He Had to Die: A Conversation with David Weber
David Weber has been writing about Honor Harrington for twenty years. The original proposals, as sent to Jim Baen back in the 90s, promised space opera featuring a female naval officer. Harrington was supposed to die in the fifth book in the series. That was half a dozen books ago. Harrington owes her longevity to the fact that her character doesn't stagnate; she grows from novel to novel.
"Honor Harrington is no James T. Kirk, forever a starship captain," said Weber. "She's becoming a player on a bigger and bigger scale."
Harrington is not always the central character in the Honorverse novels but she is, as Weber put it, "the focusing glass." Harrington is a rare character in military fiction. She is a woman who leads, not as a man with a woman's name, but as a leader who happens to be a woman.
After twenty years and eleven novels (with more finished and awaiting release), Weber finds himself in a bit of a tight spot. Each Honorverse novel offers him fewer and fewer plot options. He must plot more and more precisely. Yet, as plot possibilities narrow, character options open up and his characters have more flexibility in their interactions. The result has been decisively positive. Each of Weber's subsequent novels, in and out of the Honorverse, becomes more and more character-driven without losing any of the fast-paced action. Much of this has to do with the way Weber develops his characters: he throws them into a scene and waits to see what happens next.
There is more than just Honor Harrington on Weber's bookshelf. He's been writing professionally since his teens and publishing novels since his mid-thirties. In addition to a handful of standalones, Weber has written or contributed to a wide variety of series, including the Assiti Shards/Ring of Fire, Dahak, Empire of Man, Multiverse, Starfire, War God, Bolo!, and Furies series. In addition to the Honorverse, he's actively writing novels in the Safehold Saga and the new series that begins with his recent novel, Out of the Dark.
All in all, Weber publishes more than half a million words a year despite a nearly-crippling wrist injury in the 1990s. The accident left him with a shattered wrist and a looming deadline. The doctors put in pins and screws. Undaunted, Weber invested in voice recognition software. The software, if anything, has increased his productivity.
Each of Weber's books is thick, complex, and gripping. His world-building is thorough and steeped in a love of military history, politics, and human nature. Not to mention technology. Furthermore, he learned from reading the novels of Robert Heinlein, as Weber put it, that "you might as well write what you meant to say."
And Weber has a lot to say. Weber's characters are responsibility takers. They don't complain or whine. They don't let their good intentions make them sanctimonious. They know they live in a world where "no one gets free pass." Like Keith Laumer, Weber favors the story of "the competent human being who is going to do what needs to be done regardless of cost."
Below, Weber and I talk about characterization, violence, and his new, unintentional series that started with the novella "Out of the Dark" which became the novel Out of the Dark. I've done my best to avoid spoilers but I've left a few in because they illustrate Weber's writing process. The interview concludes with Weber playing around with some possible directions for the new series.
"I don't have one story I want to tell in perfect fashion," Weber said. "I have a lot of stories I need to tell."
And those stories are built around characters. So that's where we began.
Do your characters ever really surprise you? Not minor surprises, either, but in major story arc altering ways. Surprises that really mess with the big picture, with the whole series.
Not in the Honorverse books. In a couple of other books I've had trouble with characters going where I expected them to go, especially in terms of personal relationships. I don't try to nail things down in too much detail before I write the book. I'm having to do more of that now because of the need to coordinate my timeline. I'd plan something like, "Courier boat departs Manticore for Spindle with news of Eloise Pritchart's arrival. And here's the date." I know how long it takes that courier boat to get to Spindle. That kind of detail planning I have to do now simply because of the distances involved. But in terms of absolutely detailed planning on how the characters are going to develop? That I let happen by ear.
For example, I knew that Hamish and Honor were going to wind up together. Originally, I planned on their not marrying and on Emily realizing what was going on and essentially covering for them. Eventually Emily would die, and Honor would marry Hamish.
Well, two things happened. One is I discovered that I like Emily even more than I expected to. The other one was that watching these characters interact and having structured the societies of Manticore and Grayson the way that I have [certain things] became inevitable. But I didn't plan it that way.
