Plot and Character

8SquarePanelMarcus Gipps asked an interesting question on a panel at EightSquaredCon: do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it?

Since genres such as SF tend to be plot driven, I think there is a tendency for people to believe this to be the case, but it’s not the case.  Plot and character drive each other.

Even the simplest of plots have characters, clichéd though they might be. If the hero is attacking the dark lord, you have two characters there right away, a good guy and a bad guy.  You couldn’t have the plot without the characters: if the bad guy wasn’t bad, the good guy wouldn’t have a reason to attack.  If someone just attacks someone else, the reader will just think why? If you take away the characters from a story, all you’re left with is machinery. You are, in effect, describing how a steam engine or a canal lock works.  Both of these things are interesting,  but they’re not a story.

Of course, just having a good guy and a bad guy doesn’t mean that you can tick the box marked character and then get on describing the world or the spaceships or the fighting.  You may be writing a story but it won’t be a very interesting one, and this was what Marcus was really asking when he posed his question do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it? My answer?  The plot suggests the characters, the characters suggest the plot.  Listen to the characters, and they will tell you where the plot is going.  Follow the plot, and the characters will react accordingly.  If you don’t know what your characters will do, then you haven’t understood them properly, and neither will the reader.

EightSquaredCon was a great event, by the way.  Superbly organised, there was a great atmosphere throughout the hotel.   Well done to all involved!

Cosmopolitan Predators!

… and now for something completely different.

Not a novel, not a series of short stories, but a little bit of both.

I had the germ of the idea for this years ago when I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.  I love many things about Maupin’s writing, but one of the things that really caught my attention about the Tales was that they originally appeared as regular instalments in the San Francisco Chronicle.

That struck me as a really different way of writing.  When I write a novel, I plan it out, write it, redraft it, change the beginning, change the end, redraft again… I’ve often wondered what it would be like writing a story as a serial, not having the luxury of going back and changing what I’d done.  What would that mean?  Would the characters evolve in a different way?  The idea has fascinated me for years, however there’s always been one drawback.  Nobody really publishes serial fiction any more.

I discussed this with Chris Beckett at Eastercon last year, and it turned out he was fascinated by the idea of serial fiction, too.  So, it turns out were Keith Brooke, Eric Brown, Juliet E McKenna, Philip Palmer, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ian Whates.  We all wanted to write serial fiction, but there was no outlet for it…

So I decided to do something about that.  My wife is an experienced editor, I have the IT skills and so…

Athernet Magazine will be launching on March 30th.  Aethernet Magazine is the magazine of serial fiction.  In it you’ll find serial fiction by the above authors, and by me.  Cosmopolitan Predators! is just a little but like Tales of the City in that it follows the lives of a series of characters, however it scores over Maupin in that it has more robots in it.

The concept behind Aethernet Magazine isn’t a new one, but perhaps its a concept whose time has come again.  See what you think…

Stories from the Northern Road (Penrose 2.5)

StryNthRdMidThe first ever collection from one of the UK’s finest SF authors: Tony Ballantyne, who has been a finalist for the Philip K Dick award and whose short fiction has featured regularly in Years Best SF anthologies.

A quartet of brand new stories set on the world of Penrose (introduced in the novels Twisted Metal and Blood and Iron) join five stories set in the Recursion universe to produce Stories from the Northern Road. This is Tony Ballantyne at his best.


Released September 2012, and as a Signed Hardback Edition, limited to 125 copies: £19.99


  1. Introduction

Stories from the Northern Road

  1. A Note from the Author
  2. Four Blind Horses
  3. Janet Verdigris
  4. Isabel and the Outlandish Robots
  5. The Robot Behind Me

Recursive Tales

  2. Restoring the Balance 1
  3. Restoring the Balance 2
  4. Seeds
  5. The Sixth VNM



Colinthology is a collection of light-hearted, uplifting fantasy and SF short stories, put together in memory of Colin Harvey, who passed away suddenly in August 2011. All of the stories have been donated for free by friends of Colin, and all of the proceeds are being donated to Above & Beyond, the Bristol-based charity for which Colin volunteered in his spare time.

