Close-up of Cole, partially obscured by his large hat

Hazel Monforton, On Writing & Dragon Age

Hazel Monforton is a gamer and fanfiction author, currently completing a PhD in English Literature at Durham University. After joining me on the Philosophy and Dragon Age panel at Nine Worlds, we had a mirth-filled chat about writing, Dragon Age, and the links between fanfic and academia. You can read Hazel’s fanfic at A03 or and follow her on Twitter @hazelmonforton.

Spoilers: Dragon Age: Asunder, Dragon Age: Inquisition (related to Cole)

The Doctor (TD): So you write fan-fiction…?

Hazel Monforton (HM): I’m writing one fanfic.

Cartoon depiction of Hazel Monforton

TD: Tell me about it.

HM: It’s called Flour, Yeast, Water, Salt, which are the four ingredients to make bread. It’s about food, and Dragon Age. It’s focussed mainly around Cole, the spirit/human liminal character we meet in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

What interested me most about him as a character in the game is that you can ask him to – you can encourage him to – become more human, in whatever capacity that means to him. And in the game, what’s shown is that for him, that means being seen, and interacting with people on an interpersonal level – in a physical way – rather than his usual flitting in and out of people’s minds, making people forget him, and interacting with people very briefly. I wanted to find out what that looked like for him – basically him learning how to be a social person, and how to exist in a network of people, in a community of people.

I really liked the implications with his speech patterns and being able to read emotions, and his extraordinary empathetic nature. So, how he would have his own emotions and express his own emotions, as a human, rather than reflect other people’s emotions. It’s very heavily implied in the game that spirits reflect the real world, that the Fade reflects the real world, and so the spirits in it are manifestations of real world emotions or objects invested with emotional import. Cole coming into himself as a human would mean that his emotions have to come from inside him and not as a reflection of other people’s emotions – basically him learning how to respond.

Picture of freshly baked bread.

And so I wanted to centre my fanfic around food because it seemed to match those themes of bodily needs and social needs: they’re expressed in how we prepare and eat food. It’s a human necessity, but it’s also tied up with social and religious contexts, and familial and relationship contexts.

If you read Dragon Age: Asunder, one of the tie-in novels that came out between Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, it’s is an explanation of how the Rite of Tranquillity was discovered to be reversible, and the immediate aftermath of what happened in Kirkwall with Anders, in the White Spire in Orlais, and the other Circles of Magi across Thedas rebelling. But it’s also about Cole and his origin story. You find out that he was a very young apostate who was imprisoned by Templars and starved to death in his cell in the White Spire. When we meet him in Inquisition he’s a spirit of compassion who wasn’t able to help this young boy and so decided to become him and live a better life. This “better life” included no longer being a mage but also not having to eat or sleep. Now when he becomes more human he regains all these human vulnerabilities. I wanted to explore the vulnerability of having to eat again after having spent so much time as somebody who was impervious to emotional and physical needs. Someone who did not have to eat at all. That idea resonated with me as someone who struggled with eating disorders in the past; that admission of dependency on food, which is so frightening, is something that I wanted to explore with Cole. I felt that, along with issues of social anxiety and autism, that would be something best explored through the character Cole.

And I made it a romance story because it is a fanfic, after all. There is other Colemance fanfic out there, but it’s with the Inquisitor, because Cole is not a romanceable option (and so people have explored it in fanfic). There was a really big backlash to that idea in the few months after the game came out because a lot of people didn’t see Cole as any sort of sexual character. Which is fair, I mean, he’s very immature, emotionally immature in a lot of ways, and socially immature in a lot of ways. He doesn’t understand social contexts yet; he’s a spirit from the Fade, he doesn’t understand human conventions or human boundaries. He’s also coded as autistic, so there’s this idea that part of his immaturity is his autism, and there was this really big discussion about whether that idea was ableist, or whether it’s acephobic to write him as a character having sexual or romantic feelings. There are some lines that imply he has a sort of romantic or sexual curiosity and lines that imply he doesn’t.

Picture of Cole whispering to Maryden the Bard

I wanted to ship and let ship, but I also critique things as they come, and not just write it off. So I wanted to prove to other people, and to myself, that this can be done well. It can be done badly, and I’ve read some bad fanfic, but I wanted to write a good one. I felt I could tell that story, and bring a lot of my understanding to it, and my experiences with various mental and physical health issues.

