Technofiction story writing tips

Thoughts Inspired by LTUE and Conduit 2011

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Feb, June 2011

In February 2011 I spoke at four panels at the 2011 "Life, The Universe, and Everything" SF writers seminar at BYU, and in May at three panels at Conduit in Salt Lake City. It was a blast and it inspired me: Here are some thoughts that have developed from the discussions at those panels.


First Contact stories

First contact stories are the meat-and-potatoes of much science fiction writing. First contact was at it most popular and innovative in the Golden Age of pulp science fiction -- the 1930's and 40's. This is because rocket-based space travel was then a new and exciting concept and it sure beat its predecessor! -- prior to the 30's, space travelers were going to be shot from cannons. (Ironically, the cannon's high tech successor, the rail gun, does offer interesting contemporary possibilities for launching from places with no atmosphere, such as the moon.)

The 30's and 40's were also when planetary science had determined that planets were like Earth, in the sense of all being massive and rocky objects that orbited the sun, but the details of the environments of each planet were still not well determined. This was the era when it was considered a real possibility that there could be alien-made canals on Mars, and Venus could be a jungle planet under all its clouds.

It was a rich time for first contact stories.

By the 1960's the Golden Age era had come to a close. With what we learned from the American/Soviet Space Race, it became clear that boost-and-coast rocket technology (the kind we use today) also put hard limits on practical space traveling just as cannon shooting had -- the stars were still a really, really long way away if you had to use a rocket ship that coasted for 99.9% of the journey. Even Mars was still far, far away. We also learned through advancing planetary science that Mars, Venus and the other solar system planets were not alien civilized life-friendly.

In response to this better understanding, first contact stories were displaced from the center of SF mainstream, by more introspective ideas such as cyberpunk and VR adventuring. Popular space travel stories transformed from first contact stories into warp-drive equipped space opera stories of which the Star Trek and Star Wars formats became iconic.

But first contact stories are not dead. They are still very fun to read and write. One popular example of contemporary first contact stories is the Stargate series where the world-visiting device is a massive teleporter.

So, if you want to write about a first contact, what are the big challenges? What must you figure out? Here is a starting list:

o How do the humans and aliens come in contact?

o How are the aliens different from humans?

o What's the point of the story?

Each of these has a big impact on how your story will be structured.


How do the humans and aliens come in contact?

These days, there are three common choices: warp drive, alternate universe/magic or teleporter. What these three have in common is that the transit time is fast -- from days to hours to essentially instantaneous. These are FTL solutions -- faster than light speed. The advantage of these is that in all of them the story line can chug along at full speed as the characters move from one interesting world to another. The Star Wars series takes full advantage of this capability.

The first disadvantage of these FTL solutions is that they are completely divorced from our real world -- they are all fantasy solutions. (This, by the way, is why so much of contemporary science fiction is now called speculative fiction.) Since they are fantasy, there is no hard constraint on what the author can bring into the story, so there is a powerful tendency for the story to get silly or internally inconsistent which makes it weak.

To avoid silliness and inconsistency, you, the author, need to make hard choices about what is possible in your world, and what is not possible. This should be the first step in your story making process. Make your limits, make them consistent limits, then explore what you can and can't do within those limits. Take some time at this because you will discover that within any limitation you set, there will always surprises. One example of not setting consistent limits is Star Trek teleporter and holodeck technologies -- these got famously silly as the franchise evolved.

The second disadvantage is a bit subtler: all these FTL solutions mean that the alien world is very close to our world -- Planet Xenon, or where ever, is now a suburb of Los Angeles. This leads to the problem of: If it's as close as a suburb of LA, why shouldn't it act like a suburb of LA? Why aren't there immigrant Xenonians tending the gardens in LA?, and so on.

In sum, if you are going to write good first contact stories that have fast travel in them, you need to face up to these two issues and have good, internally consistent, answers for both of them.

An example: Stargate solved these problems for a while by making the travel process new, secret and expensive. But as the seasons rolled on, this collection of premises got shakier and shakier: these worlds being discovered were so interesting that other parties, such as commercial interests, should have become involved, and as they did the whole structure of the program would have changed dramatically. For instance, the launch platform area should have become a shipping dock, and the defense system consisting of people lining up and pointing guns at the portal started to look real silly. They were hinting at changes in the relation in the later seasons, but they never let it really happen.

An alternate solution to fast travel is the one I use in many of my stories: Do without, don't have FTL travel.

