned both dials to eleven and kept them there for centuries. Nobody in the Jupiter Pirates universe thinks about race, or gives a fig about sexual preference/gender identity, but there are social classes and as you note they seem alarmingly static — they’re castes, essentially. That tension’s captured by a simple detail like Diocletia Hashoone and Mavry Malone’s children being named Hashoone. Do the children have their mother’s last name because our rearguard fussing over gender roles is long gone, or because Diocletia was born to be bridge crew and Mavry’s an Io roughneck who came up the ladder? Well, what if both reasons are true? Is that good future or a bad one?

That stuff gets explored more in The Rise of Earth, where we start to get an inkling that social mores aren’t the same on Earth as they are in the Jovian Union. And we’ll see more of it in Book Four. But just in case that scared anybody, I promise you still get a pirate yarn every time out. For example, in The Rise of Earth the Hashoones and a bunch of Jupiter pirates get invited to a lavish banquet, so a Jovian Union minister decides they could use a crash course in the etiquette of fancy dinner parties. Now, you could use that scene to talk about class considerations in Jupiter Pirates, but mostly I just hope you’ll be entertained.

Phase Three – Minor Details

One thing Star Wars and Jupiter Pirates have in common, I think, is their naming patterns—which I’d describe as one-third real names, one-third inspired by reality, and one-third total gibberish. What do you think the key is to a good Star Wars name, and how does that compare to Jupiter Pirates?

“No space apostrophes” is a good rule for any space name. Ditto for “unexpected double vowels.”

The Jupiter Pirates names are a weird mix, it’s true. A bunch of them – Huff, for instance — are stolen out of my family tree, which I think makes them feel antique but not fake. I borrowed some from historical figures – Tycho’s from Tycho Brahe (not Tycho Celchu, as some Star Wars fans think), and was an in-joke: Tycho’s name in the first draft of Hunt for the Hydra was Herschel, who’s a different astronomer. Diocletia is Diocletian with a letter subtracted, which I thought sounded steely and implacable. “Hashoone,” meanwhile, was intended to sound vaguely out of Arabian Nights. And some names are what they are because I’m an idiot: I nicked Yana from “The Chris Isaak Show,” of all things, except the character I remembered was actually named Yola.

I think you’ve hit on a good rule of thumb in your question: having two-thirds of your names sound realistic lets you get away with that other one-third. Even then, though, names work better if they’re made up of real-world syllables. Chewbacca is easy to say and remember; Nien Nunb is a nightmare.

I’ve seen many anecdotes from authors about how their characters eventually take on lives of their own and lead the story into unexpected directions. Do you find that a wholly original setting can develop in the same way? What’s the most surprising detail, if any, that you’ve stumbled upon in the world of Jupiter Pirates without setting out to include?

Eh, most of the time writers who say that can’t quite admit their outline wasn’t fully baked and would rather pretend to be magicians.

Look, it’s absolutely fine to change course as you write – Lord knows I do that plenty – but there’s nothing mystical about it. I wag my finger about stuff like that because I think writing advice that smacks of the muse and inspiration does more harm than good. Writing and storytelling is butt-in-seat stuff; the inspiration comes out of the work, not before it, and you solve problems by writing through them.

Which isn’t to say nothing changes from planning to execution – that would be no fun. I had the big beats of the entire Jupiter Pirates series pretty clear in my head by the time the planning for Curse of the Iris was done – the major story points, emotional highs and lows, and the like. Those scenes are always really fun to write, because they feel like a reward, and I’ve written them so many times in my head that they come surprisingly easily. But I’ve moved them around in sequence, or tinkered with exactly how they unfold. And the connecting tissue between those big moments is fun to work with, because you can experiment and goof around a bit without worrying about getting too off-course.

