Jun 27 2012 11:30am

Ask Steven Erikson Your Bonehunters Questions!

Bonehunters Q&A with Steven EriksonNow that Amanda and Bill have concluded their reread of The Bonehunters, (and are taking a much-deserved break after writing roughly 650,000 words of recap and commentary on the series!) we’re opening up the floor to Malazan series author Steven Erikson for your Bonehunters-related questions.

The procedure is pretty direct. Steven will do his best to answer your questions in the below thread as soon as possible. Keep in mind that the timing of the answers is subject to Steven’s schedule, of course.

There are no strict guidelines for questions, but concise and well-composed questions are always always always best! And once again, a big thank you goes to Steven for taking time out of his schedule to engage in depth with fans of the Malazan series!


Gerd K
1. Kah-thurak
Hi Steven,

one of the most discussed questions in the re-read threads has been why Laseen allowed the rise of Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom from prisoners to powerful positions in the empire. Did she think she would be able to use them for her purposes and discard them later, or did Rel have some handle on her from the start that forced her to redeem them? Thanks for answering our questions :-)
2. Kadere
The question I always come back to when I read this book, and makes me ponder the future of this world is what happens to Felisin Younger and her new found religion after this book ends. We have yet to go back to Seven Cities since this book, and we haven't even heard whispers about what's going on there. From the looks of it neither you nor ICE will be going back there any time soon. Is there a chance we will revisit it, or is this an open thread to ponder until we go mad? Love the series, can't wait for Forge of Darkness. All the best.
Thomas Jeffries
3. thomstel
My biggest questions just got asked, so I'll head another direction:

How'd you come up with the structure for this book? While the last chapter is everything we've come to know from you in the previous books (aka phenomenal action and drama), there's Chapter 7, which could be argued as being grander moment than the actual finale. What was the thought process for including both epic scenarios in one book? Was the crawl below Y'ghatan intended to be as grand as it turned out? Was it the distinction of Chapter 7 being a very personal epic for the Bonehunters under the city, unwitnessed, while the finish was more a plot-driving series of events and convergences?

As always, thanks for taking the time to be the author that you are, both in terms of quality in your fiction and in providing us the insights into how you view the craft. Also can't wait for Forge...any ETA that you can share on that front? ;)
Chris Hawks
4. SaltManZ
Thomstel, Forge of Darkness hits shelves July 31st in the UK, and September 18th in the US.
5. Tufty
Hi Steve,

Hopefully my question is less scary this time...

I would like to hear your thoughts on gender/sexism in Wu. You and ICE have previously commented that you decided to make your world be gender-equal, by having men and women have equal opportunity for things like magic, and the culture then being gender-equal since it's hard to oppress a gender when some of them can send fireballs into your house.

This certainly seems to be true amongst armies from the Malazan Empire, Lether, or Ehrlitan, where soldiers and generals alike can be men or women. We also see plenty of female Ascendants and goddesses shaping the world as much as the men.

However, there are also some cultures where there do appear to be differences (not necessarily inequalities) - the women among the Edur can be powerful sorceresses but do not fight in the Edur army. Daru noblemen debate politics, own businesses, etc but the noblewomen in GotM and TtH seem to all be stay-at-home trophy wives and daughters to be married off to other houses. There are many female prostitutes and their brothels seen throughout the series, but we never see any male prostitutes.

Would you mind speaking more in-depth about your perception of gender roles and equality/inequality, both amongst the cultures on Wu and any influences from the real-world and/or other fiction?
6. Isoroku
In NoK, Temper notes that the stairs down to the cellar in Coop's Hanged Man Inn are very cold. Is there a secret tunnel between Coop's and the Deadhouse, and is that how Temper "teleports" from bringing Kalam inside to stepping out of Coop's to scare Shadowthrone, moments later?
Brian R
7. Mayhem
@6 The huge armoured figure isn't Temper, it's the Guardian of the Deadhouse. I suspect it embodies the armour of Jhenna, the Jaghut that attempts to escape in NoK and is held inside by Temper.

From DG
As at Tremorlor, a massive suit of armour filled an alcove halfway down the hall’s length, and this one had seen serious battle.

in NoK
There, an armoured giant duelled a man armed with a pike-axe who was backed up by a frail-looking elder

A huge armoured figure filled the portal, looking down.
Then, with infuriating slowness, the enormous guardian of the Deadhouse reached down, collected the assassin by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him across the threshold

DG has the empty armour talk to Moby after Fiddler and the others leave, so it seems to be inhabited by the House itself.

