The Big Idea: Bethany Jacobs
Most great stories revolve around a compelling hero. Author Bethany Jacobs has taken a different approach in her new novel, These Burning Stars. Follow along in her Big Idea to see how she ended up crafting a devious, toxic, and likeable villain.
The funny thing about big ideas is that you often only discover them after the fact.
When I began working on These Burning Stars, I had no big ideas. I had been slogging my way through another novel that was ponderous with themes of identity and religion, and I needed a break. I wanted to just sit down and see where writing took me. No ten-page plot outlines. No exhaustive worldbuilding documents. As an inveterate plotter, this was far from natural to me. But I wrote some throwaway line about restless space pirates that didn’t even make it into the second draft, and now I was having fun.
The ten-page plot outline and the exhaustive worldbuilding followed, as I began to give form to this vague idea of a cat-and-mouse space opera where three very different women, and one shadowy trickster, hunt down a secret about a genocide. With glee I evolved the most sinister and charismatic villain I’d ever created, a cleric and scion of a wealthy family named Esek Nightfoot, who goes around pursuing her own interests with devil-may-care, kill-first think-later impunity. She was my big idea, a story where the motivations and plot spin in the orbit of this repulsive, seductive person. I surrounded her with characters (a hacker con artist, a fellow cleric, a spurned child) whose own gray morality and longing for justice kept slamming into her like flies beating against a pane of glass.
But an invincible villain is boring. Esek needed a dynamic threat; she needed adversaries and foils. So I grew the flies into monsters and gave them glass-eating teeth, and now I had this book that was violent and furious, a far cry from the cheerful romp I’d originally been aiming for. My big idea was more than Esek: it was the desire for revenge on Esek.
It makes a lot of sense in retrospect. I wrote the book at a time of great political upheaval (although, is there any other time?). American politics was more fraught than I had ever seen, and my friends, family and I felt acutely the threats of homophobia and transphobia, of racism and xenophobia. The pandemic hit, and everywhere I looked there was anger and despair and futile cries for accountability, and also a kind of delirious humor. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Is this real? This can’t be real, right?”
Of course my book was angry and violent. It was about the slathering, single-minded, obsessive desire for revenge against corrupt systems and corrupt people—especially when those people revel in their own crimes. I fed all my desire for a reckoning into the story, while also maintaining Esek Nightfoot’s toxic likability. I want you to like her. I want you to feel guilty for liking her, and like her anyway.
This isn’t revolutionary, of course. Literature is full of delicious and compelling villains who make you want to chew off your arm just to see them achieve their dastardly aims. But the bewitching effect of Esek on those around her made me recognize another big idea that was like the other side of the I-want-revenge-coin. It turns out the novel is also about guilt. It’s about complicity, and the shame my characters feel over their complicity. What do you do when you realize that you’ve been serving the will of corruption? What if the revenge you want is against yourself as well as others? What if revenge isn’t enough?
Heavy stuff for a book that started with space pirates.