A Behind the Scenes Look at My First Fantasy Cosmology

A Behind the Scenes Look at My First Fantasy Cosmology

One of the big things writers like to talk about in regards to novels is theme. Some writers suggest determining theme early in the writing process so you can make everything fit it. But this has never been my approach.

I usually allow my stories to develop a theme while I’m working on them. Once I have some idea what the story wants to be about, I add little details to enhance the theme. (This is part of my editing process.)

I like to think my stories always include a high-concept theme, an all-encompassing question they ask and don’t necessarily answer. The Mystical Island trilogy, for example, dealt a lot with personal identity and who ultimately gets to define it. The characters in that story spent a lot of time pulling back the veils they had constructed in their lives and learning the consequences of running from the truth.

Dreamers Do Lie started as a fun fantasy story about a group of damned souls fleeing through Hell with a demon on their heels. But it pretty quickly settled on morality as its theme.

I found my theme while developing my setting.

When you’re writing a story that takes place in Hell – even a made up, fantasy Hell – you can’t ignore the fact that people have to get there somehow. Hell isn’t generally regarded as a nice place.

I didn’t really set out to write about a specific religion’s idea of hell. I also didn’t really want to comment on present day morality. To add an extra layer of challenge to this novel – I don’t personally believe in the concept of sin. I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person (though I do consider myself somewhat spiritual). I believe in clear divisions between right and wrong. But I don’t necessarily believe the wrong we do weighs on our soul and determines what happens after we die.

But in order to write about an afterlife that involves damnation, characters have to earn their ultimate doom somehow.

Not only did sin and the role it played in each character’s life become core concepts of the setting I built, they became key plot points for the story.

Arimand spends the opening chapters of the book ruminating on the sins that landed him on the shores of Hell. This becomes even more significant when he encounters Kaylie, to whom no sin can reasonably be assigned.

How to write about sin when you don’t believe in it?

As soon as Arimand and Kaylie meet, they begin speculating on the circumstances which caused them to meet in the depths of Hell. Some characters, jaded by their experience, are of the opinion that the old gods were simply strict about the rules and stingy with their favor.

Throughout history, many different religions have defined sinful behavior. As our civilization grows and changes, so do our opinions of morality. For example, Dante’s hell condemns anyone who was never baptized, whether they were a good person or not. Likewise, there was a time that those born out of wedlock were considered tainted by the sin of their parents.

I’ve never liked the idea of punishing people for the actions of others, however, so I quickly discarded that idea. But you can still find children in this fantasy Hell, so how did they get there? Kaylie suggests that guilt must play some role in a person’s ultimate assignment since none of the children present are too young to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

Knowing that you may have done something bad is only one factor Kaylie and Arimand speculate about. Severity of the sin is another. For example, we can all agree that stealing is bad. But what if the reason you steal is because you’re starving and will die if you don’t acquire food? One could argue that stealing for pleasure or greed is objectively worse than stealing food because your alternative is death.

My theme eventually provided my tagline.

You can see how a simple question like how does sin affect people’s entry into the afterlife in my fantasy world? can lead down a pretty significant rabbit hole. Pretty early on in the process, I decided to establish a set of rules which defined the cosmic workings of my fantasy world. The entire formula never appears in the books (writers have to keep a few secrets), but many of the factors I identified in my notes eventually wormed their way into the story.

Which leads to another of the story’s core concepts, the ultimate quest reward for those who have already spent centuries in the damned realm: redemption.

Eselt, leader of the damned clan Arimand finds himself a member of, tells our hero that redemption is hard to come by for the damned. After all, their actions can no longer affect the world of the living. And there seems to be no way to win freedom from Hell.

But Eselt also goes on to explain his reasons for joining Arimand’s foolhardy quest. It the gods have put true redemption beyond his reach maybe, just maybe, his best hope is personal redemption instead. Perhaps making peace with our mistakes is as important as earning forgiveness – or at least a pretty significant step in the process.

Writing about sin and redemption taught me something.

How would achieving a sense of personal redemption help a damned soul? Well to find out, you’ll have to read the book. But I can safely say that many of these themes eventually bled into the second book, which delves even deeper into the quandary. (That’s a discussion for another time, however!)

I’m not sure I stumbled on any world shattering revelations when I wrote this book. But I do think considering these topics offered me a more nuanced understanding of the world I live in and how I interact with it. At the end of the day, isn’t that what stories are all about?

If you’re interested in Dreamers Do Lie, it’s available on kindle, kindle unlimited, or in paperback.

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