Actually that is a good lead for a question though.
Are you willing to shed any light on the relationships between the Azath Houses and their Guardians? There seems to be an internal spirit of the house as it were, plus occasionally a powerful victim coerced into working as a protector (like Jhenna in NoK, Raest in MoI, or Moby & Gothos in DG), but there also seems to be an external guard to the Deadhouse - first Faro now Temper. Why is there the need for the external guard in Malaz, and not in say Tremorlor?
And would you say Kettle served as internal or external Guardian in Lether?
Brian R
8. Mayhem
And just to expand on Thomstel's question - was Bonehunters intended to be a mirror to Memories of Ice as it were? I realised in the previous post that while the overall story structure is very similar, all the events seem to be inversions - where one is sprawling, the other is tight focus, where one has victory, the other defeat. MoI finishes with a grand battle in a city, in BH you keep almost all the battle offscreen, and focus on the individuals. And while MoI ends on a melancholy tone of loss and sacrifice, BH feels much more hopeful, more ... renewed purpose.
Joe Long
9. Karsa
Steve....Laseen...WTF? sigh. I know that won't lead to any illumination. but seriously - how can somebody so seemingly competent end up in such a no-win situation? what is Laseen's underlying theme and how does it relate to compassion (or the other themes in the MBofF)?


Grub. First Sword. explain. ;)
Thomas Jeffries
10. thomstel
Thanks SaltManZ! I thought that was the timeframe I'd seen before, but just wanted to check if there was any change from the man himself, or perhaps any excerpt-y goodness to share?

Sven Hesse
11. DrMcCoy
The "The Bonehunters" link links to House of Chains.

EDIT: Also, the Epilogue of TBH is not in the Reread index.
Sean H
12. PorusReign
Hello Steven

Slightly off Bonehunters, but way back, years ago, in a thread somewhere, someone compared the power of your work to a then, slightly lesser known, George RR Martin. The comparrison was about a fearlessness of killing main characters. At the time you said you'd not heard of/read Martin and, if he was similar, you would not read him to keep any unwanted influence out of your work.

Have you since read Martin or seen his work? If so, when did you acquaint yourself and what are your thoughts?

Do you still see the Malazan Books of the Fallen making it to screen? What would be your prefered format? mini-series, 3-D Blockbuster franchise, specialist stories created specifically for screen, long-running 20 + season drama, animated adventure, theme-park?... What do you see?
Tai Tastigon
13. Taitastigon
Hi Steven,

to me, the siege of Ygathan is the most visceral setpiece of the entire cycle. Not the most spectacular, but the most visceral. The first time I read it, I couldn´t help but ask myself whether this entire scenario was not inspired (consciously or not) by the events of 9/11 - the insanity of the hit on the towers, the collapse and the very few survivors - firefighters - that were dug out of the rubble. May be farfetched, but the sequence of events is very similar. Is there anything to it, or just coincidence ?
Steven Halter
14. stevenhalter
Many of my Bonehunter questions have been asked, so I'll go with a more general one. Did Shadowthrone and/or Quick Ben take any flavoring from One Eye/Goblin of The Black Company. They are different characters, to be certain, but it's always seemed there's a certain spice about them.
Iris Creemers
15. SamarDev
Hello Steven,
Anytime when I read the epic chapter 7, I can't stop and have to read it right till the end, no matter the time of day. Then I'm drained.
How is that for you as writer? Is there a difference in the time you need to write such a chapter, compared to other chapters? (apart from the fact that this chapter is in pagecount almost half a 'normal' book)? Are you caught by the flow as well, making it difficult to stop after your day's work on it? Do you remember how much time it took you?
Sydo Zandstra
16. Fiddler
Hello Steven,

Thanks again for taking time to answer our questions. This book is one of my most favourite books in the Malazan series.

I have two questions:

1. Did you plan Crump, unknowingly, actually saving the 14th army by making that big blast at the wall of Y'Ghatan? The crater stopped troops from pouring in fast...

2. If you cannot directly answer Karsa's qustion about Grub being/becoming a First Sword (which I suspect is the case), is the title of First Sword referring to a big swordwielding warleader, or is it more meant figuratively, like referring to an army?

I am referring to the quote about the Three First Swords of the Malazan Empire, where Grub is involved. I can see Dassem Ultor being a First Sword, but IIRC his army also carried that name.

I could see the Bridgeburners being a First Sword, and Whiskeyjack was an excellent swordsman, but he never carried the title.

And I can see the Bonehunters becoming another First Sword, even if they officially broke with the Empire. But I just cannot see Grub becoming a First Sword as in becoming a swordswinging bad ass warleader. Grub had a strong connection to the Bonehunters though, and could even be considered to be the heart of it...

This idea started when I read the scene in The Crippled God where a few Elder Gods discuss Malazan armies. I won't go into that deeper now here though.
Philip Thomann
17. normalphil

1. How do you get thrown out of the Mott Irregulars?

2. Did the Aptorians know about Icarium?
Paul Boyd
18. GoodOldSatan
Thanks Steve ....

... not sure if this is the bast place to ask it, but ...

By what means was Lagana Breed able to identify Stormy as a Shield Anvil?

(If there is a more appropriate place to ask this, would someone remind me? I fear it is long years off.)

