image from the Gears of War video game franchiseKaren Traviss may write video games and novels, but she doesn't play or read them. It's one of her personal rules, to avoid being a fan of what she writes.
That said, this lady writer is a comics reader, and later this year, she takes over the Gears of War comic at WildStorm with Issue #15.
Traviss is no stranger to "Gearheads." After years of writing Gears of War novels, she became the lead writer on the upcoming Gears of War 3, which is expected to be released in April 2011.
The Gears of War comic was launched last year by WildStorm, adding to the publisher's growing list of comics based upon video games. The comic follows the adventures of characters from the first-person shooter developed by Epic Games.
Traviss has built quite a porfolio within the Gears of War universe, but she's also written books based on other licensed properties, including Star Wars. And earlier this year, the writer confirmed that she's working on an upcoming series of novels within the Halo universe.
Newsarama talked with Traviss to find out more about the unusual philosophy of this lady who has become a mainstay within the world of video game fiction.
Newsarama: Karen, first off, are you a Gearhead?
Karen Traviss: Depends what you mean by a Gearhead. I’ve got to keep a barrier between the stuff I produce and the stuff I consume, or else both would fall apart. I can’t be a fan of something and write it as well, because I can’t approach it objectively – and that means I have to avoid so much as looking at any property now in case I get a call to do it. Which is sad, but necessary.
So if you mean am I a normal Gears player or Gears fan – no, I’m not. If you mean am I a professional writer who was offered the Gears gig and jumped at it because it struck sparks off me as a storyteller, yes. I was asked to write the novels, then Epic asked me to write the third game, and then the comics happened. I admit I didn’t plan any of that, but I do recognize a golden opportunity when one smacks me around the ear.
Nrama: It's interesting that you keep the two worlds so separate. How do you think being a fan of something influences how you write?
Traviss: If you’re already a fan of something, I think there’s a tendency to try to make your audience love it as much as you do, and that’s anathema because I’m still a journo at heart. For me, writing – in any medium – is a process of discovery and exploration, and it has to be open-minded and objective to be worth the journey. I write because I want to know what it’s like to live a life unlike my own and be forced to think things that I don’t otherwise think or believe. It’s the ultimate tourism. Who wants to visit places they already know too well? I don’t. I want novelty. I want to be surprised and disoriented.
So I have to be prepared to follow where the characters go naturally, which doesn’t always endear them to the audience, and it’s not always pleasant for me, either, because you get inside minds that are pretty messed up – but to that character, their world makes perfect sense. That’s what makes it wholly believable. I still work by going back to basic principles, finding out what makes the characters tick, and just reporting what they do and see and feel.
The other side of that coin is that I need entertainment like anyone else, and I’ve had much-loved shows and movies utterly destroyed for me when they got too close to things I was working on. I really can’t mix the two. They’re in two parts of my brain that have to stay compartmentalized. If the two ever meet, it’ll probably be like some matter-antimatter thingy and there’ll be brain tissue everywhere along with a rift in time and space or something.
The kind of things I like writing – grim, violent, harrowing military stuff with grim, violent, dirty politics – aren’t what I choose as a consumer. The real me (as opposed to the working me) likes a steady diet of cartoons, comedy, and Dr. Who. I can’t bear upsetting movies or TV dramas. Weird, isn’t it? Actually, Dr. Who can be pretty upsetting sometimes.
Nrama: You mentioned that you moved from journalism into novels into video games into comics. Can you give readers a brief summary of your writing background?
Traviss: I’ll condense it to the headlines, because it’s long. Papyrus was new technology when I was a girl. It goes, if I remember correctly: advertising copywriter, newspaper reporter, TV journalist, video producer, police media handler, journalism lecturer, defense correspondent, spin doctor, novelist/ screenwriter. There really ought to be a separate noun for someone who writes comics. We should invent one.
Nrama: We really should. What was the appeal of switching to fiction after all the work in reporting?
Traviss: I decided to write fiction for a living because I reached the point where I would rather have eaten worms than stayed in public sector PR any longer. It never actually occurred to me to do it until a management consultant suggested it made sense to turn a hobby into a business if I was that anxious to get out of spin doctoring. I drew up a five-year business plan and stuck to it. There’s no luck involved – just a clear focus and putting in the sweat.
