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Something New with the Dragon: A Conversation with Elaine Cunningham

Posted on September 1, 2008 by Flames

Elaine Cunningham writes character-driven fantasy stories that are rich with humor, complexity, and action. She could very well be speaking of her own fiction when she describes “a satisfying story” as “both surprising and logical.”

Since 1991, Cunningham has written extensively in the Forgotten Realms, co-authored a novel with Ed Greenwood, ventured into the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and produced a steady flow of short fiction.

“When I read Elaine’s first Realms novel, Elfshadow, I was struck by two things,” said Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting and co-author with Cunningham of The City of Splendors: a Waterdeep Novel. “First, how much more I wanted to read, for the rest of my life, about her two main characters, Arilyn and Danilo. Not only did she bring them vividly to life, she made me care about them and want to know everything else they did and that happened between them, from that moment on, until they died or I did.”

?”Second,” Greenwood added, “[I was struck by] how Elaine had somehow managed to read my mind, or sidle into my dreams, to see Waterdeep, and Elaith, and the Harpers, and various folk of Waterdeep both humble and prominent, and bring them to life exactly as I had pictured them in my mind, for so many years. I still don’t know how she managed that, but she captured and portrayed them all perfectly.”

Cunnigham’s output in recent years has remained both prolific and varied. 2007 saw the paperback releases of The Best of the Realms III: The Collected Stories of Elaine Cunningham and Shadows in the Twilight, the second Changling novel. In the spring of 2008, Paizo Publishing announced that Cunningham would be writing fiction set in the Pathfinder universe. Last month, her story “Beyond Dreams” appeared in Beyond Magic, a three-author anthology from Tor, and “Lorelei” was included in James Lowder’s Worlds of Their Own from Paizo.

One thing remains consistent throughout all of Cunningham’s work: good story and great characters.

“Elaine understands and convincingly portrays characters better than most writers in any genre I’ve encountered writing today,” said Greenwood. “Elaine Cunningham deserves to be a mainstay of American popular literature, regular appearances on the New York Times bestseller lists and all. That she isn’t there already is a tragic mistake on someone’s part, and when I find that someone . . .?”

When we corresponded via e-mail a while back, conversation quickly went to the topic of characterization.

Jones: What do you enjoy most about writing?

Cunningham:  Quite a few things, but some of my favorite moments involving finding le mot juste–words that express exactly what I wanted to get across.  I also enjoy getting to know the characters through the revision process.  I’ll start with a basic idea of who the characters are and I’ll do a plot outline, but by the time the rough draft is finished, the characters and I have gotten past the get-acquainted stage and I start to figure out what they’re really about. The initial writing phase is hard, slow work for me; revision, on the other hand, is fun.

Jones: Where does a novel (or story) start for you? With an image? A character? A plot idea?

Cunningham:  It’s all intertwined. A character is defined by his history, his environment, his abilities and aspirations, and his decisions. Right there you’ve got back story, setting, characterization, and plot.  But since you have to start somewhere, I usually define the rest of the story elements in terms of the character.  Even if I start with a plot idea, I can’t go far without considering how the characters will respond to it.  After all, Jack Bauer (from the television show “24”) is going to respond to a problem quite differently than, say, Nancy Drew or Harry Potter.  You can’t have Nancy breaking a guy’s neck by getting a grip, running up a wall and doing a little cheerleader flip, and Jack would lose serious street cred if he started pointing sticks at bad guys and yelling, “Patronis!”

Jones:  Could you walk me through the character building process a little?  I mean, how do you go from a blank page to Gwen Gellman of the Changling series or Liriel Baenre of the Forgotten Realms: Starlight and Shadows series?

Cunningham: I start by building a back story for the main characters. It’s important to know what their lives were like before the story started. You don’t have to tell the reader everything you “know” about a character, but prep work finds its way onto the page in ways that are hard to define.

I ask a lot of questions about characters under development. There are many surface questions, such as, what do they look like, what do their speaking voices sound like, how do they dress, what do they do for fun, how do they spend their days?  I like to know how they think, and what assumptions they hold about their worlds. What are their opinions on politics, religion, and social issues?  And what does that say about them? What things do they find amusing? What sort of music and art appeal to them? What are their character strengths and weaknesses? Are they sociable or solitary? What type of people are they drawn to, and why?

You can learn a lot about characters by considering how they think, but it’s just as important, if not more so, to consider what they do. What are her skills? What sort of thing is she likely to struggle with, or avoid altogether? How is she likely to respond in a given situation?

But I think the most important question of all is, “What does this person want?”  This question deals with “motivation,” in terms of plot issues and story events, but it goes beyond it. What things really matter to the character? 

Knowing where a character is at the start of the story is . . . the start of the story. I need to have a pretty good idea where the character is going to end up, how he’s going to grow or change. For me, the “character arc” is one of the most important elements of storytelling.

Jones: Is there a test or way you evaluate whether or not a character’s motivation will be able to sustain a whole novel?

