EUC Interview: Sean Williams

Sean Williams has been a busy author for the Star Wars universe lately. After writing the novel tie-in to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed in 2008, Williams penned Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance, which came out earlier this year. Tomorrow will see the release of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, also by Williams. Amidst his busy schedule, he was kind enough to participate in an interview with EUCantina.net. Please note that there are minor spoilers for The Force Unleashed II in the interview.

Sean Williams

EUCantina (EUC): Mr. Williams, greetings and welcome to EUCantina! Thank you for taking the time for this interview. How are you doing?

Sean Williams (SW): Fantastic, thanks! It’s a great pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

EUC: Well, you certainly have been quite busy in Star Wars; both Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance and The Force Unleashed II were released recently. Can you tell readers a little bit about how you got each of those gigs?

SW: It has indeed been a busy time. I count myself extraordinarily blessed to be involved in such interesting projects.  I guess both arose out of my work on the original Force Unleashed adaptation–the sequel in particular. We were all so pleased the first one did so well that I guess it was obvious they would come to me to write the second, and I’m glad they did. It was such a good story to work with, and such a treat to come back to these familiar characters. I would have been very sad if the job had gone to someone else!

My work in The Old Republic came about in a similar fashion, I guess, although the books were very different, and the way they were written, likewise. Producing these adaptations of the computer games is such a collaborative process that, once a successful team is in place, it’s only natural to want to work that way again.

EUC: All of your Star Wars novels of late have been either adaptions or tie-ins to upcoming video games. What is it about your writing style that allows you to work with games and their screenplays, or the feel they create, and do so with such success?

SW: There are a couple of things working in my favor, I think. One is that I genuinely enjoy collaborating. Of the 30 original novels I have written, about one third has been alongside another writer, such as the space opera novels I wrote with Shane Dix or the kids fantasy series Garth Nix and I are launching next year. Writing for Star Wars is inevitably collaborative, since there are editors, scriptwriters, continuity experts, et cetera, all looking over your shoulder and making valuable contributions at every stage. If you don’t like that, it’s going to show. Readers can tell when a writer isn’t happy.

Another factor is related to this. All my life I’ve been reading media tie-in novels, such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, Blakes 7, Space: 1999, and many more. I’ve always wanted to write a movie tie-in, and writing for computer games is not dissimilar. The adaptation process is one I really enjoy, both professionally and personally, and again I think that shows.

The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance

EUC: Let’s start off with specific questions about The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance. Can you go into detail about the relationship between you and Bioware’s writers while working on this novel?

SW: We collaborated as closely as it was possible to, given that we worked on opposite sides of the planet, on very different stages of production, and in very different ways. I was handed a huge stack of files relating to character arcs, worlds, technology, everything that existed in the game at that point. I carried that information around with me for some time, reading and rereading it, trying to find a single story out of many hundreds of possibilities. TOR is, after all, an MMO RPG, to which every player will bring his or her own experiences, own nuances, own creativity. How to capture all that? The process of whittling the options down to what would eventually become Fatal Alliance was one that involved everyone.

Given that the game itself was under development while we were developing the novel naturally created some interesting complications. Inevitably some things changed along the way, on both sides of the writing fence, so editing the book was also highly collaborative. There was a lot of back and forth until we were all completely satisfied. The book wouldn’t be what it is today without the close attention of the Bioware guys, and I’ve heard since that some of my ideas have apparently leaked into the game. It is pleasing to know that it goes both ways.

EUC: For the continuity-minded people out there: Can you confirm that Fatal Alliance takes place shortly before the events in the TOR game itself, but has no exact date as of yet?

SW: That is indeed the case. When plotting Fatal Alliance we considered tying the book closely to the gameplay, but realized very quickly that this would entail giving away certain plot points that would ruin the experience for the gamer. So the book captures the feel of the game, sets the political scene in play in the Galaxy at that time, portrays some of the character classes that are available, and still alludes to some of the character arcs without spoiling them. It was a very tricky balance to find and maintain. I think we got there in the end.

EUC: What was it like writing with mostly fresh characters in a very fresh era, as opposed to your work before it, The Force Unleashed, where it wasn’t as fresh?

SW: Truly wonderful! And at the same time, terrifying. The Star Wars universe already contains so many iconic characters written by so many inspired writers. How could I possibly compete with them? Ultimately, I let my inner 10-year-old guide me. I’ve always like characters who are conflicted, like Han Solo in the original trilogy. He’s a villain with a heart of gold: does he follow the money or do the right thing? Does let his heart or head decide? All of my characters in TOR:FA face similar dilemmas; they are all at a crossroads. This quality, plus the fact that they’re based on the character classes of the TOR novel–smuggler, Padawan, Sith apprentice, Mandalorian, spy, etc–makes them feel iconic to me. I hope readers feel the same way.

EUC: Would you classify TOR: FA as a mystery novel? Or a who-done-it type? If neither of those fit, how would you describe the feel of Fatal Alliance?

SW: It does have a mystery quality to it, particularly the first third: what was recovered from the wreck of the Cinzia and why is it so important? And there are lots of sub-mysteries that unpack along the way, too. I like books like that, and I think a lot of good science fiction is written that way, so it was only natural for me to want to write something along this lines.

But it’s also a political thriller, and an action story, a romance, and a space opera. Like the MMO RPG it’s based on, it’s many things to many people, while at the same time, I hope, being very much its own complete thing.

