The last Big Idea of the year! And a very interesting one too, as Erin M. Evans goes deep about what it takes to write in already-existing worlds, as she is doing with her novel Ashes of the Tyrant. Think it’s easy to write a tie-in novel? Think again.
ERIN M. EVANS:
“If I had your job,” a writer friend of mine once declared, “I would lose my fucking mind.”
I had just finished describing a city I’d be using in my next book, Djerad Thymar, a hollow pyramid taller than Khufu’s, big enough to house 30,000+ people, and the only city described for a race in Dungeons & Dragons called the dragonborn. Given a series of new constraints, I needed a way for it to have been built in less than eighty years by people who only just got access to magic. “A wizard did it” wouldn’t fly. “They worked real hard” wouldn’t either.
To some people, like my friend, that’s an intrusion, an impediment to their storytelling. To me, it’s a challenge I can’t help but accept.
Working with setting details you wouldn’t have chosen on your own is inevitability of tie-in fiction. Depending on what kind of media you’re tying in to the difference can be slight or stark. Role-playing games involve a lot of storytelling, a lot of backstory, so there’s often a lot to work with or around—but there are also a lot of cooks in this kitchen and they don’t always agree. Sometimes you get details that are there for the “cool visual” they provide. Sometimes you get hit with things there for mechanical reasons foremost—elves see secret doors because…someone should see secret doors! Sometimes there’s a hole where you’d expect to have answers and sometimes there are six books of background where you’d expect wiggle room.
Sometimes there’s this giant pyramid a bunch of dragon-people built because why not?
This works in a RPG game. It leaves room for the DM to shape the story they need to tell, for the players to find a niche for their characters. Here are the bones of a world. Build something around them.
You can’t always get by with just bones in a novel. It might be easier to lean on those sourcebooks, to only talk to the readers who play the game, but it’s not very satisfying. There’s such a lot of good story to be found between those immovable sourcebook details, and such a lot of inspiration in the contradictions that might otherwise make you lose your fucking mind.
And when it came to dragonborn, the shape around the bones was too wonderful to ignore.
The first time I realized my degree was still good for something, I wrote a short treatise on orcish ritual scarification. I was editing a book for Wizards of the Coast called Sentinelspire by Mark Sehestedt. In it, Mark had created a tribe of orcs to live in the icy corner of the world he’d chosen, and given a half-orc character the ritual of cutting a mourning scar across his heart for his lost blood brother.
Except this is basically the Siberia of the world. Ritual scarification sends a message to the people we interact with: I have lost a comrade and a loved one. Who’s he sending that message to if he’s bundled up against the cold all year long? (Mark moved the scar to his face and got a very poignant scene out of it).
Like most anthropology majors, I suspect, I thought for sure I was heading for academia. But an undiagnosed anxiety disorder pushed that dream out and out and out and by the time I had my brain back in relative order, I realized I didn’t want that life. But I still love it—and realizing all those books and studies and essays about ritual scarification and burial customs, proscriptions and purity and family structure, they’re all applicable to fantasy worlds. We’re social animals. We organize ourselves to perpetuate ourselves, and in those interactions lie so many of our truths and fears, our taboos and necessities, the pressures that quietly make each of us who we are.
Even if we’re elves. Or orcs. Or dragon-people.
Dragonborn are fairly new to the Forgotten Realms, mostly background players. So here was an excellent opportunity to flesh out those bones, which kicked the story into gear. For example, in the game, they were created by tyrannical dragons to be the perfect slaves, but they rose up and overthrew their far more powerful masters. Out of that, they were thrown into this new world by powerful magic and built a nation out of the rubble….and yet standard perception is they are friendly and curious and honor-bound to a fault.
Which makes sense, I figure, if non-dragonborn can’t read dragonborn facial expressions, if neither group understands the etiquette of the other, and if humans have no idea when a dragonborn is throwing shade, bless their hearts.
From these two angles came the big idea of Ashes of the Tyrant, the fifth book of the Brimstone Angels saga. In it, Farideh, my tiefling warlock, travels back to Djerad Thymar, the birthplace of her adopted father, Clanless Mehen. Mehen was exiled in his youth for reasons he doesn’t talk about, but now his father’s dead, the new matriarch of his clan wants him back. Mehen wants to be left alone, but at the same time he misses what he lost. For his daughters, Djerad Thymar is a puzzle—the place where all their family customs come from, but where they, as non-dragonborn, don’t belong.
This is a story about the past, about the way we mythologize the past, and what we can do to keep that from stymieing our future. A story about the roles our culture creates for us and how they harm or help, how we reshape ourselves or reshape our roles. It’s a story about family—what we’re born with and what we build ourselves—and how these things ripple out into our communities.
Also it’s about a demon running around murdering people.
(Come on: it’s still a D&D novel. You build around the bones, after all.)
So how did the dragonborn build Djerad Thymar? Unfortunately, the answer spawned a major story point, so you’ll have to read Ashes of the Tyrant to find out.