Cunningham: Not really. A single, highly focused motivation–let’s say “revenge,” for example–can carry any number of novels; conversely, it can result in a clichéd story that employs eighty-three out of the 100 items on that list of “Things I Wouldn’t Do If I Were An Evil Overlord” one finds floating around the Internet. It’s why that desire for revenge developed, and how that vengeance is enacted, that makes a story worth telling.

I don’t mean to imply that every character must have a single, overwhelming goal; in fact, one of the most common types of high fantasy stories is the “coming of age” tale, in which the hero finds his or her true purpose in life. One of the most central questions of human existence is a search for meaning and purpose. I assume that in this regard, fictitious people are no different from the living, breathing sort. Real people have complex and often contradictory motivations, and a character’s goals are frequently changed or redefined during the course of a story.

That said, pondering the question, “What does this person want?” is one of the best ways I know of getting below the surface of the character development process.

Jones:  Do the characters ever just take over?

Cunnigham:  I’ve heard writers complain that their characters “just won’t behave.” This is frequently accompanied by a self-congratulatory tone and a smug little smile. The subtext is, “My characters are so vivid and fully dimensional that they have developed lives of their own! They’re ALIVE! Mwa ha ha!” I have two words for this: decision tree. Every decision you make opens up new possibilities and suggests new directions. Chasing off down some of these paths can lead to wildly unforeseen directions as well as the occasional dead end, but it’s the author’s decisions that are going far afield, not the character. Taking the time to do a solid plot outline will forestall a lot of “misbehaving character” problems. I do a lot of pre-writing work, so I have a pretty good idea of who the characters are before I start to write.

That said, I don’t believe in keeping slavishly to an outline. New directions might be a good thing. I frequently come up with small plot twists during the writing process. Sometimes you come to see events in a slightly different light as you get to know the characters better.

Jones:  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak of revision in terms of getting to know the character, but it makes wonderful sense.  Sort of like going over the events of someone’s life with them.  In revision, do you find that you cut a lot of excess material, a lot of the exploratory material that helped you get to know the character or is it more that you need to add material?

Cunnigham:  Many of the “getting to know you” elements that happen during the writing process have to do with voice–a distinctive way of speaking. Sometimes a character’s dialogue starts out sounding fairly generic during the rough draft phase. As I get to understand his or her personality, I get a better sense of the rhythm, syntax, and sensibilities that inform their way of speaking. To that end, I spend a LOT of time revising dialogue. Dolly Parton once observed, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Similarly, it takes a lot of time and work to make dialogue sound natural and effortless.

There are phases and layers involved in getting to know a person. There’s the first impression, the acquaintance stage, the process of coming to a deeper understanding. All of this has parallels in the writing process.

I’ve heard it said that there are no good writers: there are only good revisers. I’d have to agree that most of the good stuff happens during the revision phase.  I do try to trim as I revise, but a lot of the exploratory material doesn’t make it into the manuscript, and was never intended to.

Jones: Can you share some practical advice on refining dialogue?

Cunningham: People have distinctive ways of speaking. Many factors go into shaping a person’s “voice,” such as education, occupation, interests, age, outlook, and personality. A reserved, taciturn person will give short answers, a skilled diplomat will be able to dance around unpleasant truths. If a person is either very insecure or very egotistical, he will probably be the topic of most of his conversations. If he’s religious, his speech will reflect this. His rank, and how he regards rank, will influence how he speaks, and to whom. This is most obvious in settings where class and rank are clearly defined–historical novels and fantasies set in hierarchal societies–but it holds true for any era or setting.

For example, people who don’t understand and respect children tend to talk down to them. People who regard members of the opposite sex in terms of potential romantic/sexual partners will relate quite differently than someone whose first instinct is to regard people as individuals, with gender being one characteristic of many. In short, you have to know your characters very well before dialogue starts to ring true.

I think that’s the central question to ask yourself when you’re writing and revising dialogue: Is this something the character would say, and is this how he would say it?

Next to that, I’d say the most important element to good dialogue is brevity. Dialogue is a bit like poetry, in that a few vivid, well chosen words are more powerful than unfocused meandering.

It’s also like poetry in that it’s meant to be “heard” in the mind’s ear. The sound of dialogue matters. Does it have the rhythms of speech? Can the reader hear someone speaking a sentence without coming up for air, or does the speaker go on and on? Timing and cadence are important. Does the length of the sentence, choice of words, and method of delivery reflect the speaker’s personality and state of mind?  One recommendation you’ll often hear is reading the dialogue aloud to get a better sense of flow and rhythm. This can be helpful.

A few other observations: Ruthlessly prune social chit-chat, as well as narrative that’s thinly disguised as dialogue. Make sure the characters are talking to each other and not the reader, for example: “Well, as you know, Sir Harvey, Viking raiders have been besieging the coastal settlements all summer. We’ve fought four battles this month with heavy losses, including your own son.”  

Too many direct answers to questions can make dialogue plod, and a lot of Q&A can quickly sound like interrogation, not dialogue. Unless that’s the effect you’re aiming for, sometimes it helps to imply the answer and move along.

Jones: What role does setting play in the early stages of writing?  Do you go through similar stages of development as with characters?

