The roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has been around a rather long time, going through multiple editions (commonly considered five, if you don’t count Original, or the various versions of Classic, etc.), two different companies, and countless writers. And over those years, the D&D and property has been used for a lot more than just roleplaying games, including video games, a few (terrible) movies, boardgames, t-shirts and other clothing, an animated children’s television show, and a crazy list of strange products during its fad years (such as a D&D-themed woodburning kit…seriously).
But one particular long-running and obviously successful tie-in to the D&D property is the line of novels.
Since the first authorized novels in the early 1980s, there have been literally hundreds of D&D novels published in the intervening years. Besides the well-known Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the most famous D&D character of all time is a certain drow elf named Drizzt Do’Urden.
I originally read The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore back in 1989, the year after it was published. A few of my friends had read it, and it came highly recommended.
The Crystal Shard propelled Drizzt to the status of legendary hero in the eyes of fans of the Forgotten Realms. Drizzt has appeared in no less than 31 novels, and every single one of them has made the New York Times Best Seller List. These days, it’s quite common for players of D&D to make fun of Drizzt and the style of his character, but the reality is that the books have been incredibly popular for 28 years.
Someone is still buying and reading them.
I had fond memories of The Crystal Shard, so it made its way onto my list of books that I read to my son. I didn’t have an original copy from back in the 80’s, so I bought a more recent Kindle version.
What’s important to remember is that originally, Drizzt was supposed to be a sidekick for the barbarian character Wulfgar. It was not Salvatore’s intention to make Drizzt the star of the book, nor was it expected that Drizzt would become such a long-running, successful character. But that’s exactly what has happened.
And it’s what I’m writing about this week—when a character takes over your writing, either from inside the book or out.
Inside the Book
Back when I was a much younger lad, I often read interviews with various writers, and would occasionally see a writer mentioned that a character had taken over a book, or refused to behave, or forced changes to the storyline. This often confused me for obvious reasons. The writer is in charge, and the characters are merely figments of his or her imagination. Right?
And then I wrote my first novel.
Now, I’m a plotter when I write. What I mean is, I fully plan out my novels before I write a single word. I know what’s going to happen in every scene, what the conflict is, how the characters are going to react, how the scene will resolve and (hopefully) hook the reader into sticking with the story into the next scene (and the next, and the next, etc.).
But then I get to a scene and start doing the actual writing, and suddenly I find the characters taking on a life of their own. They say things I never intended, take actions I didn’t plan, and generally make the entire process more difficult.
And when it starts to happen, I start to smile. Because it means the character has truly come alive in my head. I understand them as a real, living being, instead of just a puppet that does whatever I want. And I believe it makes my characters more believable, more real, when I write that way.
This is what R.A. Salvatore says happened with Drizzt. In one interview, he mentioned that while writing The Crystal Shard, Drizzt just kept elbowing himself into the centre of the story. It was supposed to be Wulfgar’s story, but it became Drizzt’s story instead. The characters didn’t cooperate and it became the beginning of a legacy.
Since then, Salvatore has spent a vast amount of time with that drow ranger. I imagine Drizzt is as real to Salvatore as anyone he knows.
Outside the Book
The character of Drizzt is immensely popular. There was a time in the early 90s when clones of Drizzt showed up in D&D campaigns around the world. Uncountable players created their own characters based on Salvatore’s character, to varying degrees of success.
Unfortunately, the writer and the character became inextricably linked. Salvatore wrote another D&D-based series, called The Cleric Quintet, but sales of that were not nearly as good as the Drizzt books, so TSR (at the time) pressured him into focusing his writing on that character.
Salvatore has written other novels, not related to D&D. His most famous is The DemonWars Saga, though it doesn’t have nearly the popularity of his Drizzt novels. Fans continue to demand more stories about Drizzt, and Salvatore continues to deliver.
This is always a danger for a writer when something they write becomes so immensely popular. How many people can name the last novel J.K. Rowling wrote outside of the Potter-verse? Like an actor that becomes known only for a particular role, it becomes difficult to break away. And if you need to stretch your creative muscles with something different, you may find resistance from both publishers and fans.
As writers, we imagine people, and then place them into the context of a story. But they can take on a life of their own. This is often a blessing, but it can be a mixed one when the character becomes such an icon that it ends up narrowing your creative options later on.
But no writer knows at the beginning if a character will truly capture the imaginations of his or her readers and become something more than words on a page (or screen). All we do is imagine the most real people we can and work hard to make them interesting and develope an emotional connection with the reader.
As for my son’s opinion of The Crystal Shard? He enjoyed it well enough, but he preferred the original Dragonlance trilogy over this story. Regis is no Tasselhoff, and there was a serious lack of dragons (in his opinion). So we’re probably not going to move on past this first story of Drizzt.
But that’s okay, there are more books to read than we’ll ever have time to complete. And at least he got to meet the most famous drow in the Forgotten Realms.
(As an aside, I have since started reading the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy to him. It’s already got me thinking about next month’s post on Reading & Writing, so you can expect me to talk about it here eventually.)
So what about you? Are you a fan of Drizzt? How many of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels have you read? What are the best and worst books in the series? Let me know what you think in the comments.
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