Interview: Chris Hepler

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of announcing our winner of FantaSci’s 2022 Short Story Contest, Chris Hepler.

He won with “The Torturer of Camelot,” a story that was so strong it went straight to the top of my list from the moment I read it. It’s not necessarily the happiest of endings, but it is very powerful.

This was, of course, published in Keen Edge of Valor, which was released Friday. You can get Chris’s story, and a bunch of other great ones, here:

Here’s an interview with Chris, so you can get to know this amazing writer.

Chris Hepler

  1. Why are you here? This includes influences, favorite creators, steps along the way, and dreams down the road.

I imprinted on role-playing games at a young age. I’ve probably read more D&D products than I have novels. In high school I branched out into Shadowrun and Vampire and rarely looked back. I ended up reading a lot of RPG fiction that wasn’t very good, but every now and then there’d be something that’d fascinate me – a bit of actual near-future tech creeping into a Nigel Findley novel, or the miniature stories in Legend of the Five Rings sourcebooks.

Then my wife (who was my co-writer for years and years) and I left RPGs behind for a while to try screenwriting, and we watched a crapton of television and analyzed the AFI’s top 100 films to really nail down structure and cinematic dialogue. It was only once I was at Bioware that I was among writers who really drilled down into characterization, voice, and narrative in a systematic way. Other than my wife Jennifer, Bioware writers Daniel Erickson and Chris L’Etoile come to mind as the ones who really changed how I go about writing.

I have an abiding love of hair metal and musical theater. The two rarely go together, one being predominately the music of straight white males from the 80s (makeup or no) and the theater having a wide range of diverse voices.

In graphic novels, I thought the initial runs on The Sandman and Preacher stood out as unique voices that were at times funny, poignant, or insightful, dealing with fantasy but also the greater questions like the problem of evil and the stark fact that even if humans aren’t alone in the universe, we apparently can’t rely on whatever higher beings there are to bail us out.

When I was in high school, I had an English assignment one weekend that I wasn’t all that enthused about. Monday rolled around and I had done a cursory job on the assignment, but I’d also written 25 pages of Shadowrun fan fiction. I thought that had to count for something.

Of course, it didn’t.

A year or two later, and I had a few more stories of similar size ready to go, and I was chatting up a fellow theater geek who had written her own 25-page story. I was most impressed, until I realized hers was double-spaced and mine single-spaced. It was then that I figured someday I’d be writing novels. (It took me much more time to figure out that more words were not necessarily better.)

I’m interested in 1) what exists in the world now, 2) what could exist, and 3) what people thought existed but never did. The first informs the other two, and the older I get, the more I find myself writing about it.

But I’ll always love science fiction and fantasy for what they can say as metaphors for the human condition. Science fiction asks “what would the impact be if we made a change here?” Fantasy asks “what would it be like if the rules were different?” I suppose this is why my vampire novel feels more like science fiction rather than urban fantasy: the change to the world is relatively small, but even that is extremely potent.

  1. Describe your great Lab of Creation? This includes where you work, what do you listen to (if anything), things you have to have in your work environment, and stuff you’ve tried that haven’t worked.

I am far too distractible to work in a public place like a coffee shop, though in recent years I’ve been able to do some work even with my son playing video games in the same room.

But there are tasks that require you to lose yourself in the morass of notes you’ve made and come up with lines of final-draft quality, so I do some of my best work at night while everyone else is asleep. The exception to this is plotting – I find it often needs to be run by another human being to see if it passes the “that’s stupid” test.

I don’t listen to music, really, not while working. Music with lyrics distracts me. I’ve used instrumental music before, but these days when I work, I generally work in silence.

I chew sugarless gum and drink black tea to stay awake. I’m a night person by nature, so it is often a struggle to stay awake in the morning hours.

Caffeine by itself will not keep me awake during the day. The gum is the way to go. The tea is there for hydration. I used to try soda, but I hate the taste of diet soda and a friend told me that the HFCS in the non-diet kind is like injecting fat directly into your veins. I still indulge, but not daily, and not just to wake up.