19. mrglum
Hey Steve.
In northern Arizona (land of tolerance and equality) we have many ruins, settlements that were abandoned due to volcanos, drought, or other past events, but I am not aware personally of any city the size of Y'Ghatan which was absolutely destroyed.
My question would be, was Y'Ghatan a place you've studied in your other field? I know authors have the amazing ability to make imaginary things real. Based on its impact on the marines though, both in this book and later, I just wonder if Y'Ghatan was from something that affected you or Cam when you were gaming this all out.
Spoilers... I miss Apsalar after this book. I know her story is done, and not much would top her shadowdancing, but still. Spoilers off.

I thought I'd have more questions as this is my favorite, but I would just start sounding fanboyish about the best scenes and bore everyone. Though if you happen to meet any avant gaarde fiddlers, I think we'd all like to hear the dirge. But that's it, thanks.
Tai Tastigon
20. Taitastigon
OK, a simple one: Rusty Nail = rum + red wine ???

Steven, in WHAT frat did you learn to get wasted on THAT one ????
That combo is...nasty !!

Seriously...- why ??
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
21. tnh
A Rusty Nail is scotch, Drambuie, and a twist of lemon. Rum plus red wine is a hangover accelerant.
Sean H
22. PorusReign
On Ascendency

Bill summed up what I thought about ascendency recently with regard to Trull, in that, great actions of an individual/group lead them to Ascendency and, in becoming ascendent, their actions have greater resonance and, for want of a better word, power. My question is does Ascendency have to be bestowed? eg like being given a knighthoood by the Queen or a Nobel Prize by the Committee or an Oscar by the Acedemy; or is it taken, like: Madonna, Queen of Pop or James Brown, Godfather of Soul or Usain Bolt, Faster man on the planet?

Who or what decides when or if one is Ascendent?

On Herboric

Was he Treach's Destriant who then became his Shield Anvil or was he always Sheild Anvil? Was he changed or did he change himself? Who does Herboric belong to now?

On Deux Ex Machina

Your work has had this term, DEM, attached to it at various times; in this novel with regards the Eres'al and previously with the Trygalle Trade Guild. What does the term mean to you? How do YOU define it? Do you have a response to these suggestions? (- it is noted that after Bonehunters the Eres'al is rarely, if at all, mentioned again)

On writing

A small thank-you.
Years ago you responsed to a request for writing advise saying, "Finish what you start?" I took that advise. In no way am I proficient, but, I did manage to finish a play a few years back. That play got produced and for two weeks the theatre going public in Melbourne, Australia suffered my art. Those two weeks are the pinnacle of my creative existence, so far. All because of you and that splendid piece of advice.
I thank you.
Melbourne may not; but I do.

You are alway so generous with your time. Thank-you for it all once again.
23. StevenErikson
Hello everyone. Thanks once again for your comments and questions. Before I get to specific queries, I'll begin with a discussion regarding the structure of The Bonehunters, as it relates to some of the issues your discussion raised (in particular, Amanda's end-thoughts).

I recall facing a challenge when working on this novel, since the only structure that made any sense was not particularly 'novelistic.' Nor would it offer up the usual 'convergence' aspect already in place from the previous books. In other words, the only structure that made sense for me related not to a single novel, but to the series as a whole.

If you were to diagram the plot-arcs for the various groups in this book, you'll get the usual right-leaning bell curve -- a rising action through a journey of some kind, leading to climactic events, and then a denouement fall-off. In a traditional novel, that climax hits towards the end of the narrative, and this yields in the reader a sense of completeness, a kind of aesthetic satisfaction. Now, diagram those plot-arcs for the groups in The Bonehunters ... most hit in the traditional fashion, but one major one does not, and that is the arc relating to Tavore and her Bonehunters. Here, you'll see that there are in fact two distinct bell-curves. In other words, Tavore and company experience the equivalent of two novels in this book, the first one being the Seven Cities campaign and the second one being the journey to Malaz City.

I think it was Bill who noted the pivotal element to their particular arc, and he also noted the mirror-image elements reflecting a certain arc in Memories of Ice (and also noting other mirror reflections in the arcs of other groups, for example, that of Heboric retracing a previous journey). I'll touch on these elements first. If you consider the whole series for a moment, you'll see that the first three novels mark a mapping of the end of the Bridgeburners, that culminates post-Coral, in a disassociation from the Malazan Empire among the survivors, in Darujhistan (Memories of Ice). The fourth novel, House of Chains, marks the birth of the Bonehunters as an army, and this arc is carried over, resuming (after the midway break that was Midnight Tides) in The Bonehunters (and then continuing on into Reaper's Gale). So, if we think of the first three novels as a unit, with the fourth a transition and the fifth a distinct break, you'll see that with The Bonehunters, Reaper's Gale (followed by a break relating structurally and thematically back to the first book, Gardens of the Moon), and then Dust of Dreams/The Crippled God (as one giant novel), then you'll see more clearly the mirror reflection going on here. Pluck away the mid-point novel, Midnight Tides; pluck away the call-and-answer novels, Gardens of the Moon and Toll the Hounds, and we have three for the Bridgeburners and three for the Bonehunters, with the former's tale being the end-journey and the latter's tale being the birth leading to the peak (which occurs in The Crippled God). Within those tales, plenty of elements are mirrored, both physically in terms of geography, and thematically, in terms of self-identification and the creation of legendary status (but do note that these mirror images are imperfect reflections ... more like variants).

