Epic fantasy novel series The Sundering features six authors, the return of numerous beloved characters, wars, gods, and cataclysmic events that will reshape the Forgotten Realms. We talked with two of those authors about finding their place within such a huge story, and what makes a character stick.
The Sundering is a six-novel series that will set up the Forgotten Realms for whatever form that setting will take in the upcoming new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The first novel in the series, R.A. Salvatore's The Companions, was released earlier this month; the rest of the series will come out over the coming months, including the third book, The Adversary by Erin M. Evans, and the fifth book, The Sentinel, by Troy Denning. At Gen Con, we interviewed both authors about their place within the epic story of the Sundering.
io9: Could you describe your characters and where they stand at this point, leading into the Sundering?
Erin Evans: At the outset of the Sundering, Farideh — at the beginning of my book The Adversary — Farideh makes this decision trying to protect the people she cares about. That gets her pulled into a horrible situation. She’s trying to figure out how to stop this thing that is bigger than herself, and finding out all sorts of strange secrets about her past.
Troy Denning: Well, I’m writing book number five [in the series], The Sentinel, and one of the main characters, the male lead if you will, is named Kendrick. He is a paladin who has been worshipping the dead god Helm for quite a while. It’s left him a little bit embittered. He’s been serving on the Marsember Watch, and his part of the story concerns coming to realize that his worship has kept Helm alive.
The female lead is a daughter of a grand duchess, Arietta Seasilver. And the story basically concerns the two of them coming to realize what the true situation is, coming to appreciate the differences in their class, and learning how to relate to each other over those differences. We have a couple of minor characters, one of them is from my novel Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad. Malik returns 100 years later, after having been abandoned by Cyric to wander the planes, dead for the entire time.
io9: There are different scales of fantasy — personal adventure versus a more cosmic scale. Could you talk about the kinds of roles your characters play at those different scales? Because the Sundering seems like a cosmic event, but it’s being told at a personal level.
EE: There’s huge things happening, nations going to war, gods changing the way they view their worshippers, or feeling like they’re going to be replaced. But the stories are about these people on the ground. So Farideh draws the attention of the god of sin, but I would say that story is more about Farideh learning to trust her allies and not feel like she has to do everything herself. That presence is there, that high-level thing, but you don’t have Asmodeus going, “Well, here’s my cunning plan.” I think that a more relatable story is talking about people who could be like you if you were sucked into this fantasy world. So big stories with the gods on the stage, they have their place, but for me I don’t find that as interesting to write, or as engaging to read.
TD: Of course having written Waterdeep, Crucible, a lot of the stories I’ve written have involved gods acting as individuals and exploring their personality. So even when you’re writing on that grand scale, you have to bring them down to something that a person can understand. Just as when you’re writing Star Wars and you have to write an alien, you have to find something human in that alien for people to relate to.
But that being said, one of the things that we talked about when we were exploring the ideas for The Sundering and developing this, was that we didn’t want to have any scenes where the gods were directly in conflict. I think in a couple of the books, at least in the first drafts, avatars of the gods make small appearances.
EE: I think they’re largely a little more cryptic, than just feeling like they’re also characters.
TD: In other books [in The Sundering series] the gods appear, but they’re handled on a small scale. And again I’m talking about the drafts obviously.
io9: How sequential are the books? Do they all need to be read in order to understand them?
TD: It’s important to realize we’re doing two things. We’re telling a story on a grand scale of the world, and to get the idea of what’s happening on the grand scale, you have to read book one, two, three in order. Because what’s going on in the world directly affects the characters. But then the story is how the characters deal with what’s happening in the world.
EE: What happens to the villains in Paul’s book [Paul S. Kemp, author of The Godborn, the second book in the series] creates the situation that the villains are in in my book. You could just jump in there and go, “Oh, okay, that’s where they’re at.” But to totally understand what’s going on you have to read them. And I believe Paul’s book leads off from what happens in Bob’s book [R.A. Salvatore, author of The Companions, the first book in the series]. Bob’s been giving a great analogy, that it’s like if you were reading a series of books about World War II, and one book is set in maybe a village in Austria, and then the next book is the Battle of Britain, and then one’s about the concentration camps. These are separate things, but as you read them you see how this whole big thing is playing out. So to see this big thing you have to look through all these little windows.
io9: What is it about a character that makes it stick with you and say, “I need to write more stories about this person"?
EE: For me, I actually fought to keep Farideh, because they weren’t sure if a tiefling character was going to have enough of a draw. But then I started writing about her. It was one book, and then they said, “Okay, we want to make this a series.” So from that one book I kind of pulled out things and created a bigger arc for her. I think you want to write about characters you’re passionate about, and I’m passionate about these characters. I’ve laid down the groundwork, and you want to follow through, you know? Continue to shape that story.
TD: My past in the Forgotten Realms has been a little bit different because… it always seemed that it involved a lot of different characters. In Waterdeep it was Midnight, and the next time I came back to the Avatar trilogy it was Cyric. So I’ve jumped around a lot. To tell you the truth it’s been fun because I’ve been able to explore a lot of different characters. But you do miss that continuity. In Star Wars I’ve written Han and Leia for 12 books. It’s fun to see that character develop and to figure out where they’re going next, because every book has an arc for a character. And then the next book you have to have an arc, and it can’t be the same arc… you have to show how they’ve grown.