And so I started writing Flour, Yeast, Water, Salt. I’ve spent the last two years trying to finish it. I started writing it about two months after I finally played it the game, and then I started posting it. I thought ‘Oh I’ll post a chapter every two weeks, it’ll be done in six months’. It’s been 2 years now. I’ve written 75,000 words, and I’ve posted about 56,000 of them. And it’s turned into this tremendously slow-placed story, which I felt it needed to be, in order to sell the ship. I created a character named Briony, who is a baker in Skyhold; I really enjoy cooking, I bake a lot myself, and I learned quite a lot about food and food history through researching stuff for this fic. Which makes me worry that Bri – her nickname is Bri throughout the story – is a Mary-Sue, that’s she’s me. But I’m not as shy as Bri is, I’m not as timid as she is, and I’m not as good a baker as she is. I also don’t really want to kiss Cole, personally. I don’t really think he would be that good at it.

I’m just laying out all the themes as I think of them…

TD: Go ahead!

HM: So with this romance story, I wanted to explore loneliness. It’s set about a year after the events of Inquisition, and so it fits neatly between the main game and the Trespasser DLC (which I didn’t intend, because it hadn’t come out yet when I started). I wanted to write about loneliness, about being a forgotten nearly-human boy left to figure things out on himself, about being a shy person who focusses too much on their work. It connects with what I said earlier, about being estranged from your own emotions. It turned into, also, what it was like to be a servant in Skyhold. A lot of fantasy – especially medieval fantasy – you see it from a very top-down perspective; you’re at the top, especially in these epic fantasies, you’re a king or a general, and you’re moving armies and nations and dealing with incredibly important people. Inquisition does touch on the kind of work that goes on in Skyhold: you see servants, messengers, workmen and stable boys, and they’re milling around the castle and doing things for you, and you have agents that you interact with a little bit. And so I wanted to look more at the servant structure within Skyhold and how Skyhold is fed. Realistically, it’s not a very well-placed castle: it’s in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains. No major trade routes go there; it doesn’t have any arable land around it. I wanted to solve those problems as well: how does SH maintain power when it doesn’t have the infrastructure or resources necessary to maintain a large castle in the middle of nowhere? So it became a look at the world building, as well as a very intense exploration of Cole as a character.

I wanted to ship and let ship, but I also critique things as they come…

The story has changed quite a lot over the last two years, because I came up with a very simple plot, and thought I would finish in six months. It would be the best thing ever and I would become famous on the internet: but that didn’t happen [Hazel laughs, knowingly]. You know, as soon as you post a fanfic on the internet you’re just waiting, like, ‘I’m going to be famous now!’, but it never happens that way.

TD: Well maybe now.

HM: Maybe now! Goodness. Well, on the panel – Alice on the panel – she had heard of my fanfic which I was amazed by.

TD: Well I’m definitely going to read it now – I mean, both bread and Cole. Best combination.

HM: I should have called it ‘Cole’s Kitchen Nightmares’.

[TD laughs a lot at this]

HM: Because, like, stuff goes down. Basically, one of the characters is mysteriously killed, so it becomes a bit of a mystery story – I don’t want to spoil it …

TD: No, don’t do that!

HM: I don’t want to give too much away. But when I started it, I thought it would be Briony, Cole, Briony, Cole. But it turned into having a lot more original characters. It’s about 90% original characters now.

TD: Oh fab.

HM: And Cole doesn’t turn up until the third chapter. I’ve created a lot of other plot points that centre around relationships between other characters. There’s an elf: the head patissier in the kitchen is an elf named Fabien, who was from the alienage in Val Royeaux, and left because he wanted a larger life than being in an alienage. I see the elves as analogous to the Jewish diaspora, so I’m looking at life as in a 15th century Venetian ghetto, and making parallels.

Denerim Alienage

Fabien isn’t allowed into the patissier’s guild in Orlais because he’s an elf, and so he has a lot of bitterness because he’s been held back by his race and by the prejudice against elves. So he’s bitter, but he’s justified in his bitterness. There are consequences to his bitterness, but I try not to say that it’s an invalid emotional response. But he hates himself, and this is debilitating for him emotionally. So I wanted to explore, how can that be helped, how can Fabien feel more comfortable, become a happier person, and how can his ambition be pushed forward and fulfilled? So it also becomes a story about the relationship between Briony and Fabien, because Fabien is awful to her in ways she doesn’t understand but she comes to, and – again having an emotional response not just reflecting emotions – she has to learn to respond compassionately to him, and not just reflect his anger back. And so Bri and Cole teach each other how to be better emotional people. Almost all the characters in this fic are just supremely lonely and don’t know how to react to one another authentically and compassionately. Cole ends up helping all these people in a very involved, personal way, which is something he couldn’t have done as a spirit and is only able to do once he understands human emotion more intimately.

