Looking back at my outline for Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone, and having thought through the log line at least, it’s time to start layering some flesh on the bones of that extremely skeletal outline. Especially this early in the outline phase, it’s really time for me to start asking myself some questions.

Chapter 9 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is entitled “Ask, and Answer, Questions.” This is specifically in relation to characters, but the same technique easily applies to everything else. From the book:

As you’re writing, you’ll find yourself constantly circling back to that why question. Never shrug that off. If it drags your writing to a complete stop, good. Stop. Think. Support your characters and get started again, even if it means a radical left turn in what you thought your story was going to be. There is no story compelling enough to support unmotivated characters.

Looking back, not only do I still stand by that, but I’ll add:

There is no world compelling enough to support unmotivated characters.

I wrote the following questions before that last bit, and looking back at the questions again I’m not surprised that the majority of them have to do with character motivation: why this character is doing this and not that? What does he or she hope to gain? And so on. But sprinkled in, too, are some plot questions, and worldbuilding infuses almost all of them.

In keeping with the spirit of the “short, bad book” exercise and my own advice not to over-worldbuild up front and keep myself open to new ideas in the writing—and to keep this post from getting way too long—I’m going to force myself to think fast and spend no more than a few minutes answering each question . . .


Who are Dr. Niu’s “mysterious ‘bosses’,” and what do they want in general, and more specifically, what do they want of Dr. Niu?

I have established in the short story that the Saturn system is at least heavily influenced if not actually controlled by one big corporation, so that’s indicating to me that the future solar system is a pretty corporation-heavy place. The first idea is that Dr. Niu works for a rival corporation. Genetic engineering would make sense as a growth industry in the far future, especially in this colonized solar system. One of the ways NASA is already looking at making a Mars mission more survivable for the astronauts who undertake it is to change the astronauts—somehow making them more radiation resistant, etc.

So what if this rival corporation is more or less in that business, and hopes to compete with the already-established corporation by offering these genetically engineered animals as alternatives to robots? Something about that feels a little on the nose, a little too easy.

I always tell people to listen to that inner voice . . . Mine’s telling me to keep thinking. But even then, this only brings up more questions, like: Why do they think these “monsters” are or at least could be better than robots? How have they gone off plan and created monsters that will threaten our cast of characters? What are these monsters intended to do, what service are they engineered to provide?

As for what they expect from Dr. Niu, the outline already has her gathering up information to bring back to her mysterious bosses, but I’d also like to see her attempt to destroy the place, eliminating the evidence of the various crimes, and also kill any survivors before they can be arrested and interrogated. This makes her a lot scarier—she isn’t just a bureaucrat but a saboteur/assassin as well. I’ll really have to think about where Dr. Niu comes from that she’s willing to fill that role. It seems hard to imagine a medical doctor as an assassin, but . . . Hannibal Lecter, anyone? Anyway, I don’t see her as quite that evil!


Why is genetic engineering “frowned upon” and “the creation of unique life forms” illegal?

If one of the reasons Bella Lucky and her fellow Saturnians can lead happy and productive lives in the highly radioactive space around a gas giant is because they’ve been genetically engineered to be more radiation resistant, it seems that genetic engineering would be seen as a good thing, wouldn’t it?

I suppose I could get up on my soapbox about how genetically modified crops are being vilified in the here and now even while they’re feeding millions of people who would otherwise starve and helping to keep food prices down in the developed world, too. That might actually be worth inserting. Maybe the Saturnians are experiencing some kind of anti-science backlash against genetic engineering, which is what’s driven this lab underground.

A plague that devastated the population of one of the moons either fairly or unfairly blamed on genetic engineering? Maybe some kind of fast-reproducing pest or even a scary predator was introduced and resulted in multiple deaths, and this lab is continuing that work?

This is a worldbuilding question that needs to be built into the history of my far future. I like the idea of a predatory monster being released on an innocent population. That works with the whole space opera dungeon crawl vibe, too.

Ooh . . . and one of the characters was there and his or her parents were horribly killed, so he/she is now the strident anti-genetic engineering champion.

I’ve also been thinking lately that this book needs at least one redshirt. This might be that guy.

He could tell the story like Quint relating his experience in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws.

Thinking . . .


If this is all illegal, why are Dr. Niu’s mysterious bosses doing it anyway?

There’s a good question.

In the highly civic society I described in the short story, you can easily imagine that the people responsible for the scary predator attack scenario I just made up above would have eventually been sued into submission. So then why reorganize and start the whole nightmare again? “This time, I’m sure it’ll work,” sounds too weak to me.

I thought maybe they’re breeding monsters on purpose for the military—then immediately cringed since that was too much like Aliens and that also actually always confused me about Aliens. If “the bio-weapons division” really wants these things, how were they expecting to control them? How does “I have a monster army” work, exactly?

Then I thought maybe the cartel wants them for some reason, or is bankrolling the whole thing because . . . why? They just like exotic pets?

I really need to spend some quality time with this question—until I can answer it to my satisfaction this book has a gaping hole in it.


Why does Bella’s fiancée, who’s in the robot business (and also secretly aligned with a Martian drug cartel), want to bust up this lab, and how did he “get wind of it” in the first place?

