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Character Flaws and Ideology: An Interview with Bruce Cordell

bruce_profile1.jpgBruce Cordell, Game Designer for Wizards of the Coast and Forgotten Realms author, answered a few of my questions about his latest novel Stardeep (my review) and spoke on the need for characters who are flawed in fantasy fiction.

Grasping for the Wind: Tell us a little about how you came became a Dungeons and Dragons fan, and the path you took to becoming a game and novel writer.

Bruce Cordell: During a late ’70s Boy Scouts summer camp, I stumbled upon the older scouts huddled around a lantern-lit picnic table playing a wondrous game. The DM described how an ogre was eating dwarves like a cartoon cat eats a fish, then throwing each denuded skeleton behind him into a large pile. The PCs studied this tableau from hiding, worried that they were next. It was beyond anything I had ever imagined I could interact with. I was instantly hooked on D&D.

On the novel side, I’ve been a reader since I was old enough to pick up books my Mom bought home every two weeks from the library–science fiction and fantasy novels all. The idea of becoming a writer struck me in high school, and that’s when I began writing short stories. Like most writers, I have a folder filled with unpublished short stories, many of them with politely worded rejection letters.

Anyway, it was D&D that turned out to be the key for me writing novels. Years of kind editorial advice prepared me to be a writer with a modicum of knowledge of the craft. Now, continued editorial advice continues to sharpen my pen, or so I hope. So I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways.

GFTW: What prompted you to do work for your local humane society, and blog so often about science related issues?

BC: I have a soft spot in my heart for animals. Unlike people, they can never be their own advocates. I can hardly bear to read a story or watch a television show with an animal in it, for fear it’ll turn out badly for the creature in question. My wife is the same, and when she worked at the Humane Society a few years ago, it was easier than ever for me to become involved.

On science, well I have a degree in biology, and in fact thought I’d be a scientist studying longevity and aging, not a writer. Despite enjoying writing and story design, I also still really love science, and fantasize about going back to school to get a degree in physics or rocketry, or refreshing my biotech skills. In the meantime, I read science magazines and listen to science podcasts like a fiend.

GFTW: You have written several novels for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, but tell us a little about your latest, Stardeep.

BC: Stardeep tells many stories, including the little-known history of the Keepers of the Cerulean Sign and their long-standing pledge to protect Faerun from a threat few realize it once faced, and could again. One of the underlying themes of the book looks at the value sacrifice for something you deem more important than yourself–another is how strongly held beliefs can sometimes sway your ability to discern actual truth. These themes only became apparent to me after I finished writing. Mainly, I wanted to write a story about Kiril and how she got to be a foul-mouthed, alcoholic elf with a blade whose power seems matched only by its self-importance.

GFTW: In Stardeep, Kiril Duskmorn (a character who also appears in Darkvision) is the primary character. Why did you choose to delve more deeply into this character?

BC: She’s a flawed character, more flawed than she originally seemed in Darkvision. I wanted to show everyone exactly what she had gone through, and how she reacted to that crisis, and what steps she was finally willing to take to atone for her past. And, if once all was said and done, she could really change.

GFTW: In Stardeep, your villain is only misguided, not truly evil, although his actions have evil consequences. Why did you avoid the standard good/bad dichotomy of other fantasies?

BC: While fantasy gives us sharply defined Evil and Good, we all know reality rarely works like that. Well-meaning folks who decide to do ‘whatever it takes’ to achieve their ends sometimes blind themselves by adopting dogma of their own creation or someone else’s. Once a policy is set in stone without recourse for self-correction or external balance, such folks can step across the line and become threats as large or larger than what they claim to oppose. I’m not saying I don’t have stories that rely on Evil (far from it), but when I can throw in a character or two whose ideological fervor oversteps their ability to weigh options, I will do so, because, really, one man’s flawed character who ultimately fails to find redemption is another man’s villain :-).

GFTW: Almost all of your stories and novels have an element of martial arts in them. Why is this?

BC: I’ve been studying Muay Thai and jujutsu for several years as much to maintain fitness as out of a desire to make fight scenes in my stories are as realistic as possible. I’ve also taken some Jeet Kune Do, which uses swords–I may take up that more for future characters who rely less on martial arts and more on swordplay.

GFTW: Do you find it difficult write female characters like Kiril?

BC: In broad ways, no, not really. In certain aspects, yes. But I think the female perspective in a book with multiple characters is vital for story balance, so I’ll always brave potential difficulties. Thankfully, I have a female editor who will tell me if I’ve gone completely off the rails on a female character’s POV.

GFTW: Most of your novels are written in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, although as an employee of Wizards, you have the opportunity to work in any of their worlds. Why choose to write in the Forgotten Realms setting?

BC: Well, at first it was chance. Now that I’ve established myself in the Realms, it would be hard to switch to another shared-world. I’ve grown to really care for the place and become invested in it, not only on the novel side, but also the game-design side. So, in the medium-term you’ll find my future novels remain set in Faerun.

GFTW: You usually tackle parts of the Forgotten Realms that other authors overlook. Is this a conscious choice, or is it just that you write about these areas in your game designs and so are familiar with the material?

BC: A conscious choice–I can do more with areas that have seen little previous ink. Of course, being a game designer, I am also in a good place to use my own inventions (the specifics of Deep Imaskar and vengeance takers, for instance), to flesh out my stories.

GFTW: What is your response to those critical of novels set in shared-world settings?

BC: Well, a long while back I read some stinker shared-world stories, so I can understand some criticism. But I’d say, hey, that was 20 years ago. Try some novels being written by new authors and old authors who’ve grown in their craft. Paul Kemp springs to mind as a fine example. I’d say, try one of the latest Paul Kemp novels and see what you think of shared world novels. Well, probably first I would say try Stardeep and judge it on its own merits, and look, I have a copy right here on my book shelf . . . :-)

GFTW: What can you tell us about your sequel to Stardeep and the continuing adventures of Kiril Duskmorn?

BC: Well, it is too early to say much, but I can say I have a trilogy of books coming out that picks up a few of the story lines and characters of Stardeep, potentially including Kiril in some guise. Stardeep thus serves as a prequel, but one actually written in correct chronological order.

GFTW: Without violating any non-disclosure agreements, what can you tell us about the effect that the 4th edition of D&D will have on the Forgotten Realms?

BC: Like the rest of the game, 4th edition rules will breath fresh life into the various character classes, as well as provide new characters options. 4th edition realms will be more about players as heroes facing big threats, not ungodly powerful good-guy NPCs facing threats.

GFTW: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I look forward to your next novel.

BC: Thanks John, I enjoyed our talk, thanks for the opportunity :-)