Sometimes, to get at the big idea in your story, you have to ask someone else about it. For Exile, author Betsy Dornbusch asked one very special person, with a… unique perspective on the events of the book.
I admit it. I struggled to nail down exactly what Exile’s Big Idea is.
I started with the Twitter pitch. A half-breed, ex-slave bastard falsely accused of murdering his wife is exiled to the arse-end of the world. And I came up with lots of ideas, but I kept getting distracted by the fun parts of the book. There’s prejudice. (Epic fantasy!) A crisis of faith. (Swords!) Slavery. Crushing grief. (A quest!) Guilt. Suicidal tendencies. (Magic!) Revenge. Never belonging anywhere again. (Evil spirits!) Corruption, power, and civil war. (A ghostly Greek Chorus!) The role of the anti-hero…
Er, well…I needed to narrow my focus. Overwhelmed, I did what I do when I write stories. I asked the protagonist, Draken, what he considers his Big Idea.
He promptly discarded the notion of hero or anti-hero. He has no intention of saving the day. Prejudice he’s been dealing with his whole life; nobody likes a half-breed. He’s bitter, not grieving. Guilt he’s got in spades, but he was taught to buck up early on by slave whips. And never mind the suicidal tendencies, life isn’t worth living without his wife anyway.
Really, the only thing keeping Draken going once he drags himself onto the wild shores of Akrasia is thoughts of revenge against the man who killed her. He feels guilty as hell about failing to protect her and knows revenge will solve nothing. He knows he’s going dark-side after a life of overcoming significant odds. But morality, honor, and truth don’t put food in your belly when you’re banished to enemy territory.
Draken commits more crimes on his first day of exile than he’d ever been accused of: lies, robbery, murder. From there he moves on to making himself useful to the powers that be, except this time ethics be damned. Despite a deeply-ingrained religious prejudice against magic, he allies with an influential necromancer. Soon he’s navigating a dangerous foreign court by telling enough lies to start a war. While everyone from lowly slaves to the very gods conspire to sway him to nobler purposes—rescuing an abused young princess, solving an assassination attempt on the queen, negotiating peace—he uses all of Akrasia’s hostilities and bigotry to serve his own lust for vengeance. And if Akrasia is destroyed in the process, well, it’s a backwards, godsforsaken kingdom he never pretended to like anyway.
Except… other characters are loyal to Draken. His friends keep his secrets, acquaintances admire him, his enemies give him grudging respect. He is completely mystified by it. After all, his accent is awkward, his skin color is wrong, his attitude is bad. He’s always been a man who makes strangers loosen their swords in their scabbards when he walks into a tavern, but the Akrasians trust him. They ask him for help, and offer it. The gods gift him with magic and power. He collects so many unlikely friends his merry band feels like LOTR all over again.
So Draken’s question, his Big Idea, is pretty simple: why do they like me?
I think it’s because we’re fascinated when decent people who have every chance to do the right thing choose the wrong things for the wrong reasons. They’re curiosities of humankind, aren’t they? Driven, accomplished, wounded, sometimes narcissistic, always charismatic.
Draken keeps salving his wounds with lies and immoral choices even when he succeeds for the betterment of others, even when life would be easier if he chose righteousness over corruption. He tests the boundary between their love and his dishonesty. And just like real people, the other characters are obsessed with him and his darker nature, even as he clings to revenge right to the bloody end.
Besides. Epic Fantasy! Swords! Magic! Evil spirits!