This is what the structure of the sixth novel served, but in serving that, some of the major structural demands of the novel had to be pushed aside. For re-readers, I suspect that makes perfect sense, given the privilege of hindsight, but for first-time readers, there was always the risk of a vague sense of disquiet (on an aesthetic level). The Bonehunters (the novel) sprawls structurally precisely because that structure relates primarily to the series, not to conventional novelistic rules.

Incidentally, Bill, you are the first to comment on the series as whole, in terms of structure, and the first to identify (at least publicly) the very deliberate mirror reflections at work in certain story and character arcs, and how things are worked in reverse, as if with this novel we ascend to the peak, totter for a moment or two, and then begin the descent. Where is this peak? I would suggest and most of you would probably guess: in the series' longest chapter (Chapter Seven), which corresponds as noted to Capustan in terms of inversion (attacker versus defender, with all the psychological correspondences to match) and Coral in terms of central, defining moment (birth for the Bonehunters, death for the Bridgeburners). Accordingly, while Picker and her friends disengage from the Malazan Empire at the end of Memories of Ice, we conclude The Bonehunters with their disengagement from the very same empire, at the novel's conclusion. If Y'Ghatan was the birth canal, the docks of Malaz City and the waters beyond mark the actual birth (and after-birth, hence all the water imagery beginning with Raraku) -- which is why the Ers'al elements plays the role it does in physically engaging in rampant sex with a soldier (or at least in his dreams) in Tavore's army (and also standing at Tavore's side via T'amber). By the way, Bottle is not named Bottle for nothing (well, a gamer named him, but then I took that name and gave it a subtext that fit).

Metaphorically, it should now be clearer if it wasn't already -- the whole journey under the buried city, the tunnels, the strange hallucinogenic elements among the various characters while in the cramped darkness, and so on, all mark the physical birth of the Bonehunters. As an aside, I suppose I could have called this novel 'Throne of Shadow' or some such thing, but that would have been potentially misleading. As wayward as the structure is, this book is all about the birth of the Bonehunters.

So then, I was left with a non-novelistic structure for the book. The question then was, what more could I do with it? Well, I knew that the end of the series was going to involve multiple but distinct convergences, so this sixth book here could at least set the precedent, so that when I got to the conclusion of, say, the Shake, in The Crippled God, the reader would be somewhat familiar with when and where that conclusion takes place -- it wouldn't seem so much like an add-on to the main story.

One last comment on all this: I remember thinking, as I rolled into Chapter Seven, how delicious it was going to be writing it -- in not letting go, not offering up any breaks, any breathers, not for the characters and not for the readers. I imagined, somewhat evilly, forcing readers to stay awake late into the night, exhausted in their crawl through that chapter, and how that exhaustion would perfectly reflect what the characters were going through. Does that make Chapter Seven metafictional? Post-structural? Postmodern? For you to decide, I suppose, but the whole point was ... to make you feel what they felt, and that meant a hundred pages of unrelenting narrative, mostly inside a claustrophobic realm, with vast weight overhead...

Well, I never said I was nice.

Kal-thirak: re: Laseen ... well, al lot of that is for you to decide (in terms of her motivations and so on); but consider this. Throughout this world's history, there are countless examples of very sharp rulers who ended up in a fix and could find no way out of it. Julius Caesar was a brilliant military commander and a shrewd politician, but he ended up dead on the steps of the Senate, and all those talents he possessed did him little good in the end. Forces are always bigger than any individual in their midst, and rapacious people in the shadows of power never stop working their dirty work. So, whatever the circumstances that saw Mallick slink loose, taking Dom with him, Laseen was stuck with it, an empress on a castle of sand, with the water closing in on all sides. Believe it or not, I had plenty of sympathy for her in that scene with Tavore and company (oh, and I simply loved writing those scenes in Mock's Hold).

Kadere: you forget, I have a trilogy waiting, regarding Karsa Orlong. I'm a good farmer -- I plant the seeds early, only to wander around a lot, eyeing the sky...

Thomstel: think I answered you with the above comments. Yes, yes, and yes again (yes, unwitnessed under Y'Ghatan, yes, all deliberate, yes, open plot-driving at end). Nice catches.

Tufty: thanks for your question. Gender issues (he blinks, realises he's standing in a minefield, edges one step...). I wracked my brains (yes I have more than one, didn't you know?), trying to come up with any Earth-based culture where prostitution wasn't primarily a male-serving industry, and I can't. Which is not to say there aren't male prostitutes, but they generally served men as well. But! If you can offer me some examples to the contrary, I am very interested in knowing more...

