N. S. Dolkart on crafting imaginary worlds
N. S. Dolkart’s début novel is indeed remarkable, but what is going on under the hood that makes it stand out? The following interview is a fascinating insight into how a fantasy novel is transformed from its Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) origins to something that takes a reader on a richly rewarding flight of imagination.
How did the book come about?
I wrote another book first, starting while I was in college getting my bachelor’s degree. Once it was written I sent it out, and was lucky enough to get an agent on the strength of that manuscript. But we didn’t have any luck with the publishers that time around, so my agent suggested I shelve the novel and write another book.
I did have a setting in mind and I really wanted to write something within that setting, but I didn’t have any notion of the characters. I tried for a while to come up with something, but just wasn’t getting into it.
So I put a D&D campaign together, because I thought it might give me some ideas about the story I really wanted to tell. My sister, brother and wife made their own characters, as did a couple other friends. This meant I was able to put characterization aside and concentrate on working through my plot ideas for a while. I was also much more forgiving of myself with the plot than I would have been with a novel, because it was okay for me to focus on what was fun for my players, and have them go out to do something completely unrelated to what they’d done before. I was able to sometimes say, ‘There’s a place full of treasure over there, go and explore it.’
The campaign really helped the story coalesce into something worth writing about, and served as an excellent model for some parts of the novel. It was particularly easy to write the first five chapters about how all the characters end up on the same boat.
Were there many similarities between the D&D campaign and the novel?
Oh, sure. Two of my characters, Narky and Bandu, are more or less the same as they were played in the game, but with some depth added to their internal lives. The other three main characters were completely transformed, and most of the secondary characters are brand new, or at least quite different from the way they were in the game.
The thing is that, even with characters who stay more or less the same, it takes a lot of work to thoughtfully transfer them from the character sheet to the page. I had to work out what their thought processes were, how they were going to transform and what I was going to keep or cut out. More than anything, they had to interact over more than just strategy. In the D&D scenario the characters may have all hung out together, but they didn’t have long conversations at night as they do in the book.
The game was a great way to work some things out though. I was already being intentionally novel-like in the campaign, and departing from the classic D&D narrative. In a classic game, you can have the characters just meet in a tavern and all mysteriously hit it off, even though they may be very different from each other. This is okay for a D&D campaign because everyone wants to get to the adventure, nobody cares that there’s no real reason for the lawful good warrior to be hanging out with an amoral rogue. But that’s never satisfied me, so I did things differently.
I really wanted a gripping reason why they had all come together. So I ended up with the idea that they were going to end up on the same boat. They would leave their island and then the island would be destroyed, leaving them together as the only people they knew. This meant that, even if they didn’t get along so well, they would still be more like a family unit than just friends.
So what were some of the differences?
To take a specific example, in the book the characters find themselves in a city that is taken over by an opposing army. In the campaign, that was a zombie encounter. You can do clichés like that when you’re doing D&D. You’re allowed to have fun with fantasy tropes. But you can’t throw in unexamined clichés like that when you’re writing a book, so I had to transform a lot of things.
Another big difference is my treatment of injuries in the novel. In D&D, your characters can run out of hit points and fall unconscious, only to be revived by magic and recover quite rapidly. But in the real world, if you’ve had the kind of concussion or blood loss that knocks you out, you’re going to be in pretty bad shape for a pretty long while. Some of the injuries you sustain along the way may well have permanent ramifications, too. So in that sense I tried to let my characters be occasionally badass without leaving the realm of the plausible.
It’s interesting you approached writing the novel this way, particularly as there may be D&D campaigners who think it is an easy thing to transform a campaign into a novel. Go over some of the other issues you had to overcome in moving from a situation where you can make up things as you go along, and where the plot is not a big concern, to creating a story that flows and is not full of fantasy tropes.
The tropes are really the biggest thing, because D&D is built on a celebration of fantasy tropes. The character classes themselves come to you already tropified! You’re playing with stereotypes and you can take yours and run with it in an interesting direction. As a dungeon master I hope my players will do interesting things and not just rely on the stereotypes, but it’s those stereotypes the game world is built on.
A fantasy novel is also in many ways built on tropes, but you can’t leave them unexamined the way you can in D&D. If you do, it’s not going to be very good art.
