Creating a good protagonist, and why James Bond is a permanent teenager . . .

Chris Bunch and Allan Cole wrote the Sten Chronicles –  one of the truly classic military science fiction series. As of this week, you can now buy the entire series (that’s eight books!) in these three gorgeous Orbit omnibus editions in print and ebook – that’s BATTLECRY (UK|ANZ), JUGGERNAUT (UK|ANZ) and DEATH MATCH (UK|ANZ).

Read on to find out in Allan’s words how he and Chris created the eponymous Sten, and to find out a bit more about how to come up with a multi-book protagonist of your own.

all three omnibuses in the Sten series of space opera adventures

Chris Bunch and I went about breaking into book-world with the same fervor that we attacked Hollywood. Young and dumb as we were, we thought we could conjure up the key to literary success that has eluded countless wannabe writers, past, present and future.

The first thing, we decided, was that if we came up with a series – instead of a standalone novel – there was more of a chance that all the books would remain in print. A little bit true at the time, but mostly wishful thinking these days.

Then we looked at the genre markets. Westerns? We dearly loved Westerns. But in those days – both in books and the movies – the Oater, as they called it, was done. Westerns just weren’t selling.

Detectives, then? We were ardent fans of Chandler and Hammett – all the hard boiled guys. Again, at the time mysteries and detective stories had a limited, if passionate, audience. A flurry of rack sales, then the local library, where the sale of one book serves a legion of readers, but does not impress your banker one damn bit.

We finally settled on Science Fiction – fantasy was still waiting for Terry Brooks to break that genre out of the doldrums. Plus we had been ardent science fiction readers since childhood.

Next, we examined the nature of book series. In our opinion, there was a tendency for writers to grow to despise their main characters after a few books.

Sir Arthur came to hate Holmes so much that he killed him. The storm over that literary assassination eventually led to Holmes’ miraculous revival. Agatha Christie loathed Poirot, but wisely let him live. Ian Fleming killed James Bond in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, only to resurrect 007 in DR. NO to appease his publishers and fans. And so on. There are countless examples. (The death of Bond in FROM RUSSIA is still hotly disputed. Some say Raymond Chandler convinced Fleming to keep Bond alive. Others say that’s just a myth. For the purposes of my point in this tale, however, I will take Bond’s intended death as gospel.)

Why did the authors wind up harboring murderous thoughts about their series heroes? Chris and I concluded it because their literary children never made it past adolescence.

Bond in the first book, is basically the same Bond in the last Fleming-written novel. Ditto the others. Permanent adolescents all. A helluva thing to live with your whole writing career. Ask any parent or teacher about the joys of raising a teenager.

Then we asked ourselves: were there examples of successful series where the character grew up to delight his Creator? There were several, but our favorite was the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. Although the books were written out of order, when Forester was done he had traced the career of an early 19th Century British midshipman through the Napoleonic Wars until he was a middle-aged admiral.

So, that’s what we settled on. A series inspired by C.S. Forester, except we would kick it three thousand years into the future, and instead of wooden ships we would have rocket ships….

During the months we considered our sure-to-be-successful series, the first great gasoline crunch came slamming down. International politics hit the fan, oil stopped flowing, and pretty soon tens of thousands of American motorists found themselves sweating and cursing in long lines that sometimes stretched a mile or more trying to get into a gas station.

What power those oil sheiks wielded.

In a flash we could see it. We reasoned if a single person could control the source of a cheap plentiful fuel he could control the planet. And if he could control the planet, he could control other planets; and if humankind explored the stars, he could control those as well. Until he controlled a galactic empire.

This was all assuming that His Ultimate Majesty lived long enough. And that was no problem – we worked up a tricky system involving cloning and so on so we could produce a guy we ended up calling The Eternal Emperor.

After talking to some techie friends – especially, the late Bob Willy, for whom the Willy Gun was named – we came up with the ultimate power source – a fuel wrested from an alternate universe. We called it Anti-matter Two. AM2 for short.

Next, the hero. We wanted somebody young. A working class kid, who hated authority.

We met him in Sten, son of migrant workers under contract to the bosses of a factory planet. His family would be killed. He would run afoul of the Powers That Be, eventually come to the notice of the Eternal Emperor, then rise through the ranks of the military, novel by novel.

We outlined twelve books, which, like a good Bordelaise sauce, we reduced to eight over the next ten years.  And the rest as they say, is history . . .