Is this to suggest that women never use prostitutes? No, but it's probably fair to say that it's a much rarer occurrence than men using prostitutes, possibly for biological reasons alone (men can walk away from what they left behind; women end up waddling with a reminder of that wild night in the bordello ... kind of a big disincentive, wouldn't you say?).

As for the Edur, well, this is more a case of gender-specific specialties, which is not necessarily value-laden (in their minds) and which one might view as value-laden only with one's own unconscious biases at work (ie, fighters have more worth than harvesters of plants, or fish, or whatever).

Having created a non-sexist world, using a cloth-wrapped hammer and hiding the drum-beasts under the cacophony of plot, I eventually felt it safe to offer up some gender-specific activities among cultures, if only to keep alive the notion of variation among cultures. And let's face it, the biggest aberration in this department was in House of Chains, not The Bonehunters, and Karsa offered a succinct final commentary, as I recall).

Isoruku: Huh? Could be. Does there need to be? If so, then absolutely, yes, wasn't it obvious?

Mayhem: thanks for answering the above. I knew there had to be a reasonable explanation, somewhere. Regarding the rest: will I care to shed any light on the Azath and the various protectors present in each house, and on the specific nature of Kettle with respect to the above?


Mayhem #2: mirror, aye. And honestly, it warms my heart when readers notice these things. Thanks.

Karsa: see answer to first question. Oh, and 'Grub, Fist Sword, explain.'


DrMcCoy: you write like a doctor, and I like that.

PorusReign: I can't ever recall a time when Martin was less well-known than me. Anyway, I did read the first novel, and I did indeed stop there, and have not yet returned to the series. Nor have I watched the HBO adaptation, although I hear great things about it.

But since the Kharkanas trilogy is very much a closed-in, political kind of tale, it probably wouldn't do to read Martin at any time during my writing of it.

What type of production would I see for the Book of the Fallen? Well, I've sat on an insane notion for many years now, and I'm fairly certain it will never fly anyway, so here goes: Film, big screen. Sign actors to five or six years locked in. Each novel is a trilogy. Release ten films a year for three years. Done. You heard it here first (now someone steals it for some other series ... just my luck, huh?).

Really, why not create a new Hollywood paradigm? Make history? Change the whole ball-game? Why not steal the best from television and stick it on a big screen (all the stealing's been going the opposite way for years now)? Anyway, Hollywood ain't got the balls for this idea. Not the eggs, either.

Taitastigon: No, I don't recall any inspiration from that direction. That would seem a little crass, I think.

Shalter: probably, as they were when originally gamed, but before long they did take on lives of their own. Your comparison is legit as far as I am concerned (I will never, ever, ever shy away from acknowledging my debt to Cook).

Fiddler: Yes, crater = slow down = stay alive. Good old Crump. Sometimes you need idiots to do good things and keep on his/her face that shit-eating smile that really reveals nothing but blessed incomprehension. I love people like that.

'First Sword' originally referred to Dassem, then to the elite bodyguard he gathered around him, and then to the specific role of overall commander of the Malazan armies. Titles have that way of morphing over time, of getting stolen and indeed, of eventually losing all power (think of what's happened to the title of 'prophet' -- now you'll find it among sports commentators, for crying out loud).

Normalphil: well, that's the question, isn't it? How DO you get thrown out of the Mott Irregulars? Your second question ... I don't know.

GoodOldSatan: Anyone existing as long as Legana Breed is going to see through most disguises, don't you think?

MrGlum: Well, Troy is a good example of an utterly destroyed and utterly buried city, but no, no specific examples, and what we tended to work on as archaeologists was never so grand as actual cities. Though I've been through Arizona and New Mexico and seeing those Anasazi/Hopewell/Puebla ruins was awesome.

Tait... rum and red wine. What's wrong with that? Yum.

Porus... ascendancy does not have to be bestowed in any official fashion. But it often is. Sometimes it's just by acclamation.

Heboric ... well, titles are fluid, as needs must. As for who he belongs to, well, he belongs to no-one.

Congratulations on writing and finishing your play. Fun writing it, wasn't it? Even more fun, I bet, was finishing it. 'Finish what you start.' Nothing beats the feeling when it's all done, whatever it happens to be.

karl oswald
24. Toster
Great replies as always. That last paragraph before the individual replies was awesome, cuz i have done that several times. it really is the most physically engaging chapter of a book i've ever read.

oh and i've tried the Rusty Gauntlet. does the ratio of wine to rum matter all that much? just curious if you've found some kind of tasty balance. :-)
Tricia Irish
25. Tektonica
Thank you Steven. All my questions were already asked by others, and mostly answered ;=)

But I do thank you for all the books, particularly The favorite for many many reasons! At least this month it's my favorite.
Iris Creemers
26. SamarDev
Thanks for the great answers! Especially the insight in the series-wide-structures is great. Speculation is very nice to do, but to hear your own thoughts about it, is a pleasant conclusion.