This changes the nature of the story structure a whole lot. It is a challenge because the characters in the story cannot just chug along from planet to planet and solve crises in a few minutes or days. This means, for instance, that there is no Galactic Empire or any equivalent. Think about it: What does it mean to rule a distant star system when it takes ten, twenty, a hundred years to just send a simple "Hello? How are things going today?" message and get a reply?

So if you take on the challenge of STL space travel, you end up with very different stories, and that can make them groundbreaking -- you will be writing in a style that few other people are currently embracing.

The other advantage is that what you are writing about doesn't have to be fantasy. You can be writing some real science fiction, you can be writing about a real possible future.


How are aliens different from humans?

This issue is as big an intellectual field as any can be. Alien portrayals can range from being just like humans to god-like to so different that they are incomprehensible. This range can apply to how they look, how they act, and how they think... lots of choices!

Once again, if you don't plan well first, you will end up with silly. And, very much a part of your planning is the issue covered next: What is the point of your story? Holding off on that point for a moment, what can help you shape your aliens?

The other element that can shape how you design your aliens, beside what is the point of your story, is human emotion: What are easy ways for readers to think about aliens?

The easiest aliens for readers to identify with are those that are as close to human as possible: If the aliens look like humans and act like humans and live like humans, readers can say, "Ah... I can identify with those aliens." and they are usually very comfortable with the choice. This emotional level relation explains the popularity of alien portrayals in movies like the recent District Nine (2009) and its older version Alien Nation (1988). In both these movies the aliens were living like people and acting like people.

If the point of your story is to make an editorial comment about an existing condition on earth, human-like aliens are a good choice -- both of the above movies were making editorial comments on poverty and racial discrimination.

Another emotionally comfortable role for aliens is to be gods -- they are coming to earth to tell us right from wrong, and to tell us that we should mend our ways. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 and 2008) is an example of that.

And yet another, they can be conquering monsters, with War of the Worlds (1953 and 2005) being one very comfortable arch-typical version of that portrayal.

These are examples of the emotionally easy ways of portraying aliens. They are not real, but they are easy for readers to identify with, so they are common and comfortable.

If you want aliens that are not as easy emotionally, not one of the above, then you get into the next point: What is the point of your story? So let's go there now.


What's the point of the story?

Why are you telling this story? What is it that you want your readers to get from this story?

You should be thinking about these at the beginning, middle and end of your story writing. It is all important. ...However, the answer to these questions can change. You can change your mind has your story evolves. But, you should always have an answer, and it should be a short and snappy one.

o Is this about a neat science idea? -- Mommy, Why Am I here? (my story)

o Is this editorializing about some current human condition? -- District Nine

o Is this moralizing about some human weakness? -- Stranger in a Strange Land

o Is this a hero's quest story with an alien world setting? -- Star Wars

Something to keep in mind is that what you put into a story may not be what readers take away from it. War of the Worlds was written by H. G. Wells to moralize about how the British Empire was not as invulnerable as it seemed at the time. What people since have take from it is a general purpose conquering alien invasion story where the aliens die because of a disease -- in later versions a disease inflicted by a human hero.

Whatever your point is, be sure to double check that you have made your point when you finish each draft. This is something you can easily check with a reader on: ask them, "Did you see that I made this point?" In reality, this is a lot easier question for a reader than, "Did you like it?"


So those are the big three to keep in mind: How do the humans and aliens come in contact, how are the aliens different from humans, and most important, what's the point of the story?


Space travel without warp drive

Writing space travel stories without using the warp drive plot device to speed the story along... is a real challenge!

It can be done, but you as a writer have to restructure your story-making a lot.

The first thing that you have to change is the time and distance scale of your story: if you don't have warp drive, interstellar things are going to happen over generations, not minutes. If you have warp drive in your story, everywhere is a suburb of Los Angeles because you can get to-and-from LA in minutes to hours. In STL stories that's not true: star systems are really far apart! It takes years to decades to go from one to another.

So what changes in your story telling?

Here are a few basic changes:

o The fastest way to travel between stars with STL drives is a constant acceleration drive -- basically the propulsion stays running for the whole trip. During the first half of the journey it accelerates and during the second half it brakes, so you arrive at the destination standing still, not zooming by at something close to the speed of light. (Note: we still don't know how to pull this off, it takes too much fuel, so right now this is still as much science fiction as shooting people into space with cannons was in 1900. But it doesn't violate laws of physics the way warp drive does.)

