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Lower Decks interview: Ensign Maria Alvarez, USS Arrow

We’re here with another interview with a newer member of our community. The title of this column is “Lower Decks,” hearkening back to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode titled “Lower Decks,” in which junior officers aboard the Enterprise-D speculate on the reasons for recent unusual actions taken by the command crew near the Cardassian border.

This month’s interview is with the writer behind Ensign Maria Alvarez playing a Human female Operations officer assigned to the USS Arrow.

Taybrim: Tell us a little about the writer behind the character — where in the world do you hail from?

Alvarez: First off, thank you for reaching out!  It’s a pleasure to give back to this community however I’m able.

I live in Colorado, where I work in tech.  I really feel writing here has been a way to explore and express a creative side I don’t always get to flex at my job, and I’ve been really enjoying that aspect of it.  I have loads of other hobbies, including games, hiking, and music.

What duty post are you playing, and how did you choose it?

So Maria is an operations officer, and that duty post is a combination of what I, the writer, feel comfortable writing, and what I have pictured in my head as the sort of job she’d gravitate towards.

Operations is sort of a curious duty posting, perhaps the most generalist and nebulous space-job aside from ‘mission specialist’.  The best two examples in canon are Data and O’Brien, and the second one is really in engineering.  The cool thing is that it lets me define a very unique role for Maria, and explore a side of trek we haven’t seen much on screen.

From the start, I wanted to write someone that approaches problems differently than the average officer.  So, instead of being a crack engineer (which is already a little too close to what I do in real life), I decided to make Maria a little lax when paying attention to those pesky details and more interested in the big picture of how stuff works together.  This led me to giving her an interest in logistics and supply.  Next I decided if she were an unconventional officer, she’s probably getting in trouble a lot, so she’ll need to get really good at law and interpreting it in a different way than usual so she can get herself out of trouble.  I continued in this way, trying to build out a sensible, if disconnected tapestry of skill sets that fit her personality.  From there, I realized operations was by far the most sensible choice with the flexibility it offered, and fortunately there was a slot on the Arrow to fill this niche.

Honestly, now that I’ve gotten into the operations role, it’s hard to imagine playing another posting where there’s more rules, but that might just be my taste in writing.  I know some writers struggle with too much freedom, and that’s not a bad thing – just different.  I’ve really enjoyed writing a sort of midfielder who’s good at a lot of things, but great at very few.  Someone who gets to be the eyes and ears of the ship.  She’s eventually going to grow into the role that simply greases the whole ship along, and kind of have her work slip into the background a little (when it isn’t preposterous shenanigans).  Of course there will be rerouting power, amplifying sensors, so on and so forth, but honestly I take joy in some of the little things in the trek universe, and I feel this posting lets me explore that.


Witty Wordsmith: In Character Conflict

Conflict is the bedrock of drama in storytelling.  It is often the most exciting and memorable part about a story.  In a roleplaying game like StarBase 118 it is easy to approach a main mission conflict where your character and your fellow crew mates are pitted against an adversary or problem.  This is the classic us versus other set up; even if the other is not bad nor evil (a common theme in Star Trek stories) the crew is unified against the same problem.

But how do you handle it when your character has a conflict with another character?  Even if you are on the same team, character can have conflicting viewpoints on how to solve the problem.  As simmers become experienced and mature as writers they may also explore more personal conflicts that reflect the complex relationships we see in real life.  But if you are new to roleplaying these conflicts can feel frustrating and overwhelming.  Here are some tips to practice writing in character conflict so it turns into healthy and enjoyable story drama rather than a frustrating out of character situation.


Witty Wordsmith: Get Yourself Involved

You’ve done it!  You’ve graduated from Starfleet Academy, been posted to your first ship, you have your assignment and you’re on your first mission.  Everything is falling into place except… what?  Your Captain just told you that you’re part of an away team to collect a bunch of water samples to see if a new planet is viable for colonization?  But you’re not a scientist, or a medical officer or even an engineer… you’re a security officer headed down to a peaceful planet.  What do you do?

Certainly your team and your ship’s staff will always try plan missions with opportunities for all departments.   But no matter how well planned the missions are, there will always been some missions where your character is perfectly suited for the action and other missions where your character’s skills don’t really fit the main mission.  What do you do when you feel your character is sidelined by their skill set?


