Inspiration

Where's yours?

The last time I made a thread with this title, I believe the topic description was "Give me some," and I was foundering while trying to plot out early chapter 3 of Anathema.

Ancient history aside, this time my purpose is very different. I wanted to discuss where it is that you draw your inspiration and influence as a plugin-maker/programmer/writer. What plot elements really get your gears spinning? How about ship design? Politics? Universe? General "feel"? Characters? I'll get mine out there, because I've got the writing bug bad right now, and to give an idea as to what sorts of things I mean by inspirational and influential, and to get the ball rolling conversation-wise.

The Beginning
It would be a crime if I didn't start with the Escape Velocity series. Escape Velocity found me back in 1996, and I was lucky it did. I played through pretty much blind, thinking the game culminated in the "T.A.G. – You're It!" mission, then discovering that you could join the Rebellion or the Confederation. The whole experience sandbox game with a driving narrative force was something completely new to me (I'd mostly played oldschool Mac games like Crystal Quest and Dark Castle and Sega Genesis up until this point). It even got me into editing, as my 5th grade brain struggled with the ResEdit templates and eventually settled for the unreliable EV Edit – and still had a blast.

The Not-Quites
Since then, I had a few brief flings with SF, but nothing that really held my attention. I met Ender's Game with a resounding "meh," read Dune in 6th grade (terrible decision), dabbled in Star Trek and Star Wars , and enjoyed StarCraft. In high school I found and devoured the Foundation Trilogy and the works of Heinlein, but never really drew anything from them – apart from occasionally trying to ram Psychohistory into my own plots and a brief and unhealthy flirtation with Heinlein's political sensibilities. But it wasn't until college that I found the works would really speak to the writer in me.

The Big Ones
Babylon 5
One of two seminal pieces in my development. My dad had talked about Babylon 5 frequently, but I hadn't seen it, and as a high school student certainly couldn't afford to buy the series. I had to settle for having the plots explained to me over and over during long car trips, and then experiencing it to an extent through the fabulous B5 Escape Velocity: Override total conversion. Then, in college I learned about Hulu, and my life was forever and hyperbolically changed.

B5 was the story that convinced me that the SF genre was a relevant, genuine medium through which to explore not only question of morals (like Trek), but also questions of policy – while, importantly, supplying a riveting, epic, poignant story arc, powerful characters, and a look at various SF tropes from a perspective I'd never seen before. For example, I've seen two works that adequately, I feel, explore the ramifications of telepathy and/or telekinesis: Babylon 5 , and Second Foundation. What I took away from the series was a great appreciation for a story that "goes somewhere." It was obvious that JMS wrote the series with the narrative largely constructed, and with full knowledge of the messages he wanted the story to convey. And whether or not you knew it, the whole time, everything was pushing that narrative along and driving those messages. (Incidentally, the only other time I've gotten that same impression was from an anime called Haibane Renmei , but that's neither here nor there.)

Plot and themes aside, Babylon 5 has a lot to teach about the character arc. Having grown up with so much Asimov, I was under the impression that plot and character could be disintegrated. Not the case. You can have a stellar story without much character dynamism, but the story itself will usually suffer for it. The way that the characters (Kosh, Sheridan, G'Kar, Mollari, etc.) interact and drive J. Michael Straczynski's story-driven arc was an absolute joy for me. Those who have played Anathema can probably see a little bit of this influence; throughout the course of the early chapters, the main characters morphed from "people with names and attributes that I need to drive the plot" to, I hope, something more closely resembling dynamic, utterly human, beings.

As a final thought, Babylon 5 convinced me that even in a world of technological marvels, there's plenty of room for mystery and discovery. If I ever actually dedicate myself to telling a story of my own, I would want it to represent Babylon 5 above anything else, in drive and intention if not setting or message.
**
Mass Effect**
Second only to B5, but important for completely different reasons. Most importantly, just like Babylon 5 convinced me that SF was a legitimate way to tackle global politics and human nature, Mass Effect was above all the game that convinced me that video games, when done well, are every bit as powerful of a medium as novels or theatre – or perhaps even more so. Past that, which I feel doesn't need much elaboration, BioWare's fascination with the details of the universe they'd created (which at times borders on the obsessive) was truly inspirational. The planets were realistic and fully fleshed out. The aliens, while pretty thoroughly humanoid, were carefully realized. The technology was obviously well researched, didn't seem at all forced, and meshed wonderfully with the story. Sure, as a homage to '70s space opera there were tropes up the wazoo, but I felt most were done in the traditional BioWare fashion: begin with a framework of the familiar, then give every last aspect just enough of a twist to make it fresh and engaging. (Can you tell I'm a huge BioWare fanboy? Have been since Shattered Steel. Still have the CD.)