(ps, I wondered whether you skipped or missed my question about how it was for you, writing a chapter like ch. 7. You explained how you meant the experience to be for us readers (goal achieved!), but how was it for you as writer? At least I presume you didn't write all those pages in one long session...)
Steven Halter
27. stevenhalter
Thanks so much for what is probably the best description of authorial intent I've read--excellent description of the varied arcs of The Bridgeburners.
Sean H
28. PorusReign
Geez... Erikson, the man is nothing if not ambitious! Ten movies a year for three years.... Love it!!!! I always thought the books couldn't be filmed, too much content, but a trilogy PER novel, of course!

I would loved to have had his direct thoughts on DEM, but when the man can mirror his own narrative whilst delivering epic fantasy action, taking the 'long view' whilst maintaining minute detail, and wrapping the whole in a literary bundle of sperm, gestation and fallopian tubes to then deliver Casablanca-esq dialogue, all in the guise of a damned fine read! I say two fingers to DEM; The Man knows what he's doing! Ain't know 'Get out of Jail Free' cards in here.

I hate to wax lyrical, but, Brilliant.
Brian R
29. Mayhem
will I care to shed any light on the Azath and the various protectors
present in each house, and on the specific nature of Kettle with respect
to the above?


Ok, I have to admit that brought a wry laugh of 'saw that one coming'.

I just wanted to say that between the Adventures in SciFi podcast last year, and some of your more recent posts ... it is truly awesome how much of the curtain you are willing to pull aside in terms of the writing and craftsmanship of the series.

Although I can tell the fog is still swirling around a fair few of the specifics :)
Paul Boyd
30. GoodOldSatan
Stormy is in disguise? He knows and is hiding it?
{In confusion, GOS bangs head against the desk, twice.}
I guess I'll have to hope to seek resolution at some distant point in the future.
31. Zohar
Ok Steven, so what REALLY happened in the Aren massacre? Who gave the order to the T'lan Imass to atack?
32. Slynt
Is there any fantasy writer as forthcoming? I love reading about the (thought) processes behind the series, more and more. The mention about The Forge... was also very intriguing. And now I am totally feeling like reading The Bonehunters...again.

It's not a question but more of a wish: you give us so much interesting material regarding the writing of plots, could we get similar insight into how you build a character, say, Sergeant Hellian, or any other character that can be laid somewhat bare without divulging secrets (like QB)? I mean, how did Iskaral Pust come into being, what purpose did Beak fill for you, or other fun behind-the-scened bits about characters.
33. StevenErikson

Character. Well now. Here comes an essay...

It's probably verging on facile to say that every character is some aspect of the author; in fact, I would suggest that this notion is the least relevant element to charactisation for the writer. Take it as a given, with many contingencies. It's better, I think, for the beginning writer to offer up some of the groundwork needed that will help you invent interesting, unique characters.

It begins with psychology, and the more you read on that subject the better (but bear in mind that when you push deeper, down to the founding principles of psychological theory, you run into philosophy, and a whole slew of world-view thinkers, with a thin 'psychology' gloss painted over it that can roughly be split between the Jungian approach and the Freudian approach -- yes, I'm simplifying big time here, but if you want more of the foundation stuff and all the elaborations on the two 'camps' of Freud and Jung, find an Intro Psych book and start reading). The point, for writers, is this: all behaviour has underlying mechanisms, and however you want to view those mechanisms (nature, nurture or a blend of the two), there is always some element of cause and effect at work. In practical terms, a writer needs to apply a mental exercise, making that exercise not just a habit, but something of an obsession, of thinking about cause and effect.

Begin with the notion of empathy: of stepping outside yourself, trying to get into someone else's point-of-view: seeing the argument (any argument) from their side. If this doesn't interest you, as a process, I would suggest that writing is maybe not for you. What you're looking for, having attempted such a thing, is what underlies that person's opinions/views/attitudes/actions (but never assume that this means you've figured someone out. We can never do that. We can only guess, based on observation, and concoct in our minds a plausible sequence of assumptions, beliefs, thoughts and, lastly and most importantly for writers, motivations, behind someone doing what they do and saying what say).

In any social exchange, a writer will have a tendency to mentally step back, disengaging, to ask themselves the following sort of questions: Why did she say that? What made him do that? What did that sidelong look signify, or that hesitation? What's the point of him/her overriding that other person's interjection or observation? How much of this is jockeying for dominance? How much is openly passive and submissive? What's the value of evasion? What's being hidden? Why does he transform every statement into a challenge, or endless, repetitive self-defense mechanisms? What hurts are hiding behind the words? What losses? What griefs? What loves and what secrets and what hungers? What did that gesture mean? That posture? That expression?

