The Big Idea: Peter Orullian
Choices, motivations, and the unintended consequences thereof — heady stuff for any novel, much less a series. In The Unremembered, the debut fantasy novel from Peter Orullian, which is in itself the first novel in a six book series, each of these things is considered, and weighed, and tested before being put into practice. Orullian is here to explain why it all matters, for the book and beyond.
Who atones for a savior? Put aside your personal views on religion for a moment, and think about that question. Of course, the first thing that you must assume is that a savior or messiah figure would need such help. Some creeds won’t suffer the thought. But in the context of a fantasy novel, it was one of the germinating Big Ideas that led to The Unremembered.
I like to explore motivation, choice, and consequence. They seem to me like a set of pipes that run out from the heart and mind and right back in, often siphoning back a rather damaging bile. But, if I tax the metaphor, a few things result from this potentially toxic return flow: we gain wisdom, sometimes grow inured, sometimes perish. Of course, happiness may result, too; I’m not a complete sadist.
But as I got rolling with the book, my thoughts about one person redeeming another or maybe many others—ya know, standing up to be counted—began to shift, and that’s where things got challenging and interesting. See, because people fail. And if someone is relying on you, and your limitations or unwillingness become the reason they suffer . . . well, that just sucks. It’s where the pain lives, and it’s where I felt the book begin to grow past the tropes of fantasy. Not by trope avoidance; I don’t care about that. Since, if you’ve been paying attention, trope-avoidance is the new trope. But rather, this idea of failing someone (and again, maybe failing many) got inside me. No, that’s not right, either. It’s more like through the writing, and in retrospect, I acknowledged a fear of my own. I don’t write for self-therapy, and I’m certainly no iconoclast. Nor have I any agenda. Still, as I told the story of people (and even gods) whose help was needed and who could not or would not be able to offer that help . . . it took my book in a direction I had not anticipated.
That all sounds rather deep. Maybe. But it’s not like I was writing a thesis. It’s just that the adventure of the book seemed to me a rather thin skein if the choices along the way weren’t at least sometimes complicated, filled with ambiguity. It’s like playing with that old saw: “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason.” That’s interesting stuff. As is the inverse: “Doing the wrong thing for the right reason.”
And it’s not as though this was all conscious and deliberate as I sat in my chair, writing. It really has more to do with my intention (which I uploaded into my subconscious and then promptly forgot) that choices must matter, for good or ill.
Which then dovetails nicely with another of the Big Ideas that I believe, and hope, has shaped The Unremembered. And that’s this: Some choices have the power and opportunity to touch two eternities. What I mean by that is perhaps best related in an example given by Dan Simmons, who first introduced me to this notion, albeit slightly different. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), that a good teacher can touch eternity . . . but so can a bad one. Dan used to be an educator, so he knows the score here. I’ve never forgotten that. And as I’ve dallied with the notion over the years, it has occurred to me that some choices—depending on which way we choose—may have two separate and ultimate ends. I love (and frankly tremble at) this idea.
Now a life—even that of a character in a fantasy novel—could get painfully doctrinaire or just flat boring if every decision carried such weight. I had no interest in that. On the other hand, I did want to explore how some of those “throw away” decisions a character makes all the time might have ripple-effects they can’t fully appreciate. And two stripes of such decisions occurred to me: the innocent, seemingly harmless choice that eventuates in all kinds of badness; and the absence of action, omission.
And then this idea, for me, kind of turned the whole thing to eleven: What might happen if all this stuff were restored to the character, all these choices—their consequence, the harm, the joy, the disappointment, the shame, the hope? That’s savior stuff, isn’t it? I don’t mean with a capital “S.” More, say, in the philosophical sense. And in The Unremembered, specifically, my creation myth holds that the gods have decidedly abandoned the world.
That abandonment, that decision to withdraw, influenced how I developed and wrote about the world of my book. Regardless the reasons of these absent gods, you can imagine the underlying potential for hopelessness. That became a fun challenge, and it wound up presenting me some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Because after all is said and done (and as maudlin as it’s going to sound), I want my stories to be about hope. But I don’t think you get there by writing platitudes. At least, that’s not the route I took. Instead, the road I traveled (avoiding spoilers here) showed my characters having to do heartbreaking things, which—if I’ve done my job—are moments of darkness that make hope shine the brighter.
Oooh, I almost waxed poetic there. My point is just that there’s disappointment, sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional. And then, you know, how do my characters make that right? If they’re even aware. If they even care. There’s war, of course, suffering by the sword. There’s also a quieter brand of suffering as a consequence of disappointment, when a hero (a savior) fails someone personally. Are they, afterward, even a hero? Who atones for that guy?
My job was to make the painful decisions of my characters seem credible, necessary, even when they cause you to want to smack our heroes around some. But mostly, the big idea became the willingness to put everything at risk for a friend, and I wound up feeling kinda good about that.