While we’ve all suffered the indignity of waking up in an alternate dimension with no idea how we got there, it’s still possible to present a fictionalized version of this common occurrence that is as interesting as the real thing. Take, for instance, Shirtaloon’s He Who Fights With Monsters series, a serialized litRPG portal fantasy tale that puts a humorous spin on things. In the following email interview, Shirtaloon discusses the second installment, He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), as well as his plans for the future installments.
I’d like to start with a little background. What are the He Who Fights With Monsters stories about, and when and where do they take place?
He Who Fights With Monsters is a series about a modern Australian bloke who wakes up in a magical alternate reality. He has no idea how he got there, what to do, or if he’s actually gone insane and is in a mental ward somewhere yelling “pew pew pew” at the wall. The series concerns the protagonist, Jason Asano, coming to terms with his circumstances and learning to survive and thrive in his new and bizarre circumstances.
And then what is He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two about, and how is it connected to He Who Fights With Monsters: Book One?
This series has its origins in serialized fiction, with the story continuing to be released online in this format ahead of being released as a book series. The first three books constitute what is volume one of the online releases, forming a complete sequence while leading strongly into major changes for the next volume, that will constitute books four through six.
When in the process of writing He Who Fights With Monsters: Book One did you get the idea for Book Two, and what inspired this second story?
The entire series was conceived from the outset, having a through line over 4 volumes that each constitute a complete story sequence. This will likely become a quartet of trilogies once transposed into published books.
While I have left myself plenty of room to move in making changes to the story, the entire series has been outlined from the beginning as a comprehensive whole.
It sounds like these novels are urban fantasy stories. Is that how you’d describe them?
The story falls within portal fantasy, or what is often called isekai, which are stories about people from the real world, transplanted into what is usually magical one. It is also a litRPG story, meaning that video game-like elements appear directly within the story and can be interacted with by the characters. The protagonist has game-like statistics that he can see on a screen and increase through actively taking action.
LitRPG also comes under the umbrella of progression fantasy, which is about characters growing explicitly in power. This is a key element to video games and translates into a core litRPG genre trope.
It also sounds like they’re humorous…
My protagonist is (eventually) an interdimensional kung-fu wizard. If none of it is funny then things may have gone horribly wrong.
So is the humor jokey like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or is it more situational?
I won’t claim to compare to Douglas Adams, even if my books are sitting next to his on my shelf, but my series has heavy comedic elements. A major element of my story and its humor comes from the tonal dissonance between a modern (and unrepentant) Australian and a magical reality. One of the first concepts that eventually became He Who Fights With Monsters was the idea of what happens when an Aussie bloke meets Gandalf.
By the time I was actually writing it, the story had been quite thoroughly developed from that first concept, but the clash between high fantasy and modern sensibility is very much baked into the characterization and tone. I chose portal fantasy as a genre for that very reason. At the end of the day, I find someone explaining The Karate Kid to a wizard to be inherently hilarious.
The danger with working with overt tonal dissonance is the risk of undermining the emotions involved and undercutting the characters and the reader’s connection to them. For this reason, individual scenes operate on a spectrum from straightforward and sometimes almost grimdark to outright comedy. Most fall somewhere in the middle.
One of the greatest challenges in my writing is bringing the disparate tonal elements together in ways that feels true to the characters and lets the reader connect to them emotionally. The goal is to have those elements advantage, rather than disadvantage the story and that’s something I’m very conscious of in my writing.
What writers do you see as being the biggest influence on the humor in He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two?
Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams are both massive influences for me. While I wouldn’t call our forms of humor similar, they definitely inform aspects of how comedy appears in my story. This is particularly true in the idea of contrasting real-world sensibilities with the unreality of genre fiction tropes and how that can highlight the absurdities in one or both.
Aside from Pratchett and Adams, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two but not on Book One?
Books one and two are part of a comprehensive whole, so the influences are much the same. Things will change once the story moves into its second sequence with book four but I can’t really talk about them without diving into spoilers territory.
And how about non-literary influences; was He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two influenced by any movies, TV shows, or game? You mentioned video games earlier…
While not so much in terms of content, stylistically, I actually draw a lot of influence from the television work of Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon. Whedon also works in fantastical genres but mostly it’s about style as my work is heavy on the kind of sharp, bantery dialogue. That appears in the work of these writers.
Also, bantery is a word. I just checked.
The term litRPG, of which my series is an example, is a genre combining literary elements (that the book part) with aspects from role-playing games, primarily video game RPGs. These stores, and mine is no exception, usually involve characters having explicit access to the rules by which the world they are in operates.
One of the things that draws me (and many other genre enthusiast) to litPG is the explicit nature of the world-building. Every good fantasy of science fiction has rules by which they operate, but with litRPG, the author is required to show their work.
I interact quite a lot with readers via the dedicated discord server for my story. My readers have always been fascinated by the mechanics of the magical system, which is a commonality with litRPG titles.
He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two is, obviously, the second book in this series, and there’s already a Book Three scheduled to come out September 7th. And you said there will ultimately be twelve…
I’m currently looking at twelve books, although there could be as many as fourteen, depending on how the latter volumes pan out. While I do have everything outlined, I do leave myself room to play around with ideas and make changes to the story.
Now, aside from the print and digital editions, there are also audiobooks of the He Who Fights With Monsters stories narrated by Heath Miller. Who originally chose Heath for this?
My audiobook publisher, Podium, were really fantastic about including me in the casting process. They sent me samples from various narrators to get my thoughts and my original response was that there was a problem with U.S. narrators and my character being very Australian. Following that, they came back to me with Heath who, in his words, came by his Aussie accent honestly. I was immediately onboard with this choice and it was a great one. Heath is fantastic and I constantly hear from readers and listeners who absolutely love his work.
Earlier I asked if He Who Fights With Monsters: Book Two had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has anyone ever inquired about adapting this series into a movie, show, or game?
Because my story is a litRPG, it has a very developed system that is largely available for the reader to see. For this reason, adaptation to a table-top RPG is something that readers discuss quite frequently. There have been no actual proposals to adapt it into other media, however.
Do you have a preference?
My dream scenario would be a television adaptation, although I’m not sure the audience is there for litRPG quite yet. Still, all it takes is one breakthrough success and the doors get flung open.
I’d choose television over film because the number of movies required would be ridiculous, even gutting the story to core and then, what’s the point? Also, I made the point earlier about drawing stylistically from television writers. This also translates to the pacing in many ways, where lengthy character interactions are the norm and action is more the garnish than the meat. Not to say there isn’t action, because there’s monsters, cannibals, cultists, and gods (there goes the CGI budget), but it’s more about character and story.
And if someone wanted to do a He Who Fights With Monsters TV show, who would you want them to cast as Jason?
I’d want the production to be very aware than my protagonist is very Australian but his father is ethnically Japanese. This is a critical aspect to his character, especially later in the story, so while I think Tom Holland is great, I’d avoid him for this role.
Finally, if someone enjoys the He Who Fights With Monsters stories, what funny fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Book Three to come out?
There’s a lot of great serial fiction being adapted to book publication, and my work lands fairly solidly amongst it. For a similar the mix of comedy and fantasy that operates in much the same space, I would recommend the Dungeon Crawler Carl series by Matt Dinniman.