It's hard to encapsulate what I took away from ME at the end of the play, apart from the "gimme" of the legitimacy of the medium. Sure, it was refreshing and tied for my favorite game of all time (along with Morrowind , for the curious), but how did it influence me? I guess you could say it taught me that you can go both big and small and succeed. Less cryptically, (assuming enough time and money), you can create a world that is fully realized on both a minute and grand scale, and that level of dedication can take what would otherwise have been a great, if not groundbreaking, experience and turn it into a masterpiece. It also, much like Babylon 5 , taught me that even in a plot with an unreasoning, absolute evil, you can still have understandable, reasonable, and sometimes downright sympathetic antagonists (although we could talk all day about whether the Shadows count as an absolute evil, or if Saren qualifies as sympathetic). Last, but certainly not least, I learned just how crucial said antagonists are to a compelling story, even if said story would be able to move along just fine without them – a lesson I unfortunately learned too far into the writing of Anathema to leverage in any noticeable way. (Next time, guys!) In fact, I didn't play ME until a few years ago when I got my first Intel iMac, so Anathema was mostly written already, but it may have ended up being even more influential than Babylon 5 to my current "I'm not really sure what I'm going to do with this yet" project, Shadows of Terra.

Hyperion , by Dan Simmons
At the suggestion of someone on this forum (thank you, whoever you are; I honestly don't remember), I picked up Hyperion a few years back. This book is poetry. Probably one of the cleverest SF book I've ever read. Whereas Babylon 5 proved that there's room for mystery, Hyperion demonstrated that you can build an entire universe around it and still deliver a completely satisfying product (in my opinion, at least).

This is another that I have a hard time saying exactly what I took away from apart from the above. I may actually have to get back to you on that one. However, I can say that I picked up a voracious appetite for the "wheels within wheels" plot structure, which, in a round about way, brought about two central tenets of my own writing: there is always more to the story, and no one can ever comprehend the ramifications of their own actions. (And if Mass Effect 3 picks that up and runs with it like the series has done with every other modicum of an idea that's flashed through my head, that's it. I'm done.)

Firefly **
** Actually, I'm not that huge of a fan of Firefly. But I'll say this for it: it made me realize that there are some things I just suck at, and witty banter and character-driven charm are two of them. And accepting our weakness so we can shore them up or write around them is crucial in any endeavor.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, and the Riddle-master trilogy by Patricia McKillip
Whoa, hold on! Fantasy books?

Well, yeah. Fantasy books. Despite the fact that my favorite genre is SF, these are my two all-time favorite series. They're both high-fantasy adventure coming of age stories, but they're terribly different. Earthsea can be compared to Star Trek – while it's a continuous series, and you're following the same character through the duration, and the books are episodic in nature even if events of past stories crop up again and again. Each is a self-contained arc. Riddle-master , on the other hand, is more like Babylon 5. Yes, there are individual – if entangled – plots, but the whole time there's one defining narrative direction and everything else serves to advance it.

But the real reason I love these books to death is their language. Essentially, they taught me how to write. They are what shook me out of my comfortable school-essay-writing voice and forced me to take my first tentative steps into the world of writing like a person instead of writing like a textbook. (Don't take my forum posts to mean anything; for some reason I go back into college mode when I post anything online.) Both Le Guin and McKillip are masterful practitioners of the English language, and their evocative language can make even the mundane mesmerizing. Which is good, because frankly both series get off to really slow starts. That they, to me, never seem slow or laborious is testament to their respective author's skill.

The works of Carl Gustav Jung
(I'm taking a bit of a risk here; I don't want this thread to turn into a discussion on Jungian psychology, but he's too important to leave out.)