  1. What are your superpowers? This includes things you like your creations, specific techniques you do well, and some favorite successes.

I really like asking the question “Okay, if all these fantastical things exist, how would things really shake out?”

You can mine an immense amount of details out of that one question. That’s how I ended up with Emily Wong liveblogging the apocalypse in Mass Effect 3, the reductionist anti-vampire chants on the National Mall in Civil Blood, and the horror of the VITAS plague in Shadowrun.

I create a lot of fake news. It’s such a big part of modern life that it helps the fantastical parts go down more easily. Humans are terrible at keeping secrets even when they’re motivated to.

Video is going to be around in some form in the future, and it’s ubiquitous now, so if someone got hold of a vampire that sparkles, it would take about a hot second before that crap would be all over the cable channels and that vampire would end up hounded by fans and soldiers and scientists.

Civil Blood is the straight-faced Big Dramatic Book that I meant to write for 11 years or more. In the end, I finally buckled down and finished it rather than letting it sit on my hard drive for eternity. So that was an enormous weight off my mind. It was me showing what I could do with no co-author input, though I leveraged every lawyer, doctor, and beta reader friend I had to make sure its quality was what I wanted.

On the other end of the spectrum was a one-off humorous short story I wrote for an anthology called Unidentified Funny Objects, volume 8. It doesn’t sound like much, but the series has had entries by Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and of course regular appearances by Esther Friesner, whom I consider the gold standard of fantasy short story humor because she’s written so freaking much of it.

And not only did I get into the anthology, but my story is the first one in the book. I took the idea of “superhero registration” from such Big Dramatic Pieces like Captain America: Civil War and spoofed it. I mean, really, superhero registration is going to be like the DMV, except the waiting room is going to be goofier than that cantina in Star Wars. And I figured they’d have some kind of place to test the limits of your superpowers, which for a regenerating hero, would be agonizingly, humorously painful.

  1. What will Lex Luthor use to defeat you? This includes challenges you’ve faced that frustrated you, learning experiences, techniques for overcoming creative challenges, things you’d have done differently, and advice for new writers.

I think the most annoying thing about writing is that it doesn’t get easier. Even if you’ve got a list of accomplishments, if your work isn’t scintillating on the page, no one is going to accept it. And only rarely will someone know what’s wrong with it. Most of the time, how to turn that “no” into a “yes” is a guess.

The creative failure that taught me something which comes to mind was when I was writing a Star Wars: The Old Republic quest on Balmorra and was handed an outline that said “you meet a wounded Sith unable to destroy the Republic’s battle droid factory and you go do the job for him.”

I tried a first draft and it sucked. That’s when the lead writer, Daniel Erickson, asked me to think about the quest giver’s character more.

“What’s he like?” Daniel asked.

I said, “Uh, okay, he’s wounded and wants you to finish what he started.”

“Wounded,” he said, “is not a character trait. Anybody can be wounded. It’s how you react to a situation that makes you into a character.”

So I thought about it and made the guy the poster boy for Sith determination. He’s got his ankle blown off, but he’s bent on never giving up, and he tells the player all about his plan to pick off one droid at a time, circle back, hide away, and continue this guerilla campaign he’s worked out in his head to whittle down like forty droids over the course of the next two days before he runs out of food or infection sets in.

And the player’s natural response is “Dude, just let me do it, I still have both ankles.” Which neatly solved the problem of winning the player’s sympathy and characterizing the quest giver with a unique spin at the same time.

My co-writer at Seasun had the opinion that writer’s block was a sign, not a state. It was telling you that you either A) don’t know enough about your characters, or B) don’t know enough about the world they inhabit. Because if you are really in tune with what your characters’ problems are, you will be ready to tell the audience all about them. I’ve found that sitting down and just making shit up about the world and about the characters keeps me busy until I’m ready to go back to the problem at hand.