If I know the character is going to be a central, important character, I try to get the physical image of the character in my mind. I try to get the main personality traits, the ones that are the main motivators in this character's life, in place. Not in a lot of detail. I just know this is how this person thinks. Then I throw the character into a scene. Sometimes the scene determines what this character is going to have to be. Then I just let that person be whatever that person has to be.
When I introduced Andrew LaFollet, I knew he was going to be a Grayson armsman. I knew what the basic mindset of a Grayson armsman was and I knew that he was going to be personally dedicated to Honor. I can't remember if I ever told people in the books but Andrew's brother was an officer in the Protector's palace security. He was killed in an assassination attempt that Honor foiled. Andrew volunteered for the Protector's guard because Honor completed the task Andrew's brother had been unable to complete in protecting the Protector and his family. Andrew joined her guard originally to repay that debt. Then, of course, probably, I think, I suspect that if Andrew had not been a Grayson armsman and if he had been a Prolong recipient, then his relationship with Honor might have been much closer to her relationship with Hamish. It was unthinkable for him to initiate something like that, though. He just could not have done it. And it was equally unthinkable for her to do it because of her position of authority and because she was a Prolong recipient and he wasn't. That was one reason Honor made him her son's armsman. In many ways, Hamish was a surrogate father and a surrogate husband. All of that was going on in the back of my brain, but I never formulated it specifically for the reader.
And in some ways I hadn't realized it for myself until I looked at the scene and said, "That's why he did it!"
You talk about your characters as though you read your books instead of write them.
I write the book to find out how the book comes out. That's what let's me maintain the production level that I maintain.
For a long time I knew people would be angry at me for killing Andrew in Mission of Honor. It was a given. I was surprised by how many people said — as I'd hoped they would — that he died the way he would've wanted to die. For want of a better term, his was a good death.
But I wrote the scene four or five times and tried not killing him and the book didn't work. It took me a while to figure out why that was. Then it hit me. Honor had lost practically her entire family on Sphinx, but aside from an occasional name you hadn't actually met them. You knew Andrew. So when Honor lost him, you understood her pain, and, therefore, by extension, you understood the pain of the loss of all those people you'd never met.
That's why Andrew had to die.
What it came down to, for me, was, "I can't kill Andrew. I gotta kill Andrew. Why do I have to kill Andrew?"
If killing Andrew had been easy, then he wouldn't have had to die, right?
If you are going to write about violence, if you're going to write military fiction — whether science fiction, present day, or historical — you have to play fair with the reader. Most Americans, despite this rap we've got as a violent society—most Americans actually have very little personal experience with violence. The images and the attitudes we have are formed by what we see on TV and in the movies. We see occasional real violence on TV but most of what we see is Hollywood's interpretation of it. And it's not accurate. It desensitizes us. In On Killing, Dave Grossman is onto something when he talks about desensitization of people who are exposed again and again to this casual violence. Grossman's thesis, like any thesis, can be over-stretched but I think it is fundamentally correct.
One of the responsibilities you have when you are going to write violence is not to glamorize the combat. I have an immense respect for the military. My personal philosophy is that until human beings turn into something we will no longer recognize, a military organization is going to be necessary. If there's not something to make people stop, someone is going to keep right on pushing. That's the bottom line.
As though violence is hard-wired into us? Into our societies?
The problem is that it doesn't take a lot of Osama bin Ladens to create a large amount of chaos in the world. People can differ with the best way to deal with that sort of situation, but ultimately any solution which isn't based on the use of force is operating on credit. You have to have the capability to cover your debt with military force. Ultimately. Even if you never use it. The other guy has to know it's there. Otherwise, it's like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, saying, "What are you going to do to us?"
I can see some moral arguments in favor of Iran possessing nuclear weapons; moral arguments [along the lines of] if other people have them what right does someone who possesses them have to say, "No, you can't have them." But it's not a moral question for me, it's a pragmatic question. Absent of some means of compelling Ahmadinejad not to develop nuclear weapons, he's going to develop them. That's just the way that it is.
And that's why the military is always going to be necessary.
Military service is a high calling. War can evoke the absolute best in human beings, such as the willingness to sacrifice anything for a cause you believe in, but it is always a nasty, horrible business at the sharp end. I try to make that clear in the books. Some people operate on the theory that you can't possibly write it as bad as it really is... so you write it as bad as you can. I think you lose the argument when you do that, because it leads to desensitization. It just goes on and on and on and the reader eventually turns it off.