So in D&D, if your setting is weirdly devoid of women, or old people, or people of color, you know, that’s traditional Lord of the Rings-style fantasy. Plus, who cares, because your only audience is yourselves. You’re only harming your own gameplay, not the public discourse. But when you’re writing a novel, you can’t ignore the cumulative effect that decades of white male-centric fantasy novels have had. If you’re writing just another rehash of Conan the Barbarian, you’re actively making the genre worse.
There are other, less pernicious stereotypes that also need to be rethought if you’re going to do something interesting. The hardened mercenary. The wise wizardly mentor. The hidden heir. I love fantasy because I’m into those tropes, and yet I find them exceedingly aggravating when I’m reading them, unless they’re being reframed in very new and interesting ways.
Describe how you worked with these stereotypes in Silent Hall.
I think Criton is a perfect example of this, because in some ways he’s that classic storybook hero, the hidden heir. He’s on this mad quest to find his “real” father, even though we know as readers that his father is a physically abusive man whom Criton rejected. So we know this isn’t going to end with his real father being the king or anything, and we can see the damage it does to his relationships along the way.
Narky is a good example too, because he is in many ways the stereotypical geek boy whom nobody likes. He’s misunderstood and effectively a stand-in for what people think a D&D player is all about. He’s sarcastic and bitter that he doesn’t succeed in his love life. He is also generally disrespected by his peers, and his whole approach to the world is filtered through that disrespect.
So on the one hand, that story is very much within the lines of the trope. But Narky has an internal life that goes far beyond that beginning. He doesn’t stay the same person that you met in the first chapter, because he badly wants to be someone else. The biggest part of Narky’s struggle is that he’s not very good at being that different person. He has been given a second chance in life, but he doesn’t know how to make the best of it, and that stresses him out. So he goes through this continual cycle of failure, repentance and slight improvement. His arc over the course of this book is about his struggle with his own personality and character flaws, and in many ways he has to come to terms with the fact that essentially, whether he is honourable or not, he cannot escape who he is.
This is really getting to the heart of why your characters have so much depth. They are clearly defined as characters and yet they are able to move outside any obvious trope they represent.
Thank you! I used quite a few characterization techniques in writing Silent Hall, and one of the key ones was juggling the multiple viewpoints. We’ve all read fantasy novels with multiple points of view, but what I did that is unusual, or which I at least haven’t seen before, is to have all five of my viewpoint characters spend the vast majority of the story together in the same place. It’s much more common for the characters in multiple-point-of-view works to be in different corners of the world à la Game of Thrones, or in small groups doing different things. Eventually, we assume, all the storylines will intertwine.
But what made it possible to characterize my characters so strongly is that I didn’t separate them, so they do spend all this time together. We get to see each and every one of them reflected in each other’s eyes. At the same time, my book moves steadily forward chronologically. I would be bored to death if I had to write five different viewpoints for the same event. But by switching between different characters as the story goes along, I’m able to show everyone’s different perspectives on the plot points, on themselves and on each other.
Could you give me an example?
Sure! Without giving away any spoilers, at one point Criton saves the party at great risk to himself, when he could conceivably have abandoned the others and escaped on his own. Narky admires his bravery, but when he goes to thank him, Criton is horrified that the idea that he might abandon his friends had even occurred to Narky.
You certainly get Criton’s perspective through their dialogue, and since you’ve seen other parts of the story through his point of view before, you can see in that dialogue how deeply he was affected by the stories he heard as a child. As I’ve said, Criton is the one character who believes in his heart that he is the hero of a story, while everyone else is fine with being a regular human being and just surviving. So naturally, Crition would never consider saving himself at the expense of his friends, because that’s something the hero of a story would never do. It’s horrifying for him that anyone would even suspect him of considering it.
But from Narky’s perspective, this is both odd and frustrating. He can’t understand Criton’s honourable way of thinking about life, and he’s sure that it makes Criton a better person than he is. At the same time, he can’t get his head around why Criton would see his heroic behaviour as normal. Narky’s caught between thinking that Criton is an enviable saint, and thinking he’s a delusional fool.
Is there anything else that you accomplish through head-hopping that you couldn’t have done otherwise?
There are endless ways to characterize people, but one of my favourite techniques is to have one character worry deeply about another and really try to analyze that second character’s emotional state. That’s something you can only do when you’re using multiple perspectives, and it’s really priceless.