If you're not going to use constant acceleration, if you're sticking with boost-and-coast, the technology that is real today, plan on using some form of suspended animation or grow-when-you-arrive. An interstellar trip is going to take centuries to millennia.

o If your journey is constant acceleration, the people on the space craft will spend most of the journey traveling close to the speed of light -- relativistic speeds. This means that travelers' clocks will be ticking a lot slower than planetary clocks... when viewed from the planets. The travelers in their ships will see their clocks ticking just fine, but the journey time will seem a whole lot less to them. This difference is important. It means that travelers will experience journeys that take years or decades while their planetary brethren will see them taking journeys that last decades or centuries.

One example: a journey to the Milky Way core in a 1G constant acceleration ship will look like it takes 30,000 years to a person on Earth watching (it's 30,000 light years away), but it will feel like it takes only take 340 years to the person on the star ship. That's still a long time, but you could expect your great grand kids to step off the ship, not some completely new species. (If you travel to Alpha Centauri the journey will take 5 years planetary time and 4 years ship time.)

The implications of these long journey times, and the difference between what travelers and planetaries experience are:

o The travelers are a separate society from the various planetaries they travel between. There is no "going home" for travelers, their ship is home.

o There is no such thing as a Federation of Stars or a Galactic Empire. The travel times are too long, and the star travelers will not be interested in supporting any sort of empire. Take Alpha Centauri as an example again. That's the closest star system to our solar system, and if you, Emperor, radio Alpha from Earth and say, "What's happening today?" You'll get your answer back eight years later. Umm... that makes it real hard to stay on top of the situation there!

o Things will be very different in each star system, and they will be very different each time a star ship returns to the system. Star travelers will always be guessing about what the star system they are entering will be like -- even those they visit regularly.


These are some of the basic parameters of story telling in a world with only STL drive. How can you structure interesting stories with these parameters?

o The arriving and departing will be the interesting times, and there is going to be culture shock with each arrival, on both the planet and the ship.

o The arrival will take months. It will not be a surprise for either party. The arriving ship's exhaust will look like a new strange star in the planetary sky for about a year before the ship arrives.

o Your stories will unfold over years. Be prepared to work up an ensemble of characters that span generations. In the same vein, you will have to abandon that famous sense-of-urgency plot device, "We need to do something right now, or the universe will end!" You will need to work up other compelling reasons for the story to advance, or work up stories that are interesting without being time-urgent.

These are some characteristics of stories in an STL universe. They will come out very differently from stories in an FTL universe, and for that reason they can be very interesting. If you want more information on STL story making check out the non-fiction section of Tales of Technofiction on White World (


Thoughts on Writing Military SF

The military and the civilian experience have always been quite different. Likewise, the military experience changes dramatically depending on the technology available to the soldiers -- a soldier with a sword does not experience the same war environment as a soldier with a rifle, and the rifle experience is nothing like that of facing war in a jet plane. For both these reasons describing a military experience is describing something which both has enormous variety and can be interpreted quite differently between writers and readers.

Because of these deep differences writing military stories should be very tough to do. The only reason it isn't tough is that many people have an emotional fascination with things military. But, that emotional basis for interest also means that big differences in interpretation between experiencers, writers and readers will be normal.

For this reason, if you're writing a story about a military environment (not a report) keep emotion first and foremost in your mind -- if what you write feels good to the reader, it is good. (In truth, I kind of hate saying that, because I'm a fact-liking guy, but in this environment, like in romance, emotion rules.)

With Rule One above as an axiom, what are some other features that are common to the military environments?

o Every environment in the military experience is different -- much more than in civilian life, what is experienced is situational. One example from a hundred from my experience as a Vietnam War participant: When in a combat zone officers did not want to be saluted -- it was an invitation to get sniped, and it wasn't needed because everyone in a combat zone pulls together very tightly. However, try to pull that no-saluting off in a rear area headquarters environment and expect quite a different response. The military experience is very, very situational, and the range of differences in what is experienced, and what is thought about during the experiencing, is huge.

This is partly why most soldiers don't talk much about their war experiences when they return to civilian life. What they experienced in the war doesn't make much sense, even for them, when viewed from a civilian perspective.

o Soldiers do not experience the big picture. Wars as told by historians are what can be assembled after the fact. War histories are terribly interesting and very informative, but they are not what a participant in the history experiences. What the participant experiences is just his or her small part. That small part is a piece in a puzzle that will be assembled at some later date into a glorious or infamous war history. This is partly because a soldier is just doing his job, and partly because the "Lose Lips, Sink Ships"-mentality is very strong in soldiers -- you know what you need to know, you do what you need to do, and if you want to be curious about more, you need to be careful you're not bringing down trouble on someone you care about.