I prefer more of what I think of as the Alfred Hitchcock approach. If you look at the shower scene in Psycho, you never see a blow land. You know exactly what happened but you never see a single blow land. I prefer to do it that way and then every so often hit the reader square between the eyes with a vignette that is stark and shows what happens when you hit a human body with a high velocity projectile. One of my main hobby areas is firearms and I was a deer hunter for many years, so I know what happens when a high velocity projectile hits a living body and it is not what Hollywood normally portrays.
Looking back over 20 years of novels, are there any scenes in which you got it wrong, got the violence wrong. Scenes in which you glamorized combat or were too soft or went too far?
I don't have a specific scene in mind... but sometimes, I think, the most effective way to deal with violence is to not deal with it at all. Set up a situation and the reader knows what is going to happen and then just — don't show it.
The series that starts with Out of the Dark—
I thought Out of the Dark was going to be a standalone. I found out when I saw the press release that it was going to be a series. If I'd known that it was a series I wouldn't have been quite so enthusiastic about putting the family into it. Anyone who knows us [the Webers], will recognize the Dvoraks [a family central to Out of the Dark.]
I love this book precisely because of the Dvoraks! Out of the Dark is perhaps the most human book you've written (and that's not a criticism of you other novels but a compliment to this one). Out of the Dark is—
These people, the Dvoraks are crazy! You know, a lot of people were angry with me because they didn't see the left turn coming, the one I took with the vampires. It was less a problem for the people who'd read the novella "Out of the Dark". Tom Doherty [of TOR] really loved the novella and he wanted me to expand it. And I said, "Sure!" Well, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at TOR, assumed I would expand it by adding onto the end of it. The teaser he sent to Amazon starts right out talking about the vampires, because the novella's like 30,000 words long and the the novel is like 110,000 words, so he figured he wouldn't really be giving much away since that'd all happen in the first third of the book. But the novel ends almost exactly where the novella ends. I went back in and inserted additional plot strands. Patrick likes what I did better than what he thought I was going to do but we'd given away the surprise ending. We wrote a new teaser. If you read the flap copy on Out of the Dark there is nothing in there at all to suggest that anything occult or supernatural is coming. And a lot of people were expecting hard science fiction and they were really pissed when I pulled the vampires out on them.
If after all these years, you're not pissing someone off—
—you're not doing your job. The problem is that since I didn't know I was starting a series, the books that I left myself are not going to go in the direction that people assume. For example, the focus of the series, as far as I'm concerned, is going to be on how humanity survives its encounter with and eventually kicks the butt of the Galactics who are going to be doing the best to get rid of us before we completely destabilize the equation. The vampires are going to be only a secondary part of the storyline. Also, what I'm considering is—
Wait, you haven't started working on the second book in the series, right?
No, I'm working on the next Safehold book right now. What I'm positing for the Out of the Dark series is that with the captured neural educators we have the ability to do the bio-enhancements like I was doing in the Mutineer's Moon series. We can have the strength and all the rest that the vampires have, bio-enhanced humans are going to be able to pretty much match the vampires. We're not going to be able to pour ourselves through a keyhole or anything, but we can walk around in the sun which only the really old, hearty vampires can do. The vampires will be kind of our ultimate Special Forces soldiers.
I figure Dvorak is going to be the first ambassador to the Galactic Hegemony. They won't really like meeting him but we're going to practice sort of the Klingon corollary of the Prime Directive. "We need allies. Here, have some nukes, have some starships. Let us bootstrap you!"
A big part of the storyline for me is actually—and I had more time to work with it in the novel than the novella and hopefully I'll have even more time to work with it in the series—is Vlad's having turned into a monster to stop being one and his struggle to not go back to what he was and the fact that he's worried that he will.
One of the reasons I'm thinking about injecting the bio-enhancement into the series is that it's going to be 40 or 50 years until the Galactic Hegemony. If I go with the bio-enhancement and life extension then I can keep the characters I have around. And it's the characters who make this book work.
I do have a lot of dilemmas to solve!
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.