The Big Idea: Stephen Aryan
Author Stephen Aryan has taken extra care in his newest novel, The Coward, to bring you a realistic main character. Follow along in his Big Idea as he tells us of the research that went into crafting a hero who perhaps isn’t as heroic as everyone thinks he is.
I’ve been reading fantasy novels all my life. I’ve seen countless farm boys go off on epic adventures only to return home with fame and fortune. I’ve seen numerous groups of plucky heroes vanquish the forces of darkness. I’ve seen armies and demons and monsters. And usually the good guys win. And then all is well and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Well, no. Not if we’re being realistic.
While lying awake one night during a bout of insomnia, with all of this swirling around my brain, I came to one question. What does it take to be a hero? This is the core of the Big Idea for The Coward.
Although members of my family have served I’ve never been in the military. I’ve never seen real war. Most likely, I never will. But as a child of the 1970s I’ve seen countless news reports about wars and the people who fought them. Then came stories that featured a new acronym; PTSD. In the last few years I became more interested in it. More specifically I wanted to find out about the people involved and how they coped with what they’d seen.
Some of it I picked up from pop culture. For years TV, films and comics have featured characters who were former soldiers, but I wanted to get closer to the truth. And in reading some non-fiction books about first-hand accounts, and meeting someone who saw it himself, I realised something else. It’s not just people in the armed forces who are affected and can suffer long-lasting side-effects that take years to come to terms with. It was doctors, nurses, and other front-line individuals like reporters. These are people who head towards danger. They volunteer to go into the worst places on Earth to bring us stories. They seek the truth even though it could cost their lives.
This led to The Coward and to Kell Kressia. A cocky teenager who, like many others, idolised the most famous heroes in the Five Kingdoms. When he heard they were going on an epic quest to the Frozen North to slay the Ice Lich he tagged along, seeking fame and fortune. They defeated the great evil and saved the world, but only Kell came home. All of the heroes died and he saw all of it. I’ll repeat that point because it is critically important. He witnessed terrible things that no one else alive can fully understand because they weren’t there. The person who came home from the epic quest was someone completely different to the one that left.
The story begins ten years on from these dramatic events. Kell is famous for what he did and stories about his heroism are told in every tavern across the world, but he wants nothing to do with any of it. He shuns all of the attention and lives a quiet life as a farmer. He avoids people. He finds solace in the quiet. But a new terror is rising and he is called upon by the King to vanquish the new threat.
The story is about a broken man trying to come to terms with the demons in his past. There is the perceived version of events that everyone knows, and then there is the cold, harsh truth. But no one wants to hear about that. They want the glory not the gore. The victory not the terror. The story is about fame, celebrity, hero-worship, faith and courage.
As part of my research I came across charitable organisations that help military, armed forces and medical staff. I have always held people in all of these positions in high regard but, after the last two years, I’m in awe of the medical profession. Organisations in the UK such as High Ground, Veterans in Action and the Farm-Able Foundation provide long-term, non-clinical support to veterans that use the outdoors and related activities to help them cope with the traumas they’ve experienced. The outdoors can have enormous healing effects on an individual’s physical and mental health and this is something I’ve tried to incorporate into the story to bring an extra layer of realism.
With every novel I obviously want the reader to enjoy the story but with this one I felt a certain amount of responsibility. It’s self-imposed and I know that no one is going to come after me with pitchforks, but I still want to get it right. This was undoubtedly my biggest challenge and concern when writing this novel.
I hope that by going the extra mile the character of Kell feels like a real individual who has seen things other people will never fully understand, and he can never really explain, because they weren’t there. I hope that while being an exciting adventure story full of monsters, it also makes the reader think about the true price of heroism. And I really hope that if anyone who has suffered from PTSD reads this book, or indeed this article, they realise there is help out there for them and a way forward.