Of course, ultimately, we can't know the real answers to any of these questions, but what the discipline of psychology is founded on (and, one might argue, what society is founded on) is a series of mutual understandings (and conflict arises given the fact that these understandings are never as mutual as the parties would like) that offer up a community of beliefs, rules, expectations, obligations, and recognitions that, collectively, make people dependent on each other. The social contract. And though thinkers on this subject will argue endlessly over the founding mechanisms (psychology as a discipline), other thinkers seek to establish a framework of said understandings (sociology and anthropology as disciplines), and still other thinkers will seek the truths of the human condition by plunging into the whole mess (artists).

My point is, as a writer, you can't plunge in blind. Which is not to say that you need to read up on the afforementioned disciplines: understandings and empathy, cause and effect, the whole delicious stew of motivation, are all comprehended to varying degrees by everyone, and confirmed or refuted daily via communication and social interaction. So, there's a huge element of gut-instinct, subconscious sensitivity, in operation among people (and other social animals), and these are always at work for virtually everyone (except sociopaths, who either have no social radar or are indifferent to it).
But if you want to write characters who possess depth, you need to have some conscious grasp of motivations, and not just your own (though that's always a good place to start your examination, with an objective eye to what you do and why you do it).

If you're a man, what's it like to be a woman? If you're a woman, what's like to be a man? Is it enough to just record all that you observe, focusing on gestures and all displayed behaviours, hoping that an accurate rendition of these external traits will do all the work needed to make that character seem real?

Or, if, say you happen to be a man, you then ask yourself what would it be like to have every avenue of personal power blunted in almost every social context, barring that of the domestic -- and then to look at the domestic and see how physical intimidation remains ever present as one of the physically weaker (or, let's be honest, not 'weaker' but less potentially testosterone-driven violent) in a relationship. Then ask yourself, what would it be like to have been, historically, offered glimpses of true emancipation, independence, financial and cultural, only to have it all taken away again when the boys come home from the war. Imagine for yourself, as a man, a reversal of the biological imperatives involved in procreation, shifting from any port in the storm thinking to lifelong child-rearing thinking -- and how does the shift alter the notion of relationships, of security, stability, monogamy, betrayal, deceit, threat, abuse? If you can make as much of this shift as you can possibly imagine (and 'imagine' is the key word here, since a man can never truly know what it is to be a woman, and vice versa), until you find in your soul a bridling rage, indignation, frustration, even despair, then congratulations, you have reached a place of empathy and from that empathy, a smidgen of understanding, and from that tidbit, the first glimmers of compassion.

True compassion, that is, the kind without pity, the kind that slips on like someone else's skin, prickling its pain down to where you live.

So, let's say you've crawled into the cave of someone else's secret lair, starting at movement in the darkness, strange sounds, faint whisperings you can't quite make out. Yet, for all its mystery, it feels little different from the cave you just left (the one you tell yourself you know so well, because it's your own). Now, in this new but old place, look out upon the world, and marvel at its transformation. You're ready now, because you are that character, and the task ahead, in the story to be told, is for you (as him, as her) to tell it truthfully, honestly, and with no barrier to feeling, no constraint to compassion, and no limit to your love for that person (invented or not).

As you write from this place, you will find a new voice: your new character's voice. It could take a paragraph or two to come out, but that's fine since it gentles the reader's approach as well; or it could leap onto the page with the first line, which is fine, too, since it invites in the reader a sure confidence and authority. Or, with two characters, it could do both, with one character bold and sure, the other quieter, less certain, or perhaps more self-contained. Now write some more, and watch how the two interact: who gives up what, and how does each one value the victory/loss. How do they manage each other? Do they clash openly or secretly? Is the public clash in truth a deep affection, or is the pleasant exchange hiding vicious hatred? This is where the subtext comes in: the levels beneath the dialogue, beneath the physical description in the expositional sections. Think of the human surface as a layer of ice on a river: for some characters, that ice could be very thin; for others incredibly thick, but in both instances, the currents running below all that is deep, wild, and ever-mysterious. Through the telling of their tales, the ice will crack (or not, but even when it doesn't, for a certain character, that obstinacy will send cracks through every character around him/her: alternatively, the cracks are there but you need a magnifying glass to find them).

When teachers of writing talk about conflict and its necessity in a story, they're talking about the ice cracking, and that's why, without character, you have no story.

Now, start proliferating those characters, filling up the setting you have created, and see just how many takes on that setting you end up with (one for every character!), and from this, it is inevitable: your world will fill up, will begin to seem real, a living space, breathing, vibrant, fecund. Each voice adds to its veracity, each voice layers that world yet again, from the dour bartender to the half-mad old man out on the desert.

Imagine a failure of characterisation: with every character sounding like Person A (me!) or person B (you! the bad guy!). Watch us fight! Watch me win! I win because I'm right about everything! You lose because you're wrong about everything! What a great story, huh? Now, if that makes you laugh in disbelief, hold on a moment -- look closely at the literature out there. There are countless stories just like the one I described. Countless films, too. And within the genre of Fantasy, there is a long history of such works (hell, even Conan follows this pattern, and I loved Conan ... when I was fifteen and busy rejecting all things civilized -- me and Conan, we were right! We win!).

