This is part of the PocketWatch Character Spotlight Blog Hop! Take a look at the others characters and their writers spotlighted at the bottom of this post.
I have always loved villains.
More often than not, I had found the antagonist more of an engaging character than the protagonist, especially in fantasy. They were the great ruling despots, said to have so much charm or force that an entire kingdom bowed to their whims.
They were painted in broad and vivid strokes, meant to be the impassable obstacle for the hero to overcome. In that, they were untouchable, and that air of mystery and power made them fascinating.
But I always wanted to know how they got there.
What was their rise to power like? What drove them? How did they see the turn of events, their reign? No one ever thinks of themselves as a villain—we are all the heroes of our own stories.
I wanted to see their side. What the hero’s journey looked like through the eyes of their adversary.
But, unfortunately, books usually left me unsatisfied in one of two ways.
The first, of course, has been long parodied and for good reason. Our Evil Overlord is kept more or less shrouded in uncertainty, right up until the very end. Then, either any motivation is skimmed over, or if something is given, it’s so rushed that it hardly feels genuine. What would start out as a terrifying and interesting idea would be boiled down to one-dimensional sludge by the finale.
I blamed this on the fact that we were, of course, following the protagonist. Their counterpart’s role was reserved for moving the plot and providing a challenge. Any further characterization was often left to the wayside, or hurriedly tacked on.
But at least there had been a glimmer of something greater there, even if it didn’t come to fruition.
Worse yet were the times where I was given a closer view of the villain… only to have them fall flat. Those times when a Tyrant King was said to be charismatic or brilliant, but then failed to be any of those things when they were on the page.
I was always left wondering how in heaven’s name they’d not been murdered in their sleep at the beginning, much less lasted long enough to become the Big Bad. (Terry Goodkind, I’m looking at you. I still don’t know why anyone followed Darken Rahl and he wasn’t just drowned in a river or something early on.)
So, in my frustration, I began stewing on an idea. What if an epic fantasy was mainly concerned with the villain’s motivations and reasons? Instead of just seeing the fruits of their labor, the already-won kingdom and army, what if the plot was focused on their rise to power?
And so the first seeds of The Piety of Others and its main character, the Lord General Nikodemus, sprouted in my mind.
When I conceived Piety almost ten years ago, I was very staunch in my ideas. I wanted it to be the explanation that I had always wanted. It was to be the full tale of how a land called Drinn came to fall under the reign of a ruthless ruler.
I wasn’t just going to say that his charisma swayed a kingdom; I was going to write the very speeches that moved nobles and commoners alike.
I wasn’t just going to have whispered rumors of the things he did to instill fear in the hearts of his detractors; I was going to show the flesh flayed from the bones of rebels.
I wanted to write a fearsome and iron-fisted tyrant. And, for a long time, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing.
You see, one of my favorite figures in history has always been Vlad the Impaler, the well-known inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I had decided from the outset that I wanted to model much of Nikodemus after him and his notoriously bloody reign.
Now, I’d done a lot of research, just for the joy of it. I knew a great deal about the life and times of that Prince of Wallachia, and I felt pretty confident in my historical basis and inspiration.
But then something changed my life.
When I was 17, right after I graduated high school, I got the incredible opportunity to volunteer in Romania for four months. I worked both as an assistant to an archaeological dig and as an elementary school teacher. I had the rare and wonderful privilege to get to know a lot of people from all over the world, and visit many of the historical sites all across the country.
Much of my understanding of the world changed during that trip, and as art imitates life, my writing evolved. However, one particular experience changed more for me than I could have ever imagined: how the Romanians regarded Vlad Țepeș.
I was able to speak with locals and, as I’m so wont to do, I asked a hundred thousand questions. I got the unique perspective of the Romanians themselves, and was able to learn how they felt about the man. And what I learned shocked me, as the sheltered and unworldly American that I was:
Vlad the Imapler was and still is considered a national hero.
Of course I had known that Vlad had fought brutal wars with the Ottoman Empire, but I had lacked context. The Romanians I spoke to explained how it was he alone who was (in their summation) willing to stand up to the invading Turks and save all of Christendom. They spoke of a savior holding back an onslaught of religious invaders, and how tying up the Islamic armies at the choke points in those mountains let Europe remain predominantly Christian into the modern era.
He was brutal, yes, but they felt it was because he was outnumbered and cornered. Transylvania had suffered under assailants from outside its borders and corrupt nobles from within. Any man who was to change anything would have to make an impression.
And so, Vlad showed no mercy to frightened off contenders and detractors and (in the eyes of the locals) he did it to save from more bloodshed. To save the lives of the common man.
While German and foreign sources cited him as bloodthirsty and cruel, inside his own country he is remembered as a true leader, willing to do the hard thing for the greater good.
