I love villains. Always have.
So maybe it’s not a surprise that what I started with, when writing THE OUTSIDE, were its villains.
When I was just a lowly undergrad, I ran an online D&D campaign for my friends. Among the player characters in the game, played by a friend I’ll call Virgo, was a Lawful Evil changeling sorcerer named Akavi.
I loved Akavi immediately. He was intelligent, perceptive, stylish, suave, better at problem-solving than everyone else, and utterly ruthless. Akavi was my type.
Online gaming gave lots of opportunity for side plots and general character drama. Many players took advantage of these opportunities, but Akavi did it fastest and very quickly ended up with his own personal plot – a series of complicated schemes that the other characters, for the most part, weren’t aware of.
I started my D&D game with a fairly detailed world, and several sinister groups that could rise to be main villains if the players were interested. A couple of rapacious mining companies were introduced (it was a steampunk game), but their machinations didn’t get much momentum going. Another company showed up mysteriously overrun by Lovecraftian monsters; they’d been messing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know as a way of speeding up production.
Akavi, being a Lawful fellow, looked into this company’s paperwork in detail. They weren’t wizards themselves, so he wanted to know who they had hired to perform the magic. To answer his questions, I came up with a new villain on the fly – a half-elf wizard named Evianna Talirr.
Ev and a few minions of hers turned up a few more times. But the campaign’s big bad guy turned out to be Akavi himself. My game had fallen in the trap of too many side plots. Akavi had secretly aligned himself with evil planar forces; meanwhile most of the other characters had gotten into a secret plot of their own, which diametrically and actively opposed Akavi’s.
When the truth came out and everybody suddenly but inevitably betrayed each other, Akavi fought back hard. Stopping him became the party’s biggest mission – all the more fervently because they’d trusted him at first.
By the end of the 3-year campaign, Virgo had become my co-Dungeon Master as we worked together to come up with Akavi’s evil plans for the party to foil. He wound up spearheading a planar war, trying to end the world, and dying in the process – twice.
It was pretty epic, and it ended on a high note, with the evil defeated.
But in the following years, I still couldn’t get Akavi out of my head.
I liked him too much. I had a crush that wouldn’t go away. Virgo missed playing him, too. And we still hadn’t worked through a plot I’d been looking forward to – the conflict between Akavi’s evil-but-Lawful forces and Ev’s transcendent cosmic-horror Chaos.
I’d spent enough time on Ev to develop her view of the world a bit, and to give her a take on cosmic horror that wasn’t quite like what I usually saw. But she’d never really threatened the characters directly.
Trying to run a sequel game, just Akavi versus Ev, didn’t quite work. He’d gotten too evil at some point, and playing him without a proper set of heroes in the mix was just depressing.
So I had another idea: I would write an Akavi book.
One problem: Akavi and Ev were both very entrenched in the mythology of their D&D world, and I was way too proud to write D&D fantasy with the serial numbers filed off.
So I asked myself: “Of the genres I’m comfortable writing, which one looks the LEAST like high fantasy?”
I settled on space opera.
With Virgo’s blessing and collaboration, I started playing with ways to translate the things that made Akavi and Ev who they were into science fiction. The D&D gods became soul-eating superintelligent computers; the magic most crucial to the characters was replaced with super gadgets and modern mysticism, and the rest of the D&D magic system was discarded altogether.
Both Akavi and Ev changed as they adjusted to the rules of this world. Akavi became more buttoned-down, less likely to go haring off on some manipulative tangent for the hell of it. Ev became more tragic and more human. A few NPCs also made the transition, with varying levels of change.
I knew I also needed a hero, someone with a strong heart and good intentions who could get caught in the middle of this conflict without losing themselves. Eventually I found that person in THE OUTSIDE’s Yasira Shien, who I had to generate from scratch.
THE OUTSIDE is now garnering praise for its morally complex characters, its suspenseful plot, and its unusual take on cosmic horror tropes. But its first inspiration came from somewhere humble, even a little silly – it came from the crush that I had on my friend’s D&D character.
Never let anyone stop you drawing inspiration from an equally silly, unlikely place.