OK, now I'm going way out there. But honestly, I have never encountered a body of work that, in my opinion, better encapsulates and describes the psychological and social condition of humankind than Jung's. Clinically, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of practicality to his methods, but in terms of characterizing what makes us tick, he's a master. If you can wrap your head around what he's saying, that is; he's one of the most abstract, nigh-incomprehensible writers I've ever endeavored to read.

So how does that fit into inspiration for fiction writing? Well, maybe not inspiration as such, but he's certainly been influential. My greatest joy in writing is to explore the political and sociological realities that we face, not as a particular generation, but as a species. And Jung gives a pretty robust and staggeringly comprehensive framework for your conjectures. Shadows of Terra, so far, is essentially an exploration of social trends through the matrix of Jungian thought, to the point where I've jokingly referred to it as "Jung in Space." (Here's a tidbit: "Shadows of Terra" is a double entendre.)

I'm sure there are some major works I'm omitting, but that's all I'm coming to me for now. I'd love to see people's thoughts on the above and what community members draw on. Assuming anyone made it all the way through 4 pages of me babbling about my favorite TV shows. 😛

My inspirations have been largely quite eclectic as well. I'll try to break them down by genre and medium a bit.

Television

I absolutely have to start with Firefly. More than any television show I can think of, the works of Joss Whedon and his commentaries on why he does what he does have shaped my writing, and Firefly in particular was one of the most influential to me. I didn't dislike Buffy or Angel , and I got into Dollhouse a bit more towards the end of its run, but Firefly will always remain in a very special place in my heart in terms of sheer awesomeness of concept, universe, and witty banter. The cast was also exceptional, and Nathan Fillion was really the only reason I started watching Castle , (which isn't too bad, if a little soap opera-y for my tastes.) Firefly also taught me the value of texture. When laying down a universe, it's of great importance to really lay down a lot of small texture items that make the world feel real.

Another show that really shaped my sense of humor and my need to combine both the funny with the serious was the old-school MASH. It was hilarious, but in every episode, there was also at least one moment where things took a turn and the audience had to get back to the reality of the horrors of war for a bit. This is something that I took away, and something that I think is critical to my writing, though I don't know that I've accomplished it as well as I would like.

One of my next biggest influences, and one of my earliest, is Doctor Who. The originals back in the day were spectacular, and really excellent writing. I really did not care for the writing on the reboot, nor did I especially care for Christopher Eccleston as the ninth doctor. I liked David Tennant's acting, but once again, he was somewhat crippled on the writing. Some of the storylines were either just so silly, so predictable, or just so cheesy as to be terrible. Rose was a horrible companion, Martha wasn't any better (if a little better looking,) and I couldn't stand Donna outright. I am really, really happy with Matt Smith as the 11th doctor, and I love the Ponds as companions. With the new writing over the last two seasons, I'm back into it. Anyways, enough review. The reason it's a big influence to me is because when they have good writers and producers, they have some of the most elaborate story arcs over their series, and it's thought out years in advance. I love going back to an episode where I thought I spotted a continuity error, or where they just laid something down that seemed totally meaningless, and then it comes back to be a huge significant thing.

Trek deserves a mention, of course, in all its various incarnations (excepting perhaps season 3 of Enterprise , in which "darker and edgier" really just didn't work very well.) I liked the exploration of serious moral issues, and the special effects were generally pretty sweet as well. The fleet battles of DS9 will always hold a special place in my heart for CGI effects of its day.

Farscape 's early days also have given me some inspiration. I liked the fish-out-of-water concept, and I explored that in the bar, but like Farscape , it's hard to keep it going for long before you realize that the character has just gotten used to the wackiness, and has acclimated to their situation. I liked the concept of wormholes, especially that wormholes could be used as weapons, and that wormhole knowledge would not only make a character very dangerous, it could also make him a target for everyone else out there. The idea of the guy who has a technology or a knowledge that everyone else wants while he's running like crazy from them and just trying to get home was one I always wanted to write.

Babylon 5 was cool, but I just never really got into it much, and I couldn't honestly tell you what the story arcs were at all. I was inspired a bit by the ship designs.