Cunningham: Absolutely. First, a bit of background. My undergrad degree was in music education, and the degree requirements included classes in developmental psychology. “Nature vs. nurture” was a much-discussed issue. Heredity is given great importance in many fantasy stories:  hidden royal lineage, great magical abilities that come of a certain bloodline, the inheritance of a powerful weapon or artifact, the sense that an evil parent might presage some dark destiny. But people are also products of their environment, so I consider setting to be of great importance, and yes, I do a lot of prep work.

Jones:  Does the process of setting development vary significantly in working with shared world fiction and fiction set in a world of your creation?

Cunningham: In some stories, the setting is as important a “character” as any other. This is particularly true in fantasy and science fiction. But whether you’re working in a shared-world setting, writing historical fiction, or creating a new world, I think the most important thing is internal consistency. Once you’ve established a set of “rules,” most readers are willing to accept them, but break those rules and you’ve also broken the unspoken contract with your readers. When someone picks up a novel, they prepare to suspend disbelief, to set aside as irrelevant the knowledge that this is a created work about imaginary people moving through artificially contrived events. They’re willing to temporarily accept that magic can be worked through various gemstones, that vampires can drink bottled blood, that strangers can fall in love in a single afternoon–whatever. In exchange, the author offers the chance to explore another reality, to ponder new issues and consider dilemmas they themselves haven’t faced, and to spend time with interesting people. If you shatter that sense of “reality” by breaking the rules, or if the people in the story don’t act in accordance with the expectations you’ve set up, the reader quite naturally feels betrayed. This is true whether you’re writing experimental literary fiction or a Star Trek novel.

Setting–environment–is not a static thing, a stage or movie set against which actors play out some drama. It actively shapes the characters, who often end up returning the favor. Also, anyone who has siblings knows that no two characters are going to experience any environment in precisely the same way.  Again, it’s all about decisions. Some people embrace the culture in which they find themselves, others question, reject, or transform it. Characterization, plot, and setting can be so deeply intertwined that it’s difficult to talk about just one of these elements.

Jones: In writing character and setting in a fantasy novel, are the conventions of the genre a blessing or a curse?

Cunningham: As you pointed out, every genre has conventions. Mysteries are neatly resolved, traditional romance novels end with the promise of a happily ever after. Within these genre conventions are more specific elements, such as the hard-boiled detective, the locked room mystery, the gorgeous romance heroine. Other than the inclusion of magic, the biggest convention in fantasy is Good Wins. Forget about dwarves and elves and unicorns for a moment. Good Wins–that assumption lies at the heart of fantasy.

There are exceptions, of course. Fantasy, like everything else, is prone to fads and fashions. Right now we’re in one of the gray-character, anti-heroes phases that roll around from time to time. “Gritty” is a much-used key word these days, and you’ll find a lot of “grittier than thou” posturing going on in the genre. When the tide turns, the best of these gray characters will survive, the rest will be sniffed at as yet another tiresome cliché. And I think that holds true for most applications of the convention/cliché rule:  If something is done very well, most people will overlook the sense of familiarity.

One of the problems of writing fantasy (or anything else for that matter) is that one man’s convention is another’s cliché. For some people, the triumph of good over evil is a cliché. Some writers and readers loudly proclaim that anything with elves in it is, by definition, a Tolkien rip-off. The survival of the good guys is a cliché to some, so George R.R. Martin’s willingness to whack some of his central characters was lauded with glee. But what is new and fresh can quickly become tired in some readers’ eyes.

R.A. Salvatore’s most popular character is a noble dark elf, an exception to the evil race known as drow. Suddenly every third gamer wanted to play a dark elf ranger. Books and game products about the drow filled the shelves. If fantasy message boards are any indication, some readers regard Drizzt as a cliché, forgetting that he was the prototype of the “good drow.” I remember when dour, grim dwarves were considered cliché. Now “comic relief” dwarves are familiar enough to have bred contempt.

It’s always a challenge to do something new and interesting with a familiar convention, whether it’s a revenge plot, a love story, a sword battle, or a dragon.

Interview by Jeremy Jones

Visit www.elainecunningham.com for the latest news, updates and more information on Elaine’s fiction projects.

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3 Responses to “Something New with the Dragon: A Conversation with Elaine Cunningham”

  1. Jay says:

    Elaine Cunningham written the best fantasy book ever: Evermeet. I only read the forgotten realms Novels. First I have read the serie with Danilo and Arilyn. Luckely I also read Evermeet. To me Evermeet is really the best story ever and even surpasses the entertainment I enjoyed in LOTR.

    The complexity of story lines and how story lines interwoven with each other. Sometimes she brings multiple storielines into one and ceate a new one with the new characters. The creation myth,Gods of the Forgotten Realms,Other dimensions , Heroes of old, the Dragons, the mighty techo-elf wizard who able to communicate with alienship and reverse engeneer to obtain the tecnology. The ending at evermeet Lamruil and the Worldtree.

    Sometimes I got the feeling she really travels to the the forgotten realm worlds, observes what is happening there. If I ever got in the mood I like to make a movie out of that story. My compliments and thanks to Elaine. She should get an Award for this book.

    PS if some one ever want to make a movie out of it let me know.

    Reply

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