I didn’t plan to write any licensed work, mainly because I had no idea what a tie-in was at that time. I was offered my first licensed work just before my first creator-owned novel (City of Pearl) came out, so I took it because it seemed like a good idea, and then it just kept coming – I’ve never actually pitched for any tie-in work. It keeps finding me. I suppose I’ve become the go-to gal for military game IPs.
The challenge is keeping a balance between that and my creator-owned stuff, which is piling up on my desk, but I’ve got plenty of ongoing work with the two top game properties, so I can’t complain. I don’t have to do any work that I don’t enjoy. That’s an ideal position to be in.
Nrama: Are you a comic book reader?
Traviss: Comics are the only medium that I both produce and consume, or at least they were. My personal comics consumption was killed stone dead the minute I started writing them, which I knew would happen – they had to end up on one side of that barrier or the other, never both – but it was a price I was willing to pay. Yes, I do realize that sounds utterly mental, but that’s how I’m wired, as you now know.
I grew up on comics at a time when a few of them still had some text pages, which strikes me as odd looking back on it. (We did things like that in the UK. Anyone remember Black Bob?) I stopped reading them in my early teens.
But I was brought back into the fold many years later by another writer, Jim Gilmer. We were at Clarion together, and he slapped V For Vendetta in my hand and said, “I think it’s time you came back to comics, Mum.” (Yes, that’s what he calls me. It’s a long story.) That was 10 years ago. What do I like? I love Concrete, Ministry of Space, and Elephantmen, and I think Haden Blackman’s Jango Fett: Open Seasons is the best thing out there. It left me disturbed and uneasy for days.
cover to one of Traviss' Gears of War novelizationsBut I hate reading novels. I just don’t read fiction, and I don’t think books are sacred. Quite a few perfectly sensible civilizations had no written language and they seemed to do just fine intellectually, economically, and spiritually. Let’s just accept that the novel is a very recent form of storytelling compared to sequential art. People are shocked rigid when I spout heresy like that, because I’m primarily still a novelist – I’m writing my twenty-first or twenty-second novel at the moment, something like that – and they seem to think that you can’t produce something if you don’t consume it too.
That’s like saying that a man can’t design women’s clothing, or that a cardiac surgeon has to have heart problems to be any good. Writing and reading are two different processes and there’s no reason why the two need to be linked – I’ve had enough bestsellers and award nominations now to prove that point. Don’t believe anyone who tells you the only way to write well is to read a lot of novels. It obviously isn’t – although it’ll teach you how to write like someone else, of course. The nice thing about not reading is that you know you’re not subconsciously recycling other writers’ stuff. That’s a real risk for the reading writer.
I don’t play games, either. I just like writing them. You get the idea now. I just can’t cross that consumer-producer line.
Nrama: You've certainly done a lot of work in the Gears of War universe, even writing the next game. What do you think it is about Gears of War that makes such great stories?
Traviss: Characters. Characters, characters, characters. Whether you’re writing about humans or aliens or talking rabbits, if they’re fully realized, three-dimensional characters, then that’s everything. Plot is what characters do. Action is what characters do. If you don’t have characters whose feelings and experiences the audience can share as if they were right there with them – or even living their lives – then you’ve just not got a story. And if characters (and by that token, story) didn’t matter in games, we’d still be content playing Pac Man and expecting nothing more.
What I loved about Gears from the first second I saw the first promo was that it looked utterly real, as if there’d be an entire functioning world of people just off-screen if I decided to wander away and take a look at it. I wanted to know what made that big bloke in the armor tick and why he was staring at that piece of broken statue. As a writer, 95% of my work goes into either creating characters from the ground up using psych profiles, or developing existing ones.
The Gears are ordinary blokes — okay, ordinary over-muscled blokes, but not supermen, not immortal, not invulnerable. They could be any soldier out on the front line right now. They get through the day because they’re professionals and they look out for their mates. My top priority as a military fiction writer is to tell the truth as far as I’m humanly able about what it’s like to be a member of the armed forces, because our men and women in uniform deserve honest representation in fiction. I write with them uppermost in my mind. Truth matters in any medium. Fiction can get under people’s radar and influence opinion in a way that hard news can’t, as any spin doctor will tell you, so I handle it with extreme caution. But remember that whatever I write in fiction, it’s a pale shadow of what real men and women in uniform do every day, largely unacknowledged and unreported. We owe them — I owe them.
