Viewpoint Characters

While I still dislike too-large numbers of viewpoint characters, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re more a symptom than a cause of questionable writing by themselves. I say this because I’ve read a lot of good books that have their share of them.

Now, this could be just the stories themselves being good enough that I can brush past the viewpoint character issues. But I think the bigger issue isn’t too many viewpoint characters per se so much as too many environments. Team Yankee was able to flow well despite having, on-paper, a lot of viewpoint characters, simply because almost all the action was in the same general environment. It adds a sense of connection, a feeling of purpose, rather than just being a clunky “this happened here, then this happened here, and then this happened here…”

It’s obviously not hard and fast, and all boils down to that intangible writing art. It’s possible to have a bunch of environments that works better, and it’s also too possible to have a one-environment story that still ends up as clunky and dubious. I’d still recommend trimming the viewpoint characters, simply because it’s an easy solution, but I think they’re symptomatic of just too many environments and plotlines.

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Good Fiction Spotlight: Brannigan’s Blackhearts

So, I’m delighted to note that I’ve read an obscure series worthy of a good Fiction Spotlight. Overjoyed. Because Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts is just the type of cheap thriller that fits me right now.

The series  is about the “adventures” of an ex-USMC colonel and his band of mercenaries. And it’s what I’d call a “cheap thriller”. But in a good way, for these books are what cheap thrillers should be like. I had good timing in that the latest book in the series was released after I’d started digging into the series.

The best part of the books is that they combine visceral yet exciting action with very good literary fundamentals. Not only is there action, but it’s varied action. The action goes from the forests of Myanmar to offshore oil rigs to the frozen fields of eastern Europe. It feels truly varied, and Nealen isn’t afraid to punch readers in the gut every now and then.

What Nealen also demonstrates is a welcome display of, for lack of a better word, restraint. Some of the plot setups feel a little contrived, but they aren’t dwelled on. There’s exact descriptions of the weapons, but not too detailed. Having read stories where the fundamentals weren’t there, it’s a treat to read ones where they are.

I must give a few obligatory criticisms. The villains aren’t that great as characters and the “shadowy conspiracy organization” meta-plot that’s developed in the later books has me raising my eyebrows with apprehension. But even these are worked around-the latter is streamlined in as a setup hook for the adventure, and the former work in the context of a thriller story. Plus these are still thrillers and not “high literature” by any standards.

But they’re good cheap thrillers, and I urge anyone who likes pulpy thrillers to read these.

A few further genre fiction thoughts

So, a while ago, I mentioned Tanya Huff’s Valor series as an example of someone who could work around a writing weakness. Basically, an author whose background and resume would be, on paper, the last person to write effective military fiction managed by setting up the plots so that the characters were in small groups and situations she was comfortable with. It was a sign of working around weakness.

Now, a part of me thinks that its success might not have been in spite of her lack of experience, but in some ways because of it. That is, she had less of the genre’s baggage because she didn’t know you were “supposed” to do something. Granted, all this could just be me viewing the Valor books with rose-tinted goggles as I count the cliches in my latest binge of technothrillers, but still.

(Besides Team Yankee, I’m reading another piece of “Tank Fiction”, Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers. The latter hits a lot of the technothriller cliches but is still a good “cheap thriller”)

The Magnificent Forward Observers

Poor me.

I know too much for a Seven Samuraiinspired battle to be both realistic and dramatic. At least against an army, which is what I was going for when I thought of the concept. Because against a larger and at least somewhat disciplined force willing to take any sort of loss, seven people are going to get crushed effortlessly. The best they could do, and this assumes they have the support in the first place, is hide and call in reports and fire support similar to the Marines at Khafji.

Now, against er, “irregulars”, as was the case in the original inspirations, it’s a different story. Still implausible, but they’d likely be far less skilled, and more crucially, have a far more timid risk calculus. Which is to say, there’d be more pressure to just “give up” and loot an easier target rather than take huge losses for the sake of a victory. The historical record of militia shows that, in general, they’re much worse at attacking than they are defending.

But could one still make a good story out of either a semi-plausible or outright implausible version, against either type of opposition? Of course! As long as it was well-written and fit the tone of the overall work, any sort of setup can work very well.

The FE Battalion Has Arrived

So, my insane, twisted mind is taking the playable characters of the heroic fantasy series Fire Emblem and forcing them to work as drilled soldiers in a more modern battalion. Trained in technologies, these confront a level of war they could not understand before.

There are roughly 500 playable characters across every Fire Emblem game[1]. Enough to fill a small-medium battalion. Several large problems are:

  • Age and condition. These range from the very young to the elderly.
  • Division of labor. These people range from kings to lowly nomads.
  • Willingness to go into the more drudgerous parts of the unit (support, etc), which ties into the above point.
  • Degree of support the FE Battalion would have from higher levels.
  • Overall objective and type of opponent they’d be facing[2].

Another question mark is what the basic type of battalion it would be. A boring but effective plan would be using the healers as the basis for a medical unit and using the rest as just guards and clerks to support them. But since logic got thrown out, I might as well have them be a line unit.

A mechanized one, with the horse-mounted fighters as vehicle crews and the footbound ones as dismounts? Or a lighter one that takes advantage of their experience in less-developed conditions?

And finally, which of the heroic commanders would get to lead the whole unit?

[1]My count was preliminary and either ignored or double counted the same characters appearing in different games. But it’s around that number.

[2]This is actually clear. It’d be a conventional conflict against a powerful but not too powerful OPFOR.

The Commander

I’ve been looking at surplus military manuals from various time periods to give me the important information of where a formation commander would physically be during a battle.

