There is an art to storytelling that few understand as well as he does. It’s a balancing act, and a delicate one at that; the words only matter half as much as the imprint they carve into the listener’s memory, a fact as familiar to him as breathing.
When the idea first occurs to him, he knows he will have to be particularly careful because this isn’t The Dasher’s Men, this isn’t Darktown’s Deal, this isn’t some world he gets to spin whole-cloth, this is something greater. Much greater. So much greater, in fact, so much bigger, that sometimes the sheer weight of it all makes him dizzy.
He keeps most of her jokes (nixing only the worst of the worst, of which there are quite a few) because those will endear her to the readers. He picks and chooses which wounds will leave marks because a hero is supposed to be sufficiently battle scarred when they strip out of their armor. He even makes a point to mention just how many times she fails because it keeps her mortal in their eyes, keeps her from becoming just another name, legend, time-worn statue they pass by without looking twice. He keeps all those things and more, but…
But, but, but.
There are things he leaves out of the story. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that—he isn’t a documentarian, he isn’t an historian, he’s a storyteller, and so it comes down to him to decide what pieces do and don’t see the light of day. This isn’t his story, not really, he’s only the one telling it, so yes, there are things never set in ink and words never repeated, and it doesn’t matter the circumstance or the surroundings or the asker themselves, there will never be a rewrite where they’re revealed.
Now, most of them are unwanted things anyway, pointless anecdotes that hold no bearing or sway on the tale people want to hear. Thedas wants to hear a Champion’s tale, they want to hear about pacts with a witch of the wilds and the smell of curdled darkspawn blood, they want to shudder at the image of giant spiders dropping from cave ceilings and the sound of charging Tal-Vashoth. They want to gasp and ooh and ahh at the revelation of what things hide deep beneath Kirkwall, beneath the Deep Roads themselves, deep enough that you can find demon-guarded magisters sleeping unnaturally in crumbling shrines.
They don’t want to hear about the way Hawke sat at camp for hours that night, bruises already blooming from Corypheus’s might, head in her hands and eyes far-off, her face pale as milk as she fought to control the ever-shifting shape of her mouth because “That was Father’s voice, Varric, that was Father’s voice,” and “I’d almost thought I’d forgotten it,” and “Maker, I’d almost forgotten, how could I have forgotten him?”
So he doesn’t include that part.
He explains in perfect detail how she comes by each of them, one by one, their perfect little gallery of misfits, and he paints each of their stories in the broadest arcs he can: searching for treasure, for acceptance, for change, for revenge, for whatever people will expect most of the archetypes he’s set them in. Of course the elf kills the monster who enslaved him and of course trusting the apostate goes badly. Rivaini discovers that friendship is the only true treasure and Daisy’s desire to restore her people’s history comes with a high price. After losing her old life and love, Aveline rises up to take control and Donnic’s hand, and Sebastian…well, Choir Boy’s there, and he sure loves Andraste with all his heart, doesn’t he.
The lot of them are bright and vibrant and above all else loud in everything they do, be it laughing or jeering or arguing or agreeing, and he sees how voraciously the public eats that shit up. They want to hear about characters like that, ones with long, exciting lives full of twists, of turns, of ups, downs, and all-arounds. They want to picture glimmering necklaces and feathered pauldrons, tattoos that shimmer in the darkness, armor so painstakingly polished that you could use it as a mirror. What they don’t want is to struggle to put together a working image of a sullen younger brother, given nothing but the crumbs occasionally left in Hawke’s wake. “Carver would’ve loved this,” does little to paint him in a reader’s eye, and while it might tug at a heartstring or two, there’s nothing gained by describing the way Hawke’s smile always tightened after bringing him to mind, the mirth going out from her eyes as quickly and surely as a candle being snuffed out.
So he doesn’t include those parts either.
The deaths are a bit easier in that he doesn’t have to put much consideration into which to highlight and which to breeze over, because few things are as clear as the average person’s fascination with the notches on Hawke’s belt. A Coterie goon here or there for spice, a slew of Silent Sisters when things get dull, a Carta specialist when the pace begins to drag. There are massacres and ambushes enough for him to draw on at the slightest notice, filling spaces between plot beats with snapped necks and drying blood.
People come up to him all the time and ask whether it’s true, whether it’s real that Hawke had actually slayed the Arishok in single combat; when that happens, he laughs and waves a hand and recounts (in excruciating detail) each attack, each feint, each close call, all culminating in the formidable Qunari dropping to the ground, blood soaking the throne room’s stairs and spraying from his lips with each curse of her name, promising that his people could—would—return to finish the job that had been started. Without fail, they always flinch when he gets to Hawke’s killing blow, but those flinches are usually followed by thrilled grins and nervous laughter. Sometimes they ask him about Meredith, about Orsino, and while they raise their eyebrows at the mention of stone guardians come to life, of atrocities wrought by blood magic, the reactions are generally the same. Shock, awe, excitement, admiration, glee tempered only slightly by horror.