Nrama: As you take over the Gears of War series, what can you tell us about the story you're planning to tell?
Traviss: Nothing is quite as it seems in Gears. I know the story and the characters as well as anyone can now that I’ve tackled them in every medium, but they still surprise me even now. This is what happens when you focus on getting into the characters’ heads and letting them lead. There’s stuff emerging now purely through that process that has completely changed my personal take on some of the characters.
The series is called "Dirty Little Secrets," and it’ll have pretty uncomfortable stuff in places. Everyone’s had to do some dirty work over the years – you see a lot of that in my novels – but there’ll be stuff in the comics that you won’t find in either the books or the games. I look at the story overall, and think: “Why is nobody asking that question?” It’s a journalist thing. Journalism shapes my approach to fiction. So I ask the questions and the characters give me the answers, but they’re often not what I expect. I don’t tell the readers what to think, either – there’s no message, and no right answer. Make up your own minds.
Comics enable me to modify my writing technique to handle things differently. In novels, I write what’s known as multiple tight third-person point-of-view, which means you see the situation through a cast of characters’ eyes, and of course they don’t all see events the same way. It’s a vivid technique, but the complication is that it also gives you a tangled who-knew-what-and-when process to manage. When you see the character’s innermost thoughts, there can’t be anything that character doesn’t know about himself or holds back, except if you conveniently give him memory problems. So anything I need the cast to hold back has to be handled carefully, and that’s why I can’t use some characters as POVs in the novels at certain times. But with comic techniques, I can go places where I can’t usually go. The reader can literally see things without the character being the sole lens for them in the scene but still without authorial intrusion. It’s liberating.
When I’m writing the game, the rules of engagement are entirely different. You have to tell a game story in multiple ways, over and over, because – quite apart from the non-linearity - you can’t rely on the player sitting through the cines or even catching essential dialogue or images in the gameplay. That’s the hardest possible way to write a thriller, and that’s what Gears actually is. It’s definitely hardcore training for any storyteller.
Nrama: What do you think are the benefits of having stories published outside the game in printed form?
Traviss: I like an IP because of the scope it gives me as a writer. Transmedia provides the ultimate scope for both the creator and the audience. Print isn’t the poor cousin of screen; they’re complementary products, and you engage with them in different ways and get different experiences from them. Everyone wants to know what made Baird such a misogynist or why Marcus is arm’s-length with Anya, but there’s no time or space in games — not yet, anyway — to take a detour to explore that in any great depth, so you use snapshot and soundbite techniques to give some flavor. But if you want to add meat to those bones, print and other non-game media come into their own.
The sum of the whole really is greater than the parts. I’ll spare you all the analogies about well-balanced curries, perfumes, and other nice things made up of many interlocking elements. Let’s not forget, too, that fans don’t automatically consume every product of any IP – they might play a game and not read the comics, or not play the game but read everything they can get their hands on, or watch the movies but never play games they’re based on, and so on. It’s a complex Venn diagram. If an IP’s good enough to sustain close examination, then it makes sense to explore it in different media.
And as someone who’s writing Gears transmedially (if that wasn’t a real word, it is now) I can tell you that I get a lot more out of writing the whole shebang than if I was just working in one medium. But that’s purely selfish. No customer has to care if the writer is happy or not. On the other hand, if you love the work – as a Texan buddy of mine says – you sure do shine white-hot.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about your upcoming work on Gears of War?
Traviss: Yes. Buy it, all of it, or else Baird and Bernie will pop round to your gaff faster than a drugged whippet to find out why you’re not contributing to the Traviss Luxury Purchases Fund. So just buy the game, the books, and the comics, and nobody’s cat needs to get eaten. No pressure... here, kitty kitty...
Gears of War #15 will be released in December. Also coming up from Karen Traviss is the novel "Gears of War: Anvil Gate" on August 30th from Del Ray, and "Gears of War: Coalition's End," which is being released one month before the game, on March 1, 2011, from Simon & Schuster. The "Gears of War 3" video game will be released in the U.S. on April 5, 2011.