Bryan Young: Five Things I Learned Writing BattleTech: A Question of Survival


A FUTURE FOR THE TAKING…

As the last Bloodnamed Warrior left in the former Jade Falcon Occupation Zone, newly-elected Khan Jiyi Chistu has ’Mechs, but no MechWarriors—making it impossible to rebuild his Clan after the disaster on Terra. Meanwhile, despite being riven by the Dominion-wide vote on whether to join the new Star League or not, Star Colonel Emilio Hall’s Ghost Bears have a planet full of talented sibkos ready to graduate.

When word of these sibkos reaches Khan Chistu, he hatches a bold plan to take them, eager to rebuild the Jade Falcons. But with Star Colonel Emilio caught up in the politics of the Ghost Bear vote, will he even see Jiyi coming? Or will he lose the sibkos that represent the very future of his Clan?

For both men and the Clans they hold dear, these dilemmas become nothing less than a question of survival…

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All stories are personal.

When I got to work on this book, I knew I was going to have to deal with the in-universe politics of BattleTech pretty heavily. For those unfamiliar with BattleTech, it’s a fairly warlike future where big stompy ’Mechs tend to do the diplomacy for people at the end of a gun. There are pockets of civilization, to be sure, but for the most part, people just want to shoot each other. At the outset of the book, the Ghost Bears, a segment of society that has settled into a part of the universe and been largely left alone for a long time, are forced to vote on whether or not they want to join up with something called the Star League Defense Force. It’s led by an unstable warrior named Alaric Ward of Clan Wolf and joining would seem not great. The entire population gets to vote and it gets ugly. Having a divisive vote that could very well end in civil war seems like it’s on a lot of people’s minds right now, given the last few decades of…well…the trashfires across the world. And I needed to make a way to make the politics feel relevant to people without seeming too overtly partisan. Going through and looking at how divisive elections happen on a small scale and affect individuals and families provided a much more interesting touch point than the sort of views I might have gotten just paying attention to the national news. Politics affect people deeply, even when they’re being misled, and it happens at the smallest of levels. It hits people personally. This book forced me to examine and interrogate that at a level I hadn’t considered.

Dueling protagonists heading toward each other like freight trains is a challenge, but fun to write (and read).

As you write, you get into your head that your story needs a protagonist and an antagonist. You always hear that your antagonist needs to be the protagonist of their own story. But what’s more fun than two co-protagonists heading toward each other, one an immovable object, one an unstoppable force? I’d never tried to write a story like this before and it quickly became an exciting challenge. Especially when these characters have such drastically different mindsets from both each other and me. How do I get into their heads and do them both a service of the protagonist treatment, even though they believe such drastically different things. It came down to the same things as the political story. I had to find the small things that made them human. For the head of the Jade Falcons, it was tapping into the twisted joy he felt for facing challenges. For the head of the Ghost Bear faction in this book, it was about tapping into their inner-life and approach to magnanimity in the face of losing things. Then, when you humanize them both and put them in conflict, it creates something greater than the sum of its parts.

Licensed universes require just as much craft and thought as any other form of writing.

It might not have been something I learned, but it’s definitely something that was reinforced as I set out to work on this latest book. Working in a licensed universe pushes and constrains you in ways that you don’t have to be contend with when you’re writing your own work. It’s a challenge on its own just to get the details right. You have to fit inside a world that already exists and that people already love, even if you have a fact check team behind you. Having guardrails of the universe actually forces you to thread a tighter needle and I think it creates (in some cases) more creative work. Every tool of craft you’ve learned over the years as a writer has to come to the forefront of what you’re doing so that you’re actually able to thread that needle. It’s so rewarding when it works.

Write the book you want to write.

It’s easy to be concerned about what the fans of a universe will say when they read your book. BattleTech has been alive and well since the ‘80s and there’s a long history there. Am I going to have anything to say that’s going to resonate with them? Or am I going to piss them all off? I really had to face that challenge by pushing those concerns away. Ultimately, I had to tell a story that I was proud of and that made sense to me and fit into the things I cared about. I included things in the book that I thought some fans might react poorly to, but they were important to me. At the end of the day, I wrote the book I wanted to write and I’m proud of it because I was able to push aside those worries about “fandom” and just tell a good story.

Make the story suspenseful, even if they know the ending.

There is a major event that occurs in my book that was actually revealed in a sourcebook that came out earlier this year. One of my main concerns in taking the writing assignment was that folks who had read the sourcebook wouldn’t find anything of interest in the story. Instead of falling into that trap, I had to get creative. I focused on the characters who had the most to lose by the event in question, and then carry the story beyond the threshold of the sourcebook. I had to make the events they already knew about compelling by making them care about the characters and adding new wrinkles to the story they hadn’t considered based on the original source. But, then again, I’m the sort of person who thinks prequels are great even though we know the ending: it’s the journey that counts.

***

Bryan Young (he/they) works across many different media. His work as a writer and producer has been called “filmmaking gold” by The New York Times. He’s also published comic books with Slave Labor Graphics and Image Comics. He’s been a regular contributor for the Huffington Post, StarWars.com, Star Wars Insider magazine, SYFY, /Film, and was the founder and editor in chief of the geek news and review site Big Shiny Robot! In 2014, he wrote the critically acclaimed history book, A Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination. He co-authored Robotech: The Macross Saga RPG and has written two books in the BattleTech Universe: Honor’s Gauntlet and A Question of Survival. He teaches writing for Writer’s Digest, Script Magazine, and at the University of Utah. Follow him on Twitter @swankmotron.

Bryan Young: Website | Twitter | Mailing List

A Question of Survival: Link


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