At the time, I found this fascinating and certainly eye-opening, but little else. Even so, it remained in the back of my mind, slowly taking root in my consciousness. I had no idea how much my story would change from my original concept until I started to actually put pen to paper many years later.
When I wrote the first scenes of Piety during NaNoWriMo 2013, I was still pretty convinced that I had a villainous overlord as my main character, just with a little extra flavor taken from the intricacies of history.
I thought I knew my Lord General’s motivations well, and I thought they were solid. He was to be the pitiless and awe-inspiring despot I had always thought I wanted.
But then, I started to write.
And about 20,000 words in, I stopped and sat back.
I knew the honor code of Drinn. I’d made a functional caste system that could both be corrupted as well as be used for good. I understood their economy, and the struggle they faced in an infertile basin.
I watched as all those factors coalesced into the Lord General. As I wrote, I watched as his methods were understandable and his morality was worn on his sleeve. Each interaction was more surprising than the last, but it came together so easily and cleanly under the rules I’d established for the Drinnish culture.
At every turn, I found my warlord ever more earnest and noble. More patient, and without a temper. Even, reasonable, and resolute. Perhaps a bit headstrong, but not nearly the barely contained vessel of self-absorbed ambition that I had set out to create.
All at once, I realized that Nikodemus… was a man.
A charming man. A driven, ambitious man. A man possessed. But at the end of the day, a man.
And a good man, at that.
What I had on my hands was not the story of a “villain.” I’d brought my Western ideals to a world that I had pointedly written to be alien, with its own social codes and mores. I’d done both my character and myself a great disservice by trying to boil his history down to the oversimplified idea of “the antagonist’s story.”
Like a spark catching in underbrush long ripe to be set ablaze, suddenly the entire landscape had changed in a flash of light and heat.
I ripped up all my assumptions and took to Piety with a new fervor. Now, I knew what I was trying to say.
My story—my whole world of Isthaea, where Piety and other tales are set—centers around one very crucial and very human element:
Originally, I’d written the first eight chapters in third person, but I went back and switched them to a first person narrative. I decided to fully immerse myself (and thus the reader) in the individual and thus very flawed “truths” of the world.
The tale is now narrated by the titular Piety, a young man who we in America might call the most favored slave of the Lord General. He, however, considers himself in the most venerable position of being his Lord’s bonded right-hand. It is through his eyes that we watch Nikodemus conquer the last remaining vestiges that still oppose his reign.
It is through that lens that we are allowed a personal and intimate view of the man who drives a conquering army. Brutal and ruthless, yes, but one who sorrows at the death of his people. Impassioned, and unwilling to compromise his integrity.
To those he opposes, a villain and a tyrant, yes.
But to those he commands, a hero.
I may have set out to write a villain, but I ended up with something much better, and much more grounded: a man of great power who, to those who stand against him, is easily villainized.
Like my historical inspiration, Nikodemus is still ruthless, brutal, and unyielding. But it is in The Piety of Others that the reader is offered context: the hard decisions. The suffering of his people. His adherence to his morals, and why.
And with his story, I set the stage for a world-changing sociopolitical climate. Which is, underneath it all, what I actually wanted. Not the “villain’s story.”
Villains aren’t, in fact, interesting. The very word itself implies morality, and from there, no reason to question. The “bad guy” will be defeated, and everyone cheers. There isn’t any room to deviate without inherently going against the premise of the word, and that only allows for a narrow view of a character.
No, what I really wanted was both sides to the great events in history, each told with dignity and with equal bias. Nothing in the real world is without personal impressions that color events, so why should fiction be any different?
What had always disappointed me wasn’t that the stories I read hadn’t given me enough about the villains—it was that the perspective of the protagonist was treated as fact, and we were never given the chance or the room to see the other side. In that manufactured world, there was only one truth.
And that had always rung hollow to me.
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
– Chinua Achebe
The Piety of Others is the story of the Lord General Nikodemus of Drinn, a personal account of a pivotal time in history. It seeks to humanize a man of great influence, and to offer a private view of the events that change a world forever.
And with that, my dear readers, I leave you with one question: in this new era of Isthaea, who is it that history will remember fondly?
Thank you for taking this little journey with me. Now, take a look at these other great writers, who give us insights on their diverse cast of leading men (and one lady!):
Amelia Bishop – Gives us a closer look at Theron and his lover, Alex, from her new release Night Vision.
Kate Whitaker – Has Matty, not your typical werewolf, and how she uses tropes to move her writing.
Sarah K Moll – Illuminates one of her narrators, Nate—a man who knows the undisputed crime lord of the City better than anyone else… or so he hopes.
Jeanne Marcella – Introduces us to Pony, her half-centaur main character of her upcoming novel.