I’ve been reading a series lately that was an old favorite of mine, the Star Wars: X-Wing books. It got me thinking about how my interests have changed over the years and how various books have influenced my writing. As much as my tastes have changed, reading about the exploits of Rogue Squadron has show also how things have stayed the same. I’d like to show you a few of my sources of inspiration for my stories. Because there are too many influences to list (I believe that everything we read or see has some effect on us) I’ll stick to two of the big ones: the aforementioned X-wing series, by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston, and the Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett.
Star Wars was a big part of my life growing up. I am unashamed to admit that I probably knew more about the galaxy far, far away then I did about most else in life when I was 10 years old. However, I wasn’t really interested in the Jedi. Sure, they had cool powers and were nominally the central players in the story, but they just seemed kind of boring to me. Lots of stories have a cool hero who has some special ability to defeat the bad guys or is destined to win, or something like that. That’s why I found the side characters way more interesting.
It was the soldiers in the battles that I really liked. Wedge Antilles and Tycho Celchu, characters whose names sometimes weren’t even mentioned in the films and had mere seconds of screen time. These were the characters I liked because they were ordinary people fighting the actual war. As an avid student of military history, I gobbled up the facts about the various ships and battles that were fought in the books and comics of Star Wars. I found the story of the Galactic Civil War much more interesting than Luke’s quest to resurrect the Jedi.
Which leads us to the X-wing novels. There are no Jedi in the squadron, no one who is destined to be the savior of the galaxy or anything like that, just ordinary men and women who have trained to be the best at what they do. It’s a much more realistic side of Star Wars. Instead of winning for nebulous reasons such as feeling the force or being “strong” in it, there was a tangible sense of effort and skill. When Rogue squadron (and later Wraith Squadron) go on a mission, authors Stackpole and Allston show you the planning that goes into it. They show how differing conditions and circumstances influence choices in equipment, personnel, and how these things could be changed on the fly if needed. It just all felt a lot more real because of the attention to detail. The writing style is part of this as both Stackpole and Allston are lavish with their battle descriptions. The books are a high adrenaline read.
One of the most compelling factors for these military/sci-fi books is that the characters can be killed at any time. Since you don’t have the reassurance that these characters are all the chosen few, the helmetless heroes compared to the faceless drones of the enemy, you end up being a lot more concerned for their welfare. You don’t know that every member of the squadron will make it back from a difficult mission, and often they don’t. The current state of entertainment is full of characters who are not allowed to die due to fan reactions and marketing decisions, and protagonists who are resurrected minutes after their deaths, undoing any emotional impact their death may have had. It is therefore with fondness that I look back at a series that was willing to showcase war as the brutal experience it should be.
Which leads me into my next big influence: Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts.
After the prequel trilogy came out, my enthusiasm for Star Wars took a sharp decline. Immediately ready to fill the void left in my soul was Warhammer 40,000. While I had played the dark, sci-fi table-top game for years before, it wasn’t until college that I really began to get interested in the backstory of the game. What I found there is the most rich and deep science fiction universe I have ever come across. The entire library of fiction associated with 40K is basically about soldiers. While some of the books about the Space Marines display traces of the same trend towards a few characters who can beat insurmountable odds without ever dying, these are by far the exception to the rule.
Gaunt’s Ghosts in particular is an excellently written series that follows the story of a single Imperial Guard regiment. The battles are bloody, the characters are full and likeable, and most importantly, no one is safe from death. Abnett has a flair for showing the humanity of his troopers by often robbing them of it. The characters are much more relatable as they react to the horrors of a galaxy of unending war. The troopers themselves are normal people and they are the main reason I keep coming back to the stories, to see what will happen to them next.
It is precisely this excellent characterization within war that I want to capture with my own writing. The pulse-pounding battles may be the initial draw, but it is the realistic and complicated characters which make you stay hooked. Although I don’t think that my current writing level is capable of equaling the works of Abnett, Stackpole, or Allston just yet, if I can match just a percentage of their skill in my books I will consider it a victory.