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Victories Aren’t Guaranteed: Dave Gross on Writing Pathfinder Novels, Part 1

Posted on February 21, 2012 by Flames

A “half-breed” protagonist past his prime and his hellspawn bodyguard must find a missing Pathfinder before it is too late. Sczarni, werewolves, and a very weird witch woman… With Prince of Wolves the first novel in the Pathfinder Tales Line, Dave Gross captures the pulpy grandeur of Golarion without burying the characters under mountains of world-building.

“In Prince of Wolves,” said Gross, “one big question is, How can you find something you never lost? It’s about searching for the wrong thing, or realizing that you had it all along. It’s also about finding the unexpected.”

As Dave Gross says below, Prince of Wolves blends on “one part mystery, one part horror, two parts action, and a dash of romance.” All of Gross’ novels, whether set in Golarion or The Forgotten Realms, are proof-positive that the whole equals more than the sum of its parts.

This is Gross at his finest. And that’s saying a lot.

Readers familiar with Gross’ work may remember The Sundered Arms written as T. H. Lain, his novel about the iconic dwarven fighter, Tordek. Much of Gross’ earlier fiction has been set in the Forgotten Realms. His stories have appeared in Realms of Magic, Realms of Mystery, and Realms of the Dragons. His novella “Thirty Days” in The Halls of Stormweather, and Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather are all set in the merchant nation of Sembia.

There’s a reason the folks at Paizo launched the Pathfinder Tales line of novel with Dave Gross. And it takes less than a page of Prince of Wolves to figure out that reason. Gross returns to Golarion with Winter Witch (co-authored with Elaine Cunningham) and Master of Devils, living up to the promises of that first novel.

Over the course of this two-part interview, Gross and I will talk about everything from adventure to wuxia, with a few stops in between.

What drew you to the world of Pathfinder? And how’d you come to write a Pathfinder novel?

    A few years ago I’d been spending most of my gaming time in front of a computer, so I had a yen to get back into a tabletop RPG. At a monthly pub meeting of Edmonton gamers, I spotted someone showing off her copies of the first couple of Pathfinder Adventure Paths. I knew my old comrades at Paizo had been publishing the books, but I had no idea how gorgeous they were. Once I read a few, I was hooked on the quality of the adventures, which reminded me of my favorite scenarios from Dungeon. The focus on plot and character in addition to great locations was a huge attraction. I started picking them up and eventually ran a 4e version of Rise of the Runelords. My group has since transitioned to the Pathfinder rules, and we’re playing Jade Regent.

    One of the things I love about settings like Golarion is that while many of its locations are versions of real-world nations, there’s plenty of room for pulp-fantasy creations like Numeria, Nex, the Worldwound, and Alkenstar. I like these “cocktail settings,” which combine lots of different ingredients. While you could write a pure homage to The Three Musketeers in Galt or one to Universal horror movies in Ustalav, I think it’s more fun to mix one part mystery, one part horror, two parts action, and a dash of romance, for example.

    So I was already a fan when I ran into Erik Mona at the World Fantasy Convention. Erik mentioned that Paizo was thinking of starting a fantasy novel line. He put me in touch with Fiction Editor James Sutter, but the launch of Pathfinder Tales was still a couple of years away. Thus, James asked me to pitch a story for the Pathfinder Journal that appears in the Adventure Paths. The pitch he liked best became “Hell’s Pawns,” the first Radovan and the count story. He liked that one well enough to ask me to propose ideas featuring the same characters for one of the first Pathfinder Tales novels.

    What’s the coolest thing about your Pathfinder novel(s)?

      At the same time as they protect the continuity of Golarion, the Paizo editors give their authors some freedom to extrapolate. For example, when I envisioned Count Jeggare as someone who knew plenty about magic but couldn’t actually cast a spell, they were receptive to the idea of the riffle scrolls that eventually let him overcome that handicap.

      Likewise, Radovan is “different from other boys.” He’s not just a hellspawn—someone whose ancestry includes a cross between humans and a fiend—but a unique specimen for reasons hinted at in the novels.