Another short-lived series that I took some inspiration from was SeaQuest. While the show turned bad in a hurry, I liked the notions that the series played with, especially things like how quickly the writers predicted the world could change. If I recall correctly, the series was initially set in 2012, and in 1995 that was still a long way off. I liked the concepts, though, such as exploring genetically engineered soldiers, communications with dolphins, organic-based materials as hulls, an expanded United Nations, and the undersea as the last Earth-bound frontier. I still think that the series could have done much better, but the writing failed, the network pushed a lot of bad ideas, and ultimately the original cast (who I liked) just abandoned the show.

Film

Feature films have been of some influence to me, as well. In terms of great writing and witty banter, I greatly enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. (I have not seen the fourth, and I know nothing about it at all.) I still look to it as classic examples of certain tropes, such as the Mexican Standoff and the callback, not to mention some of the most intricate Thirty Xanatos Pileups in history to be derailed by one good Indy Ploy.

I was inspired with a few things not to do with Serenity. Sadly, I was disappointed by it. Not that it was a bad film. It was decent, and I enjoy it. But I felt it was a bit of a letdown after the exceptional writing and storytelling of the series. Joss himself says that the movie basically was season 2 of Firefly. There was just too much to be crammed into it, and ultimately, while it did resolve the series decently enough, I also was just left lacking. Perhaps this has more to do with simply the high expectations I had from the series. But, inspiration-wise, it taught me to take my time developing the plot and not to get too ambitious in attempting to resolve something to the point where I overlook other important aspects. This, of course, is because I'm writing literature and not time-constrained screenplays.

Another film that really influenced me and taught me about both witty banter and the use of texture and imagery was Road to Utopia and the other Road movies starring Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. These films also taught me a lot about the strategic breaking of the fourth wall for effect, when to do it and when not to do it. It's given me a great love of parody, when done well.

There are other films, but I can't think of them off the top of my head, mostly for where I picked up little tidbits of how to write good romance and avoid crappy ones.

Novels and Literature

First and foremost, I have to put the Kingkiller Chronicles , by Patrick Rothfuss. If you have not read these books, you have not truly lived. The first two books are out, and I am not allowed to die before the third is released and I have read it. It's in the contract I signed with God. The two individual titles so far are The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. The Doors of Stone is the next book, and it's on its way (release date is unknown right now.) I cannot do justice to these books here. You have to read them.

In terms of influence on me, I studied under the author in college. Undoubtedly, he's had some of the most influence of any person on my writing style, my understand of narrative storytelling, and my complete lack of inhibition at swearing a blue streak so wide it can be seen from space. Pat Rothfuss taught me just about everything I know about creative writing that isn't poetry. I definitely learned how to make not sucky romances and practically written action scenes from Pat, and I can't even begin to stand in his shadow in terms of talent to write it. Part of my need to have strong, but still realistic female characters comes from Pat, who drilled us on it constantly. I don't know what else I can say specifically influenced me from Pat, but I know that there's a lot. Read his books, and read his blog. And, go buy a copy of the College Survival Guide.

Truth be told, I'm not as influenced by the old-school sci-fi giants as perhaps I ought to be. I've read Asimov, Herbert, and others. The only one that really and truly stands out to me as an influence is Ray Bradbury, especially his portrayals of nuclear war and censorship. There Will Come Soft Rains and Fahrenheit 451 stand out to me as personal influences at least in philosophy if not in writing style. One of my all time favorite quotes is this: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."

I've read the Ender series, and I was not as enamored with them as I've been told I ought to be. Same with Dune. I like some Ursula K. LeGuin, but I can't say I'm in love with her stuff. Lots of cheesy Trek novels, but I can't say they're influential to me. Even the Lord of the Rings trilogy was... long, and not particularly exciting. The films were better, a rare thing for films based on books. I couldn't call them influential to me, either.

Well, sorry about the novel in reply. I'm sure I have other influences that I can't think of, but these are the big ones.

You don't get a long reply from me, but I certainly draw inspiration from Mass Effect for general universe and characters, as well as a lot of tech stuff, Battlestar Galactica for shipboard atmosphere (I think the really capture what it would be like on a military vessel out in deep space), and Babylon 5 mostly for fighter design. They have the only truly astrodynamic fighters I've seen in a Sci Fi show.

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