Tuesday, September 6, 2011

DragonCon 2011: Talks with Michael Stackpole

During this year's DragonCon, I attended two panels featuring Michael A. Stackpole, a science fiction writer noted for the Rogue Squadron series of Star Wars novels and the Blood of Kerensky BattleTech novels covering the Clan invasion of the Inner Sphere.

The first panel, I did not originally plan on attending because it was part of a series of writing workshops that one had to pay for.  However, Gary Henderson told me that one could attend individual sessions for $10 and since characterization is one of my weak points, I figured this would be a good idea.

The first panel I attended was about characterization.  Stackpole gave a presentation on the different types of characters out there, starting with roman a clef (based on real events and people, like Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics) before moving onto archetypes (stock characters), composite archetypes, and organic development of characters.

"You're going to use all of these techniques," he said.

One easy way to create a character is to combine a composite character is to take a real-world character and add--the example he gave was General Patton if he were a motorcycle-riding bad boy like the sort typically played by the young Marlon Brando.

However, one advantage of organic character development is that there's going to be character growth.

Another technique is deliberate design--Stackpole said it was like a composite characterization on steroids and said role-playing gamers do this a lot.

However, he warned against rigid adherence to a model because it would kill character growth.  "George Patton would never do that" is something one shouldn't ever say.

He also warned against complications--he said many roman a clef novels are written about students getting their master of fine arts in literature who sleep with their professors by master of fine arts in literature students sleeping with their professors and this leads to alienation-of-affection lawsuits and divorces when the professors' spouses read the novels and recognize the scenario.

He also said although archetypal stories are familiar and make readers comfortable, archetypal characters are often shallow and a sign of writers who don't challenge themselves.  Stackpole said he uses archetypes as place-holders and then elaborates on them to create real characters.

"Every character is the hero of their own story," he said.

Although I've most often heard this in regards with the characterization of villains, he said this can be used to generate additional material.  For example, what story would a fantasy hero's loyal retainer tell his children about his adventures?  Many short stories and novellas begin this way.

He then said that organic characterization has a big drawback--it takes up a lot of space/page-count and a lot might end up cut.

He also provided some more concrete advice.  He said if a secondary character begins taking over a story, one should give them their own story later.  He also said if killing off a character hurts you, it will probably hurt the reader.

I remember reading that George R.R. Martin wrote the infamous "Red Wedding" (in which the Freys and Boltons murder Robb and Catelyn Stark at Edmure Tully's wedding to Rosilin Frey, held in the Freys' castle) last of all the parts of A Storm of Swords.  Furthermore, many fans apparently reacted very strongly to the scene, including crying or throwing the book across the room.  I guess this proves Stackpole's point.

Stackpole also said writers need to be able to rationalize anything.  He said in his Age of Discovery novels, he said one race had nine gods in one book and ten in the second.  He fixed this by throwing in that members of said race didn't talk about the tenth god and this became a big deal in the third book.

"I had totally, totally blown that," Stackpole said.

However, he managed to turn it around so a flub looked like something that was planned ahead.

"That happens more than you care to remember and it's wonderful," he said. "It makes you look brilliant."

He then suggested something called "blitzkrieg characterization," a technique he said Stephen King used in From a Buick 8.  Basically, one lists two character traits and then a trait that flatly contradicts them.  The example he used was that of a well-dressed man who attended church on Sunday and Wednesday but should not be trusted with the collection plate.

"What this means is that you as the writer have them," he said.  People will want to read to find out more.

Stackpole ended his presentation with a character growth arc--have the character ask why they are, what they want to be, and what do others they think are.  The first two are connected, while the third can provide pressure on the characters.  I've read some discussion on the Song of Ice and Fire message-boards and they described Jaime Lannister's redemption arc in somewhat similar terms--he wants to be a great, honorable knight (and be perceived as such), but people think him an honorless king-slayer and suspect him of incest with his sister.  The fact his family has a rather bad reputation at this point doesn't help.  Reading the White Book chronicling the Kingsguard throughout history shows him how he's come up rather short. 

This supposedly drives his behavior later on the story, when he ends the siege of Riverrun without storming the castle or killing any rebels, rescues the female knight Brienne of Tarth from a bad situation (before, he was in the habit of calling her "wench" and was generally rude to her) and later dispatches her to find and rescue Sansa Stark, beats a man senseless with his golden artificial hand for insulting Brienne, rescues his brother from being unjustly executed, etc.

The second panel with Stackpole was about Robert E. Howard's Conan and Howard as a writer.  Something I found particularly notable was that Stackpole had written Conan the Barbarian, a novelization of the 2011 movie.  Stackpole is a man after my own heart--like me, he believes the 2011 film is a much better representation of Howard's mythos than the Arnold film.

He discussed how one novelizes a film and how he expanded on Conan's life story between Zym's destruction of his village and when we see Conan again as an adult.  This included consolidating the scene where Zym's minions chase Tamara on horseback--one simply can't write that shot-for-shot in a novel.  To write it, Stackpole wrote in the morning and read Howard's Conan stories and commentaries on them later in the day.  He finished the novel, which was contracted to be 80,000 words but came in after editing at 79,500, in 17 days, writing three chapters per day.  Much of the book is based on material not in the film--if it was solely based on the movie, it would only be 50,000 words long.

Unfortunately, the Fulton County library system doesn't seem to have it.  I'm going to have to order it off Amazon.com.


  1. Sounds quite informative, glad your picked up a few tricks of the trade

  2. Thanks. Hope it helps with your work too.