Wowhead Interview with Christie Golden: Writing Sylvanas, the Challenges and Process
This week the latest World of Warcraft novel,
, by Christie Golden was released. We had the opportunity to ask Golden a few questions about the book and her process, and she was gracious enough to grant us expert insight into the challenge of writing such a complex character.
Interview: Christie Golden
: Sylvanas must be a daunting character to write, and in this book we see her go from an Elf child to the Sylvanas as we know her today. I think you did a wonderful job at keeping her voice consistent despite these changes - not only throughout the book, but when compared to glimpses of her we've seen in previous books, such as War Crimes and Before the Storm. You have been writing Sylvanas for a long, long time, and we've seen her story take many twists and turns. I know Blizzard gives you certain instructions when writing any character or story - have these instructions for Sylvanas changed notably over time at all?
: It's not so much that I receive instructions on how to write a character than that I'm briefed on the goal of the story. If I have to take a character on a journey from point A to point Z, it does help me if Blizzard has some ideas of what they want to see along the way. Usually I'm approached with the main concept and some key things they want to see. We'll go back and forth until we have an outline we're all happy with and then I start the first draft. Because I am deeply familiar with so many of the characters, I sometimes discover new things in the actual writing process that I think we may want to chase that weren't necessarily in the outline. Sometimes those ideas may even go against something we agreed upon, and we'll discuss the best way forward. In recent years I have been fortunate enough to help direct Patty Mattson in some of the cinematics, and getting to work with her has really honed my ability to connect with Sylvanas.
: This book, while not narrated in the first person, is framed as Sylvanas telling the story of her life to Anduin. This adds a couple of interesting twists. Firstly, she has an agenda, she needs to convince Anduin to buy into her view and we know she’s not above lying to get what she wants. Secondly she isn’t honest with herself. She speaks of being unlovable while sitting next to Nathanos who loves her completely. She speaks of not being capable of love, yet goes to great lengths to retrieve Nathanos and keep him by her side - bringing him back from the scourge which had never been done before or since. When she retrieves her body, which she went to great lengths to find, her body language speaks of a joy that she claims she can’t feel. Writing a story like this with such an unreliable narrator must have some pretty unique challenges. You have to deal with what she wants to say, what she believes, and still be aware that what comes out of this will be canon. Can you talk about this a little?
: It was wonderful to start so early with the character, and seed this attitude in her so it could grow. The Windrunner family was full of very strong individuals who nonetheless loved each other, and Sylvanas had to deal with so very much. There were points where she couldn't go forward in the way she felt she needed to or wanted to--or, indeed, go forward at all--if she didn't construct solid reasons and sometimes rationalizations. Sometimes the lies were white, to protect others; sometimes not nearly so innocent. I think we all do something similar at times; it's self-protection. There are things we're not ready to deal with just yet, particularly regarding grief or trauma, and the brain protects us in various ways till we are ready to handle that emotion or situation. Sometimes we need time to accept a reality; sometimes the reality is so harsh we cannot accept it at all. I enjoyed the challenge; the twist is that the reader gets to watch Sylvanas reason it out, and, hopefully, says to themselves, "You're totally kidding yourself, but I get it." We get the same sort of experience watching her make choices that take her down a dark path. It's fun to write. :)
: Sylvanas has two lives, her life as an Elf, the child and the Ranger General, and her life after death, the banshee slave and the Banshee Queen. There is a distinct tonal shift in the book from her alive life to her dead life. The alive section is vivid, detailed, storylike. The dead section covers a huge amount of ground in a relatively short span. Was this due to length/time, or to perhaps contrast her living perception against her dead perception? How did you approach her two lives, the vast history, and the major events that need to be included?
: There are a lot of reasons for that tonal shift. Some choices were out of necessity, others were stylistic choices. The "alive" section is full of things that are new to the reader, so they're coming from a sense of discovery about her that is simply not possible when we revisit scenes that many readers may have played through in game and remember quite well, so you as the writer go into that section knowing you've lost lose that element of novelty and freshness. The first part also has the benefit of being, well, alive, and is hopefully written to convey the innate energy of life. I wanted to show the place she came from; the girl who was horrified to think a prank actually made someone afraid for their life, a young woman who laughed easily and loved fiercely who had all that taken from her, piece by piece, up to and including her life and, as we learn, a piece of her soul. She did go from light into darkness in many ways. On a practical, construction level, in a book where you're retreading familiar ground, it's always tricky to figure out what to skip, summarize, touch on briefly, touch on heavily but with a different perspective, etc. You have so many goals in the book--to not bore those familiar with the scenes, but to not leave out those who picked up a book and aren't familiar with the world. You have to move the story along etc. We chose to focus on scenes that were direct connections to Sylvanas regarding what the Jailer had told her, which means that many moments in her unliving years that didn't directly affect the plot were not addressed or else were summarized.