This is the other reason soldiers don't talk that much. They have to read the history books just like everyone else before they know what their part in the big picture was.

In sum, the military experience is diverse, perhaps one of the most diverse in general human experience. This gives you, the writer, enormous opportunity to describe something new. But... the military experience is also one of the most deeply emotional in general human experience. And servicing this emotional feeling well will constrain your story telling -- truth being stranger than fiction is a truth in writing about military experiences.


Thoughts on Building Believable Economic and Political Systems

One of the first things to keep in mind is that an economic system is not a money system. A money system is part of the economic system, but economy is so much more. An economy is about how the resources of a world are exploited and how the wealth created by that exploitation is spread around. Closely related to the economic system is the political system because that describes how the people that deal with all this wealth and activity are organized, and the two are always closely tied together.

As human history has shown there are many, many ways to organize both economic systems and governments. What is important to your believability is internal consistency.

For example: suppose you have taken time to describe a Stone Age family living in a grass hut by the beach as part of a Stone Age village.

OK... then we read...

Momma hears a ring tone, whips out a cell phone, listens, and says, "Papa, it's the Joneses. They have half a dozen lobsters to trade."

"Tell them we'll give them two pearls, and not a coconut more." grunts Dad while he is mending nets with the other men who are at the hut.

What happened here? Is it believable?

What we have here is a mix of technologies, and that mix implies a difference in economies. The cell phone is not coming from the Stone Age, barter-based economy you have been setting up.

Is it believable?

It can be if your story includes elements of culture differences as part of its theme, or perhaps a touch of humor. This could be part of a story about the lives of villagers next to a new alien city that has sprung up recently, or something ala The Flintstones. But if this is a dramatic fantasy story about vikings, sirens and maidens, this scene is going to be tough sledding.

The lesson here is: Have the economy support the story. Decide what the story is about, then weave an economic setting around that premise. The story can be about the economy, or the impact of a new technology, that's fine, but take the time to figure out the implications of the economy or technology.

Some common pitfalls

The most common pitfall I see in stories is scale. Here is an example:

The messenger rushes in, bows before the king, and relates the bad news.

The king's face darkens with outrage. He shouts, "GENERAL MAYHEM!"

"SIR!" replies the general who moves to in front of him and salutes.

"This means war. I want you to attack The Baron's castle at..." checks his wrist hour glass, "Five o'clock this afternoon."

"Yes Sir!" General Mayhem salutes crisply, about faces, and marches out.

...Umm, yeah! This general is going to mobilize how many men? Have them march how far? In how long? This is a scale problem. In an effort to rush the story along, this writer has de facto shrunk the army to about twenty men, made General Mayhem a sergeant, put the Baron's castle about five miles away, and made it about the size of a McDonald's.

This is an example of a scaling problem. I find them ugly, they pop me out of belief suspension. But it should be noted that many readers are insensitive to scaling issues, and many stories with bad scaling problems are considered good stories. For example, because the Star Wars franchise centers around a handful of characters, I find the Empire feels more like a county than a country.

A second pitfall relates directly to economies. Try this scene:

The strong, silent hero rides his horse into the western town situated in the middle of a plain of endless hard-cake mud.

As he rides by the general store, he hears a fair-voiced damsel inside plead to the store owner, "Please, just a little more credit?"

He stops in front of the saloon. He walks through the swinging doors, by twenty men sitting at tables, up to the bar...

Umm... exactly what is keeping this town alive, and the people there? What are these people doing for money? Where are the merchants getting their supplies from? What is the town shipping out to bring those supplies in?

In sum: Who's paying for what?

This is the full-face economic problem. Once again, for some kinds of stories it is ignored. But if you ignore it, you are writing a fairy story or a parable. And the problem with that is there are only seven story types, so you are going to be doing a retread of someone else's retread. Your challenge becomes a fashion challenge: Can I write what is fashionable in story telling right now?

The alternative is to take your economy seriously, and reveal what differences technology and economy make to how people live. That will provide you with an endless variety of new stories. I find this a lot more fun.

One last pitfall to note, this one being about writing about real economies: There is a lot of disagreement among readers about how an economy should function, and that disagreement is based on emotion. This is why it's easy to write completely preposterous stories about evil bankers and evil rich businessmen and have many readers enjoy the result. But this difference in beliefs is does have an advantage if you write about believable and internally consistent economies: You can make editorial comments, and people will take them seriously.

Seeing it like a tourist or seeing it like a native?