If it is as simple as the genetic engineers hoping to compete with robots, there’s all the motivation Bella’s fiancée needs to torpedo them. But still, I can’t make myself believe that a genetically engineered monster will ever be seen as a better potential janitor than the janitorial robots I described in the short story. And that’s even though the robots in the story ended up functioning like monsters.

If the cartel is funding the thing, that’s a good reason for the fiancée to not blow the whistle on it. Unless he’s trying to screw the cartel? Maybe he’s trying to take over?

Cringing again on that.

This is another big hole but I think it’s one that will be easily filled in once I know what the genetic engineers want and why. Then I can figure out how the fiancée might see that as a problem.

As for how he got wind of it, this is a guy who has a solid network of people, so the easy idea is that he had someone on the inside who tipped him off that things had gotten to the point in their research where maybe he should be worried. I could see how an ambitious engineer might want to turn to corporate espionage in the hope of securing a position with a much bigger—and legal—company.

And Bella and Company can find that insider’s partially-eaten corpse . . . it was that person who released the monsters in the first place?

Wheels are turning.


How does Dr. Niu’s mysterious bosses get her on the team investigating the laboratory?

As marginalized as they are, this mysterious gang of genetic engineers have the resources necessary to establish a clandestine laboratory on an otherwise deserted moon, maintain it, hire a team of skilled professionals, and so on. Given the degree of corruption I hinted at in the short story, the Saturn system is riddled with corporate spooks, drug dealers, mobsters, con men . . . If Bella’s fiancée has an insider or two in law enforcement, why not the genetic engineers too?


How is the rest of the team assembled, for that matter?

It’s perfectly okay for characters who are cops, etc., to simply be assigned to something. If Bella is on the case thanks to her fiancée’s influence, Dr. Niu is slid in by the genetic engineers, and Hunter is an internal affairs officer investigating one or both of them, that really just leaves Stas. And for all that, Stas could just be the next “magic-user” up on the duty rotation.


Why do the cops send an internal affairs officer (Hunter) along with the team? Who do they suspect and what do they suspect that person has done?

It could be fun to leave readers guessing about this, and I really should. But I shouldn’t be guessing at the same time.

Let’s say there’s reason to think he might be investigating Bella because the cops are on to the fiancée and his links to the cartel, and they want to see if Bella’s in on it. But actually they’re investigating Dr. Niu, who they suspect has ties to this illegal genetic engineering stuff. Maybe some kind of red flag is raised when she’s put in the team. This is pretty much in the outline already, with Hunter confronting Dr. Niu and ultimately paying the price.


Why was this lab set up on Methone, in particular?

My very cursory (so far) research on Methone shows it to be quite an exotic and lonely little moon. It’s a frozen ice ball, and though that ice would be a valuable commodity for a space-going society, it feels very “Last Frontier.” It’s sort of like asking why put the nuclear energy lab in the desert of Nevada? Because no one lives there and you can cordon off a few hundred thousand acres of dead space we’re willing to lose if something goes horribly wrong. So, the genetic engineers use the ice and other elements for their own purposes, but without even a remote “village” there, it’s off the space lanes and otherwise forgotten territory.

There are a lot of little moonlets like this flinging themselves around Saturn, so I’ll just make sure there’s a certain “frontier culture” around them that’ll make sense to the characters.


Why can’t they just wait outside (or even inside), wearing space suits, and just bleed all the air out of the lab to kill all the monsters, then go in and collect all the evidence they need at their leisure?

This one I actually thought about.

First, they have no idea when they first arrive that monsters have been set loose in the lab. They expect to find people there whom they can arrest. So at first they go in through the airlock, specifically trying to avoid an act of mass murder. Then they’re beset upon by monsters, and so why not just withdraw and bleed the air out? I’ll need to keep the question of surviving humans alive. I think they need to find a surviving genetic engineer or two as they go. I can then make sure that at least one character’s suit is ruptured beyond repair, and in general just keep tracking this so that no matter what happens, it’s never that easy. There is no one-step scorched earth opportunity.


Who was manning this station and conducting these experiments and where are they now?

Ah—I just said maybe I need some survivors. I like the idea of some scientists barricaded themselves in somewhere. This could serve as one of my TRAP/TRICK chapters. How to get these people out of . . . wherever they are.

I’m seeing scientists trapped in an inner lab and the outer lab has been exposed to vacuum and something is preventing them from repressurizing it, so they’re stuck in there with no space suits, but then something makes it really hard for our heroes to get through this vacuum room to get them. More thinking . . .


So I’m sure by now you can see that I’m hardly done with this outline. I haven’t answered all these questions, and have answered really none of them to the degree that I feel I’m ready to write.

This process of asking and answering questions is meant to lead to new questions, which lead to new questions, etc. I’ll be thinking about this for at least the next few days, but if I really want to start writing on November 1st, I better get cookin’!


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Josh says:

    Potential resolution to answering question 4 (and possibly 3). Both the genetics research and the robots are funded by different branches within the cartel. Fiancée is part of the robot faction trying to undermine a competing faction for dominance within the cartel. Perhaps both have different ideas about drug distribution/manufacturing, or each is a different half of the operation (geneticists are part of those trying to manufacture new drugs, robots are a delivery system).

  2. danielaark says:

    Great post. I struggle with this a lot, making sure there is always a character motivation. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Pingback: Beyond the Darkside: 32-18 to 23 – My Writer's Cramp

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