The Grim Human and the Buxom Elf Princess:
A Conversation with Ed Greenwood Part IV
If you are just joining us, the previous installments of Greenweek are available: Part I, Part II, and Part III.
On average, Ed Greenwood completes three novels, nine short stories, and a variety of other projects each year, including articles, introductions, essays, and gaming products. Fortunately for his fans, he writes quickly and often. The wait between publications is short and the adventures are always exciting.
Highlights from 2008 include three novels: Dark Vengeance (Reviewed in Kobold Quarterly #8), Arch Wizard and The Sword Never Sleeps. He also reviewed, wrote introductions for, and provided lore assistance to the authors of the first three books in the “Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep” series of standalone Realms novels. Greenwood also co-wrote the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and wrote some core world design material for Paizo Publishing’s world of Golarion.
Though it is not even halfway through 2009, Greenwood has already submitted the third Falconfar novel, done a 40,000-word outline of his still-secret next novel and written two short tales for publications that must remain unnamed for now. He has a handful of stories and essays coming soon, including a piece in the upcoming Summer edition of Kobold Quarterly. We’re extremely grateful he made time for our question during Greenweek.
In honor of Greenwood’s prolificacy and the fact that he is talking about the heart of storytelling here, the final segment of our conversation is also the longest.
Jones: How can you keep all those stories and novels straight at the same time? Or put differently, how do you keep each character feeling unique — for you, for the reader—when you have so many going at once? [More…]
Greenwood: The short answer is probably a flippant “I’m crazy.” Which is a shorthand way of saying: Huh? I always have done, and always do; doesn’t everyone?
The more honest answer is: I see the characters, scenes, and action unfolding in my head in the same way a television viewer sees an episode of an ongoing program unfold before their eyes. So for me, keeping things straight—except when I’m deliberately sowing confusion and mystery—is easy. Writing is what I do, and for the last 30 years I’ve constantly had six or eight fiction projects on the go at the same time, with two or three at most “at the forefront”. So I’ve gotten used to it, in the same way that an air traffic controller just gets used to the fact that their airport will almost never just have one flight at a time active; they will always be juggling many, many planes simultaneously.
It might sound from my replies as if I cunningly plan everything, and hold those plans in my head all the time, but it’s become more a matter of habit and the subconscious. During the writing, I’m paying closest attention to the unfolding narrative, not thinking “must be stronger here” or “remind reader of X there.” That usually happens when I read over what I’ve written, afterwards—but hopefully not after it’s published!
How do I do it? Practice, and clearly delineating characters in my head as I embark on writing the story. The reader can’t see that, of course; they must depend on how clearly I delineate the characters in print.
For the reader, keeping things straight is harder, and helping them to do so is part of my job as the writer. The simplest way is to make characters very vivid. This one is very short and fat, that one tall, this one is always mentioned as having a red cape—the “tagline” some editors tell writers to always mention, whenever a character appears or reappears—that one is a dwarf, this one a beautiful buxom elf princess, everyone else is a grim human, and so on.
I also use dialogue taglines, which I’ll talk about later, but define here: phrases or a dialect or key words that a characters utters whenever that particular character speaks, such as the Restoration comedy character who swore, “Stop me vitals!” every fourth or fifth time he spoke, when no one else in the play spoke like that. This makes the character stand out, and helps a reader keep track of who’s speaking. Vitally important if you have conspirators arguing about something and cleaving to different views and actions: the reader must be clear which bad guy wants to marry the princess, which one wants to imprison and torment her, and which one just wants to kill her, if the reader is to fully understand and enjoy reading along about what those conspirators do next.
Jones: How, then, do you build characters the reader can be clear on?
Greenwood: Again, my honest answer has to be: it depends. Characters like the 42 guards slaughtered in a chase through a castle only serve a brief story purpose as the narrative sweeps along. Most are more important and more detailed, so that the writer knows at least their aims, how they think, their general appearance and manner of speech. In most fantasy sequels, that already exists or has been built up in earlier tales.
Roger Zelazny even made a practice of writing short stories involving his novel protagonists, before tackling the novel; one can be seen, with his brief notes about this, in his collection Unicorn Variations.