For me, it took Donaldson and Covenant to grow-up Fantasy, in my mind. You want a pure and beautiful treatise on characterisation? Read Donaldson's trilogies, especially the first two, where we have the man (Covenant) in the first trilogy, and the woman (Megan) in the second. Phenomenal characterisation, and in both instances, for all the flaws in both characters, profoundly compassionate.

So, to conclude, if characterisation looks like a lot of work, all I can offer is this unexpected reward to the whole process of thinking about and creating fictional characters, and it's these two secrets, one public and one private.

As you create, explore, and record these characters, these myriad creations, these endless clashes of world-views and endless jockeying for place: the struggles against losses, the quietude of victories, the whole gamut of human emotion playing out in countless variations ... well, your reader is with you, taking the same journey, and, hopefully, feeling what you feel, and if that's the case, then what you're saying is something very human, and very special (and by extension, it is never and I mean never, a thing to be abused, or taken for granted, or viewed with contempt -- never!).

Now, the private one. Living all those lives changes your own life. It unlocks every cruel, judgemental gate: it leaves you vulnerable and raw, painfully humbled, but also in a perpetual sense of wonder, in what makes us different from each other, and in what makes us all the same. And it imposes rules, too -- hard, unshakeable rules (never screw around behind the wife, for example, because betrayal delivers a kind of pain unlike any other, and I won't be the instrument of that. Period. Never fuck anyone over, either. Those kind of rules, the ones that form as a consequence of empathy and compassion and the whole, slippery, irreversible process of stepping into someone else's shoes).

Fair warning, yes?

A moment's thought, on all those famous writers famous not just for their writing but also for infidelity and generally being pricks ... well, sorry, I don't get them at all, but if I take a moment or two on that old exercise in empathy I was talking about, I begin to see glimmers of ... massive but fragile ego, the desperate wall raised up between creative genius and squallid personal life, the dubious dialogue established between the two (great art demands suffering! If it's all good, something's wrong!), and, possibly, that terrible fear of death, ageing, decreptitude, the loss of talent, the empty page beckoning like an addiction, demanding the drug of anguish, guilt, drunken misery...

But relax, I'll never write about a writer ... well, not one in this world, anyway. But then again, hmm, maybe I already have in that other world ... over and over again. Let me think on that (unpleasantly, sourly so, as I swing round to consider the notion of every character being an aspect of me, dammit), and get back to you.

Or not.

Cheers (off to the Med for a month of sun and sea and writing, starting next week .. see you round, huh?)

Steven Halter
34. stevenhalter
Applause for post 33 and have a fun time in the Med.
Sanctume Spiritstone
35. Sanctume
@33 SE, I did not take any formal writing studies or courses, but what you wrote hits on the things I think of when creating characters for gaming, be it online game characters, or the old pen & paper.

I actually find more enjoyment in creating characters, filling my own imagination on his/her background. I do not just stop at pick class, race, skills. I put thought and time in thinking of background and appropriate names.

Thanks for that essay and I'll read it and maybe inspire me to write about that gaming characters I've made since circa 1980s from various MMOs, and I'd write it just for fun.
36. Slynt
Thank you so much, Steven.
Way above and beyond what I expected :)
While I'm here, I'd like to thank you for "Crack'd Pot Trail" which was criminally awesome. Seriously, that's an insanely entertaining piece of writing and gave me a lot to ponder at the same time.
Tricia Irish
37. Tektonica
Wow again, Steven. That was brilliant@33. I now know I'm probably not capable of doing any serious writing! But I certainly appreciate yours. Thank you so much for the process insights.

Have fun in the Med/Sun/Fun/Writing.
Sean H
38. PorusReign
Geez... He just keeps on giving.
Thanks Steven, Steve, SE or King Don the Almighty?
Tricia Irish
39. Tektonica
Hey guys...there's no link to the Epilogue in the Index??? Please fix.

I was trying to find out when we are starting here again and
Which Book!

Please advise! Thanks!
Steven Halter
40. stevenhalter
Tektonica:The epilogue link is towards the top of the index page for some reason.
Darren Kuik
41. djk1978
Tek, I think Amanda confirmed that Reaper's Gale was next and that July 20 was the start date. I'm not sure if that is still true, at least about the start date, but I hope so.

Steven, insightful comments and question answering as always. Thanks for that.
Chris Hawks
42. SaltManZ
Yes, RG on July 20th, according to Amanda's recap post.
karl oswald
43. Toster
When i read the words "here comes an essay" and its SE saying it, i always put on my thinking cap and ludicrously sized reading glasses. great advice from a true master.
Tricia Irish
44. Tektonica
Thanks Shalter and djk1978:

I'll get right on that Prologue! It will be nice to be back in Malazan!

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