Obviously, the answer is “it depends”. Especially at lower levels, the rule of thumb (at least according to American military manuals) is “behind the lead subunit, so you aren’t at the very tip, but can still control the march and battle”. Of course, what the lead subunit is depends on the formation and the circumstances. The manuals themselves do not give a set location for where the command post should be (for very good reasons of both safety and flexibility), and throughout decades of major updates and technological changes, are adamant that the commander personally move often to the best location, which is frequently not the main command post.

Thus this gives me a feel for writing. The nuts and bolts of every specific engagement matter less than general details like where the commander would (in-theory) be. There are exceptions to the norm, for better and worse, which many of the manuals cover to their credit. Naturally, these won’t stop me from putting commanders into very weird situations, because I like weird.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve seen in my numerous forays into bad fiction examples of rather dumb commander placement, on all extremes. Many of which are not justifiable in either a tactical or literary sense.

And of course, pre-mechanized command is an entirely different story.

 

 

 

Working around a writing weakness

When looking around for new books to read, I remembered Tanya Huff’s Valor series, and got a new spin-off by, An Ancient Peace. Sadly, it wasn’t as good as the originals-my impression is that her heart just wasn’t in it. Or maybe my tastes have changed and it’s been too long since I read the original books.

Be that as it may, the books were little more than cheap thrillers with bad sci-fi tropes (apostrophe-ridden names, cliche alien design, etc…). But they were good cheap thrillers, and I bizarrely respected them more after seeing Huff’s background as a fantasy writer. She was not one with military experience, but was able to work around her weakness to an incredible degree.

How did she do that? By writing fantasy-adventurer situations with small groups and not conventional battles. The heroine takes part in exactly one big engagement, and it’s made deliberately short and vague before moving on to something she was more comfortable writing.  Such an admission of one’s own weakness is interesting and admirable, compared to numerous other writers who’ve overreached beyond their skills.

 

Jutland 100-The Rules of The Game

On the 100th anniversary of Jutland, World War I’s largest naval battle, I should talk about one of the longest and most influential books I’ve read, which happens to feature the battle considerably. That book is Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of The Game.

It was one of the first real deep, scholarly military history books I obtained. The book, which I saw as incredible upon my first, long-ago readings of it, has faded somewhat. In terms of describing the battle itself and the history of the Royal Navy, it’s still amazing.

But in terms of analyzing the history, it falls short.

The book describes not just the fleets, but also the personalities. The reader hears about John Jellicoe, the cautious yet respected commander of the Grand Fleet and David Beatty, the brash, ambitious, not-so-respected battlecruiser commander. Another far more unknown but pivotal figure is Hugh Evan-Thomas, an organization man put in charge of the four most modern Queen Elizabeth battleships of the fleet.

Gordon covers the battle until the moment where Evan-Thomas continues to sail towards the German fleet because he did not receive a signal, and then shifts to the 19th century, from the development of steam engines, increased signalling, the romanticization of central control, and the effort by George Tryon to reform it, cut short by his death in the HMS Victoria disaster.

After going up to World War I proper, it returns to May 31st, 1916, and ends with the post-engagement (and postwar) recriminations. The attention to detail Gordon has is incredible. So why have I (slightly) soured on it?

The answer can be summarized in one sentence. It’s too Pentagon Reformer.

  • Gordon shows a fatalistic view of communications technology, stating that it will always be pushed past its limits. While true, this is a glass-half-empty view of it, the reverse being that said limits themselves keep expanding.
  • The love of the “dashing maverick” hurts his view. Gordon seems to be reluctant to acknowledge the big picture-that fleet engagements were a luxury compared to the blockade, and that said blockade worked-the RN knew how to do it, and did it well. While he acknowledges it, it seems to be with gritted teeth.
  • Said “dashing maverick” also makes him one of a very few historians who hold David Beatty highly. What it amounts to is “Well, yes, Beatty was an egomaniac, yes he botched his deployment so that his best ships were in the back, with fatal consequences, yes he failed to do his job as a high-end scout, but hey, he understood initiative more than Jellicoe. This isn’t convincing.

 

Finally, the biggest problem with analysis (as opposed to presentation), is that it’s working off a sample size of one. This is not Gordon’s fault, this was the nature of WWI at sea. But even the most experienced forces can stumble, and so making a grand narrative of decline based on one single incident, no matter how big, is flawed. If the British had declined from Nelsonic initiative to centralization and then smashed the German fleet anyway, a hypothetical Andrew Gordon’s account would sound less like a chronicle of decline and more like the Reformer post-Gulf War “But you didn’t hit any Scud launchers” sour grapes screeds.

If the reader can keep these caveats in mind, The Rules of The Game is still a fantastic book.

Wariness About Writing Battle Scenes

Would I look forward to writing a battle scene in a technothriller? Probably not. The one thing I don’t want my battle scenes to resemble is an extremely literal Let’s Play of Command.

I consider using Command to be very useful to get the general feel for how a battle would go, but I wouldn’t use a demonstration scenario as an exact simulator. Having read too many battles in very bad books that did resemble simple after actions reports/let’s plays of various wargames, I fear repeating it.

Plus focusing entirely on numbers takes away from the feel that a good story needs. Losing one aircraft in an attack run but conveying the feeling of terror works far better than losing five aircraft but having it come across as a boring history document written long after the engagement. (I’ve seen both, unfortunately)
If I go for Attack of the Mosaics, which is the most technothriller-esque work of the concepts I posted, or another story of that nature, Command can be used-in a limited way. I do not want the characters to play second-fiddle to the equipment.