Looking back at the three books so far and ahead to where the series is going, the biggest surprise for me has been to find some of those big moments and emotional crises amplified from my original ideas. I saw Carlo from the beginning as hamstrung by a prickly sense of honor, but it took me a while to realize just how much misery that would cause him. I knew Yana was reckless and ruthless, but gulped a little when I thought about decisions she’d make at sixteen compared with when she was twelve. I saw Diocletia as trying hard to be a good captain and mother despite growing up as a lawless pirate, but it was intense navigating scenes in which those roles short-circuited each other. Those realizations have been fun and a little surprising – but I think it’s a good thing that they haven’t been too startling.

Phase Four – Post-Publishing

The scariest thing about writing an ongoing story, I would think, is the moment part one goes out into the world; from then on, a certain amount of the universe you’ve created is set in stone and you have no choice but to work with it. On the other hand, the Star Wars Expanded Universe went on long enough that retroactively fudging the intent of earlier stories to fit a later context became something of an art form unto itself—and you were one of its most well-known practitioners. With Jupiter Pirates being your own baby, have you found yourself being more precious about those early details? For that matter, is there anything in Hunt for the Hydra that you’ve had to recontextualize somewhat in later books, or that you regret nailing down?

Looking back at Hunt for the Hydra, I’m glad to say my regrets are mostly small, and more about scope than needing to retcon things.

I wrote the book on spec — I knew I didn’t have enough of a track record as an author to sell a series just on a proposal, so I went ahead and wrote the first one and used that manuscript to shop for a deal. I had to budget the amount of time I could carve out of my other writing duties for that — the book might sit in a drawer for the rest of my life, after all. Then when the book sold I was wary of messing up what made it work by going back and expanding it. That can happen with stories just like it does with, say, songs: the demo’s got that spark; the full-band version feels stiff and overproduced.

To be clear, I’m proud of Hydra — I like the mystery that Tycho and Yana have to solve and I think the battle scene aboard the pirate ship turned out particularly well. (Oh, and by the way — the Kindle version’s just $1.99 right now!) But with a couple of years’ perspective I wish Hydra had the same sense of scope that I think you get in Curse of the Iris and The Rise of Earth. Though maybe that’s always true of first books compared with sequels. And isn’t this just another way of discussing working backwards? With Hydra I was feeling my way into this setting that had intrigued me, and I hadn’t quite found some of the elements that really interested me later. The Securitat — that’s the Jovian Union’s combination of secret police and spy agency — is underplayed in Hydra, for instance. Back then I hadn’t fully grasped the rich storytelling possibilities of having characters come into conflict with them.

movingtargetNow that I think about it, you’re right that my Star Wars work was good training there. Star Wars taught me to be careful not to nail down narrative elements so they became confining for future stories — you want to avoid superlatives and build elasticity into definitions, procedures and the like. Here’s a quick example: in Moving Target, my collaboration with Cecil Castellucci, Captain Khione tells Leia that the interrogation droid only knows that she’s the interview subject — Khione says she’s had prisoners break and confess without knowing that the droid isn’t listening and doesn’t care and will just work on them until ordered to stop. I think that’s a chilling detail that makes interrogation droids even scarier than they already are. But Khione says “this model of interrogation droid,” and that’s no accident. If we hadn’t done that, we would have risked problems for a future writer whose story needed an interrogation droid to behave much more interactively. It’s the simplest of tweaks, one that helps future stories without hurting Moving Target. So while I wish I’d done more with the Securitat in Hydra, I’m glad I didn’t do anything to prevent me from making richer use of it later.

I’ve also grown as a writer since Hydra and learned some tricks I wish I’d known then. For instance, in The Rise of Earth a Jovian minister hitches a ride with the Hashoones to the asteroid Cybele. He’s never been on a privateer vessel, so Tycho and Yana show him around and he asks a bunch of questions about belowdecks life and how the kids learned the spacer trade. It’s a simple, effective way of giving the reader a bunch of information and some rich character detail without lapsing into exposition for pages and pages. I wish I’d thought of it for Hydra. But better late than never, right?

In an earlier interview you told me that your answer to who becomes captain of the Comet had changed since first finishing Hunt for the Hydra. You also mentioned just now some unexpected moments with Yana and Carlo as they got older; without giving too much away, can you talk a little about how Tycho has grown in ways that you didn’t plan for at first? Does his status as the main character make his development more rigid or less?