      The ability to build on existing systems of magic in Golarion is a huge appeal to a writer who’d like to surprise readers who’ve seen it all before. The key is to make sure any new concept fits the logic of the world so the editors can tell you yes instead of no.

      Where does a novel usually start for you—image, plot, character, event, somewhere else altogether?

        Usually the first seed of an idea comes from a crisis within one of the characters. Then I sketch out a plot involving an external reflection of that problem. At the start of Prince of Wolves, Count Jeggare realizes he’s been slipping in his role as a venture-captain, which is a big part of his self-image. To make amends, he goes in search of one of his missing agents.

        Prince of Wolves was an unusual case, because in some ways it was an extension of the events of “Hell’s Pawns.” The novella ended on an ambiguous note. It could have gone in several directions—Radovan or the count by himself, or the two of them remaining in Cheliax to deal with the fallout of their first story—but the process of choosing a setting for the novel cinched the deal. Once I realized I could set it in Ustalav, Golarion’s spooky version of Eastern Europe, location became almost as important as the plot. I knew Radovan’s family had come from Ustalav, home to the Sczarni, werewolves, and the Whispering Tyrant. Once I’d chosen the location, I soon figured out his part of the story.

        Can you expand on “location became almost as important as the plot” a bit more?

          Where you choose to tell a story makes a big difference not only in genre but also in how the characters’ external conflicts mirror their internal struggles. A setting like Ustalav offers great metaphors for moral uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear of everything from the unknown to your neighbors. Of course, in a fantasy world, some metaphors are less metaphorical than others.

          What makes for a compelling protagonist in general and a compelling fantasy protagonist in particular?

            A hero should be both relatable yet set apart from the community. Both of my protagonists are half-breeds, although there’s a world of difference between Count Jeggare, who was made the legitimate heir to a vast fortune, and Radovan, who was sold into slavery as a child. Their personalities also set them apart, as do their past vocations. Jeggare’s investigations gather a lot of dangerous information that his peers might not trust him with, and Radovan never really embraced gang life and eventually bought his way out by taking the kind of job he had always refused before. To say more of that would spoil a story I hope to write one day.

            As for their roles as fantasy protagonists, each has a mystery rooted in magic: Why can’t Jeggare cast spells like an ordinary wizard? And why does this devil take over Radovan’s body when he’s set on fire? Each novel reveals a portion of the answer even though neither issue has (yet) driven the main plot.

            What benefits were there in using alternating first person narration? What were the draw-backs?

              Initially I planned to write “Hell’s Pawns” from alternating points of view, using Radovan to show events among the servants and the gangsters, while Varian interacted with the upper class and authorities. When Radovan’s voice came to me, he sounded a lot like a hard-boiled detective. Liking that tone, and feeling there wasn’t enough room to do it justice in half the space of the novella, I stuck with the single point of view.

              For the novel, I had had more room, but the question was whether to change the narrative to third-person. I wrote the first few chapters both ways while I was working out Jeggare’s voice. I even considered keeping Radovan’s chapters in first-person and writing Jeggare’s in third, but that was too screwy. Eventually I found a first-person voice for Jeggare.

              The benefit of writing in first-person is that the cleverer readers—which includes most of them—can see where both Radovan and Jeggare are unreliable reporters. Each sees the same event in different ways, and each has his own blind spots. Comparing them, you get to decide for yourself where the truth lies and what their different versions of the story say about the heroes.

              The only drawback I’ve encountered is that a few readers find alternating first-person narrative jarring, and for them we’ll include character names at the top of each chapter in the next novel.

              What unique challenges does the world of Pathfinder demand of your characters? And of you as a character-builder?

                When I took poetry classes, I was that nerd who eschewed free verse in favor of sonnets and the crazy stuff like villanelles and sestinas. In the same way, writing in a world that already has rules for how magic works is comparable to writing closed-form poetry. It also poses a temptation to break the rules on occasion, but the guardians of Golarion appreciate an occasional off-rhyme.

                Another way to look at it is that Pathfinder stories are fictional historical fiction. That is, the history and geography already exist, but Tales authors use that research material to build a story around new characters. The existing lore is more often a help than a hindrance, but even when it creates a challenge it can be inspirational. For instance, I originally pitched Radovan as a half-orc, but that didn’t fit the setting of Cheliax as well as a hellspawn did. That change helped define his background, which became one of the key elements of his character.