I was proud to be asked to contribute to the Colinthology. For some reason I’ve never quite understood, people thought that Colin and I were brothers. It became a standing joke at conventions, with Colin getting his friends to come up to me and pretend they thought I was him. Obviously, we were both blessed at birth with outstanding good looks, prodigious talent and incredible modesty, but Colin had something else that set him apart from me and most other writers. Colin genuinely enjoyed every aspect of the writer’s life. Everyone likes to talk about their own work, even if they pretend not to, but I’ve never known anyone with as much enthusiasm as Colin for other people’s work, other people’s workshops and other people’s talks.

Conventions will seem a little less inviting now that my brother will not be there waiting for me.

Strange Divisions and Alien Territories

StrangeDivMidAs it says on Amazon:

This volume explores the sub-genres of science fiction from the perspectives of authors active in the field, offering both a critical viewpoint and insights from practising writers

I contributed the final chapter:  Just Passing Through: Journeys to the Post Human. The book is expensive and probably aimed at an academic audience, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.  Just as useful if you’re interested in writing SF as well as reading it, Keith Brooke has produced an excellent reference for all those in the field.

Blood and Iron

Appointed Commander of the Emperor’s Army of Sangrel, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do of Ko tries to establish relations between the existing robot population and the humans who have recently arrived on Yukawa.

On the continent of Shull, Kavan finds himself embroiled with the Uncertain Army and marching towards Artemis City.  But does he march as the army’s prisoner, or as its leader?  And will his arrival result in the City’s destruction, or his own?

Meanwhile, Karel is heading South, hoping to be reunited with Susan, his wife.  As he walks, he hears more of the stories of the robots and begins to understand something about his place on the world of Penrose.

But, with limited resources and tensions growing between robot and human, it’s only a matter of time before problems arise.  And it ‘s becoming more and more apparent that the humans are a lot more powerful than the robots first expected…

Buy Blood and Iron on Amazon UK | Buy Blood and Iron on Amazon US



How beautiful stand the plants in the Emperor’s garden.

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, self built robot; warrior of Ko of the state of Ekrano in the High Spires; one of the Eleven, displayed none of the wonder he felt at standing here in the heart of the Silent City. His expression was still, for the mothers of Ko believed in this as they knelt to twist the wire that would form the minds of the next generation: that a robot should have the aspect of a warrior, but the soul of a poet.

So Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s body was still and silent. Unlike the other robots here in the Silent City, his panelling was painted. The metal had been dipped in scarlet paint and then left to dry smooth. Gloss paint, polished to a shine, easy to chip, easily damaged in a fight. Did the robots of the Silent City understand that? Did they understand that the chrome beading around the eyes, the mouth, the joints in his arms and legs would easily mark? That keeping himself unscratched was an advertisement of his skill?

The red joints of his fingers and feet would move like beetle backs, but for now he was motionless, blending into brightly coloured surroundings. Seen from a distance he was a collection of fragments sharp amidst the dappled sunlight, hard blades and glossy red painted metal; mind fixed in contemplation of the poetry arranged before him.

Poems written in the medium of organic life: a folio compiled by the robots who the Emperor had sent out across the planet Penrose, commanding them to seek beauty in every form, whether it be the glow of iron, pulled hot from the forge, or the curve of the body of some young robot in her newly built adult form.

But the Emperor’s vision was wider than this, for he also commanded that his robots look for poetry amongst the lewd profusion of organic life that flourishes in the most unlikely corners of the continents of Yukawa: maybe in the curl of a plant or the arrangement of petals on a flower or the spreading canopy of a tree.

And so those robots, those poets of another age, had travelled the length and breadth of the continent, taking an insect or a seed here, a piece of plating or a cutting there, and had brought them back to be placed in the garden of the Emperor.

And, oh, what vision the Emperor had displayed when he had his stately garden decreed.