One important element of a believable economy is the context of the viewer: Are you viewing this economy as a passing through stranger or an I'm living it full-time native?

This difference first hit me when I was being an English teacher in Korea. I did so for many years, and found that what looked strange and alien the first year started looking more logical and practical as I stayed longer and experienced more. Here is an example:

When I traveled into the countryside on the weekends to see second-tier tourist attractions, I would stop at country convenience stores to get a Coke. One day I noticed that the Coke cans were consistently put on the shelves upside down. This was strange, and this was no accident!

It was also a great topic for the weekday English class. I would tell my students about my travels and let them help me understand what I'd seen. I loved it because I learned more, and they loved it because talking about my travels was talking about a familiar and comfortable topic for them. That made it easier for them to practice their English.

When I brought up the upside down Coke mystery they responded, "Oh! That's to keep the top from getting dusty. You don't do that in the US?"

"... No, I guess that's because in the US they are always inside a cooler."

Mystery solved, and I was now seeing this from the native perspective, not the tourist perspective.

This perspective issue is something to keep in mind. When you are telling your story, who's seeing your economy and what background to they bring to their sight?


And there you have it. In sum:

o If you're telling a parable or a fairy story, a believable economy is not important.

o Economies shape how people relate to each other and their environment. This is why it is important to your story.

o Economies are an emotional issue and different people see them as running different ways. This gives you the chance to do some editorializing, but it means that some readers will disagree with how believable your economy is.

o Is the observer in your story native to the economy or a tourist? Observers will see the economy differently depending on their background.

Have fun with your economies.


Where are the New Monsters?

First axiom: Creepy monsters come from our imagination, not reality. Think of the talking wolf of Red Riding Hood and other European fairy stories, the talking tiger of Far East fairy stories.

Second axiom: Monsters are unnatural. A dead person lying stiff and still is not a monster - dead person standing up and walking around is a monster. A shark cruising through the water in an aquarium is not a monster -- Jaws is a monster.

We used to have lots of kinds of monsters, and now we don't have so many. The monster standard has emerged, and with it we have Monster Monotony. What has changed?

The first part of the problem is familiarity. In human history through the first half of the 20th century we humans always had new worlds with new mysteries -- think recent King Kong movie with Jack Black and his character's monologue on this topic. But starting in the second half of the century we had satellites looking at every square inch of Earth and satellite fly-bys of all the other likely places for life in the solar system, and the growing realization that star-to-star is still a really, really long jump. We have run out of nearby mystery places with the possibility of nearby mystery monsters.

A second part of the problem is lifestyle. Thanks to modern technology very few of us civilized humans die unexpectedly these days. One hundred years ago the unexpected death of someone nearby (in a social sense) was part of the routine lifestyle. The person who did not have a relative who's life had been cut short was distinctively blessed. We lack that senseless unexpected death experience, so it having it happen in a story makes us more uncomfortable than it did our predecessors. We go see slasher flicks where teenagers pay for their sins, but how many tragedies do people go to see these days?

So... without mysterious places, and without accepting senseless death dealing as a routine part of life, where to look for new monsters?

Here are a couple of potentially fruitful frontiers.


On the frontiers of science

One inspiration for contemporary mystery and threat that has come to me is from reading the book "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil, and its discussion of the coming GNR revolutions (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics (strong Artificial Intelligence). This is a technology frontier, and there is still a lot of strangeness ahead of us in these areas.

o nanotechnology -- these days every year we know more about the workings of nanotech. It's time to work up some new more sophisticated nanotech monsters. Nanotech has been tried for monster-making in the past, but the concept was so poorly understood that the monsters had no limits. They were "Poof! You're dead!"-monsters -- not subtle enough. Now we know more. We should be able to create interesting, subtle, nanotech-based monsters.

o strong AI -- a rich source here is creatures that are part physical and part virtual -- such as creepy intelligent appliances, or zombies with cyber brains.

Another science area that has not been well explored for monsters is ecology. Two examples of looking to ecology for monsters come from from my writings -- "The Honeycomb Comet" novel, and the short story "Where Does the 500LB Alien Sleep?" in the book "Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1". In both of these the good guys are dealing with monsters created by new ecosystems.

On the frontiers of the mind

We are understanding more about biology and thinking processes. These should be rich for creating new styles of monsters.

o A classic theme that hasn't been worked over enough is the id monster portrayed in the 1950's classic "Forbidden Planet".

o New designer brains. We can design new bodies, we can also design new thinking. What happens when the brains of new cyber beings are based on alien instincts or artificial instincts instead of human instincts?