Some writers create exhaustively-detailed characters, and some wing it. I fall into the largest, third camp: I do a bit of both. Supporting characters start with the minimum I need for story purposes—they appear in this chapter to do this, and they look like this, sound like this. The best have an extra little detail to make them stick in the reader’s mind so I can describe them by other ways than using their name or phrases such as “the guard with the big axe Throg the Barbarian had seen earlier by the gates”— and they may change or grow as the narrative demands.
Protagonists should almost always grow; what happens to them, and how it changes them, is what the story is about, and seeing evidence of those changes is part of the reader’s payoff: I spent four hours reading all these fight and talk scenes and it all mattered because this was achieved. For example, Throg can now dance, and thinks women have another use than he thought they did before the story began.
Some of my characters have never been much more than a name, a few lines of dialogue, and their looks. Others I’ve written pages and pages about (such as the Seven Sisters, who got their own Forgotten Realms game sourcebook) and barely scratched the surface of detailing them. I have notes about what some characters eat—and like or dislike, including recipes—ballads they’ve composed and clever sayings they’ve written down in books, what undergarments they wear and how such apparel is donned and removed, detailed states of their finances, exactly how they feel towards a roster of other characters who will be at the same revel or secret meeting, and so on.
Jones: Do you plan each character’s growth ahead of time? Many of your characters seem to be surprising both the reader and the writer!
Greenwood: To some extent, those outlines do force some planning of growth. Whether done consciously in the outline or not, after I’ve done the outline but before I’m writing the novel I end up aware of how the events of the book will affect major characters. If I don’t show that planned character development in my outline, the editor will often demand changes in the outline until that development is clearly there.
On the other hand, as a longtime successful writer I am often given a lot of leeway in the actual writing of the novel—and sometimes, if there’s a time crunch, the need for an outline is tossed aside completely. Supporting or minor characters may be introduced, or shift roles, in ways that weren’t in the outline at all, and things pop up as I’m writing the story that do surprise me and reshape the story as it unfolds.
Sometimes, of course, what seems to be a surprise to the reader is something I’ve carefully crafted, and I get gleeful when friends or colleagues tell me about their senses of surprise at reading this or that twist.
Deliberate or accidental, those surprises—so long as they don’t break that proverbial “fourth wall” or strain the reader’s credulity overmuch—often make the story feel more alive and real, and so help with the illusion of reality as well as entertaining the reader.
Jones: Back to dialogue and taglines. How on earth can you have all these folks talking and all sounding like individuals?
Greenwood: As I mentioned earlier, the brute-force basics are to have “taglines” of speech for characters: different or unique choices of words, contractions, pronunciations and so on that only one character in a story uses. This helps the reader identify who’s talking, even if the writer just puts down unattributed dialogue on the page.
For instance, if two thieves meet in pitch darkness and the conversation begins like this:
“Hold hard there, recreant! You almost thrust the point of your fearsome little fang into me!”
“Small wonder that, innit? Seeing as you come skulking along ’ere without a chirp to say ’oo you are, hey?”
I don’t now have to name the characters, or have them unrealistically name each other for the reader’s benefit, if I’ve earlier established those “voices” and speech patterns for them.
This example isn’t very subtle, but a lot of writing isn’t very subtle, and not all instances of dialogue have to be this bold. Back to our two thieves:
A metal hood grated, and a dull red glow of almost unhooded flame fell upon a lace-trimmed wrist.
That trimming is far more likely to belong to the first thief who spoke, above, right? I can nail it down for readers by having him speak again, in the sentence after the near-unhooding:
“Let us at least see that fang of yours—before it finds its way into someone’s ribs, ere you casually stroll away!”
And the response:
“Huh! Get an eyeful of the lace on you! You can’t go a-casually strolling anywhere!”
From this point on, the lace-at-the-wrist is an identifying tag for the thief with the lantern. I can then introduce a tag for the other thief—frequent hawking and spitting, for instance—and the reader will then know who’s speaking if that speech breaks off for spitting.
As I said, this is a less-than-subtle example. For characters I’ve come to know well after many book and game over many years—such as Elminster, Mirt, Storm Silverhand or the Knights, for example—I know how they speak. When writing, I don’t have to stop and think about how they’ll say something. I just write it, and if I’ve gotten anything wrong, it will jump out at me jarringly when I re-read the scene the next day. That review is the best way to jump back into the flow of the unfolding narrative to extend and expand it into new scenes during a new day’s writing.