A pit, three miles across, long mined of porphyry copper, had been filled with gravel and soil and then surrounded by a wall of burnished iron, bound in brass, inlaid with copper. Stone paths had been laid through the virgin soil, along which robot gardeners walked, sowing seeds, planting roots, watering and weeding, pruning and tending, raising the plants and trees and ferns that were brought to them. Silver insects scuttled across the floor, metal shells flashing brightly. Larger animals paced their gilded cages or pulled disconsolately at feet welded to metal platforms.

In the midst of this, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do finally collected his thoughts and began to walk towards the Silver Circle, the heart of the garden. His iron feet pressed dents into the green turf, his polished scarlet body danced in yellow and gold, the reflections of the cloud of butterflies that burst from the grass with each step. Pollen fell from the scarlet flowers that sprouted in obscene profusion amongst the canopy of the fuchsia trees, it dusted his body, worked its way into his joints and seams to be trapped in the delicate thread of his electromuscle. White pom-poms nodded their heads in the breeze, a stream of pink blossom wound its lazy way down from the tree tops, it wound its way through the golden butterflies, a widening stream of blossom, a river, a wave of pink petals, a tsunami…

From the swirl of colour, a figure materialised. A tall robot, clad in intricately worked metal. He had no arms.

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do lowered his head in submission.

The tall robot spoke.

“When you meet the Emperor, don’t speak of the world outside of the Garden.”

“I thought you were the Emperor,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, looking up.

“No, I am O, his spokesrobot. The Emperor is too busy to attend to all the details of the State of Yukawa. Your audience, however brief, will be sufficient to grant the seal of approval on your mission.”

“So I am still to see the Emperor?” Wa-Ka-Mo-Do could not quite conceal the edge of hope in his voice.

“Yes. The importance of your mission is such that an audience is necessary. Now, it would be appropriate to remain silent until we are within the Silver Circle. A wise robot would enjoy the delights of the garden.”

And indeed now they were passing two tall trees that seemed to have lifted themselves from the ground, their roots standing in a lily pond, the trunks well clear of the water. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do eyed the two creatures trapped in the cages of roots. One of them reached out a metal hand in supplication, eyes glowing pale green, and Wa-Ka-Mo-Do looked away.

They approached the Silver Circle. A loop of silver filigree that wove its way through the garden in a circle half a mile across. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do could cut easily through it with one of the blades in his hands, but he knew he would be dead even as he approached it. The loop of silver rose up in an arch, flanked by two more robots without arms.

They gazed straight ahead as O led Wa-Ka-Mo-Do past them, into the garden beyond, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do struggling not to betray the excitement he felt at being here.

O turned to him. “Now we are within the Silver Circle, I will speak freely. You will have heard that Yukawa has been visited by creatures from beyond our shores?”

“I had heard that they come from beyond even our world, my master.”

“You would do well not to speak of such things to the Emperor,” replied the armless robot dryly. “You may also have heard that the visitors are not robots?”

Wa-Ka –Mo-Do said nothing.

“You are wise to remain silent. You learn quickly. So I will tell you that the rumours are true.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do paced on. The sound of birds singing from tiny barbed cages covered the increased hum of current in his electromuscles.

“The visitors are animals,” continued O. “Naturally, this does not worry the Emperor. The Emperor is wise and all powerful, and his rule of the continent of Yukawa is just and proper. Those who perpetuate the myth of the Book of Robots are hunted down and destroyed, because it is beyond doubt that Robots evolved here on Penrose. There is no possibility that they were originally constructed by others, for whatever reason. Certainly, we could not have been constructed by animals such as those that are now visiting us.”

“Indeed,” agreed Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, his face devoid of expression.

“Your silence speaks volumes, Wa-Ka –Mo-Do. There are many within the Emperor’s court who would feel it odd that one such as yourself, a half-caste from the far North, a near Tokvah should be welcomed at court…”

“Ekrano has long been a part of the Empire,” answered Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, “the right to send eleven warriors to serve the Emperor is a long cherished tradition.”

“The eleven have a duty to replace the Emperor if he fails the Empire,” observed O drily. “They warriors of Ko have done so in the past.”

“A responsibility that has long been remembered in tradition, though rarely in practice,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. “I hope, rather, that it is remembered here in the Silent City how well the eleven have served the Emperor.”