Witty Wordsmith: Kick it Into High Gear

Whether you are looking for a way to better define your player character’s backstory, thinking about creating a new NPC or playing a mission related character one critical thing to think about it what prompted this character to take action?

In some role-playing systems this is called a “kicker” which is short for the thing that kicks your character into action.  The kicker is an event or realization a character has just before a story begins.  This functions as a catalyst that propel characters into taking action, whether that is action for the cause of the mission to to antagonize the mission.

You can think of this like the opening scene of many movies.  Before the kicker, the focal character whether they are a protagonist or an antagonist is just some person.  Maybe a good person, maybe a bad person, but one that is living a static life.  The kicker pushes a character forward into action and that action becomes a story.


Witty Wordsmith: Eavesdropping For Better Character Development

In the real world, it’s a forgone conclusion that no person knows everything.  It’s a day to day frustration that every person carries for their entire life.  This is why it is, in writing, a tempting trap to use the information you are reading in other sims to guide your character’s actions.  If writing is your fun escape from reality, what’s so wrong with having a character who is always right all the time?

This is a problem that is common between all role-playing games for the exact same reason.  It feels good to be right and we feel good portraying our characters so we want to use all the information at our disposal to make the best decisions, even if our characters wouldn’t know that information in their situation.  This could be called metagaming, power-simming or god-modding depending on your role-playing platform.  But whatever you choose to call it, using information that you know as a writer but your character would not know in the story is a habit we can all work to break ourselves out of.

We have in previous articles discussed why metagaming or power-simming damages the narrative and hurts your collaboration with fellow players.  But in this episode of writer’s workshop we’re going to explore why doing the opposite – purposely having your character overhear something and interpreting it wrong can be a fantastic source of entertainment and drama, as well as a stepping stone to breaking the habit of metagaming and enjoying using your characters in-scene knowledge more consistently.


Witty Wordsmith: Action for Plot, Reaction for Drama

Narration is what makes a sim come alive, and many of the strongest sims we read have a harmonious blend of great dialogue and great narration.  But if we pick apart the narration of our sims, what makes the difference between a functional sim and a sim that is exciting to read?  A lot depends on your balance between action and reaction in your writing.  If we break it down there are two major aspects of narration in sims: plot and drama.

Plot narration is action based.  It describes the action of the scene as well as providing details to the characters and setting.  Descriptive text is plot based, as is any scene-setting narration.  Having good plot narration helps a writer clarify what is going on in the scene to the other players.  The stronger your plot narration the more you can push the action of the scene forward allowing your character, and your teammates to be proactive.  Plot narration is the basic building block of strong narration.  If you are at a starting point with adding more narration to your sims, focus on describing your character’s actions clearly.  Add in setting details and character details as appropriate.  Then focus on making sure your character’s actions contribute to the plot and help push the narrative forward.


Writers Workshop: Simming Wishlists

As we officially move into 2397 many people are thinking about resolutions, goals and changes for the upcoming year.  But how can you plan to maximize the fun and enjoyment you get from simming?

One exercise that works well for many players is a wishlist.  A wishlist means taking some time to plan out things you would really enjoy simming on several levels and then talking about that wishlist with your mentor, fellow crew and ship’s staff.  This not only helps you focus your writing into key areas that you enjoy the most, but it helps you communicate and collaborate with your fellow players to create a better game overall.


Witty Wordsmith: Setting A Superb Scene

If you’re new to simming you quickly learn that strong sims include description alongside dialogue to create a whole scene rather than just a threadbare script.  But how do you set a good scene?  What elements should you include?  And where in your sims should you put this description?  Today we try to answer those questions to help you practice this important writing skill.

If you’re working on strengthening your simming skills, a good rule to follow is to start every sim with description.  The start of a sim lets you set the scene moving forward – it’s a great place to draw your reader’s attention to the situation your character is in and a way to help other players understand where in the action your sim falls.  Another integral place to add scene setting and description is any time the scene changes or important action happens.  Even if your character is not part of the action, if your character is aware of the action you should describe how they sense the action and how they react.  This not only helps keep continuity in the sims, but it helps develop your character by allowing them to feel and act not just speak.


