James Wyatt is an award-winning game designer at Wizards of the Coast and one of the designers of the Eberron Campaign Setting. He wrote City of the Spider Queen and Oriental Adventures, and co-authored numerous roleplaying game products, including Magic of Incarnum, Sharn: City of Towers, Draconomicon, The Book of Dragons, and Book of Exalted Deeds.
He grew up in Ithaca, New York, and he now lives in Washington State with his wife and son.
Wizards of the Coast novels by James Wyatt in the Eberron Setting:
Author Profile: James Wyatt
By famed German psychoanalyst Hans Delbruch for Wizards of the Coast
Join us with author and game designer James Wyatt as he answers some questions about his novel Storm Dragon, his current projects, and elements of his past.
Wizards of the Coast: What kind of training or studies did you do to prepare yourself as an author? Were you an English or Creative Writing major in college?
James Wyatt: I was neither. I took a creative writing class in high school and another in college, actually focusing on poetry in both of them. (The college class was actually a translation class.) Unfortunately, it was not very good poetry. I was a religion major in college, and I wrote a lot of papers. I was a minister for two and a half years, and I wrote a lot of sermons — and that might actually have been my best preparation for writing novels. I struggled to write like I speak, since I always preached from a complete manuscript. And I spent a lot of time in stories and wrestling with big real-life issues that I also try to wrestle with in my novels — grace, grief, fate, identity.
Wizards: When you sit down to begin a new novel, do you start with an idea for a character, with your basic story idea, a combination, or something altogether different?
James: The seed of my first novel grew from a scene idea that came into my head as we were working on the Eberron Campaign Setting, and it eventually grew into Chapter 3 of In the Claws of the Tiger: Janik’s audience with the Keeper of the Flame, where he can’t bring himself to believe she’s the real thing. The world basically inspired that notion of the conflict between an adventurer’s jaded cynicism and the real spiritual power of clerics in D&D.
That extends to my later novels, in a way. They really have grown out of characters, and they focused on the development of those characters.
Wizards: The Draconic Prophecies are playing with some big themes that have been lurking in the Eberron setting from the beginning: the Prophecy of the Dragons, the possibility of war re-igniting in the Five Nations, the nature of the dragonmarks. What’s the trick in telling a thrilling story, the very nature of which requires change, and not changing the setting so much that each new book “reinvents the world?”
James: With Eberron, we always intended that grand, heroic adventure would happen on a very personal scale. Individual heroes and small adventuring parties can do a lot of thrilling things without making dramatic changes in the world — foil the Emerald Claw here, retrieve a lost artifact from Xen’drik there. One of the things heroes are good for is preventing the bad guys from making dramatic changes in the world (like freeing an imprisoned rakshasa rajah or reigniting war among the nations of Khorvaire).
The most important changes in any novel, I think, are the ones that take place within the characters, rather than the ones they make in the world. All the time Storm Dragon is throwing around the Draconic prophecy and the looming threat of war, the main character is struggling with what it all means for his own destiny, the ramifications of twenty-six years spent in Dreadhold, and rebuilding shattered relationships. I think that makes a good story in the midst of all the thrilling action going on outside.
Wizards: I hear that one of your favorite haunts for writing is local coffee shops. So does the “white noise” and background activity help to stimulate your creativity? Or is it just the caffeine?
James: Caffeine is certainly a part of it, particularly since my novel-writing time is in the mornings before work. Background noise is also part of it — it’s a constant hum that isn’t addressed to me. When I do work at home, I need music on. But I’ve just recently come to realize that I am, despite all my protestations to the contrary, really an extrovert — I get energy from being around other people. Or maybe that makes me a vampire, I’m not sure.
Wizards: You are also one of the top game designers at Wizards of the Coast. What are the differences you’ve found in writing a novel and writing a roleplaying game?
James: The most important lesson I had to learn about the difference between writing game products and writing fiction is that in game products, the players bring the heroes to the story, so you’re writing around them. But fiction is all about the heroes — it’s more like playing a D&D character than being the Dungeon Master!
Writing game supplements is all about providing options for players to use in building their characters, which hopefully help them develop their characters’ personality as well as their game statistics. Writing adventures is primarily about the setting, and the plot of an adventure largely consists of determining what would happen if the characters weren’t involved. When players meet an adventure, anything can happen, and all we can do is hope that we’ve equipped the DM to handle most possibilities.