EUC: When you wrote this book, (TOR: FA) was it your understanding that more books would follow it? Or that it would be the last book in this time period?

SW: You know, I discovered only when the book came out and I saw the time-line printed at the front, that Fatal Alliance is chronologically speaking the very first novel in the Star Wars canon, so if anyone ever reads the books in chronological order, mine is the first they’ll start with. What a tremendous responsibility (and, again, terrifying)! I’m glad I didn’t know that while I was writing it. :-)

TOR:FA was very much written with a “let’s see what happens” attitude. The draft title was originally just The Old Republic, so it could well have remained the only stand-alone novel based on the game. But as trailers came out and people got excited, and it rapidly became clear that one book couldn’t begin to do the game justice, the possibility of future novels was mooted. It’s now a given, I guess, but how many? I don’t know. Will I write more of them? I don’t know. Time will tell.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II

EUC: Shifting gears to your most recent Star Wars novel, The Force Unleashed II - can you tell us a little bit about your way of transforming a screenplay into a prose fiction novel? How much additional information were you given?

SW: I had the script, of course, and artwork, and access to writers and artists, and of course the indispensible Leland Chee and Frank Parisi in the Lucas camp. Writing for TFU is very different to writing from TOR, as you’ve already alluded, because here the story is tightly constrained to fixed events, particular well-defined characters, and only a handful of locations. That said, though, I had a lot more freedom with Juno’s story arc than before, so that enabled me to spread my wings a little. Starkiller’s battle is with Vader, while Juno is taking on not just the entire Empire, but those within the Rebel Alliance who aren’t yet working together. She’s right in the thick of the Alliance’s early days. She’s watching it happen as it happens, and we get to watch it through her eyes. It’s a very big story–and it all has to come back to something human in the end.

EUC: TFU II uses Juno Eclipse as a central character and her point of the view for much of the narrative, giving her great depth as a character. Was this your idea and do you feel it worked well for the story itself?

SW: When I was handed the first TFU script, I had to find a way to get into the character’s heads. I mean, the three male protagonists, Vader, Starkiller and Kota, aren’t emotionally labile at all. A book based solely on them would inevitably, I think, have been insufficient. So building up Juno was the way I chose to go. It’s not just that she’s a girl and therefore, one might think, more aware of the inner landscapes of those around her; she’s also in a key role, as observer and facilitator of a large chunk of Starkiller’s story. If anyone was going to give us insights into his psychological makeup, it would be her.

I approached TFU II the same way, except this time, of course, it was very different. In the game, Juno is largely off-screen, except in flashbacks and visions: she’s the thing Starkiller is looking for in order to make his life complete. Far from leaving her a cipher, I felt strongly that she should remain just as much a part of the story as he was, so that meant exploring her life without him–and that meant exploring what was going on with the Rebellion. I was delighted to be able to show more of that side of the story. It was terrific to be able to play with characters like Mon Mothma, Garm Bel Iblis, Bail Organa, and Ackbar. I hope it’s given fans of this period of the Star Wars universe some key insights into the early days of the Rebellion, and into Juno along the way. I think we have a better idea now of what Juno is like without Starkiller, where she might have gone without him. That she never let go of him is significant, of course, but she managed on her own. That’s a key thing to know about her. She’s a survivor.

EUC: Can you explain to readers how you get into the minds of characters such as Starkiller – do you find it important to research them before trying to give them depth?

SW: Starkiller is tricky. When you think about it, he’s had a childhood characterized largely by abuse. He’s raised by the incommunicative, manipulative psychopath who killed his father. His best friend is a droid programmed to kill him. He is taught to murder, betray, and hate. What kind of psychology is that going to give him? How is he going to see the world?

A lot of this comes through the scripts, of course. Haden has a wonderful knack for conveying character with both precision and concision, so all I had to do was dig a little deeper, and show through words what was visually conveyed through the medium of the console game. There was no question of delving any deeper into the details of the abuse Starkiller suffered; that would be entirely too grim for any Star Wars novel. But I did want to convey the defensive strategies he has evolved to deal with the trauma. He is obsessive, for starters, and Vader’s training acts as a kind of life raft for him, even as it threatens to pull him under. His memory, too, is unreliable: we see a lot more of that in TFU II. Does that arise from his inherent nature as a clone (if he is a clone) or is it his self-defense mechanism in play again? That’s an interesting question.

To answer your original question, I do think it’s very important to wonder about such things. It would have been easy to write TFU as a by-the-numbers slash-and-hack adventure, but I think it deserved more than that. As to how I do it…? There’s no specific technique.  One tries to put oneself in another’s shoes, to feel compassion for them no matter how monstrous they behave. This works for real life as well as novels. When you’re in, you know it, and you start writing.

EUC: The ending of TFU II was quite an interesting one – do you, personally, feel it calls for a direct sequel?

SW: Without giving anything away, let me say that I would very much like there to be one. But again, time will tell. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

EUC: Mr. Williams, thank you again for taking the time, and we hope to see you again in the Star Wars universe!

SW: Thank you for having me. I hope so too!

About the Author

Austin Blankenship is the webmaster of EUCantina. He is a host of our official podcast, EUCast, and also founded our sister website, SoloSound.net. Austin helped turn EUCantina from a forum into a website in 2007, and continues to operate the site and the EUC social media accounts. Austin works as a librarian in a small town above Atlanta, Georgia.