New flavors of old fears

Yet another idea: Take the old instinctive fear and give it a new shell to rattle around in:

o Robot child abuctors -- these days who can't shudder when a dewy-eyed kid is lured into a dark place.

o Nutcracker suite -- intelligent applicances doing creepy things when the lights turn out

o Changlings -- updated versions of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Who's Knocking". For example, the changling monsters are now cyber controlled by "the network"

o War of the Worlds -- but the warriors are coming from factories set up on earth by malevolent parts of the cybernetwork.

In sum, there are still many possibilities for new monsters. But, times have changed so the style of innovative monster must change as well.


How to Write Great Villains
Building Good Bad Guys

Like heroes, the best villains are those you care about. If you are reading/watching a villain and thinking "Ho-hum..." that villain isn't pulling his/her weight in your story.

The purpose of the villain is to give the hero someone to push against, someone to have a conflict with. The more memorable that character is, the more memorable the hero, and the story, will be.

Note: The villain can be evil in the classical sense, but don't have to be. And, in fact, probably shouldn't be. If you portray your villain as the sort of person who would wake up in the morning, stretch, and say, "What a great day to do evil!" this had better be some sort of comedy story.

So, what are some good role models for bad guys?


Kinds of bad guys

o The hero-gone-wrong bad guy

This is a pretty classic bad guy format in comic book-based movies. If the movie's story is basically a way to show off CGI effects then the villain will most likely be a bigger, stronger evil twin of the good guy, and the movie will end with a smash and bash between them. The Iron Man movies represent this format well.

The ho-hum version of this is the evil twin who is bad-to-the-bone from the get-go -- ho-hum but easy for readers to understand. Revenge of some sort is the usual motive for this bad guy... or the hero facing him. Conan in the original Robert E. Howard stories was often motivated by righting a wrong that happens to him early in the story. Howard did revenge right, but often the more interesting version is the tragic version -- when the evil twin thinks he is a good guy, and believably so. Doc Ock in the Spiderman 2 movie is a good portrayal of this stereotype.

o The "I represent the system" bad guy

This is the nefarious bureaucrat bad guy. The bad guy himself is not particularly powerful, but he/she commands faceless hordes of some nature -- men-in-black, zombies, ninjas, thugs. This guy can be part of the big system -- government agent -- or part of a rogue system -- mobster, secret government organization, alien organization. Either way, he solves problems by throwing lots of bodies at it. And he gains his power by twisting or corrupting the system in some fashion.

The good guy up against him is trying to set the system right again or uncover its rogue nature so the conventional forces of good can deal with it. One fun variant on this was the Men-in-Black movie where the good guys are government agents and they are trying to keep the aliens on the straight and narrow, and both sides are trying to stay out of the public eye.

o The Evil Emperor / Puppet Master bad guy

This guy is a variant on the "I represent the system" bad guy. He is usually distant and we see his effects through his minions, who are usually the colorful characters and the real action in the story. Sauron in Lord of the Rings and Emperor Palpatine in the early Star Wars films are good examples.

But when done cheaply and with lots of screen time, this emperor character is part of the megalomanic type discussed next.

o The megalomaniac bad guy

This one is the easiest of villains to make tiresome. The bad guy is crazy, but somehow he's an obstacle for the good guy. This theme is common because it's cheap -- you don't have to give your villain any powers beyond the ability to laugh mercilessly and command comically stupid flunkies. He's a villain type that's used a lot because he's familiar and simple to write.

But sometimes these mad scientists can be compelling. One example of well-executed mad scientist is Dr. Morbius on Forbidden Planet. In a well done comic way we have Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers series.

o The treacherous bad guy

The treacherous bad guy is the erstwhile friend. These stories are not common these days. Two examples that comes to mind are Loki in the new Thor movie and Iago in Othello. Another is Tony Stark's business partner who betrays him in the Iron Man movie.

The more two-faced this villain can look, the more successful he is.

How to do these formats in a stand-out way

The key feature to being memorable is getting the reader some emotional attachment.

That can be fear, and commonly is for something such as evil emperor. But others can work as well. For example, Darth Vader is creepy, but you can respect him -- in his case the respect emotion. For someone like Cat Woman the emotion is admiration.

Voldemort in the first Harry Potter books is an evil emperor sort -- distant and working through creepy minions. Then in the last couple he shows up in person, confronts Harry and friends in person, and this transforms his emotional relation to the reader a lot.



-- The End --