The funny thing is the character who’s really grown is Carlo. Tycho has always been an easy character for me to write because he’s basically me — he’ll beat himself up about the one thing he’s not good at while dismissing the importance of the ten things he does pretty well. Yana, on the other hand, is the character I wish I were while secretly being glad I’m not, plus she has a lot of traits borrowed from talented loose-cannon friends of mine. But I didn’t have a good internal or external model for Carlo, so I struggled to keep his character from becoming too one-note at times in Hydra and Iris. Happily, I think he really comes into his own in The Rise of Earth. Tycho comes away from that book with an appreciation of Carlo that he lacked before, and I hope readers will feel that too.

As for Tycho, I do think it’s true that the rules of storytelling make the protagonist’s development more rigid. Well, they’re not rules but they’re definitely firm guidelines. Luke chucking his Jedi aspirations to become a swaggering space pirate under Han’s tutelage might have worked, but the audience would have fought against it the whole way. “Hey, what about your father and learning the ways of the Force? Remember that?”

Still, from the beginning of Jupiter Pirates the reader’s known that only one of the Hashoone kids could become captain, and I’ve been playing with the idea of growing up and discovering you don’t agree with your family traditions and the goals they’ve inspired. I hope that doubt’s kept the series from feeling like a simple exercise in scorekeeping. And without giving anything away, it raises the possibility that there might be more than one way to win.

Lastly, I framed this interview in the beginning as something of interest not just to Jupiter Pirates fans, but to Star Wars fans hoping to produce their own original fiction someday, and maybe even parlay that into SW writing. You’re doing at least as much Star Wars work now as you were before Jupiter Pirates started, with more already on the way; how would you say your experience with the latter has affected the former? What tools have you picked up from your original fiction that can also be applied to tie-in work?

Worldbuilding’s fun, and I know that there are fans who love to engage with stories through it. Which is awesome — I’ve got a lot of that DNA myself, or The Essential Atlas could never have existed. But working on Jupiter Pirates gave me a new perspective on worldbuilding, one I’ve come to believe pretty firmly: successful stories use worldbuilding to support the action and the characters, and not the other way around. To me, worldbuilding is potential; storytelling is fulfillment.

As I said earlier, that learning process started with Star Wars guides. But in the beginning I thought I was learning best practices for worldbuilding and didn’t realize those best practices are about more than that — they protect narrative possibilities too.

Here’s something that helped open the door: way back with the Atlas I was jealous of Dan Wallace’s ability to craft descriptions that made the Star Wars galaxy feel much bigger in a paragraph or two. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Dan’s secret sauce was, and concluded it was his gift for rich and strange language. And that’s part of it, definitely. But I missed that Dan also left doors open — he told you enough to let your imagination go to work filling in the rest, whereas I’d spend paragraph after paragraph trying to craft big comprehensive blueprints that somehow weren’t as evocative. I tried to push myself with the Essential Guide to Warfare, which was a deliberately odd mix of narrative and “nonfiction fiction,” but Jupiter Pirates was where I finally figured it out. I realized if I tackled all the worldbuilding of Jupiter Pirates at once I was restricting myself to the best ideas I could come up with at one given time, while if I limited the worldbuilding to what was needed to support the story I was giving myself freedom to have many more best ideas. That was what finally made the light bulb go on.

That’s been helpful to me in writing “new canon” Star Wars — it’s informed best practices such as the Moving Target anecdote above, as well as decisions such as leaving story avenues and character arcs open in The Weapon of a Jedi or Servants of the Empire. And I’m glad I learned it when I did, because I think it’s in line with the philosophy at Lucasfilm and Disney. They’ve been careful to let the storytelling take the lead and let that storytelling unfold at its own pace, avoiding the temptation of locking down and defining everything now only to find out later that intriguing ideas have been inadvertently blocked off. Before Jupiter Pirates I’m not sure I would have understood that, but now I see the wisdom in it.