“Indeed. And today you will have the chance to prove yourself equal to your predecessors.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do felt unnerved by the armless robot. It was known by all that the Emperor had no arms, this way others must serve him. But Wa-Ka-Mo-Do hadn’t realised that others within the Silent City also went armless. Oddly, even though he was trained in the arts of war, even though his arms and legs contained tempered blades, hard and sharp, it was he who felt at a disadvantage. But what could this robot do to harm him?

“It pleases the Emperor to deal with the animals, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do,” continued O. “He has established trading areas in designated areas of the Empire. Whilst, naturally, the animals do not have the same grasp of culture or society as the Empire, it amuses the Emperor to speak with them, to trade examples of their technology and thus to educate them in our ways.”

“The Emperor is indeed generous.”

“He is indeed. He has established an Embassy for the animals in the city of Sangrel. You are to travel there as his Special Commander.”

“Commander of Sangrel? That is indeed an honour!”

“A warrior may rejoice at such an honour, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, for in Sangrel he may prove himself worthy of the Emperor’s trust in upholding the ways of the Empire. For the Emperor could not lose face by having his subjects attack the animals through a mistaken sense of grievance. A feeling that, perhaps, the interests of the Emperor’s subjects have been placed below those of the animals.

Now Wa-Ka –Mo-Do began to understand the nature of his mission. He needed to be diplomatic in his questioning.

“I’m sure that it is inconceivable that the Emperor’s subjects would shame him so. But, my Master, suppose that such a circumstance was to arise?”

“Then I am sure that the Commander of Sangrel would make it plain that, in the long run, all favours granted to the animals would be repaid tenfold by them to the Empire.”

The armless robot smiled as he spoke these words.

“Of course,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. “But suppose, for example, that some robots found themselves driven from land that they and their family had occupied for many generations. Suppose that they found themselves in the grip of an unreasonable desire for reparations and found themselves, unjustly of course, in conflict with the Emperor’s appointed officials. What course would the commander of Sangrel be wise to adopt in such a case?”

O smiled.

“You are wise in the manners of court, Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, despite your origin. You ask my advice, as is right in these circumstances. I would say that it would be appropriate, if not desirable, for the commander to destroy all those robots, and their families, and their villages, as an expression of the sorrow of the Emperor, and his wish to demonstrate his authority.”

“I understand,” replied Wa-Ka –Mo-Do, and, true to his mother’s weave, his face betrayed no expression of the discomfort he felt at these words.

“And let me say furthermore, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do ,” continued O, “that I’m sure the Emperor would wish the same attention to be paid to those who were to perpetuate the myth that our creators have returned to rule us. The idea is, of course, ridiculous. “

“Of course.”

“Now, silence. We are approaching the Emperor.”

The Emperor wore no metal panelling: his body was plated with sheets of nephrite jade, carved in exquisite shells that encased him in a creamy green that contrasted with the emerald of the sunlight glade in which he stood. Four members of the Imperial Guard stood to the north, south, east and west of him, their bodies thin and curved, built of katana metal. They looked like living blades, curved under tension, ready to spring out in one slicing movement.

None of them wore ears or eyes. At need, they would pull them from their bodies and push them into place.

“Emperor , this is Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do found himself standing in the middle of the sunny glade just inches from his Emperor. He lowered his eyes and found himself gazing at the carvings on his jade feet, pale and exquisite.

The Emperor spoke.

“Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, warrior of Ekrano. It pleases us to speak to you.”

“Thank you, oh my Emperor.”

“The High Spires are a long way from the Silent City, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.”

“Indeed,” he replied, thinking on how O had told him not mention the world beyond the garden.

“The land of the Sirens. Did you ever see those fortunate robots, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do?”

“No man may see the Sirens and live, my Emperor.”

There was a long silence.

“Do you mean to correct your Emperor? Are you suggesting that we were unaware of the nature of the Sirens?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do looked at the Emperor, and in a sudden moment of clarity, saw how ridiculous his armless body was. The thought was treachery. Unconsciously he shifted to a fighting position. Surely the guards would know what he was thinking? Surely even now they would be attacking?