A piece of general advice: don’t have everyone speak in grammatically correct, complete sentences. Real people don’t talk that way. Don’t have long, run-on sentences in dialogue except for isolated comic purposes, and do vary the rhythms of speech (if Mutt races along in his speech, have Jeff be the terse companion who says just: “Yup.” Or “Nope.” Or “Kill them.”)
Also, don’t be afraid to resort to the brute-force methods when confusion threatens. If you have a feast table full of yelling, arguing people as a brawl begins, and you want to focus on an exchange between just two or three characters, move them aside for the reader. That is, have them end up under the table, or slammed through a door into a deserted pantry or closet, or falling down the stairs crashing through servants and sending platters crashing, to get them “alone” in the reader’s eye, even if only momentarily. Perhaps they end up clinging to the same rope dangling out a window over the castle moat, and can snarl out their enmity for each other or gasp out their undying love before the rope breaks and precipitously ends their “aside” moment.
Burying the reader in bewildering detail is bad writing. The reader really doesn’t care if the writer has researched all there is to know about fly fishing, or how an oil refinery works, and the writer must resist temptations to show off their learning. However, dropping in just the right detail—in any scene—makes the scene more effective; the reader can more easily imagine how things smelled, tasted and felt, and willingly fall into the scene and remember and savor it.
Jones: Can you expand on your selection process when it comes to writing descriptions?
Greenwood: This is the heart of storytelling. For the pulp writer, it may just be a way of not boring the reader with repetition. Leslie Charteris can describe his hero as “The Saint” or “Simon Templar” or one of the amusing little aliases the character liked to use, such as “Sebastian Tombs,” but can also call him “the brighter buccaneer,” “the ace of knaves,” and so on This is a process used by writers of mainstream fiction today through nailing down the character’s profession, rank or official job title, avid hobby, and so on, and referring to the character by these as well as by nickname and usual name.
For the fantasy writer, detail serves not just this identifying function, but also aids the reader in suspending their disbelief, in making the story—which may well have elements the reader knows aren’t real, such as wizards hurling whiz-bang spells, castles floating in the air, and huge and terrible winged dragons swooping down out of it—feel real to them.
The late Lin Carter, in his classic fantasy guide Imaginary Worlds (not to be confused with later books having the same title), devotes an entire chapter to this quest for realism, and notes that it’s hardly something new in life. W.S. Gilbert, in writing the libretto for the classic Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado back in the late 1800s, had the character Pooh-Bah explain away lying he’d been caught at by saying it was “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”
In other words, it was necessary lying to fool people—which is one flippant but telling way of defining what fiction writers do.
Though there are instances of fantasy writing where the reader isn’t meant to care about the imaginary setting or characters, novels aren’t among them. No reader will want to read through a novel-length narrative if they don’t like or care about any of the characters, or the setting or what happens. Making the reader buy the fantastic as real by including the right little details—a dragon grumbling because it can’t squeeze through a narrow spot in a cave, or bend around to properly scratch an itch, a medusa huffing and puffing as she drags petrified intruders around her lair to get them off her best rug and out of the way, and so on— helps the reader identify with characters who may be monsters and are definitely not human. This is crucial to making the story satisfying.
So I must select a handful of little details and attach them to each character to make the reader see that character in their heads and believe in that character. This dragon doesn’t like to eat large hairy armored warriors because they make him fart uncontrollably, whereas virgins clad in silk gowns go down smooth as, well, silk. Or that roaring, brawling sky pirate likes to wear lady’s lace panties because he has terribly sensitive skin; these are just two examples of amusing details.
Or I could relate grimmer ones: the warrior with only one eye left, who constantly pushes aside his eyepatch to scratch his empty socket, because it itches (worse and worse when he’s enraged). Or a warrior whose hand always reaches to clutch the hilt of his sword, even when he’s asleep and naked, with no sword within reach (or who can’t get to sleep without clutching his sword, because he’s spent so many years constantly at war). These details tell a reader a lot about a character without the writer stopping the story to step in and deliver a lecture on the past history of the character, which can shatter the mood and slow the building excitement of the unfolding tale.
Jones: How do you write such satisfying action scenes?
