t is a truth universally acknowledged, that a reader in possession of a fantasy novel must be in want of masterful magic, a sequence of fantastic fight scenes, and a kick-ass hero with a cool sword (or two).
As we all know, R.A. Salvatore delivers all that in spades. For more than thirty years, his books about the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden have delighted fantasy fans around the world. But it takes more than magic and mayhem to make a book series that can stand that test of time.
As with Pride and Prejudice, it’s the inner life of Salvatore’s characters that draw us in and won’t let us go. Drizzt is simply a terrific character—visually distinctive on the outside and multi-layered on the inside. He exemplifies one of my first principles of good writing: create a hero that turns our expectations upside down. Where most dark elves are evil beings, Drizzt is a man of integrity and honor. Even his lavender eyes set him apart. He’s the ultimate outsider—no matter how far he travels, from his early days in Menzoberranzan to his latest wanderings across spellplagued Faerûn, he simply cannot fit in. It’s who he is—and it’s why we relate to him so well. Because who hasn’t felt like an outsider at one time or another?
Editors and authors spend a lot of time and energy analyzing how to make good characters that connect with our readers. Erin M. Evans, author of Brimstone Angels—which tells the story of Farideh, a female tiefling who enters into a pact with a cambion devil— posed this question to our WoTC Book Club members:
[Brimstone Angels] has a bit of a nontraditional protagonist in a couple of ways. I've definitely heard concerns that a non-human character is too much for readers to get behind, and a teen-aged girl is off-putting to male readers. Did either of these things provide a barrier to you? What do you think of this truism?
For the record—as an editor, I would never presume to dictate to an author a character’s race or gender. But it is question I’ve wondered about as well. Do our readers connect as well with the female characters in our books? Is there something about a non-human character that puts readers off—even for just a moment? Would you be as inclined to purchase a book knowing the hero wasn’t a traditional adult male fighter or wizard or whatever you expect to find in a Forgotten Realms novel?
Erin’s question prompted a flurry of responses from the members of our book club, who discounted the notion that a non-human or a female would have turned them off her book. Ultimately, I believe that readers will get behind any well-written character—male or female, dark or light skinned, horned or tailed. Erin’s readers in our book club responded so well to her story not because Farideh is a female or a tiefling, but because Erin wrote that female tiefling and the many other non-human characters in the story so convincingly they seemed real.
Our latest—and highest profile—release of the year, R.A. Salvatore’s Charon’s Claw, the third book in the Neverwinter Saga, features a non-human female character: the indomitable Dahlia Sin’Felle. Both as an editor and a fan, I find Dahlia one of the most compelling characters that R.A. Salvatore has invented. Drizzt, of course, remains the hero of that story. But a secondary character needs as much dimension as the protagonist. People exist in relationships and so should good characters—a character doesn’t feel real without a strong counterpoint. And Dahlia is strong! Not only is she a fierce fighter with a fantastic magic weapon, Kozah’s Needle, but she has emotional layers galore and a fascinating (though horrific) backstory. Throughout the Neverwinter Saga, she has surprised me. Her attitude and actions have proven a dynamic counterpoint to Drizzt’s logical demeanor, making him question and push himself (for better or for worse) in directions that he might not have discovered alone. In Charon’s Claw, Dahlia’s actions continue to lead Drizzt down a dark road and he wrestles with how she’s changing him and whether it’s all worthwhile. She has a lot to hide—especially from Drizzt—and in this latest book, she finds a connection with someone new, someone to whom she feels she can reveal her secrets, adding an even more interesting complication to Drizzt’s storyline.
Secrets are another of my principles of good writing. All good characters have secrets. And it’s no surprise that all the characters in Charon’s Claw have fascinating secrets that slowly come to light. Even the titular weapon of the tale, the sentient sword Charon’s Claw, has something to hide—further proving it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it. Race, gender, consciousness? It doesn’t matter. In the hands of a master storyteller like R.A. Salvatore anything, even an inanimate object, can come to life.