So for example, at one point Hunter is walking along when his head starts spinning – he feels like the earth is moving under him, and he falls to the ground. At first you’re wondering whether it’s magic, when what has really happened is that he’s gotten dizzy and nearly passed out, because he hasn’t been eating or hydrating. But why not? The best he can do is to say that he didn’t feel like eating, because he didn’t think it was that important.
Well, Phaedra’s not satisfied with that, and she spends a good part of the next chapter worrying about him. Whereas Hunter is totally incapable of explaining himself, from Phaedra’s perspective we see how Hunter’s self-neglect fits a pattern of repressing his emotions. We can even see how his trauma led directly to the moment when he passed out on the mountainside: he’s been so busy trying to keep the emotional turmoil under control that he’s not even doing basic self-care.
I love this technique so much, because it really does double duty. Not only does it help you to understand the character that’s being analyzed, it also shows how deeply the point-of-view character cares for them. You get the thought pattern of the character who is worried, as well as the analysis of the character they’re worried about.
If I were to write the whole novel from Hunter’s perspective, we would never know who he was. He is such a quiet, private person, and has a very hard time explaining himself, even to himself. But when he’s surrounded by insightful people like Narky, and especially Phaedra, we can start to really understand him. Seeing Hunter from Phaedra’s perspective gives us a view of a character who is unable to work through his emotions, and who is trying and failing to mourn his losses.
A story normally has a hero. In the case of Silent Hall, there is no single person that is immediately identifiable as a hero. Why have you done this?
I wanted to avoid the ‘hero problem’ where all the side characters are interesting, but the hero is dull. You have a book with all these interesting characters with fascinating motivations, but the hero or heroine has to plod along, learning lessons and being helped by all these other more competent people.
Part of the problem is that the hero is always being sold to us as special somehow (the Chosen One, and so on). But because they are also generally a stand-in for the reader, they have to be learning a lot of basic stuff about the world. They can’t be more insightful than we are. So when characterized from within, they seem like oafs, and when characterized from without, they seem implausible. That’s a real problem with heros in terms of characterization.
But what happens when you abandon the notion of the Chosen One, of that one super special hero? You get five flawed and interesting individuals, who can still fill all of the necessary hero roles between them. Does your hero need to be an expert swordsman? Hunter can fill that role. Does your hero need to be knowledgeable? Phaedra’s got you covered. Mysterious? Hello, Bandu. Honorable? Criton and Hunter. Down-to-earth? Bandu and Narky. Tortured? All three boys, all in different ways.
All the heroic aspects, and all the flaws too, can be present in a crowd without being implausibly concentrated in one person. It’s not just that they’re all heroes, it’s that they’re all, collectively, The Hero.
Bandu is an interesting character, because she’s very non-judgmental except where her internal antenna senses danger.
That comes from her weird upbringing as a wild girl raised by wolves. She doesn’t have any societal expectations about what people ought to do, whether that’s regarding sex or if it’s about the gods’ role in the world. But she does have a sense of how people ought to treat each other, and how they shouldn’t lie to themselves. So she can be quite non-judgmental at times, and yet at other times very blunt. She has no patience for Criton’s daddy issues, for instance.
Again, one of the really nice things about having the characters think about each other so much is that I’m able to describe how Bandu’s logic works. She’s perhaps my favorite character, because she’s at once so inexplicable from the outside, and yet so instinctively logical when you dig a little deeper. She’s concerned about Phaedra reading books, because when Phaedra is reading a scroll she’ll go silent for long stretches before quoting something she’s just read. So Bandu becomes convinced that there are spirits trapped inside the scrolls, which can possess the person who’s reading them. When Phaedra reads aloud, Bandu is sure the spirit is trying to take over Phaedra’s body.
How did you did make sure you kept a balance between this detailed form of characterisation, the plot and the scenery?
The balance between the world building and the characters in some ways came very naturally, because I have an instinct about when I’m talking about one thing for too long. (This instinct is unfortunately much stronger in my writing than in my real-life interactions.)
I love to have my characters talk to each other in dialogue while they’re figuring out what they’re going to do next, and really spend some time doing this. It’s not something you normally get in fantasy, which is usually so plot-driven that the characters are basically trapped on a nonstop ride for the duration. My characters take the time to figure out their next moves, and then after a while I’ll say to myself, “That’s enough of that. If I keep going, it’s going to end up as a story about indecisive people.”
