I’m going to start off the Development Blog for my new RPG project, An Aria of Light, by briefly introducing the project itself, by introducing the primary (read: most important) characters of the first game in the trilogy, A Memory of Light, and by examining the process of writing each character.
The project itself is tentatively being called An Aria of Light, and while I won’t explain the title too precisely just yet—as the story itself will make everything abundantly clear by the end of the final scene—I will say that I’m not one of those writers or designers who picks an arbitrary, “Hey this sounds good!” kind of title. The titles I employ contain a great deal of meaning, and part of the fun for me as a writer is revealing, little by little, just how much meaning my titles contain over the course of the story, without every having to sit down and explicitly tell the reader, “Hey, bozo, this is what it means.”
An Aria of Light will be told in three parts (a trilogy): A Memory of Light, The Darkness Just Before the Dawn, and Light at the End of the World. As with the title of the entire story, the meaning of each individual title will be woven into the fabric of the story and the characters themselves. If you want me to get very technical, the games (and the story) will be presented in the manner of an aria in three movements: A Memory of Light is Movement the First, The Darkness Just Before the Dawn is Movement the Second, and Light at the End of the World is Movement the Third. Just like a piece of music, each movement will be able, if necessary, to stand alone as whole and complete, with introduction, rising action, climax, and resolution, but together they will tell a much larger and grander story than any one of them could alone.
The games will be 2D, turn-based RPGs in the style of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, though lacking the painful cliches and requisite children-that-think-they’re-adults-but-aren’t primary characters. The stories will be mature, and if the visual content will not be explicit (let’s be honest, how explicit can a 16-bit game really be?), the subject matter and dialogue will surely touch on subjects that are better left to the realm of adulthood. I’ve chosen RPGMaker VX Ace as my engine of choice, simply because it allows me to be lazy and does not require me to draw every single graphic pixel-by-pixel. Anyone who thinks this is not the best choice of engine is more than welcome to volunteer their time and services as Art Director on the project. I’m ALWAYS open to collaboration :)
I’m planning a minimum of 30 hours of primary story content for each game (this does not include side quests, secrets, exploration, and BAMFing). Almost the entire game world, due to the limits of the RPGMVXA engine, will be instanced (which, for the purposes of this discussion, simply means that there will be very little time spent on the world map—the vast majority of the areas in the game will be explored dungeon- or town-style). That being said, the game world is already shaping up to be rather large; add to it the Lightless Reaches (read: the stuff under the ground), and it’s not unreasonable to expect that the player might spend 30 hours or more simply exploring everything the game world has to offer.
As a final note, I plan on composing the entire score to the game myself. You’ve been warned.
A Memory of Light—Primary Characters
Now we come to the good part: the revelation of the four primary characters of A Memory of Light, the first part of An Aria of Light. For posterity’s sake, I have at least 2 pages of history on each these characters, but because of my Causal system of belief (there are no accidents or coincidences, there is only cause and effect, blah blah), revealing too much of the characters’ history at this point would reveal a great deal of the story, so I’m simply offering some limited biographical information for the time being.
Note: all artwork was pre-generated by RPGMVXA’s built-in toolset.
Note: in regards to the Imperial Legions of Caledon, the “Roman” numerals are to be read as degrees, as in “the IX” = “the ninth.”
Born the only son of one of the last Knights of the Old Order, Ryne was trained from birth in the arts of war. When Duned fell, his father joined the victorious Imperial legions, serving until he died when Ryne was 16. Before assuming his father’s place as Lord of Brechin Dale, Ryne married Elayne Arin, youngest daughter of the Lord Vandros of House Arin, friend of his father’s and patron of his father’s legion, the IX. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ryne joined the IX when he turned 18. He was Lord Commander by the time he was 20, the youngest man in Caledon’s history to have command of a legion. He servers with distinction during the Three Seas’ War, though his military service means that his two children barely know him. When he is 26, a plague created by Valyrian wizards claims the life of his beloved wife, and Ryne’s heart turns cold with vengeance. When the Empire declares war on Valyria two years later, Ryne and the IX claim their place in the vanguard, earning a reputation for mercilessness and fearlessness, feared even by their allies. The Great War, as it comes to be called, lasts 10 years, during which time Ryne’s children grow almost to adulthood without knowing their father. Ryne is the last of the Knights of the Old Order. Ryne is now 38.
