Doing Crappy Things to Good Characters: A Conversation with Jim C. Hines
What do a near-sighted, runt-of-the-litter goblin named Jig and a clear-eyed, big-witted storyteller named Jim have in common? A big heart? Determination? A pet fire-spider named Smudge?
Jim C. Hines is the author of Goblin Quest, Goblin Hero, Goblin War, The Stepsister Scheme, and the forthcoming The Mermaid’s Madness (DAW, October 2009). He’s also the co-editor with Martin H. Greenberg of the anthology Heroes in Training. Hines’ story, “Blade of the Bunny” won the Writers of the Future contest in 1998, and since then he has published over forty stories in magazines and anthologies, including “Gift of the Kites” in the October 2008 issue of Clarkesworld.
Hines has a knack for surprising readers and reinventing the familiar elements of fantasy. His goblins are protagonists. His cowards are heroes. And his princesses kick butt. Mostly, though, Hines likes to do really crappy things to unprepared adventurers.
How long do you suppose you and Jig from the Goblin series could spend in an enclosed space together?
Forty-five seconds. Maybe less. The problem is that in order for me to write an entertaining book, I have to do really crappy things to the characters. Who wants to read about someone who goes skipping through life, showered in rainbows and puppies while the bluebird of happiness sings Disney tunes? Books need conflict and struggle and obstacles.
Jig, being a goblin, probably wouldn’t want to sit down with his author and have a nice, civilized discussion about why I put him through everything from fighting a war to healing a nose-picking injury. He’d just gut me to make sure I never did it again.
What’s funny in fiction?
Nose-picking injuries. Drunk gnomes. Puppets freaking out and blowing away other innocent puppets.
Most of the time, I find that humor works best for me when it comes from the characters. Jig the goblin was great for this, because he was a total coward. A heroic coward, but still a coward. Watching him rail against fate and try to find creative ways of staying alive was just fun.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that the story has to come first. If a scene is funny, that’s great, but the scene also has to advance the story. That way even if the jokes don’t work for you, there’s still a good (hopefully) story to read and enjoy. Whereas if I start writing scenes that do nothing but go for the laughs, I’m losing everyone who doesn’t share my sense of humor.
What does humor allow you to do that a straight out, “serious” fantasy adventure wouldn’t?
I think humor lets me run a little further with ideas. Reductio ad absurdum, if I want to be all pretentious about it. Take the whole concept of creatures that magically regenerate wounds. Interesting . . . now add goblins, a cannibalistic race. Capture a few trolls, and you’ve got an endless troll buffet! Troll toes for everyone!
You played Dungeons and Dragons when you were younger. What did roleplaying games teach you about writing fiction?
My very first (thankfully unpublished) attempts at fiction came from role-playing games, writing back-stories and then moving beyond the game to write new stories about favorite characters. I think one of the most important lessons was the discovery that simply turning a game into a story doesn’t work.
The game relies on the dice to introduce a random element and keep things interesting for the players. In a story, nothing happens randomly. Every scene, every action, every line of dialogue is chosen by the author for a reason. Characters fail or succeed based on what’s right for the story, and what makes sense for their characters.
I’ve also found that the tendency to “railroad” characters in a game comes up in fiction as well. (Railroading being the game master’s efforts to force everyone down a specific plotline, often at the cost of fun and free will on the part of the players.) I tend to come up with plot first, so once I start writing the story, I realize I’m forcing the characters into actions and situations that make no sense. This is where you end up with idiot plots, characters making incredibly stupid choices because it’s the only way the plot will work. (Villains are especially famous for this.) In games and stories both, railroading sucks the life and fun right out of the experience.
Where did you start with building the world of the Goblin series?
The original idea for Goblin Quest was pretty straightforward. I wanted to take your typical fantasy adventure with all the trimmings and tell the story from the monster’s point of view. I wanted it to be funny, but I also wanted to get deeper into the culture and mindset of the monsters. Goblins are always around for the heroes to slaughter, but what are they doing there? How do they survive? What do they hunt, what’s their relationship with the other monsters like, how do they treat one another, and so on? Trying to answer all of these questions is how I built the goblins’ mountain and lair.
The biggest way the world evolved was in its growth over the three books. In book two, Goblin Hero, we get into the deeper caves, finding some of the abandoned lairs. Then we get out of the mountain and start to see the outside world in book three, Goblin War. I’d like to say I had the whole world planned out from page one. I wish it worked that way . . . it would have made the later books a lot easier to write!