Greenwood: Action must be meaningful to the story, or (like senseless noise or bustle), readers soon tune it out, and its impact is lost. If 500 screaming warriors you’ve never seen die, that has far less impact than the heroic death scene of just one character you’ve grown to love or identify with over two books.
Action should also reveal or reinforce what we know of characters (their brutality or impatience, or their nobility and physical grace). It provides a chance to show and underscore these tenets.
First and foremost, action should be visual. Meaning: the writer is trying to paint mind-pictures for the reader, and so must take care not to jump around in points of view too much, or otherwise use writing techniques that are confusing.
The writer must also take care not to jar the reader out of this imagining process by using modern slang or real-world French fencing terms in a medieval fantasy swordfight, for instance.
And finally, the writer must keep the pace of reading akin to the pace of action: don’t stop or slow the race of the narrative to explain details of a sword or how it’s used, for example. Don’t pause for a loving description of sweat trickling across the brow of one fighter when the action is raging swift and furious and men are shouting, shrieking and dying on all sides in the heart of a bloody storm of hacking, clanging steel.
Except for dramatic purposes, such as when a ring is lying forgotten under their rushing, tramping boots, and the first guy to step on it is going to trigger Ragnarok.
Then—and only then—good writing might slow the action into a Kung-Fu-style thudding heartbeat, other sounds grow muted. The boot comes down in slow motion, while others nearby realize what is about to happen and plunge despairingly and vainly to try to stop it, and . . .
Otherwise, throw in moments of detail in the fighting to let the reader picture things vividly, but don’t slow down.
Looking over my last few replies, I realize, as I say more and more about what elements to put into a story and what to leave out, we’re circling right back to where we began; “what do I write about”? I’ve been at this writing business now for 43 years, and making money at it for the last 40 or so. Like many longtime writers, I am often asked how one starts a book (or even better, the real question: having started a book with enthusiasm, a great idea, and—for want of a better term, a limited amount of gas in one’s tank, that has started to sputter and run out—how does one finish it?).
The short answer is: put behind on chair, fingers on keyboard, and keep on filling empty pages or screens until the tale is told. Beginning, middle, and satisfying end, with the middle being the as-short-as-possible road between the great shining beginning and the resolution.
A far more helpful way of saying it—and something I wish everyone who’s getting old will do, before they die and their memories are lost to their families forever—is this: at heart, writing a story or plotting a roleplaying game adventure is just like sitting down in a bar to tell a story, with these conditions: if you tell a good one, you’ll get your meal or drink for free from a grateful listener.
Your listener wants to hear your story, but isn’t a close friend. When telling the story, you can’t use shortcuts like “Well, you know how Uncle Frank is—” because the listener doesn’t know Uncle Frank. For the listener to really appreciate what happened to Uncle Frank, or what he did, or how he reacted, you’re going to have to describe Uncle Frank well enough to make the listener think he knows Uncle Frank.
So that’s it: sit there and tell the story, as vividly and funnily as you can, but telling it simply and quickly enough that the listener stays interested, understands the story, and likes what he hears. That’s it. Tell the tale, without ever plunging into “Well, you had to be there, I guess. I can’t describe it.”
Aside from the grand covers and the price tags, there’s not much different from a book you buy and read and an old storyteller around a fire. Except that the old storyteller could use tricks of voice and acting that just don’t translate into squiggles of ink on a page. The vocabulary—the choice and arrangement of words—have to do the job.
An old native man I once met years ago, while camping with Scouts, said it best: “All we need is enough water to drink, food to fill our bellies, shelter from the wet and a fire to keep us warm, a place to pee we won’t fall down into and good stories. The rest—love, friendship, money if you have some use for it—you have to go out and get. Just remember: they’re wants, not needs. Stories we need, because stories fill in where we have wants but nothing to fill them, and stories tell us why and how, and give us the words to tell our dreams to others, and to ourselves. Be careful with words: words can move armies, break lives and mend them, make enemies and fetch your kisses. Words are tools, and can be weapons.”
I’ve never found a better way to say it than that.
Our thanks to Mr. Greenwood for participating in Greenweek, and we look forward to featuring his work in Kobold Quarterly #10. Want to guarantee your copy before the issue sells out? Subscribe today!