Interview by Alyce Wilson
David Weber is an American science fiction and fantasy author. In his stories, he creates a consistent and rationally explained technology and society. Even when dealing with fantasy themes, the magical powers are treated like another technology with supporting rational laws and principles.
Many of his stories have military, particularly naval, themes, and fit into the military science fiction genre. He challenges current gender roles in the military by assuming that a gender-neutral military service will exist in his futures, and by frequently placing female leading characters in what have previously been seen as traditionally male roles, he has explored the challenges faced by women in the military and politics.
His most popular and enduring character is Honor Harrington whose story,
together with the "Honorverse" she inhabits, has been developed
through 13 novels and four shared-universe anthologies, as of spring
2006 (other works are in production).
He was the keynote speaker at Philcon 2005, an annual science fiction convention held in Philadelphia. That's where this interview took place.
Why a female protagonist [Honor Harrington]? Why do you like to write from that perspective? What are the challenges and rewards inherent in that?
I cannot tell you why I made Honor a female, because I don't know. It was the way the character came to me. I didn't set out to do it because I thought that it was especially politically sensitive on my part or because I thought it was likely to strike a chord with female readership or be a financial success. It was just the way that the character first presented herself.
In terms of writing strong female characters generally, there are as many male characters as female characters in my books. There are as many strong male characters as there are female characters. I prefer writing about strong characters, however they happen to become.
As far as the challenge inherent in it, it would be a challenge if I was trying to write a feminist character, but I'm not. I'm writing about a human being who happens to be female. And human beings are human beings. There are differences between men and women. There are demonstrable differences between the way in which most men and most women, for example, handle stress. Men tend to tough it out; women tend to go and enlist a support group of other women. There are demonstrable physical differences. And some of them relate to things like strength, like upper body strength. But on the most basic level, human beings are human beings first and men and women second.
And so, I write about human beings, some of whom happen to be male, some of whom happen to be female.
To write successfully, you have to be able to not so much put yourself inside a character as to know that character so that that character's reactions form a natural organic whole. I think that's one of the strengths of the characterization, that it comes across as a naturally evolved thing. And I had deliberately resisted efforts to break down and analyze Honor's character, because I don't want to analyze myself into beginning to emphasize different aspects of it that would not be part of her natural growth experience.
How much of her back story was there when you first started writing it? How much did you know and how much did you discover along the way?
In general terms, her entire back story was there when I started writing it. I developed her in considerable detail in terms of her experiences and what went together to make her who she was before I ever started writing the series, and I did that for several reasons, which was that I wanted that degree of comfort level with the character.
Another aspect of it was that I was planning from the beginning for this to be a series. For you as a reader to remain engaged with the character over the course of five books, ten books, twelve books, that character has to be a growing, changing entity. Also, if you think about the people that you actually know, you're constantly finding out new things about people you've known for 20 years.
So I deliberately set Honor up as a character who you thought you knew in some detail by the end of Honor of the Queen (1993). And you did. That was fair. But then, in The Short Victorious War (1994), you begin to find out there's this whole other side to her that you didn't know anything at all about.
And at the same time, in Honor of the Queen you begin to see that character flaw of hers, that inability of hers to put herself first when she avoids the conflict on Grayson by taking herself out of the equation, instead of standing up and basically saying to the Graysons, "Guess what? I'm here. I'm not going away. Deal with it." And that's why she winds up blaming herself for Raoul Courvoisier's death, because she left rather than face that particular conflict. And there were arguments either way. It was not an irrational decision on her part, given especially what anybody knew. But she made it, in large part, to evade conflict, and it's Alistair McKeon who points that out to her.
So by the time we get to the end of At All Costs (2005), she's grown and developed into somebody who has not just the confidence of her professional judgment, which she always has.
But it's like where she fires the guy who's not even in her chain of command, investigating the lieutenant's death, and she tells him, "You do not want to get into a pissing contest with me on this," you know? And when she tells Elizabeth, "No, I'm not coming until I've gone home and hugged my daughter," you know? This is a whole new Honor from anybody you knew earlier in the books, and yet, she's still clearly the same person, because you've been with her while she did the growing and the evolving and the changes to get to where she is.
So I had structured the character in enough detail for me to be able to do that peeling onion thing until she'd gotten far enough along in the books for the natural growth and evolution to begin pulling the reader along. I was showing you new things about her.
One example is in The Short Victorious War. It's actually the first reference to her enhanced metabolism that I then don't really bring front and center until In Enemy Hands (1997), because she has that conversation with Michelle Henke, and Michelle Henke's drinking hot chocolate to chase down the peach cobbler. And Honor says, "Nonsense. Some of us have active metabolisms, which allow us to enjoy the finer things of life." That's a direct reference to her genetically modified metabolism. But it had never been particularly crucial or germane to what was happening to her earlier than that. So it was one of those little things that I knew about or that I was holding in reserve.
Then there's a reward for the reader once they've learned that: "Oh, yes! I remember that!"
How much does it help you with her character that you have this kind of ready-made archetype in Horatio Hornblower? Does it help understand some things about the essence of the character?
It doesn't really do that much to understand, to me, the essence of the character. I knew the comparison was going to be made. That's the reason I chose the initials, with malice aforethought. You know, it's like the new Horatio Hornblower.
There are certainly, clearly, similarities between the two. There are
also huge differences. And Honor has never been as neurotic as Hornblower
was. Hornblower always carried a massive sense of inferiority around
with him. Honor never did. And Hornblower was written into historical
fiction and operated around the periphery, whereas Honor is written
into fiction set in the future. And while she operates on the periphery
for the first few books, she's steadily moving closer and closer to
the center of things until, by the time we get to At All Costs,
she has more in common with [Admiral] Nelson than she does with Hornblower.