Cael de Laurentis
Third son of the House of Laurent, the second most powerful House in the Empire of Caledon, Cael considers himself fortunate to have a respectable military career. For a third son, the only real options for gainful employment are the priesthood or the legions, and Cael would likely have been rejected by the priesthood had he ever had any inclination to join, which he didn’t. Cael, despite being a career soldier, is highly educated, speaking fluently the languages of all the Imperial provinces, as well as being well-versed in poetry, literature, mathematics, and astronomy. Cael might have married at one time, but his love of strong drink and “good company” have resigned him to a bachelor’s life—not that he’s complaining. Ryne’s oldest friend in the legion, Cael has been Ryne’s Lord Lieutenant since Ryne was first promoted to Lord Commander 18 years ago, and the two complement each other so well that words are often not necessary. Cael would literally follow Ryne to the depths of hell and beyond. Cael is now 36.
Born a slave in the Junai province of Caledon, Joril was given a choice when the war with Valyria began—enlist and help rebuild the plague-ravaged legions to bolster their offensive against the enemy, and perhaps one day earn his freedom (admittedly, at the potential cost of his life), or remain in the diamond mines of his childhood. Though only 14, Joril immediately jumped at the chance to be a soldier. Joril was placed with the IX, under Ryne and Cael’s command, and experienced some of the bloodiest and most disheartening fighting of the war. Originally, all the slaves who enlisted were enlisted as slaves, but after Joril saved Ryne’s life on the battlefield, Ryne freed all the slaves in the IX, making them an official part of the legion. Beyond gratitude for his freedom, Joril found a genuine friend in Ryne, and a good man, and in Cael he found a tutor, someone who could educate him and elevate his social status. It was not long after gaining his freedom that Joril was promoted to Ryne’s personal guard, a position that allowed the three men to continue their friendship. Joril is now 24.
Kaylan was born a Valyrian merchant’s daughter, the youngest of seven children (five of them male). Kaylan was always an innocent, caring, and compassionate child—she spent a great deal of her younger days with the Sisters of Serenity, a group of female magic users devoted to the Lady, their preferred aspect of the Maker, who preached peace and serenity and studied only those aspects of magic that allowed them to care for the sick and wounded. Kaylan was only 7 when the war broke out, and her parents, fearing for her sister, sent her and her older sister, Kyla, to foster with the Sisters at their temple in Astos, hoping they would be safe from the war there. Though the temple came under occupation in the last years of the war, the Sisters and their charges remained untouched by the violence experienced by the rest of the country. Though her sister has become lost in the pleasures of the flesh, having been of a vulnerable and wild age when the soldiers of the IV occupied the temple (their first real encounter with men), Kaylan remained detached, believing in the Sisters’ teachings of purity and the sanctity of union. Because of her sheltered life, even ten years of war and the deaths of her brothers and parents have not been able to dampen Kaylan’s spirits, or shake her faith in the good in people. Kaylan is now 17.
There are two other characters which players will be able to add to their parties via very long and involved side-quests, but, because these further characters are optional, and do not affect the final outcome of the story, I shall allow them to remain a mystery for now.
Writing the Characters
I’ve been truly blessed as a writer with Ryne’s character, because I’m simply fascinated with him and with his story. I honestly started with a very bare-bones concept for Ryne—his name, his general age, the fact that he was a widower, and the fact that he was a career soldier. I knew I wanted him to be heir to a legacy with some sort of impact on the story, but when I started, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted that legacy to be.
So, I started free-writing. Free-writing is, for me, the most invaluable exercise in which I can engage as a writer. The point of free-writing is to start with a subject, and then just start writing things down about the subject as they come to you, regardless of order, logic, or contradiction with previous ideas. The point of free-writing is not to plan every single detail perfectly—the point of free-writing is to get as many ideas down on paper as you can. It’s only later that you go back and pick and choose and streamline and revise. Like I tell my students: “You don’t think about your first draft. First, you write with your heart. Then, you go back and write with your head.” I do at least one free-writing exercise for each of my characters. I say at least because sometimes one is not enough. I have students ask me how many free-writing exercises they should do about a subject. “As many as it takes,” is my invariable reply. If one is enough, then great. If not, keep going until you get there.
I say I’ve been blessed with Ryne’s character, and I mean it. Not only am I fascinated with him as a character, but he’s literally the type of character who writes himself. I only needed one free-writing exercise with Ryne, and it all flowed naturally and made sense. All of it. I didn’t change a single thing. During the exercise, I was simply trying to stay the hell out of the way and let him tell his own story the way it should be told. Honestly, I think that’s how all the best characters come into being.
I’m very happy with Ryne as a character, especially as my main character, the character who moves the story forward with his decisions. He’s an interesting mix of internal conflicts and idiosyncrasies, a warrior jaded by war and the loss of his wife, a father who believes that he has failed his children by being absent from their lives, a man seeking redemption that he doesn’t believe he deserves and at the same time refusing to yield to any of these pressures, viewing them as weaknesses in himself. There’s SO MUCH potential for growth in his character, and Kaylan is the perfect catalyst.