No one asks him about the death in the Deep Roads, about how they all realized too late why Bethany was suddenly so tired. No one asks him about the way she smiled as she guided Hawke’s blade over her heart, how Hawke pressed her forehead to her sister’s, how they cried. No one asks him about the night he found her in the Hanged Man after that, Leandra having thrown her out (not the first time, not the last). No one asks about the way she’d stared into the fireless grate, the laughter gone from her eyes, face curiously slack in an expression he’d never seen her wear in all his time knowing her. No one asks him what she said when finally she acknowledged he’d sat himself next to her, so no one but him ever wonders why the first thing out of her mouth was “Are we still friends?” No one else asks what she meant by that, no one else feels the dagger twist into their heart when they imagine her shrugging, saying, “The expedition’s over. Contract’s over. Just wondering.” No one asks what it felt like to stew in that awful realization, the unspeakable understanding that beneath the smirk and the jokes and the fluttered eyelashes, the grandly sweeping bows and ribald pub stories, there lived someone very tired and sad, more accustomed to being a tool than a person—a farmhand, a soldier, a smuggler, a hired sword in patchwork armor. No one asks if that was the precise moment he realized something about her, about himself, about them, if he recognized that particular sort of hollowness, if it was an old friend of his as well. No one asks how he answered her, and no one asks whether she smiled, no one asks whether she dropped her head onto his shoulder and shook until she found some measure of composure. No one asks if Hawke mourned her baby sister alone.
And since no one asks him, he doesn’t tell. But then again, he wouldn’t, even if they did.
Then of course, there’s the romance. Oh, the romance! Every good story needs one, so says the public at large, so he’s always careful to give them the one he thinks will scintillate them the most. What will make them clutch at their pearls? A dalliance with a rebel pirate? The pained yearning of a brooding warrior? A whirlwind affair with a mysterious Qunari spy? Poor choices made with a mage? He’s gotten it down to a science, really, figuring out what audience wants to hear what, and once that’s been determined, only the names need to be changed around.
All anyone ever wants to know in that regard are the juicy bits—the giggles, the gasps, the clandestine meetings that (more often than not) were interrupted to comedic effect by a rascally Mabari hound. They want to know about the longing and the yearning, about the ache of love in the midst of a war, in the dust of a city on the verge of tearing itself to shreds along its fault lines; they don’t care how he knows the things he knows, like what Hawke’s hair smells like, looks like when it’s fanned out on a pillow, like the color of her bedclothes or the way she always woke up in a distinctly different position than the one she fell asleep in. Why should they? They simply want to make those brief visits to her bedroom, to gawk at the furniture and maybe catch a glimpse of something not meant for them, hooded eyes or a tongue pressed against the point of a tooth, a low laugh, the whisper of sheets being pulled aside.
They don’t want to know about the nights she was kept awake by other things: The nights she spent pacing, fingers knotted in her hair (fear’s not particularly heroic, nor is panic, not in their eyes, anyway), the stretches of time where the only entries she penned in her nightly journal were the words “Still here.” They want to hear all about the horrors that befell her mother, they want to cringe and shiver at the image of Hawke, the hero, the Champion, kneeling on those blood-soaked floors cradling something that had once been only partly her blood and bone, smiling hard through it as she’d smiled hard through ending Bethany’s pain. They want to imagine the heartbreaking scene of the last drops of life fading from eyes that were only somewhat familiar to her, leaving her there to reel under the weight of the maleficar’s creation, not moving, not breathing, as still and breathless as the corpse growing colder in her grasp.
Those details they want to know. The blood, the trauma. They want to know that there was a lover who ran to her afterwards with words of comfort so strong, so potent, that she was able to spring right back from it all like only a true Champion could, waking up fresh the next morning to continue the job of making Kirkwall a safer place to live.
The truth, though? They don’t want to know that. They don’t want to know the fever-bright color tears turn Hawke’s eyes, the way fury warps her face into something savage. They don’t want to know that it wasn’t any of them, not a single one of them, who was able to face her after what happened in the foundry—none except for him. No one wants to hear the storyteller insert himself into the story, not when he so clearly belongs on the outside of it. They don’t want to hear that he was the one who found her in her bedroom, everything but the desk overturned and broken, books flung into the fire, clothes torn from their hangers and at their seams until they looked more like the ribbons Orlesians wound into their hair and around their wrists than actual finery. They don’t want to know that he found her sitting on the floor in the middle of that wreckage, Dog watching him sadly from her side, his dark ears laid low against his skull as his tail thumped the floor. They don’t want to imagine the sound of her screaming into her own hands. They don’t want to picture the way she wept, angry and lost and hopeless and so very, very unlike what a hero was supposed to be. They don’t want to know that she stayed like that, breath hot against his skin as she screamed into his shoulder, quieting only when something in her throat gave way and she became too tired to keep trying. They wouldn’t believe him even if he described each tiny hiccup, the precise way she held her hands over her mouth, the weight of her as he held her until the sun peeked through the drapes. They wouldn’t believe him.
So he keeps that part to himself, too.
Clearly there’s something to his method because they devour the story word by word and piece by piece, ravenous for more. It’s no surprise, of course, because there’s an art to storytelling, an art very few understand as well as he does. He gives them all of what they want and none of what they don’t, and if those omissions make him a liar in any of their eyes, then that’s fine by him. He’s not a documentarian. He’s not an historian. He’s a storyteller.
The story is only his to tell.