: Let's talk about the Jailer, the elekk in this room. Obviously the Jailer took advantage of her trauma, he played on it and manipulated her to see what he wanted her to. One of the injustices that strikes her is that loved ones are “never” reunited in the Shadowlands, yet we know that this is a lie on the part of the jailer, through the valkyr; in Ardenweald, for example, Thiernax and Qadarin are a couple just as they were in life. Under the pretense of allowing her to make her own decision, he gives her years to ponder what to do. She dies her second death, speaks to the Jailer, and returns to Azeroth in Cataclysm, but she only commits to joining the Jailer at the start of Legion. Can you speak a little bit to the challenges that came with revealing this other half of the story with the Jailer?
: I'm stealing that elekk line. :) Her decision to become his partner (in her mind) wasn't made immediately. The Jailer was very careful about what he said and what Sylvanas saw. Ironically, just as Sylvanas wanted Anduin to join willingly, Zovaal wanted her to do the same. She had to convince herself; he couldn't force her into anything. He knew how hard she would resist if he tried. When Sylvanas returned to Azeroth, the Jailer gave her specific signs to watch for, and said she would see many things that would convince her that nothing was fair. What was exciting about that is that we revisited many key moments in her life, and found that if we looked at those events thinking "was this fate/event fair, or deserved?" it was surprising how many times we realized...no, it wasn't. It could indeed be interpreted as unfair or unjust. I'll go into this a bit more in a later question, but it was kind of chilling, actually, to explore confirmation bias so deeply.
: As players, we are told that she was searching for a way to perpetuate the Forsaken, but she was really running errands for the Jailer. In all this time did she never see the incongruencies? Her rejection by Vereesa seemed like the final straw that maybe made her throw in with the Jailer? Was it, in the end, for her family that she wanted to remake reality? What was it that made a creature as sly and manipulative as the Jailer, with Mal’ganis as a minion no less, be a better option than what she had? Did she go all in with blinders on?
: Lots of threads to explore in this question! Earlier, I talked about setting her up to be someone who can compartmentalize and rationalize in order to achieve her goals. We had heard the line "arrows in my quiver" many times before, and we've watched her compromise her living self's integrity for something she feels is greater and more important. For those who've read the book, I'll just say--remember the woundwood, the bear, and Arthas. Sacrifices needed to be made for what she perceives as justice, and the deeper she gets, the more she has to do to convince herself that's what she's after. Vereesa's rejection was so painful, it brought her to the point of truly wanting to do what the Jailer said she needed to do--to eradicate all the softness and caring fully. Later, the Jailer had said to her, there will be time for kindness, but Sylvanas must be hard, must not falter, must not take any of the gentler things forward if she is to achieve what he has convinced her is right. If you truly believe that life is the enemy, and death is unjust, temporary suffering might be the price to pay for eternal happiness. As all of us have experienced, when something is on our mind, we subconsciously are on the "lookout" for it. When you are thinking about buying a red car, suddenly you see one every time you're out and about. It was a lot of fun to look at various moments in her life they way she might--and see there a grave unfairness.
: Patty Mattson, the voice actor who performs Sylvanas in World of Warcraft and Heroes of the Storm, is reading the audiobook version of Sylvanas. This is tremendously exciting and will doubtless be a treat. As an added bonus, the first person/third person dichotomy gets a new twist with the voice telling the story in the third person being the voice of the first person… Just wording it is all twisty. Did you get to talk to Patty about the book and how she plans to read it? Did you have any input on her performance? Did anyone ever say, hey, let's have someone else read the interludes and make this a performance piece? Did you ever once think, let’s rewrite this in the first person because how awesome would that be?
: We're so fortunate to be able to have her do the narration! Novelists don't usually have the chance to interact with the narrators of their books (just as they don't have, usually, much or any input in the cover choice or the back cover copy.) That's just not part of the average writer's task; the publisher has other skilled folks who attend to that. While I'm a bit different in that now I write and am often invited to help direct a cinematic recording session, I did not direct her in reading the book. We did chat just a little bit, but now that I myself have been directed for book narration, I have a good idea of what goes into that and have trust in the director. The publisher and recording studios make the call about one or more narrators, music, sound effects--anything that has to do with the direct production. On Blizzard's end, we did discuss first person, but that is extremely challenging with very little wiggle room and we didn't want to lose any tools in our toolkit to tell the story in the best and clearest way possible. Writing in a solid POV with third person is something I've done a lot of and feel quite comfortable with. You're right...it sure is a challenge to the narrator, but I am 100% certain Patty will do her usual magnificent job.
: Thank you very much for talking to us. This book is wonderful, easily one of your very best and a treat to read. The love and compassion that you bring to this troubled character is palpable.
: Thank you for your questions! So pleased you enjoyed the book, it was indeed a labor of love, and I'm glad that shines through.
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Check out our coverage related to this title:
Sylvanas Review What Deal did Sylvanas Make With the Jailer? Questions About Sylvanas' Involvement in the Wrathgate Finally Answered
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