Wizards: So you were once a minister. Interesting! How did you go from the ministry to becoming a novelist and game designer? There’s got to be a great story there.
James: It’s all true, I confess, but I don’t think it’s a great story. I was a pretty unhappy United Methodist minister in southeastern Ohio for two and a half years. The work drained my energy, and starting to write D&D adventures for publication is what refreshed it. When I started thinking it was time to leave, professional game design was a clear choice. It took me several years and three moves to get here, but now here I am.
Wizards: Science fiction (in the broadest possible definition) is huge in popular culture right now. Super-heroes dominate the movies. TV shows such as LOST and Heroes have been huge hits. Why do you think it is that the “fantastic” or even the “supernatural” resonates so well within pop culture right now? As both a fantasy writer and a former minister, do you have any insights on this?
James: I think that people are most drawn to heroic fiction in times when the overall mood is one of helplessness. Superheroes and fantasy heroes tell us that despite all evidence to the contrary, a single person can make a difference. The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the clearest expression of that idea — it’s the smallest, most apparently insignificant people who actually save the world. That’s an idea strongly rooted in the theology of the Bible, from the elevation of Joseph to the Egyptian pharaoh’s right hand, right on through to the ministry of Paul — so there’s my ministerial perspective on it.
Why cloak such stories in the fantastic or supernatural? I suspect it’s because a fantasy story, like a religious myth, suggests a world where anything is possible. Fantasy stories take place in sort of a mythic dream time, where the world is still being created and mortals are invited to take part in that creation. Fundamentally, I think we hope such a thing can still be true — we can participate in creating a world that better conforms to our ideals.
Wizards: What kind of books do you read? Any favorite authors?
James: I have a pretty eclectic appetite for books, and I wander far and wide through the local bookstores on a regular basis. I read more mainstream fiction than I do fantasy, although the latter book and a half of R. Scott Bakker’s monumental fantasy trilogy are still on my bedside table waiting for me to finish writing this next novel. Recently, I’ve read some Augusten Burroughs, some Kurt Vonnegut, some Nick Hornby, a bit of Dean Koontz and Neil Gaiman, and a couple of John Grisham books. I read The Da Vinci Code when I was working on the outline for Storm Dragon. I’ve got a fun book called This is Your Brain on Music (Daniel Levitin) barely started, and recently read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which inspired me to stretch a little farther in working on Dragon Forge. I subscribe to Scientific American. The thing is, I read in fits and starts. If I have a lull between writing books, I’ll read a lot. While I’m writing, I’ll sometimes read in the evenings, particularly if the writing is going well, but other times I just can’t make the time.
Wizards: So we’ve talked about the novelists. What other kinds of storytelling do you enjoy? Comic books? Movies? TV? Video games? Classics? Philosophy?
James: This is sad. The vast majority of pop-culture references that get made around the office go straight over my head. I don’t watch TV, although I’ve followed a very few shows on DVD (or iTunes). I have a 10-year-old son, so I’m really up to date on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and we’re all waiting with bated breath for season three to start.
My wife and I like movies. We catch the usual big summer blockbusters, and watch mostly old movies at home — we own the complete Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers collection, as well as all the Thin Man movies. World of Warcraft has been my one video-game addiction. It was my reward when I hit my daily writing targets for my first novel, but my play has dwindled down since then. I pretty much only play now when my son would rather do that than play a game on the Wii.
Wizards: So when you aren’t writing, how do you enjoy spending your time?
James: I’m pretty much a family man, I guess. Most evenings when I come home from work, I hang out with my wife and son until bedtime (his bedtime, not mine). We’ll play games — board games, or Wii games, or sometimes World of Warcraft — or watch movies, or putter on our computers, or lately we’ve spent a lot of time getting ready to move into a new house that has required a lot of work.
I play in a weekly D&D game and a monthly one, and my son is eager to play more D&D at home so we’ll have to start that up when we’re settled in the new house.
Wizards: So what’s next for you? Any big plans for future stories that you can spill?
James: I’m going to be writing the Draconic Prophecies well into the middle of next year, and it’s hard to think much beyond that, although I’m pretty sure I’ll take a real vacation when I finish Dragon War. (That deadline nicely coincides with my 15th wedding anniversary!)
Partly, what I do next will depend on what Wizards wants to see from me next. But I also have a few ideas bouncing around for nonfantasy novels that I might like to write some day.