It’s not finished. It’s about halfway written. Maybe in another two years it’ll be done. But that’s the thematic gist of what I’m writing.

It’s not Dragon Age: Kitchens, it’s Dragon Age: Inquisition!

TD: You mentioned that because it’s a fanfic it has to have a romance. How else does it being a fanfic restrict you?

HM: I can be quite critical of Dragon Age; one of the ways I engage with media is to be critical of it. So I tell people,

‘Oh you know, Dragon Age, I hate it’

‘But you won’t stop talking about it!’

'Yeah but I hate it though!’

So I’m critical in this sideways way towards Dragon Age in my fanfic. The kitchen is ridiculous in that game. It’s in the castle. Medieval kitchens would be in an outbuilding outside of the castle, because if the kitchen burns down, just the kitchen burns down. It has a low ceiling, which doesn’t make any sense: grease has to go somewhere, and it’s just going to start dripping down. It doesn’t have any windows! The ovens are eighteenth century. There’s no bread oven! Things like that. But these are all incredibly nit-picky things: it’s not Dragon Age: Kitchens, it’s Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Kitchen at Skyhold

TD: That’s a great spin-off game: Dragon Age: Kitchens.

HM: I would love Cole’s Kitchen Nightmares, a game about operating the kitchen at Skyhold: for one BioWare should hire me because I know way too much about that, and two, I would never stop playing it, because it would be great.

In my fic I repurpose some of the rooms in the basement of Skyhold that we don’t quite see, I look more at how the market in the lower courtyard would operate, and also what the valley would do. If you zoom in, if you use noclip to get up close in the valley, it’s tents with a couple of bonfires. That’s not how an infrastructure is maintained! There would be a village down there at some point! There would be refugees who come with skills to learn to supply Skyhold. They’d build homes and a market and a granary and a mill. I’m trying to write how Skyhold would actually function, and so it’s constrained as a fanfic because I have to use these locations. If I was writing something original, I wouldn’t set it in the middle of the mountains. But I have to work with what I’m given: I don’t want to write an AU piece, I want it to be firmly in the Dragon Age setting, and with its own internal ideologies et cetera.

Skyhold: a fortress in the mountains

TD: Do you think the limitations in writing fanfic are like the limitations in writing historical fiction?

HM: I think so, yeah. Well… [thinks loudly]. In a fanfic, in a piece of media, it’s a contained universe. It has as much complexity as it shows you, and that’s the only source. If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s so much material you could get through, and even then you won’t be completely “correct” in your depiction because you have to choose a limited perspective. I think writing an accurate historical fiction would be a lot harder than writing a fanfic, unless the universe of the fanfic is as wide as our own, but there’s nothing like that.

TD: There might be the same epistemic worry: it might be that in both cases there’s stuff we just don’t know, either because we’ve not read all the historical sources, or because the game doesn’t provide an answer.

HM: Yeah.

TD: but I suppose you get less blame in fanfic?

HM: People can be less rigorous in a fanfic, in terms of adhering to canon, but you do get people… I can be a bit of stickler [TD laughs again], I can be a real irritating stickler about these things. I’m not going to go on someone’s fanfic and be like ‘Oh actually’, but I would in a historical fiction. Maybe there’s more politeness in the fan community. Fanfic exists to explore the unexplored spaces within a fictional world – that’s one of the reasons why I am looking at Skyhold’s servants. I think historical fiction is expected to reproduce or recast things that we do know about.

Fanfic exists to explore the unexplored spaces within a fictional world.

Fanfic as a genre has always been about ‘what would happen if this or that were different’ or what would happen if we looked a little closer at this character, or this setting, or this aspect of something hinted at. Whereas again, in historical fiction, there’s 500 books about Anne Boleyn, and they’re all different, but they’re all on the same thing.

TD: You’re doing a PhD.

HM: Yes.

TD: How does doing the PhD – or does it at all – impact on the fanfiction?