So look, I may be doing some extremely interesting things with my characterization, but good strong action is paramount in telling a decent fantasy story. I’ve been told I do action well, which is always a nice thing to hear. In any case, I found a balance that felt good to me. Others’ tastes may vary.
As for descriptions of scenery, I try not to have characters move through a new setting without describing that setting in some detail. I still have to describe that setting from the perspective of whichever character is watching, though. For example I described a visit to an abbey from Bandu’s perspective, and as far as she is concerned it’s just a stone den with a different name from other person-dens. That’s all there is to it.
It’s easy for me not to go overboard on scenery descriptions, because I remember being a teenager myself (it was all of ten years ago for me). The scenery was not all that interesting to me at that age. Even if I were in a brand new place, I was not yet at a place in my life where the very act of being somewhere different was fascinating. Travelling is certainly interesting to teenagers, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But we travelled everywhere when I was young, and I was not checking out the majestic scenery. We would stop somewhere and it would be like, “Yep, this does look different from home, you’re right mom.” Same thing with visiting different cultures. As a teenager you’re interested in how other people are living their lives, but you’re not an anthropologist.
I’m not sure what else I can say on this front. In terms of balancing dialogue with action, and with description and internal monologue, that balance came about because I had a sense of when I’d gone on too long about one thing.
In a story you expect things to happen to your characters and see them develop as a result. But what is particularly interesting in Silent Hall is that your characters are teenagers and therefore at a point in their life of huge physical and emotional change.
Well this was deliberate, because the whole story is about people who don’t know who they are, trying to find their way in a world after their country has disappeared. In many ways there’s a lot of Jewish allegory in there, because it’s a story about a people without a homeland, forced to wander from place to place because locals know they don’t belong. They obviously can’t go back, so they are forced to live as strangers amongst others.
It’s important from the perspective of the allegory that the characters be simultaneously unwelcome in their surroundings, and yet desperate to find a place for themselves in the world. Young adulthood is the age when people are the least certain about who they are. It’s why they’re so fascinated with sorting hats and all that sort of thing. As teenagers, they’ve grown out of most of our certainties, and have yet to develop new ones. That makes them extremely vulnerable.
I very much wanted my characters to be that vulnerable. The vulnerability of young adulthood makes them cling the hardest to whatever their upbringings have been, while at the same time being the most open to transforming themselves and the way they look at the world. They’ve already internalised everything about their parents’ culture and all sorts of subconscious things they’re still unaware of but they’re not so set in their ways that they can’t change their minds.
So from Phaedra’s perspective you have a very clear understanding in your head of how marriage works and why people get married and what the duties of marriage are. But when you confront reality (and Bandu) you find something very different. As a teenager you are most prepared to throw off the yoke of the culture you grew up in and find your way in a new world.
I feel that if I’d written the story about a group of thirty-year-olds travelling around, they would have already been so set in their ways that they would have just gotten mad with each other. By thirty, you are who you are, and although you can learn, grow and develop with the ability to change your attitude about certain things, and find new evidence to alter your viewpoint, you are already you. At around twenty-six, your brain has stopped developing and shifted into the ageing process. In the teenage years you’re still developing both mentally and physically, which is why it’s a good place to write about characters that you want to grow a lot.
Your characters also step out of the usual Westernised interpretation of the fantasy genre.
Well, they’re black, and that plays a role in how they relate to the various white societies they visit. But although my characters have to confront their own world’s version of racism, I want to be clear that the racial issues in Silent Hall are not really meant to represent a view of the American model of racism. The real point of their blackness in terms of the story is that they are instantly recognizable. When people hear about five black teenagers whose island has been cursed, and then see five black teenagers wandering around the mostly-white continent, they immediately know who they are. So while true racism exists in Silent Hall too, the biggest problem for the characters is in many ways simply that their skin tone is an identifying marker. The fact that they are so obviously foreign causes a lot of problems for them.
What has been the most difficult part of the writing for you?
