Jest your way from obscurity to royal acclaim as the King’s pet, beloved by all! As a talented young court fool with dreams of fame, scrabble with other young jesters to secure prestigious positions in the courts of Brenton’s nobility. In a royal court humming with intrigue, keep them smiling as spies, assassins, blackmailers, ambitious nobles and a reluctant Heir wait in the wings. Fool! is a 420,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Ben Rovik. I sat down with Ben to talk about his setting and why the jester is such an important figure. Fool! releases this Thursday, May 23rd.
This is your first time writing interactive fiction, right? What drew you to this medium?
Yep, first time! As a kid of the 80’s I’ve always had a soft spot for choose-a-path stories, and had it in the back of my head that I’d do that kind of writing some day. But I spent most of my time in and after college focused on playwriting, and had some early success getting ten-minute plays and comedies produced and published. That’s where I lived as a writer for many years.
Then my wife and I stumbled across Choice of Robots one day and found ourselves playing it again and again to see what we could discover. That was when I learned about CoG and ChoiceScript, and that amorphous “maybe someday” vision of writing interactive fiction suddenly looked feasible.
I’ve always loved pushing myself to try new forms. As a lifelong lover of fantasy with a fun side I created and self-published the Mechanized Wizardry series, getting a few novels and novellas under my belt; I’ve also written the libretto for two operas and music/lyrics for eight childrens’ musicals. Interactive fiction was the next big realm to venture into. The ten-minute play and the 400,000+ word interactive novel are about as far apart as written works get, like the teacup poodle and the bull mastiff side by side. It was definitely a shift! But I think having learned to imagine all the angles for how a scene can go will serve me well in everything I write going forward.
What is it about your quasi-Shakespearean setting that you enjoyed writing most?
So I’ve been in the tank for the Bard for ages, since I got painted green as Puck for the seventh-grade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was president of the Shakespeare Club in high school and did an apprenticeship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC that had a huge impact on me. I toured around as a professional actor for six years after college and Shakespeare was always part of the mix; I got to perform in huge roadhouses, little black boxes, school gyms and even prisons. It’s unbelievable how much of our modern vocabulary is just right out of Shakespeare’s brain; and while some of his plays are definitely clunkers (I was in All’s Well That Ends Well and it took the director a lot of cutting to make it fun) some of the others are so transcendently cool that I’m sure people will keep on with them for another 500 years.
There are some of Shakespeare’s settings where fools fit right in, like Verona and Athens. I wanted the Kingdom of Brenton in Fool! to feel more like the stuffy, serious, slightly on edge world of the Henry IV plays. Brenton’s a place where frowning and fretting come more easily than laughing, so the PC’s often got a big uphill battle in terms of winning over a room or a more intimate audience. In a down-to-earth fantasy like this, where you can have a big impact on the kingdom without ever touching a sword or shooting fire from your eyes, I thought that the most satisfying setting would be on the dour side; that way, if your choices start helping you win people over, you can see your corner of the kingdom start to transform into a more cheerful place.
I had a blast following Shakespearean conventions during this writing process, like having the nobles always speak in verse (except for Prinxe Hail, the heir to the Throne, who like Henry V switches freely between verse and prose). There’s also a lot of herbalism that shows up, which has been an interest of mine since my wife introduced me to the joys of picking wild blackberries and wineberries from the side of the road and I started seeing classifying the plants around me as more than just “weed,” “tree,” “bush,” etc. With the number of times I Googled things like “Toxic foliage Great Britain lethal dose” I’m sure I’m on a police watchlist somewhere. It was great fun to put it all together and hopefully put enough color on the different settings the PC moves between to make them pop in your mind while you read.
Why is the fool a compelling figure in literature?
The fool is the one who not only gets to tell the Emperor he has no clothes, but to point and laugh and mock his personal hygiene in the process. It’s always dramatically satisfying to see someone speak truth to power, and licensed fools play that role all over the place. The inversion of status makes it more exciting too; since fools are mostly commoners who are only allowed to be in court because luck or talent elevated them there, they take their entire careers, livelihoods, or lives in their hands when they dare to speak up to Kings and Queens, and they do it anyway. In stories with mostly noble or royal casts it can be hard for the audience to find someone to relate to on their level; having a fool in the mix makes sure there’s someone for the audience to latch on to.
Shakespeare really understood that moments of lightness and humor in otherwise dark pieces give the audience a little change of pace, and can help them get more enmeshed in the story to boot, since laughter is a social glue that binds groups together. Even the relentlessly dark Macbeth has the drunk porter who gives an extended riff on being Hell’s doorman. These moments add color and shading to the whole experience, and when they’re written best they really deliver a big dramatic payoff.
I thought it’d be fun to explore life as a fool because of my own experiences as a performer, where as soon as you telegraph to an audience “I’m going to be funny for you now,” their deflector shields go up full power. There’s a sense of challenge between audience and performer that can be really intense. It’s easier IMHO to deliver funny lines as a character in a play, where the humor comes at the audience sideways through the story, than it is to go at them straight like stand-up comics do and just be up there saying funny stuff for a whole show’s duration. For a medieval-style fool, dressed in motley and capering around in the court while everyone’s chomping at their meat, I can hardly imagine the stress of having a target like that on your back. People are very good at choosing not to laugh if they’re not in the mood, so it seemed like there could be a lot of mileage in letting PCs be their own kind of fool and come at audiences with a lot of different tactics to win them over and lead the laughter, not become the butt of it.
What did you find most challenging about the writing process?
Stopping! In a play the dramatic throughlines and character arcs you’re trying to get across only happen one way, so even though it can take a lot of tweaking to get them right, once you’ve got them you can step back and watch. For me in Fool!, trying to keep things balanced between different paths meant that every time I expanded this part, it made me want to tweak this other path, which had implications for that moment two chapters later, and on and on until I felt like things were out of balance again.
My plan is to detox after Fool! with much shorter formats again for a while. I got a lot of kind feedback about all the poetry that’s embedded in Fool! at various points, so I’ve been pushing ahead with that and writing sonnets about any and everything: blobfish, hold music, the interrobang, etc. I set up a Fiverr account at https://www.fiverr.com/users/benrovik/ to take mini-commissions for sonnets as a fun quick way to keep my hand in while I decompress from the big push to get Fool! ready.
Who’s your favorite NPC in Fool! ?
It was really fun to write the PC’s monkey-companion, who shows up in Act II. Trying to imagine how the little beast would react across a range of situations, helpfully and less so, was really enjoyable.
I think my favorite human NPC is the steward Malodoro, who’s as no-nonsense and imposing as they come (inspired by the similarly party-pooping Malvolio from Twelfth Night). I wrote this book over a span of years which included lots of huge personal transitions; consequently, in a number of cases when I went back to check something in an earlier chapter I’d come across a snatch of dialogue that I had absolutely no memory of writing. That happened several times with the Malodoro scenes, where a one-liner that had slipped my mind would catch me off guard in a good way. I can’t wait to see who readers connect with most!