My favorite thing about the fantasy genre—broadly defined—is that it gives a writer a lot of freedom to mash together things that don’t normally go together. As the Wilderking took shape in my mind, I knew I wanted to use the David story as a way of talking about wildness and the role of wildness in a boy’s growing up. I didn’t want to do historical fiction for several reasons, one being the fact that I wasn’t comfortable making up dialogue to put in the mouths of actual Bible characters. Free from the constraints of historical fiction, I thought a medieval-esque, knights-and-castles setting would be a fun way to tell the story. And while I was at it, I decided to indulge myself by making the physical setting look like the swamps and forests of South Georgia and Florida. By that point, I really had nowhere else to go but an imaginary world. So for this story, the fantasy genre made sense.
How do you make your characters seem like real people instead of just figures who move the plot along?
I spend a lot of time thinking about motives. I try to understand my characters well enough to know what would motivate them in a given situation. And I know my characters because I pay attention to the people around me. I’m forever asking myself what motivated a person to do this or that; I don’t so much mean the people I know as the people I don’t know. When you see a stranger do something unusual in public, all you have are the external facts: that guy is dressed in business attire and is sleeping on a bus bench. That’s interesting, of course, but more interesting is the game you play with yourself: Why is a guy in business attire sleeping on a bus bench? That’s where storytelling comes from. A good story is a constant back-and-forth between external facts and internal motivations: characters react to the external facts of their situations, characters change the external facts of their situations. Sometimes characters succeed in bringing their motivations to bear on a situation, and sometimes they don’t. When you think in those terms, character and plot begin to work hand-in-glove with one another.
That’s an easy one: the main character in the Wilderking books is a boy named Aidan, but my favorite is a wild swamp boy named Dobro Turtlebane. When he’s on the scene, something wild and funny is going to happen. His behavior seems erratic—courting danger, fighting with people he actually likes, etc.—but if you can accept a few basic premises about his unusual worldview, his behavior is actually quite logical. Dobro is a great example of what I was saying in an earlier question about character driving plot. He’s a game-changer, for sure.
How do you work allegory or Christian themes into your books without it being blatantly obvious or sounding preachy or clichéd?
The gospel speaks to human yearnings that are universal. Everybody, Christian or not, knows what it is to feel that we are living in a world that stirs up more desires than it can fulfill. Even people who don’t talk about sin know what it is to feel that you are broken and unable to fix yourself. Everybody hopes that love is stronger than hate, even if they’re not sure it really is. In short, everybody knows they need grace. I hope my writing is always, always about grace, in many forms. And grace, almost by definition, doesn’t lend itself to preachiness. It suddenly doesn’t feel like grace anymore if it’s given to you ungracefully, unbeautifully. Fiction and grace were made for each other. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. That’s great fiction, and it gets inside you in a way that a sermon can’t. I like sermons too, but they work in a different way.
Do you ever write something that you love, only to look at it later and discover it’s not as good as you thought?
Yes. Something similar happens in one of my recurring dreams. In this dream I tell a joke and it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I laugh and laugh, and everybody around me agrees that I’m the wittiest man they’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Then when I wake up, I realize not only that the joke wasn’t funny, but it didn’t even make sense—not even grammatical sense. I’ve never written anything that was quite as bad as that, but suspect the dream comes from the same fear your question touches on: how do you know you’ve written something that is really good? I’m learning to trust my judgment, though: if I think something is interesting and funny, there’s a good chance a lot of other people will think it’s interesting and funny too.