HM: Because I’m doing English Literature, I’ve noticed that I do use… I’m looking at Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter, who are two very different writers who write very differently (although in my thesis I argue that they’re not so different: spoiler alert on my PhD thesis, for the three people who will read it besides me!) [Both laugh]. I’ve noticed that the way I write can be a little bit modernist, a little bit post-modernist at times. I use a lot of em-dashes, which Virginia Woolf uses all the time. What Woolf does with the em-dashes is to show the breaks in someone’s thought pattern, the disjointedness in their feeling, or the inexpressibility of what they’re feeling, and I do very similar things in my work. Not to say that I’m Virginia Woolf’s heir or anything [she says, knowingly]. With Briony or Cole, who do have trouble expressing themselves verbally, I do the same thing with the em-dashes. So that’s a little technique that I picked up from my research.

Book covers: Angela Carter

And there are other literary techniques. Angela Carter writes like someone took all your grandmother’s perfume and poured it out on a couch; it’s heady, and overwhelming, and I write that way as well. I’d read a lot of Angela Carter as a teenager, and she’s been very influential on my writing style. So I write in a very descriptive way, in a material sense: it’s full of scents and sounds and tactility. And I think that’s important, because a servant’s life is very material, especially in the medieval period. Very embodied and very… there’s a line in one of my chapters where Briony mentions that she feels sometimes that she’s just a pair of hands, and that she doesn’t have that inner emotional life that Cole is entirely made of. I try to focus on how the material world is inflected with emotion whether we want it to be or not.

TD: Interesting. Do you ever worry: there does seem to be, historically, a trend of casting men as the abstract, rational, brain-types, and women as the bodies – either as the bodies sexually, or doing the cooking or the cleaning.

HM: That’s a good idea, I hadn’t thought of that.

TD: … you know, deprived of education, stuck in the home.

HM: I feel a little differently, because Cole comes from such a vulnerable place, as someone who doesn’t understand human interaction on a kind of embodied, interpersonal level. He doesn’t understand shaking hands, or making eye contact, or not just walking away – the kind of niceties that we signal to each other for emotional reassurance and for interpersonal recognition. And Cole has gone on so long unrecognised, because that’s his preferred method of interacting: not being present. I don’t think Cole’s a rational character: he’s very much looking at the world in a very alien way to Briony, and Briony understand the material and the physical world in a way that he doesn’t. She isn’t judgemental of him but is confused by him at times. Briony is the most rational. She’s the rational, hardworking and very practical person. And she is very embodied but I try to show this as more of a positive, way of knowing the world sort of experience that Cole has been deprived of and has to figure out. And so, yeah, the trope is there, but not in the usual way. It is a heterosexual fanfic, but I’m trying to write a non-paradigmatic hetfic.

TD: And the thing is tropes aren’t bad, right?

HM: They aren’t bad, they’re just always there.

TD: Sure, but they make a text understandable without having to set out every detail of…

HM: Elves live in trees, dwarves live underground…

TD: Exactly. If you had to explain all of that, it would take forever (chuckle).

HM: And yet fantasy writers try to explain all of it from the start! It can get very tedious.

Game covers: Inquisition, Dishonored, Bioshock Infinite

TD: Is the fanfic your main fictional outlet?

HM: Pretty much right now. I’ve written fanfic for a couple of other fandoms, like Dishonored, and Bioshock Infinite.

TD: So games in particular.

HM: [Murmurs agreement]

TD: What is it about games specifically?

HM: I don’t really know. When I was a young teenager - about 13 - I wrote anime fanfic for Gundam Wing and that was fun, but that was a horrible self-insert character. I wanted to, you know, just smooch everybody.

TD: It’s alright, Stephenie Meyer got that one published.

HM: True. And no, I don’t know what it is about video games. When I read, I’m usually reading for my thesis. I started writing fanfic as an adult just before my PhD, and I think video games were my only purely fun outlet, while reading books is like Reading Books. And so I don’t feel the need… Maybe I could write some – maybe I could write some Mrs Dalloway fanfic, but I couldn’t fit it in to Virginia Woolf’s universe in a way that makes sense and feels right, whereas video games encourage that by giving you this world that you’re allowed to explore on your own terms. Also, Mrs Dalloway is just perfect on its own, it doesn’t need my input at all.

Angela Carter writes like someone took all your grandmother’s perfume and poured it out on a couch…

TD: You’ve talked about how the thesis has affected the fanfic. What do you think writing fanfic and being part of a fandom teaches you, or could teach you, as an academic? What do you think other academics could get from being part of that?

HM: Thick skins, maybe.