The hardest part for me has been describing people’s looks and clothing, because that’s never interested me. I’m a slow reader, and I’ll read every single word when I’m reading a book. I can tell you where I was bored by parts in Game of Thrones or The Name of the Rose, where tapestries, paintings or sigils are described in detail. I’m sure if you showed me them in real life I would be much more interested, but as a reader there’s no difference to me between satin, silk and gossamer. I don’t care what they’re wearing or what colour it is. So for me that’s been an issue. I’ve also not been one for describing eye colour or what characters’ hair is like. That’s something I only dealt with in the late stages of editing to add some of that in. I spent the entire first three drafts not even thinking about the characters’ hair.
Then late in the process I realised that if you don’t say something about that stuff, everyone defaults to white. If I didn’t describe my character’s hair it was going to be straight and blond. So I had to actually think about my characters’ hair. I had to figure out how long it would grow over the course of the book, and keep just enough description in there so that people’s imaginations wouldn’t turn it blond again. I had to consider what Bandu’s unwashed hair would look like at the beginning, which is not so much tangled lumps as one truly nasty dreadlock.
I also had to think about whether they were wearing shirts and pants (trousers for the British readers) or dresses. This is when I looked at Babylonian, Egyptian and Assyrian friezes and murals. They’re all wearing long tunics that are essentially dresses, which they also do in the Bible.
So I had to think about these sorts of things and put in at least enough detail that people wouldn’t keep assuming that all my characters were white and wearing pants.
Tell us a little about your setting. It feels unique.
My story started with the world, and especially its theology. Essentially we’re talking about the world described in the Bible but without the filter of all the commentaries that have been layered onto the text throughout the centuries. If you approach the Bible as if you’ve never heard the story before, and read the five Books of Moses and then just keep going through the Prophets, you find that the world described in there is actually not a one-god world.
Take, for example, when Moses and Aaron go to confront Pharaoh and the Egyptian priests. The priests throw down their staffs, which turn into snakes. Aaron throws down his staff too, which also turns into a snake and eats the other snakes before turning back into a staff. The moral of the story as far as religion is concerned is that “Our God is more powerful than your god”. But that ignores the fact that the Egyptians were able to turn their staffs into snakes! The Egyptian magic is there in the story too, and it’s there based on their own gods. There is still a lot of mystery involved, but it sure seems like the one true God is only ‘true’ because he’s more powerful.
And not necessarily nicer, either. Because the other moral of the story of the Bible is that God is exceptionally unforgiving and completely willing to cause massive collateral damage for his own purposes. You have the story of the ten plagues where before God sends Moses back to Pharaoh he tells Moses, “I’m going to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let you go, and then I’m going to send plagues to punish the Egyptians, and the Egyptian gods. After that, I’m going to free you”. The point all along is to make the rivers run red with blood and to kill the Egyptian first-born and all that. That’s all part of the plan.
The Enlightenment notion of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – well, that’s totally foreign to the text.
So I really wanted to tell a story in a setting that feels like the one I see in the Bible. I might add elves and dragons and other fantasy elements, but I really wanted to capture this notion that the gods are terrifying. All of them. They’re hugely powerful, incredibly strict, and frighteningly mysterious. It’s the fact that they are so mysterious at the same time that they’re strict, that makes them so frightening. Because it would be one thing if the gods said, “You eat the ham, I slay you”. It’s something else entirely when you have to guess what’s going to please them. Because if you guess wrong, you’re dead.
I feel that’s the world our ancestors lived in. As far as they were concerned, who knew why a plague happened? It must be their gods punishing them, but what for? Were they punishing them because they gave the wrong sacrifices at the wrong time, or because they didn’t mean it enough when they gave the sacrifice? Was it because they refused to sacrifice their children, or because they did sacrifice their children?
All they knew was that they were being punished. And so that’s the kind of existential terror I wanted to bring across. I wanted the reader to think “What do these gods want out of them?”
In the world of Silent Hall, it is certain the gods are there, and that they might kill you. But even though there’s no doubt of their existence, not like there is for some of us nowadays, that doesn’t help much because nobody knows what they want! A whole people are wiped out, and those people don’t know if their god lost a battle, or if their god just hates them.
This was essentially the core of the world, and everything else was trimmings. The theology is the beating heart of the story. But it’s also not something that can ever have a single satisfactory answer, so there’s lots of room for me to explore. How the world works is the central mystery that will sustain this story throughout the series.