Malik, however, is a complete exception to that rule. Because Malik is just… he’s my Emperor Claudius. He’s this little underestimated guy who is a total worm, but hopefully lovable in his own way. And he was just so much fun to write, to get in the head of this character who is totally bizarre and totally dedicated to all the wrong things, but in a very understandable way.
io9: Science fiction and fantasy sort of get lumped together on book store shelves, but I think there are some subtle differences. What kinds of stories is fantasy good at telling? What can you reveal with a fantasy story that another genre is maybe not as good at?
TD: To me, fantasy is a story that deals with man’s relationship to his spirit. And by spirit I mean, down to the mythic spirit, down to the Jungian collective, to archetypes. And science fiction is the story that deals with man’s relationship to his technology. Good science fiction will raise a spiritual question, but ultimately the question usually ends up being, “How does this technology impact man’s spirit?” Versus in fantasy, it’s a man trying to come to terms with whatever conflict is eating away at his spirit. That’s the big difference to me. And if you ask me about space opera I’m totally lost.
EE: That’s the thing, any answer you give, there’s going to be exceptions. I did an interview where they said, define fantasy in 25 words or less, and then science fiction. And I think my answer for science fiction was, you take reality and extrapolate in an interesting direction. So there’s always that external aspect to it. And I think that’s right, you’re interacting with technology, the things that can impact the life that you’ve created. And then fantasy, you take the intangible and make it tangible to show something. It’s internal, so you can relate that to those sort of internal problems, by having those myths and spiritual questions, and magic and things like that be a literal thing in the world.
io9: You both have experience in gaming, a history as a designer and certainly your share of playing D&D, so how does that inform your writing, and how do you include gaming touchstones in the novel without it seeming “game-y,” so to speak?
EE: That’s the kiss of death, right? Like, “I heard the dice roll…” I think you want to capture the spirit of what it’s like to play a tabletop game. There’s always something happening, whether an interaction or combat, or whatever. It is sort of paced a little quicker. When it comes to things like spells or maneuvers, I think it’s nice sometimes to go and find the ones you can apply in a narrative way that make sense, but then there’s a lot of them where you go, "I’m just not gonna worry about it.” Tieflings have a power called Infernal Wrath where if someone hits them then they get extra hit points, and I’m like, this is…. I don’t even want to guess how to make that sound right.
And then there’s times where it is perfectly okay to cheat because you achieve something better. Farideh has something that in my outline I call "pseudo misty step", because a warlock with a fae pact has a power where they can teleport a short distance, and I think they get concealment when they do it. And I saw that and I’m like this is a great power for a warlock like her… So I tweaked the description a little bit so that it made sense coming from the hells where she does get her power. But if you were an infernal warlock [in the game] you can’t use that power, and you couldn’t use it as much as she does. That would break the game. But for the scene and for the story that made sense.
TD: For me, I think it occurs two ways. One, any time you write fantasy you have to build the rules of magic, you have to build the rules of what the characters are capable of. And that stuff has already been built with D&D. So as long as you’re respecting that, you’re starting on a solid foundation. And then, the other part is, as long as I start with that foundation and then I immerse myself into the particular world, once I’m into the Forgotten Realms, I try to do things that make sense in that world and the way it was built. I think that through the combination of those two things you generally arrive at a book that’s based on a gaming milieu without being a book about gaming. Nobody wants to read about their D&D adventure. It’s been tried, people have done it and usually they haven’t sold very well.
EE: There are structural differences. Your adventure just kind of goes off in crazy ways, and you have a goofy aside that make sense to your gaming group, and to try to cram that into a book, it’s just a shapeless mess. It kind of goes the other way too, when the novels are informing the game they have to be more flexible. This is why I’m a terrible DM, because I’m just like, “No, I want you guys to do this, this is the best option. So no you can’t bluff the guards, that has a challenge rating of 30 because I said so!” [with much yelling and pounding of the table]
io9:What are the joys and frustrations of writing in a shared world as big and as old as the Forgotten Realms?
EE: Probably the nice thing about the Realms is that it’s so big. If you want to do something and it doesn’t work here, somewhere there’s a place where it probably works. It’s nice having those boundaries that you brush up against, they kind of inspire you. It bounces you in a direction that kind of shapes the story. lt can be really frustrating when the story you have to tell… and we’ve both been in this situation… when you’re in a place where there’s just a lot of lore and a lot of detail and a lot information that’s already been established, for you to embellish and care about, because you don’t want to go in and just go, “Oh none of that because I need it to be like this, right?” You can’t always run away from the complications.
TD: The joy is that there is so much source material to draw on. I mean as a writer, if you’re writing a new world, you have to invent all that stuff yourself. It’s freeing because you can just sort of unleash your subconscious and just say all right, go to town. But at the same time you’re opening up one person’s subconscious. And the joy of working in a place like the Forgotten Realms is, we have how many people’s subconscious now? Hundreds of peoples' subconsciouses have just been poured into this thing. And you can draw on all of that. And it really truly does make it joyful. One of the things I love about working on a team of writers is that we get together in the brainstorming, and the ideas build upon other ideas. And what emerges is always better than the best that any one of us could do. And that’s the real joy.