Have we seen the last of the Goblin books?
I have no immediate plans for another goblin book, but anything’s possible. I’ve got a title in mind, but no story to go with it, beyond knowing it would take Jig and the goblins into the larger world of politics and kingdom rivalries and such. Writing a palace scene of Jig at court would be a blast!
That said, I’m in no hurry. I feel like the three goblin books gave me the chance to show Jig’s growth and tell his story. It ended in a good place, and I don’t want to write another one purely for the sake of getting more books out there. We’ve all read series that should have been retired a while back. I don’t want to write one of those, so I’m not going to do more goblins unless and until I come up with something new for Jig and company.
There’s quite a difference between a character like Jig and a character like Danielle from The Stepsister Scheme.
The goblin books were more humorous than the princess series, and there were things I could get away with when writing about goblins that just wouldn’t work for fairy tale princesses. Goblins talking about feasting on that poor dwarf who couldn’t run fast enough? Funny! Princesses having the same conversation? Disturbing. (Though now that I think about it, that could be a fun story to write too. Hm . . . )
Jig and Danielle both had the same basic challenge of being swept up in an adventure they weren’t completely prepared for, but their goals were very different. Jig’s easy to write. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep alive. Danielle’s motives are a little deeper, her conflicts less straightforward and up front.
You have a tendency to reinvent things the reader thinks he or she knows about—goblins, Cinderella. What is it about this mechanism that excites you creatively?
I was an English major in grad school, and while I had mixed feelings about literary criticism, I loved deconstructionism. I loved taking established ideas, disassembling them, and figuring out where they worked and where they fell apart. Ever since my daughter went through her princess phase, I knew I wanted to write some kick-butt fairy tales. The trick was taking apart those old tales and finding what worked and what didn’t, grabbing onto those “what if” moments. “What if Sleeping Beauty took those fairy gifts of grace and dance and used them to develop her fighting skills?” or “What happened to all those princes who didn’t make it through the hedge to save her?”
The biggest pitfall is that I seem to have started my career right around the time Dreamworks decided to do some fantasy spoofs of their own. Every time I turn in a finished project, they come out with another Shrek movie that does some of the same things as in my book. (My readers might notice that ogres don’t do well in my goblin books.)
In addition to the novels, you’re still writing a good many short stories these days. Do you prefer one to the other?
Earlier this month, I took a quick break from the novel I’ve been working on since August to do a short story for an urban fantasy anthology. I finished the draft in a week, revised it, and submitted it about midway through June. I absolutely love being able to play with an idea and turn it into a finished story so quickly. It lets me play more, knowing if I screw it up, I haven’t poured as much of my life into the process.
That said, I tend to prefer novels. I like having more time to get to know the characters, to get into deeper plotlines and secondary stories, to focus on more than the immediate incident. They’re more work and take a lot more time, but I also think the reward is greater.
What’s the best part about writing fiction of any length?
Writing is great, and it’s hard to pick a single best part. Hearing from readers is wonderful, especially the ones who tell you your books made a real difference to them. The goblin books are very light fantasy, but even they can have an impact. I’ve heard from teachers who told me Goblin Quest got a student to start reading, or people who brought my books to the hospital and were able to escape the stress and pain for a while.
The worst part is probably the sacrifices you have to make in order to really build a career. Every day I come home and choose whether to write another page in the book or to spend time with my wife and children. I try to put my family first, and to balance everything out the best I can, but there are always compromises. Sometimes it’s easy to choose the writing over a rerun of Scrubs. Other times, it’s knowing that if I accept that anthology invite, I’ll lose a week of being able to roughhouse with the kids in the evenings.
I’ve learned there’s an awful lot of my job that doesn’t actually involve writing fiction, which is peculiar. A lot more of my time these days is taken up by responding to fans, doing conventions, networking with other writers, trying to keep up on the industry, publicity, and so on. I try to make sure I still write a minimum of an hour a day (though I sometimes skip weekends), but I often find myself spending as much time on the non-writing aspects of being a writer than on the actual writing.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing Red Hood’s Revenge, the third book in the princess series. In addition to exploring Red Riding Hood: Badass Assassin, I’m also delving a lot deeper into Talia’s backstory. Talia comes from a desert culture, so I’ve been doing a lot of work to try to develop that part of the world in a realistic way, one that doesn’t just rip off the trappings of Middle Eastern cultures and mythologies from our own world. Beyond that, I think the biggest challenge is making sure each of my three main characters continue to grow and develop as the series progresses.