Down the years, several editors and fellow Realms designers and fiction writers, not to mention fans, have pointed out to me that they can “feel there’s something special, something that matters,” but that hasn’t been explicitly spelled out in print anywhere, about the characters of Mirt and Durnan, and their relationship.
So let me shine some lamplight on these earliest heroes—or antiheroes if you prefer; loveable rogues—of the Realms.
I see Mirt and Durnan as growing up hard, leading lives that made them tough and muscular, somewhere rural in the Sword Coast North (or Sword Coast end of the Heartlands). Different somewheres, and separate lives, but lives that both took the same turn. At around the age of twelve or so, both Mirt and Durnan ended up on their own, cast out into the world or fled from orc raid or local strife and slaughter to seek their own fortunes. Country boys, Mirt having swifter wits and a nastier nature than Durnan, but the quieter and calmer Durnan having more patience, tolerance, and muscles. They both sought out cities, because cities are where money and excitement is, and—as Mirt puts it, in one of my early stories, “opportunity dwells.”
Somehow they encounter each other, and become firm friends and adventuring companions. How and where and for that matter why I don’t know, though it’s in the back of my mind that it was in a bad neighborhood of Scornubel; by the time I first “saw” them and wrote down what they were up to, they were already Mutt and Jeff or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser companions—except that neither was a barbarian, and they weren’t that different in height. Mirt was wily but no small-statured sneak thief, and Durnan was a “thinking man’s Conan,” by which I mean he was just as bright, and as conversant in daily life and culture, as the shopkeepers he was walking among in the ports along the Sword Coast, not a noble savage learning the ways of “civilized” men the hard way.
I didn’t want to copy Conan or Fafhrd and the Mouser—there were already tales aplenty written by better writers than I was, describing the exploits of those characters, and I wanted to explore my own world along the way, story by story, and at the same time work out some things in my own head about what friendship is (I was, during the times I wrote these stories, either eight or nine years old, depending on which tale we’re peering at—and the sort of bookish young student in public school who’s often bullied or made fun of because they’re different, so friends are scarce and hence highly valued).
So Mirt and Durnan were adventuring in cities, learning all about the varied folk of the Realms and how they live and what goods are bought and sold and how, about laws and who makes and keeps them and who they benefit and who they spurn (most of the time, Mirt and Durnan are among the spurned), and all about guilds (including thieves’ guilds). And with each tale I wrote more details of the Realms—from what sorts of ships sail the Sword Coast, how cargoes are packaged for travel, and how ships are loaded and unloaded through what goods are needed where (and therefore imported) or surplus and needed elsewhere (and therefore exported) to local spoken expressions, guilds and their influence, the attitudes of this or that city, and hundreds of little details of daily life.
In short, I was weaving the rich tapestry of the Realms the sensible and easiest way: by writing little bits and pieces, as they became necessary or relevant, rather than trying to tackle the whole darned thing at once, keep it all organized and consistent, and build everything at once, from ground up to the very last footnote. These days, courses are glibly taught in “worldbuilding” for computer games, and all too often, the results show the pressures of trying to do everything at once, way too fast, and making things fresh without making them different. I was doing it the slow, bumbling, but eventually instinctive way: keeping in mind the feel and elements I wanted, and shaping the setting so as to make those things seem logical rather than random or nonsensical or forced.
Mirt and Durnan were showing me the Realms, one caper or swindle or running skirmish at a time.
And Durnan was sensible enough to retire, but Mirt (cue that song from the musical Oliver! wherein Fagin and the Artful Dodger sing, “Once a villain, always a villain”) is still doing so to this day.
And imaginary though he is, I love him for it.
Images borrowed from “forgottenrealms.wikia.com/wiki/Mirt” ©Wizards of the Coast