But nothing happened. The Emperor was waiting for an answer.

“My Emperor, not for a moment would I think such a thing. The wisdom of the Emperor is known by all his subjects.”

“Our wisdom is respected, you would say? Yet you come before me still standing?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do fell to his knees at this point. Nobody had mentioned this to him. He was under the impression that subjects remained standing in the presence of the Emperor, ready to serve him.

“You kneel before us?”

Now Wa-Ka-Mo-Do fell forward, the grass all around his metal face

He heard a thin keening above him. Gradually it occurred to him that the Emperor was laughing.

“It would appear that ignorance is still the norm in Ekrano! No one kneels before the Emperor, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do. We are not barbarians in Yukawa!”

He climbed to his feet.

“Wa-Ka-Mo-Do,” said the Emperor. “You will have heard of the Book of Robots?”

Again, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, remembered the words of the aide that had led him here. “No, my master.”

“We think you are lying. It is well known that the heresy of the Book of Robots is woven deep into the metal of those of the High Spires. We would expect that you, too, have this heresy woven into your mind.”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s gaze was still, his current was calm, and yet the Emperor’s words were accurate. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do believed in the Book. Of course he did.

The Emperor spoke.

“Even so, it must be understood that there are conventions for the lesser subjects, and there are conventions for those who follow a higher calling. We know of the Book of Robots.”

“Have you read the book, my Emperor?”

That same thin keening laughter.

“Our subject is as lacking in guile as he is in intelligence, for not only does he forget that he has claimed not to have heard of the book, but he has also forgotten that no robot is known to have read it, if indeed the book ever existed.”

“My Emperor is indeed wise to point this out to me,” answered Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, and again the treacherous thoughts arose inside him. Did the Emperor, wise above all, think himself clever by employing tricks that were only effective when others could not answer back?

“Your Emperor is wise indeed. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, in Sangrel you will meet the animals that have travelled to our world. And you will look at them and you will wonder how any robot could believe that creatures such as they could claim to have had us built. And yet some do. We trust that our subject will remember his duty, should he encounter such robots.”

“You may be sure that he will, my Emperor.”

“Good, good.”

The Emperor smiled. “We are pleased with our subject. Now, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do, we do not need to mention that our people place great faith in the Empire. It has stood unchanging for centuries, built on the rule of the Emperor and its queens. It has met new ideas in the past, and woven them into the rich tapestry that is the Empire. Is my garden not eloquent testament to this?”

A golden butterfly fluttered by, as if to confirm this.

“Indeed, my master,” said Wa-Ka-Mo-Do.

“And yet some ideas are not to be completed. They throw the weave out of balance, and so they shall not be tolerated. Does our subject understand this?”

“I do, my Emperor.”

“So our subject will be thankful that Vestal Virgins are already in Sangrel. They will watch our subject, and ensure that his mind is on his task. Do you understand, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do?”

Wa-Ka-Mo-Do felt his gyros spinning just a little faster. He forced them to slow.

“I understand, my master.”

Something caught his attention: the butterfly. It fluttered past Wa-Ka-Mo-Do’s face, turned to the right, and then changed direction again, heading to settle on the Emperor himself.

There was a flicker of silver, and the butterfly fell to the ground in two parts. An Imperial Guard slowly replaced her sword in her sheath. Wa-Ka-Mo-Do was impressed to note she had not inserted her eyes.

The Emperor did not seem to notice.

“Very well,” he said. “The audience is at an end. We wish you every luck in your endeavour. You may leave by the Road of Reflection.” He turned to indicate the path that Wa-Ka-Mo-Do had entered by.

For the first time, Wa-Ka-Mo-Do noticed the remains of two robots lying at the edge of the clearing, the metal of their minds twisted around their bodies in blue filigree. He saw the lifeforce flickering around them, and realised the warped creatures were still alive, frozen there in agony. The Vestal Virgins, he thought, as he walked by. The Vestal Virgins did that.

He wondered if someday his body would lie there too.

Buy Blood and Iron on Amazon UK | Buy Blood and Iron on Amazon US