The big mistake I’d warn writers about is that I’ve been burned a few times by collaborating. Making most anything is a team effort, and often when you become part of a team that you click with and they seem competent, you assume that things will turn out all right. But as the Quality Assurance teams in video games know, anything that has not been tested must be assumed to be broken.

I edited an indie paper-and-pencil roleplaying game in a marathon session, only to have the creator take the final draft to the printer. This was back in the days of physical disks, which he handed over to the printer… with more than one file on the disk. Murphy’s Law being what it was, the printer didn’t use the most recent file, so the first printing of the game was filled with all the errors I had spent three days correcting. Just the sort of thing you want your name on, right?

If you’re working on something inspired by the public domain, but that nobody else has done yet, do it fast. I wrote a screenplay about Achilles that I poured my heart and soul into, but nobody wanted to touch it because Troy beat me to production by a month or two.

I used a Shakespearian phrase from Romeo and Juliet for a vampire novel, and lo and behold, a month after I published, there was another vampire novel with the same title competing in the search engine results. So, if you have an idea, don’t faff around with it, because there can really be such a thing as being too late to press.

Lightning Round
  • Actor/Actress You’d Like to Play Any Character You’ve Created

The image of Infinity DeStard in my head is pretty close to Krysten Ritter on Jessica Jones. She was a very convincing survivor with pragmatic morals and a “screw-it-the-plan-is-now-shot” attitude.

  • Favorite Muppet?

Statler and Waldorf. Some of their lines are simplistic, but they also get some of the best.

(“Help me out here.” “Okay, which way did you come in?”)

  • Favorite Musical Performer We’ve Never Heard Of?

The band Apotheosis, who did a techno version of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in the 1990s but promptly got sued for it.

  • Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?

I like winter, even when I lived in Alberta and it was nine months long.

  • Favorite Superhero?

I’ve made a few, but it’s kind of gauche to self-promote, so I’ll say Spider-Man. Why? Because he’s small-scale (“friendly neighborhood”) and is a total amateur, a kid trying to do the right thing. By sheer coincidence, his superpowers/inventions are specifically suited to tying up large numbers of enemies (without even punching them half the time) and leaving them for the cops. The guy was made to be a hero. And it’s really hard to make a character that’s like him that isn’t him exactly. Batman, for example, is a costumed vigilante with some toys, which describes a lot of superheroes – Nite Owl and Ozymandias from Watchmen, the Phantom, Black Widow, they’re all sort of in that same pool of natural heroes with training and a little tech. There’s shrinking guys and rubber guys and lots of flying tough super strong guys. But when you make a wall-crawling web-slinger, it’s 100% certain who the original one is.

  • Best Game Ever?

There’s only one game in which I can make a time-manipulating wolf-headed pirate that summons ninjas and no one bats an eye. That’s City of Heroes/City of Villains. It’s back from the dead and completely fan-run now, and they eliminated all the inconveniences of subscription MMOs. It used to be that the character creator was better than the game, but over the years, the game consistently improved in gameplay, story quality, player choice, quality of life, and player-created content. I made it my mission to see every new piece of content when I started replaying. Out of 1581 available badge achievements, I have 1580 and the last one is associated with a known bug. Fortunately for my writing career, I’m taking a break from it for a little while.

  • Favorite 1970s TV show?

Saturday Night Live. I saw most of its reruns on Nick at Nite years later, and from the absurd commercial parodies to the Weekend Update, it filled me in on a time where I was too young to pay attention to politics and pop culture… and it did it with a smile.

  • Do You Have Pets? (provide pictures if you want)

Yes, a corn snake, a skinny ginger cat, and a tubby white cat. I’m pretty sure if we left them all alone for a week, we would come back and there would only be the tubby white cat.

  • Favorite Weird Color?

Like octarine or something? I’ll go with the bluish-lavender shade of B-Ko’s hair in Project A-Ko.

  • Best Present You’ve Ever Received?

When my daughter was five or so, she gave me a piece of art she’d made in school. It was black construction paper with planets glued to it. She said she knew Daddy worked on Mass Effect and made Galaxy Maps. So she made her own, and I put it on my desk at work.

