R.A. Salvatore got his start writing Dungeons & Dragons-inspired stories about the dark elf hero Drizzt Do’urden but went on to create his own high fantasy world, Corona. Salvatore has returned to the setting of The DemonWars Saga in Child of a Mad God, which follows Aoleyn, a young girl struggling with her ambitions to become a witch and the brutal practices of her barbarian tribe, the Usgar. Salvatore spoke with me about developing his characters and what gaming means to him.
Unbound Worlds: How does this book fit into The DemonWars Saga?
R.A. Salvatore: It starts at the very end of the seventh book of the original series, Immortalis, and then goes beyond that. Having said that, it’s not really tied to the original DemonWars Saga. It’s in a new part of the world with a new story and new characters that really aren’t related, at least not yet. It may tie together later. But I wanted to write a book that anyone could pick up and read, whether or not they’ve ever read a book in Corona or any of my other books.
UW: Do you plan to have Child of a Mad God be the first of a new trilogy?
RAS: At least. I’m finishing up the second book now and I already know what I’m doing in the next book. I always think of things in terms in trilogies, but I’m telling stories about new characters that I care a lot about so we’ll just see where the story takes me. Maybe it will be two books; maybe it will be 20. I don’t know. I’m just having fun.
UW: Aoleyn like Drizzt is a good person from an evil society. What interests you about that concept?
RAS: I think it’s easier to be a good person from a good society and it’s not really worth writing too much about if you’re an evil person from a good society or an evil person from an evil society. Also, you say an evil society but I would argue that the Usgar as portrayed in this book are pretty typical of human history. I can show you a million examples of this sort of attitude and brutality.
UW: A lot of terrible things happen to characters in this book. How do you approach dealing with some of heavier themes you’re exploring?
RAS: I always find the truth of the characters when I put them under pressure, and under pressure usually means bad. To me, if you’re going to do fantasy there has to be action. If there’s going to be action, there’s going to be pain or it’s not going to be believable. If there’s going to be action dealing with humans and not monsters I really need to explore the gray areas. Aoleyn goes through some pretty horrific stuff, but she can keep it in perspective. Or can she? I don’t know yet. That will be part of her character development going forward. At one point she wishes she had killed someone, even though she had never killed someone in her life. This is how I learn about the characters. This is how the readers learn about the characters. Everyone out there has gone through something bad in their lives. If you can’t see that in the characters through whom you’re living through vicariously in reading a novel, they won’t connect to you as much.
UW: Characters in this book struggle with the thought of killing people, even people who arguably deserve to die. You’ve also written book set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons where players are constantly killing people. How do you reconcile those things?
RAS: Dungeons & Dragons is a game of dice. Some people get into it and try to make it more than that. If you look back in the early Drizzt books, the first time Catti-brie kills somebody she’s horrified. If [killing] comes really easy to you then I probably have a problem with you. It should be a traumatic experience. You’re dealing with something that’s as brutal as can be.
UW: When you last spoke to Unbound Worlds in 2015, you described some of your early works as sexist. Is that part of why you address sexism so directly in Child of a Mad God?
RAS: I think it’s time. I think it’s way past time. The sexism among the characters in this book is pretty traditional and pretty horrible. But I’m not trying to be preachy about it. Aoleyn kicks butt because Aoleyn kicks butt. She happens to be a woman.
UW: What do you enjoy about writing an original world versus telling stories in an established one?
RAS: For most of the books I did with TSR and then Wizards of the Coast in the Forgotten Realms it was almost an original world. I was kind of staying out of the way and I had my own areas that I created. The only thing I really wasn’t free of was the magic system. I had to kind of follow the game. I didn’t have to religiously obey the rules, but I had to make the story make sense within the context of those. That wasn’t really a big deal. But with DemonWars I spent a lot of time creating this world — many many months before I wrote the first book in ‘94. I like that aspect of it. Now as I go forward I enjoy having the freedom to kill characters. I can kill anyone I want any time I want and I do often. I can reshape the world or blow up major cities without permission.
UW: How do you think your experience gaming has affected your writing?
RAS: I hope it hasn’t. I think gaming has allowed me to understand the audience a little better, but when I’m writing it’s very different than playing a game. Playing a game there’s so much chance involved. There are tactics involved in a game that don’t translate into real life. Characters in a game are not real characters unless you have really good players. When I’m writing a book, I’m giving people heroes to live through vicariously. If you’re a good Dungeon Master or game writer for any RPG, you understand the most important character is the one the player is playing. They don’t want to be led by the nose. They want to write their own story.
UW: Why do you think Dungeons & Dragons and gaming in general is going through such a resurgence at the moment?
RAS: The human contact of those games is phenomenal. Sitting around the table with a bunch of folks and just having a good time and ordering pizza is like poker night without losing money. The other thing is that there’s been a big surge of women who’ve decided they want to be part of that community and play. I’ve found that brings a whole different social aspect to the games that’s usually incredibly positive. We have so little human contact and that’s a good way to have it. I’ve never gone away from tabletop gaming.