He cut his teeth writing RPGs, wants to write Luke Skywalker, and he thinks he's done right by the most reviled Gungan in the galaxy
He cut his teeth writing RPGs, wants to write Luke Skywalker, and he thinks he's done right by the most reviled Gungan in the galaxy
Chuck Wendig is best known these days as the author of the Star Wars: Aftermath novels, which picked up almost immediately where Return of the Jedi left off, setting the stage for a brave new galaxy replete with "canonical" Star Wars stories in every conceivable medium. But Wendig has games in his bones. Though he always aspired to be a novelist, he cut his teeth writing for pen and paper RPGs, and the years of immersion in that world had an indelible effect on his writing process.
Though he's not eager to write for video games – "They work really hard to make video games. I'm a novelist, so I don't have to," he says during our chat at Star Wars Celebration – you get the feeling that he's thoroughly thought through what, exactly, would make it worth his while. During our 30 minute interview, Wendig talks about his transition from writing games to writing fiction, why he resists being rigidly constrained by plot, and how it feels to have written Jar Jar Binks' fate.
You liken your writing process to running a tabletop RPG. Rather than following a set plot, you like to embrace the unpredictability inherent in the characters you write, and allow that to shape their stories. Where does this approach come from?
I used to write and play Vampire, Werewolf, and all those White Wolf horror games. You'd have these [players] there who are inhabiting these characters, and they have these character traits they've created for themselves, and then they're thrown into a situation or you expect them to go – you know, you'd put the dragon obviously in the field, and you're like, "Now it is time to go fight the dragon!" They're like, "No, we're gonna get drunk and gamble." And you're like, "What? But there's a dragon!" They're like, "We're not dragon fighters. That's not who our characters are."
That's interesting to me – it's a key example of how my plot should not override what the characters want to do. You can feel that in some stories, where the plot overrides what the characters want. It forces them into situations, or creates false choices for them. I don't like to do that. I don't like to railroad the story that way. I think there are cool lessons in running, in playing, and even in writing role-playing games, to figure out how to tell a multi-character narrative with several arcs going at one time.
Do you find that the stuff your players impulsively decide to do is often more interesting than the adventures you'd deliberately map out?
Well, yeah, and they're the reason that the game is happening. You're there to facilitate their fun as a storyteller or game master. If you're just forcing them into this chute toward a story, that's not super interesting. The best thing you could do is if you have an overarching story in mind, you then work with the players to create characters that are in line with the types of things you want to do, and that way, everybody is sort of operating together.
But otherwise, the characters set the pace pretty much always.
In your lecture panel at Star War Celebration, you mention writers you know showing you drafts of "novels" they're working on that look more like RPG manuals, minus the rules.
Yeah. That it's a role-playing book. That's not a novel.
How common is that?
I don't know that it's super common, but you get people who read George R. R. Martin, or Robert Jordan, or Pat Rothfuss, and they get in their mind [certain] lessons – they like all the world build-y stuff but they don't really see the story through that. So they think that, in order to make a rich story, you have to have all of these world building trappings. Which is not to say those things are bad or that you shouldn't have them, but the focus is the story first, the characters first – not this massively rich, detailed world I want to live in but I don't want to read a story in.
I think there is a certain mode of writer who has been fed on that kind of diet – of big epic science fiction or big epic fantasy – and they kind of have all this granular, world build-y stuff that they want to get out of their system first. So it's not terrible. Anybody can do anything. You can do it in whatever order you want. You just want to make sure your story leads with the story, not the plates, or the tapestries, or whatever it is.
You got your start writing RPGs. What kind of games did you work on?
I worked on some side projects like Gamma World and Eve Online and stuff, but my bread and butter were the horror games and White Wolf. So, Vampire, Werewolf, Hunter, Mage, Changeling, Promethean – whatever [White Wolf] did, I was sort of involved. I did a lot of writing for them early on, and later, I took on some developer and editing roles within the company. All freelance, but it sustained me for well over a decade.
How'd you transition to writing fiction?
I'd always wanted to write fiction. That was my goal. The freelance game writing thing was just a means to an end. I knew I needed to make money somehow, and I didn't want to make money doing normal stuff. I said, "I play these games, and I like these games, so writing these games is a good way, interstitially, to make some money. But I had always been focusing on novels in the background, and I'd written a bunch. They were terrible. First of all, what it took was me to detach from freelance, which saw my finances take kind of a hit as I tried to segue into full time writing, novel writing. But it also took like five years to really figure out how to write the book that got published, to even figure out that journey.
What was the journey like?
I did what everyone would do – I tried to win a screenwriting competition. [laughs] I felt like I was lost at the mall, like, I couldn't really figure out the story. For five years, I just would start the story and stop the story, start the story and stop the story – I would never really finish it. So I did actually enter and win a screenwriting competition. The prize was a yearlong mentorship with a guy named Stephen Susco, who had written both of the Grudge films. His specialty is adaptations. So knowing that going in, I wanted to learn how to adapt my own unfinished, broken novel to a screenplay format and then readapt it to a novel. I really didn't have any interest in screenwriting at the time. That panned out well later, when I actually did take on screenwriting. Then I ended up at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and I did get a pilot with TNT at one point, and did some other screenwriting stuff – we had a film at Sundance, a short film.
[Susco] told me the first thing to do was outline. I was like, "No, well, I don't think you know how this works. I don't have to outline. Maybe you outline in L.A., but here, in the magical unicorn wonderland of novel writing, we don't have to outline." It turns out I did have to outline. He just urged me to do that, and I did it, and next thing I know, I had a complete novel in mind. It was only in outline format, but it had a beginning, and a middle, and an end, which I didn't have before. I was able to turn that into a novel, and that was the novel that got published.