                One of the great things about both of your Pathfinder novels is mood and atmosphere. For lack of a more graceful way to ask this… how do you do that? What’s the secret to setting the mood and writing such vivid descriptions?

                  Maybe it’s that I write about places that appeal to me; I’m a big nerd for the genres in which I write. When I originally pitched “Hell’s Pawns,” the plot came from an outline I’d written years earlier involving a criminal conspiracy. I had a yen to do something with a Holmes-like detective and his version of Watson. On the other hand, I’d been watching a lot of film noir in the weeks before I revised the outline. Those elements, combined with the first-person narration of the Pathfinder Journal stories, caused Radovan’s voice to become less Watson and more Philip Marlowe. I liked what that tilt did to both the characters and to the atmosphere, so I ran with it.

                  For Prince of Wolves, I drew on memories of the Universal and Hammer horror movies I loved as a child, as well as on more recent films that evoke similar feelings. So I had In the Company of Wolves and Brotherhood of the Wolf in mind as much as I did Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. I meant to do “research” by re-watching those movies and others like them, but there was no time to spare on that short deadline.

                  I had more time for Master of Devils, so I made a project of the research. I’ve long been a fan of kung fu, or wuxia, films, so I challenged myself to watch or re-watch 100 kung fu movies before finishing the novel. In reality, I was barely over 80 before I finished the manuscript, but I kept going until I added well over 100 to the list.

                  Every time I wrote an action scene, I could hear the clash of those chromium swords. And I always saw the night scenes in misty blue light, as if they’d been lit in a Tsui Hark fantasy. And when I think of the important Tien characters from the book, I see the faces of Maggie Cheung, Gordon Liu, and Jackie Chan.

                  In what ways do the interactions between Varian Jeggare and Radovan develop the individual characters? What new spin do you put on the Buddy Fantasy?

                    While I had an odd-couple vibe in mind, I haven’t been conscious of subverting it. I try to avoid pastiche like, say, having Jeggare play the violin late at night like Holmes, or making Radovan a slob like Oscar Madison.

                    I also try to keep in mind is that each of them is the hero of his own story. Part of my plan is to have at least two stories happening at once, each more important to one of the boys, until they come together by the end. Also, making one a noble and the other a street crook was a means to put each character in touch with a different stratus of society and to let the reader see the same situation from different perspectives.

                    Radovan is easier to like. He’s smart but not educated, tough but not invulnerable. Even though he’s done some bloody deeds, James Sutter describes him as “loveable.” Jeggare is less cuddly. His flaws are harder to forgive, especially in a character who enjoys the advantages of education and wealth. He’s accustomed to the privileges of class, so he has rarely been taken to task for his bad behavior. Each of the boys has had opportunities to learn from the other, but we don’t always change our ways the first time we realize we’re on the wrong path. Sometimes it takes a lot of course correction, and that can make for a long and sometimes rocky relationship.

                    I prefer flawed protagonists to ideal heroes. I like characters that don’t always make the right choice and don’t always win. Their victories are all the sweeter because they aren’t guaranteed.

                    To be continued…

                    Interview bu Jeremy L. C. Jones

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                    2 Responses to “Victories Aren’t Guaranteed: Dave Gross on Writing Pathfinder Novels, Part 1”

                    1. Hi Dave!

                      Like this post a lot, since I’m currently going through these very steps. Writing a Pathfinder novel is a vastly different experience than writing in your own world. It is both easier and harder in a lot of ways. The reference material that James provides is invaluable, but also creates the problem of being very “shiny”, if you know what I mean. I’ve often pulled up a document to look up a monster or spell details, and spent an hour reading…

                      Again, great post, and keep it up. I’m ecstatic to be joining the ranks of the Pathfinder Tales authors! See you around!

                      Chris

                      Reply

                    2. Dave says:

                      Welcome to the team, Chris.

                      The “shiny” certainly can be a problem. Oh, to gain back the hours I’ve spent reading up on spells, monsters, and imaginary cities. On the other hand, those were pretty entertaining hours.

                      Reply

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