TD: Thick skins can be valuable.

HM: Yeah, but then, lots of people in the fandom community don’t have thick skins; lots of people write fanfic for fun, and that’s a totally valid reason. I write fanfic, and I want people to tell me what they think works and what they think doesn’t work – I would really like that criticism and that critique. But you don’t usually get that from fan communities, because of the politeness factor and the fact that most people don’t want it. Back to your actual question…

TD: Well, do you think that’s something valuable – for instance, often philosophy is criticised for being too aggressive, and while I think critique is really important, is there anything about the spirit of the fan community worth adopting?

HM: I wouldn’t want an academic community to model itself after the fan community, because they have different aims. People in a fan community are trying to have a good time. Academics are trying to have a good time, but there’s a different goal.

TD: There’s rigour.

HM: Yes, and you don’t really have that in a fan community. My fanfic is basically a fictionalised thesis of why I think Cole is, for one, an interesting character, and why he would be an interesting way to look at ideas of embodiment and social contact.

Cole, shown from the back, wielding two daggers

My academic research has influenced my fanfic more than I thought it would. Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love was influential – I read that as part of my thesis and it became influential in my fanfic, because it’s about the way we form interpersonal relationships, and how compassion is a key component to a tolerable life and a tolerable community. I write a lot about Virginia Woolf as a pacifist and as anti-war, and also about how she felt war could be prevented. One of those ways – I argue in my thesis – is through compassion.

I approach my fanfic with a goal. And when I approach a chapter I have particular aims and goals in mind, to achieve; I want the chapter to be a certain way, thematically and structurally. I rewrite things a lot and I go over it many times, I have several people reading it. I’m taking it really seriously, in a way I think a lot of people don’t - which is totally fine! - but I take it really seriously, because I want it to be good, and I want it to say particular things. I want it to achieve something.

TD: So is the idea that you approach it in much the same way as you do your academic work?

HM: I do, yes. It matters. I’m giving people content for free, but then, I’m also doing that in academia [Laughter ensues]. I want it to be the same amount of effort that I put into my thesis (I hope my supervisor never sees this - I don’t want her to know the actual answer to ‘why haven’t you been working?’ is ‘I’ve been working on a fanfic on the internet!’).

I want people reading it to sit down and have questions afterwards that might not be able to be answered by anyone else but themselves, that don’t have right answers. I want people to come away thinking and with questions, in the same way I hope my thesis makes people come away thinking and with questions. I don’t think a lot of fanfiction does that. I’m not demanding that all fanfiction do this—but I want to give my readers a particular experience. I’m making demands of them, as readers. It’s not for everybody.

TD: I actually have another question, do you mind?

HM: No, go for it.

TD: It’s just occurred to me. Obviously some shorter fanfic gets released in one piece, but longer fanfic represents a return to serialisation, to instalments. What difference does that kind of delivery make?

HM: I’m going to talk a little bit about Dickens now, because Dickens wrote in serial…

TD: Of course.

HM: Bleak House was released over a period of a year and a half, and the way he handled people going for months at a time between segments was to make the secondary and tertiary characters as memorable as possible (usually by giving them gigantic tics, like sneezing all the time, or laughing constantly, or being ridiculous in different ways, or being a bit histrionic in different ways). And I think you get that a little bit in fanfic as well. It’s one thing if you’re working with characters that exist in canon, with characters that aren’t yours and that people will recognise and think about outside of your work regardless. But if you’re writing a lot of original characters like I do, I do try to make them have very different styles of speaking, and very different mannerisms, I exaggerate them a bit, and I also try to keep the number to a minimum. That changes how I write.

Bleak house cover

But then it’s also all there online, so if people want to start now they’ll read up to about halfway, because that’s what’s posted. That’s why Dickens can be a bit too heavy for people who read him all in one shot now, because it was written to be serialised. Things can get repetitive. Some characters can read a very flat. So I try and strike a balance, because there will be people who will read it only when that ‘completed’ checkmark appears. I’m also constantly posting about my characters on my Tumblr, like ‘Hey remember these guys! They’re still around! They’re interesting, I promise!’

Three in-game tarot cards of Cole.

TD: Where can people find the fanfic?

HM: A03. Oh, and, if that’s how you want to live your life.

NB. This interview has been edited for clarity.

This is the first of a series of interviews with authors, developers, critics, journalists, and academics. If you’d like to make a suggestion, or be interviewed, do get in touch.

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