Sean Williams

With the recent release of his video game tie-in novel Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, Blogomatic300 asked author Sean Williams a few questions about writing in the Star Wars universe…

At what point of the video games development do you start on the novel?

That’s a hard question to answer, since I’m not actually sure where in the process the script fits. I can say that I won’t start writing until the script is finalized, and by that point there’s usually a stack of concept art for me to look at. I didn’t get to see any rough builds of the first TFU until well after the book was written, and I only got to see that because one of the developers was in my home town. I count myself lucky to have caught that glimpse. Where a team of people working on software, engines, art, etc may take years to put the game into a finished form, I have only a few months to do it in words. Partly that’s because of the long lead-times required in publishing; partly that’s because it’s possible for one person to do all this on their own. Imagination costs nothing and has an unlimited special effects budget. All I have to do is get the right words down in the right order.

Are you given a script, complete plot or story beats you have to include?

Ideally, I try to get as much as the script as possible into the final book. That’s usually achievable, with perhaps a small amount of tinkering here and there. Sometimes conversations need to be expanded or swapped around; sometimes whole scenes will be added to flesh out the story. By “flesh out” I don’t mean added padding to bring the book’s wordcount up to contract. I mean, if I see a way to add something to the story that will bring out its existing themes, then I’ll go for it. So the finished product becomes everything the original script contained plus much more. It’s a synergistic process.

Did the plot change much during development, did you have to leave anything on the “cutting-room floor” so to speak, or re-jig things to fit in with something the game developers had changed?

There were some scenes with Boba Fett that ended up out of the book, for very good reasons. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Luckily with TFU2, nothing changed game-wise while I was writing the book, making the process much easier. The original TFU on the other hand lost a couple of levels while I was mid-draft. That caused some consternation, but we got there in the end. Ultimately I’m writing an adaptation of the game–the canonical version, to boot–so getting the book right isn’t entirely a matter of aping what happens on the small screen. It’s about telling the right story.

Your descriptions of the Star Wars universe are very clear, are you supplied with art and reference from the game, do you have to research everything yourself, or are you just a massive Star Wars geek? :-)

Thanks for the compliment! It’s a bit of both, really. I love Wookieepedia and have spent many fruitful hours in there, leaping from entry to entry, so I like to think that I have a fair grasp of the Star Wars aesthetic. Getting down to the specifics of new characters that aren’t my own creation, however, really depends on what I get from the gaming guys, which sometimes is a massive amount of art, sometimes very little. It depends on what’s available and when it becomes available. We all obviously want to get it right, but sometimes we fly by the seat of our pants a bit. It can be
nerve-wracking, because the readership is at least as knowledgeable as I am and they deserve only the best. The pressure is on.

Are you a gamer? I’ve seen quite a few writers using their skills in the gaming industry (for example Karen Traviss on Gears of War 3, and Antony Johnston on Dead Space); have you ever thought about writing for games?

I am a frustrated gamer in the sense that I won’t let myself play very much, and what I do play tends to be on the PC. The Jedi Knight games were big favorites for me, and great for getting me in the mood for writing a Star Wars novel. I did briefly do some game work, for something that never went anywhere. It’s a bit like film and TV work: while I’d love to be involved, it’s not something I pursue to the detriment of my novel writing. That’s where my heart truly lies, and where I put most of my energy.

You use a lot of well known Star Wars characters in SW:TFU2, it was nice to read about a younger Bail Organa (in my mind’s eye I could see Jimmy Smits welcoming Juno onboard his cargo shuttle), and I’m glad my favourite original trilogy character, Wedge Antilles, made a brief appearance. How do you decide which characters to use and do you have a favourite you’d like to write for if you haven’t already?

Some of the appearances came courtesy of the original scripts or gameplay notes (my memory is that Wedge is one of the latter, for instance) but others, like Ackbar and the other rebels, are my suggestion. I very much wanted this book to be as much about Juno and the growing Rebellion as it is about Starkiller, since the fates of both are intrinsically linked. One character I would very much like to write about is Obi-Wan Kenobi, particularly during his years of self-exile on Tatooine. I liked a tortured character, and it seems to me that he must have had the odd moment of doubt, here and there.

Throughout SW:TFU2 you quote the first novel and game when Starkiller is remembering his past life, but their meanings are reinterpreted to fit the new scenes. What was your thinking behind this idea and did you intend for it to become a theme?

Two things struck me about the script when I read it: the use of flashbacks in the opening scenes, and how that tied into the issue of Starkiller’s resurrection and reinvention. I decided to pursue the use of flashbacks further in order to flesh out Starkiller’s journey, along with flash-forwards and flash-sideways–indeed, the book started to resemble Lost, in a way, with all its tangled causality. That the first TFU novel also used such out-of-sequence visions helped make this technique feel natural to me as I wrote the sequel. It was fun, anyway, and hopefully the reader finds it so.

I didn’t think I’d be reading novels and comics and watching Star Wars cartoons over 30 years after first seeing a Star Wars in the late 70s. How do you feel about the longevity of Star Wars?

I have a similar reaction to you. I was ten when the first movie came out, and read the original novelization over and over, along with the tie-ins they had back then (I still have my copy of the infamous Splinter of the
Mind’s Eye, which I loved). If you’d told me back then that not only would Star Wars be bigger than ever when I was 40, but I would be writing lines for Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Princess Leia, et al, I just wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are, and it’s a wonderful thing. Most importantly, it’s a living thing, constantly evolving and expanding. Some people say that the Internet is one day going to spontaneously develop consciousness. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually Wookieepedia.

What’s next for you?
The big thing on my horizon is a series of books that my friend Garth Nix and I writing together. The first one, Troubletwister, comes out in 2011. Apart from that I have a kids’ science fiction series, The Fixers, coming out over Christmas, and I have just had one of my earlier novels, The Crooked Letter, optioned to be reworked as a TV series. I hope to be working on that next year. So…busy-busy. I like a complex life.

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