I wrote what was ideally, hopefully, a good interlude – not an end for Jar Jar, it's not like he gets shot in the head or anything – but arguably a new beginning for Jar Jar, in a way.
It seems like it's always the advice that we're most resistant to that ends up being the most effective.
Yeah. Early on, I took the advice to mean that writers should outline. That's really not the advice. The advice is that writers should be willing to try new processes, especially when their current process isn't working. Mine wasn't working. I was trying to write a book for five years and it wasn't working. So it was very clear that I needed to do something different. If I really wanted to write this book, I needed to figure that out. So that's the thing – for authors to have to find their process, whatever that takes.
As part of your writing process, you've said like to put your characters through a "maze" of conflicts, problems, and struggles, which allows their stories to manifest organically. I'm curious how you'd apply that to games writing, if you were to ever seriously pursue that. It sounds like that process is anathema to how games are made.
I've only done some real limited video game writing work, and it's not my thing. I imagine working for, like, BioWare is a little more fun because they're very clearly story-driven. They seem to get the problem-solution and the maze-in-the-middle kind of thing that I was talking about at [the Star Wars Celebration panel]. But, yeah, I mean, they sometimes have to write stuff inside Excel spreadsheets, which is weird.
I remember like some of the video game stuff I did do was like, "Okay, you have to do this mission." So you write this mission. They're like, "Okay, but actually, we can't do that animation now, so you have to change the mission." Everything would be dictated by their technological ability, which seemed to dwindle every time you turned in a new draft. They're like, "Now it's just stick figures on a screen on note cards!" You're like, "Oh, okay, that's gonna be very hard to tell that story, but, okay, we can make that work." So I don't know.
Could you imagine a scenario where it'd work for you creatively?
No, not really. I mean if they... I shouldn't say never. If it was something based on my work, I would consider it, or if it was something that was very, very clearly upfront as a property for a writer. Someone like Rhianna Pratchett, who did a couple of the Tomb Raider games most recently – they were a little more writer-forward. They gave the writer some power early on to help set the pace for the assets they would create, as opposed to the reverse of that – create assets and then plug in the story. If it was something like that, I would certainly consider it. But the money would need to be significant.
Do those gigs not usually pay very well?
Well, the money is usually good, but you do a ton of work – they work overtime. They work really hard to make video games. I'm a novelist, so I don't have to. [laughs] I don't have to do that.
You mentioned also that you would like to write something from the Star Wars "Old Republic" era.
I would totally love to.
I never really want to punish any characters. That's not my goal. I want to punish the audience. I like to punish them through the characters.
You also mentioned that you tried to include fan favorite Knights of the Old Republic character HK-47 in Aftermath, but were only able to sneak in a reference in Empire's End, the last novel in the trilogy.
Well, it wasn't a "sneak in" – they were all for it. They knew I had tried to put in a more bold reference in the first book, and it didn't quite pan out. Which is all good. That's how this stuff goes. Sometimes you try things, and they don't quite – for whatever licensing reason, whatever story reasons – it's just not something that works out. Because [Aftermath character] Mr. Bones is sort of this weird, piecemeal matrix – various matrices of various other droids throughout history – he moves into some HK-47 language, some dialogue literally torn from HK-47. In the middle of nowhere, as he's glitching. So I still got to have my reference, which was nice.
You also said you'd like to write about Luke Skywalker post Return of the Jedi. Think you'll ever get to?
I don't know. If there is a kind bone in the universe's body, maybe. But we'll see. I'd like to. It's something I'd love to have a little time with. But we'll see. Maybe one day.
So I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about Jar Jar Binks. You got the chance to, in essence, re-canonize him in in Empire's End.
Well, first of all, on a very simple level, seeing some of the early responses to the first [Aftermath] book – I saw some that were like, "This is the Jar Jar Binks of novels," and I was like, "Oh, that's sad." I was like, "What if I, what if we give him a moment?" At first, in my head, it kind of formed as a joke. I wasn't really gonna do it. I was just like, "Oh, I should totally drop a Jar Jar interlude in there, just see how people react." This was before – or maybe as I was writing Life Debt – and I was, like, "You know, there's something there." Because he's an interesting character. Maybe he doesn't get as much resolution or as much depth as you'd like on the screen, but there's something there to that character. You looked at his purpose as sort of being this clown character who fell into too much responsibility. I thought there was an interesting, tragic component to that.
So I did. I figured out how to do it, and I wrote what was ideally, hopefully, a good interlude – not an end for Jar Jar, it's not like he gets shot in the head or anything – but arguably a new beginning for Jar Jar, in a way. So I did that.
But what's been interesting is the response to it. I've seen so many different responses. It's almost like a mirror, that interlude. People respond to it in the way that they feel about him already. Some are people like, "Yeah, he got what he deserved," and some people are like, "Oh, you made me feel sad for him, and I love him now," and some people are like, "He should have been killed and run over with a droid tank" or something. It's all these different reactions – some people thought I was punishing him, and some people thought I was redeeming him, and some people thought I was giving him his sweet moment, some people thought I was giving him a hateful moment... It's interesting to me that there's so many ways to look at that – that chapter in his fate.
The most significant thing is that you gave him a moment, period.
Well, yeah, I wanted to be earnest to him. I was aiming for "sweet," honestly. I wasn't aiming to punish him. I never really want to punish any characters. That's not my goal. I want to punish the audience. I like to punish them through the characters. [laughs] But not the characters themselves.