I’d be lying if I said creating Kaylan’s character was not an exercise in perseverance. I struggled mightily to create a believable heroine. It’s not simply that I am male, though that was rather a large part of it; my issue was writing a female lead who was innocent and light-hearted after ten years of brutal, oppressive, unrestrained war, and still had a woman’s maturity. That combination of innocent and maturity led me a dastardly, grueling chase through the nether reaches of my imagination (a rather frightening place, I might add). Of course, the simplest solution is often the best and most believable, and last night I realized that it had been staring me in the face from the beginning.
While I will go into further detail about the various nations and cultures of the world of Arinas in Part 2 of my Developer Blog (The World and Its History), I will say that the social climate and cultural atmosphere of Valyria directly preceding the Great War offered me the solution I needed in regards to Kaylan’s character. In a nation ruled by an oppressive, errant tyrant, there is a need for a group of people whose work it is to relieve that oppression however they can. I had come up with the idea for the Sisters of Serenity in the very early concepts for Valyria, and it finally struck me that their cloistered, puritan life and system of belief was exactly the thing I needed to make Kaylan’s character believable.
A young child, already predisposed to compassion, naive trust in people, and blindness to the less pleasant aspects of life would generally be devastated by, and become the most bitter and jaded of adults after having lived through, a war of vengeance lasting ten years and costing hundreds of thousands of lives. If, however, that child were to be sheltered and protected by a similar-minded group of adults, she might retain her childlike views of the world and the people in it. If that group of adults was composed entirely of women, the child would have an opportunity to learn about and emulate womanhood in its purest form—womanhood defined, not by men who could never know it, but by women who lived it every day.
A further challenge I encountered early on in the character-writing process was the age difference between Ryne and Kaylan, and how it would affect my plans for them to have a romantic relationship. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a hopeless romantic. I quite firmly believe that no truly great story is complete without a stirring, heart-wrenching romance. Of course, it wasn’t until after I had already written Ryne’s character that I realized just how great the challenge with which I had presented myself was—a 38-year-old widower and absentee father, falling in love with a naive, innocent, sheltered, 17-year-old virgin? How the hell was I supposed to make that happen?
I realized that, of course, the age difference itself was immaterial, as their characters had given me everything I needed to make the match not only believable but moving. Of course, I can’t tell you what that solution is, because it would give away most of the story. Suffice it to say that it’s precisely because they shouldn’t logically be able to make a romantic relationship work that they do, in fact, make a romantic relationship work (and no, that wasn’t really a spoiler, since I didn’t say for how long they make it work or if they’re still making it work at the end of the story).
Cael has probably been the most fun character for me to write, simply as an exercise in ingenuity and comedy. Cael is the witty one, the dry, sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek best friend. What I like about Cael, though, is that he’s not an immature, lazy rogue like Jordan’s Matrim Cauthon—instead, Cael is that guy who’s worked at your uncle’s auto-body shop for the last twenty years, always ready with a wink and a joke and some sage advice about things you’re far too young to need advice about yet. He’ll strip down to his shirtsleeves and work harder at anyone else at building a fortified camp, all the while making tongue-in-cheek remarks about poets most people have never heard of in a voice like a boulder rolling down a hill, and still beat you senseless in martial training afterward.
Cael is definitely the main source of comedy in the story, aside from the situational irony of which I’m so fond, of course. But he’s also the source of some of the most moving pictures of loyalty and friendship in the games, too. He’s more than just a noble or a soldier—he’s simply a good man, and he’s a good man in his own way. I think that’s what makes him special.
Aside from the potential for a not-so-subtle expose on slavery, discrimination, and dreams of a better life, writing Joril has given me a very welcome medium for foiling Ryne and Cael. The two think so similarly and are so often in agreement with one another that I needed a way to have them explain themselves to the audience without it feeling like a Shakespearean monologue. The conversations needed to feel natural, not forced, and couldn’t pull the audience out of the game. Thus, the character of Joril was born.
Joril was raised in a completely different cultural and at a completely different level of education from Ryne and Cael (read: none). As such, things that make perfect sense to them without explanation completely baffle Joril. Cael’s tutorship of Joril, and Joril’s constant questioning of everything he is taught—often with comical results—gave me the platform I needed to have Ryne and Cael reveal their beliefs and histories through dialogue, in their own words.
Plus, Joril is one of those characters without whom no story is really complete. He’s a sweetheart, and kind, still very much a boy despite having lived through ten years of very brutal war. It’s going to be interesting to write conversations about past actions in war (both good and not so good) involving a character as tender-hearted at Joril.
Well, that’s my Developer Blog, Part 1! Any comments, thoughts, and questions are welcome, of course (as well as any offers of collaboration *hint hint*), but I probably won’t be able to answer any questions specifically related to the story of the games themselves. I’ll be happy to fill in any blanks about the characters’ pasts that won’t spoil later story points, though!