Duty Post Award winner – Arturo Maxwell, StarBase 118 Ops (Sisko Tactical Cross)

Join us for another in a series of interviews with winners of Duty Post awards from our recent 2018 Awards Ceremony. Our goal is to give you insight into how our fleet’s best simmers write, and imagine their characters.

This month we’re interviewing the writer behind Lieutenant Arturo Maxwell, better known as ‘Max,’ who is playing a Human tactical officer assigned to StarBase 118 Ops. He won the Sisko Tactical Cross: “Awarded to those tactical officers who have shown cunning and bravery in battle. Master strategists, and experts in targeting and shield power distribution, these officers have done the impossible to save their ship and the lives of its crew.

TAYBRIM: Tell us a little about the writer behind the character — where in the world do you hail from?

Maxwell: Hey, well, I’m Iain and I live in Warrington, Cheshire in the UK.

What made you choose to create a tactical officer? Did anything in particular draw you to this duty post?

Oddly my first choice was a Marine character, but I went into Tactical as it was something I was unfamiliar with writing. I guess that was the main drive behind it really, as I was so used to “military fiction”.

What sort of real life knowledge or experiences do you draw from when writing Maxwell?

Max is essentially me, but in space. He’s a bit – a lot – of a dork, and tends to respond to stress by making a joke or lightening the mood. But then there are also little bits of some of my friends ins his character as well. Mostly me, though!


Witty Wordsmith: He said, she said

Captain Kerk got up from his seat and headed out to the bridge. Kerk looked at the viewscreen where the ship was in orbit around planet Sigma Iotis. Kerk smiled, looking at the lush Class M landscape below. Kerk was hoping that it would be the perfect spot for shore leave.  “Let’s prepare an away team!” Kerk said.

The paragraph above shows a common issue that all writers struggle with, and that’s stagnancy in sentence structure. Many writers worry that their writing will boil down to a narrative of “My character said this, my character did that. My character went there and then my character did this other thing.” One of the reasons that this issue is a common struggle is because it is a fully functional way of writing, especially when you are focused on only one character’s point of view like we commonly do in our simming.

Because this is such a useful and functional form both for actions and dialogues, we can’t just get rid of it. No one wants to read paragraph after paragraph of needlessly complicated prose when the same thing could be said by writing “Captain Kerk was the first one to beam down.” So how can we keep the majority of writing straightforward while not feeling like every sentence is just a laundry list of things a character did, felt or said?

  1. Think about what is around the character. What is the setting they are in? Who is around them and what are they doing? Adding in some description not only helps add variety to your writing, but it helps create a clearer picture of the whole scene for your readers. In the above example you might focus on the setting of the planet Kerk has just arrived on: “Sunlight spilled through thick palm fronds on a white sand beach making Captain Kerk glad that he was the first person to beam down and experience this.”
  2. Focus on reasons why characters do actions, not just the actions. In the example above, if you put a reason why Kerk would be the first to beam down you might write “It was the job of a commanding officer to take lead, that’s why Captain Kerk always beamed down first.” This still describes the action, but gives us a little more insight into Kerk’s mindset.
  3. Picture the character in action and describe that action. This technique helps bring the scene action to life in a very descriptive way. Again, with the above example this might look like “Running ahead with a bouncing excited step, the rest of the senior staff held back to let Captain Kerk beam down first.” This is particularly good for scenes where characters are engaged in combat or a similar sort of dramatic action.
  4. Bring a ‘tight focus’ into the character and describe how they physically feel in a way that relates to the action or setting. Examples of this are feeling heat rise in the character’s cheeks from embarrassment or describing difficulty breathing from a alien poison. This puts the character front and center under a microscope, letting the audience know their inner workings before describing their actions. Working with the above example, you might get: “His heart was beating faster and faster, brimming with excitement – it had been too long since their last shore leave and Captain Kerk was absolutely itching to beam down first”
  5. Don’t sweat it. After all is said and done, straightforward statements are fast easy ways to cover ‘down time’ or explain simple things that don’t really matter to the meat of the story. Beaming down to a planet might be a big deal for a character – or it might be something totally boring for that character and writing “Kerk beamed down first.” is an easy way to move into action that Kerk and his writer are really invested in.

Hopefully this will help you consider new ways to describe scenes and actions, while also reminding everyone that sometimes just writing things out in a straightforward way to move the plot forward is the best way to go.


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