  • Favorite Sports Team?

I’m not into most local sports teams, but I try to catch the Olympics when they’re on. Of those teams, I think the Jamaican bobsleigh team from 1988 had the most heart and even made snotty little-kid Chris root for them.

  • What Cartoon Character Are You?

Probably Candace from Phineas and Ferb. I was a snitch as a kid and lousy at impressing the objects of my affection.

  • Your Wrestler Name?

Hep C. Or possibly that’s my hip-hop name.

  • Your Signature Wrestling Move?

The leg guillotine. You get the opponent bent over, wrap one leg around their neck, then drop all the way to the mat, crushing their neck and battering their head in the fall. That’s what I thought would be cool when I was 12. I’m not sure it’d be safe to perform in practice, since neck trauma can lead to paralysis if you do it wrong.

  • What Do You Secretly Plot?

My next novel?

  • How Will You Conquer the World?

I doubt I can, but while I was on the CIA show The Agency I developed a reasonable plan to take over a nuclear reactor and make it go critical. Didn’t really want to put it on the air, though.

  • Best Thing From the 60s/70s/80s/90s? (pick your preferred decade)

The best thing from the ‘80s was the end of the Cold War. There was a feeling of hope and reconciliation. Rock bands played at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some political theorists questioned if we were “at the end of history.” Yeah… not so much.

  • Favorite Historical Period?

Ancient Greece. They figured out a lot given the crappy tools and brutal societies they had to work with.

  • Person In History (Living or Dead) You Want To Hang Out With?

Assuming I could get a translator, a librarian from the Library of Alexandria. They would be able to talk about so many lost works.

  • Steak Temperature?

Medium well. I used to be into medium rare, but it just makes it rubbery. Texture matters to me.

  • Favorite Chip Dip?

Mild red salsa.

  • Beverage(s) of Choice?

Black tea or Dr. Pepper. I like my cough syrup with sugar, thanks.

  • What Question Should I Add to the Lightning Round?

Best time you displayed valor in your own life, of course! I once saved a kid in a pool who couldn’t swim and was going under. His dad also noticed, so he might have been okay even without me, but I was a little faster.

What question(s) would you like to ask me?

Best time YOU displayed valor!

Agh. Good question. Maybe it would be the time I was driving in snow and ice and went off the road but brought it back again. The passenger was doing play-by-play because he was on the phone with his sweetie.

At least, he thought he was. The phone call dropped in the middle of me bringing it back out of the ditch.

Tell me again where we can find your stuff?

  • Add cool upcoming projects.
    • My day job is working on a game for Mattel163, the mobile games division of the toy company. I can’t talk about my project just yet, though.
    • I am in the outline stage of Civil Blood’s sequel, but it will be years before I finish the book.
    • I am trying to sell several short stories… maybe one will land soon.

And where can we find you?

I have not convention plans any time soon.

Do you have a creator biography?

Chris Hepler got his start writing roleplaying games when he was in college, working for such titles as Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and Legend of the Five Rings before pursuing screenwriting. After a stint on CBS Television’s drama The Agency and a Top Cow comic called M.I.T.H., he began work for the Bioware Corp. on such video games as Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Mass Effect trilogy.

There, he cemented his position as “that writer who actually cares about the science,” creating much of Mass Effect’s Codex, Galaxy Map, and Daily News. His launch-day Twitter event for Mass Effect 3, “Emily Wong Reports Live from UCLA,” made #solcomms the top-trending worldwide hashtag of the day, and yes, that means you can blame him for killing off several beloved characters.

Today, Chris works for various game companies, most recently for Mattel’s video game division, Mattel163. He enjoys dragon boating, herpetology, and as many martial arts as he can get his hands on. He lives in the U.S. with his wife, Jennifer Brandes Hepler, and their two loud children.

* * * * *

Wow, what an amazing collection of experiences. No wonder he gave us a great story!

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