Experiences of Writing

Character Focus: The Empire (and Emperor)

Last week I talked about my Adventurer character, Anka, and the Idealist, Sarus. Sticking then with the same story, this week I’m going to have a bit of a witter about another prominent player in the Meaning of Power, the Empire of Rasaal… and it’s Emperor.

julius caesar marble statue

The Problem with Empires

The Macedonians.
The Romans.
The Mongols.
The Spanish Empire.
The British Empire.
The Nazi’s.
The Soviet Union.
North Korea.
Mordor.
Nilfgaard.
The Yeerks.
The Galactic Empire.
The Necromonger Empire.
The Imperium of Man.

There’s a little something all these Empires have in common. A little something one might call a wee bit cliche or trope-ish.
They’re all evil. Or at least oppressive.
The Empire is always evil, Federations and Republics are always good.

It’s kind of understandable why we’ve ended up at this trope, really, and why I’ve played with it in my work as many authors before me have. It’s all to do with culture and progress, and what we think is important at any given time.

Let’s break things down a little.
First, what is an Empire? According to the official definition, it is a ‘group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, ruled by an Emperor or Empress’. Which is where the problems start, especially with our modern mindsets.

Any time a group of people is drawn together, there are going to be differences. So, for our second point, let’s analyze why Empires are/can be bad.
Mostly, this point comes down to an issue of differences. When the Nargleblee Empire siege the peaceful Ipeenub Kingdom until they agree to join the Empire, there’s going to be some bad blood.
For one thing, the Ipeenub Queen is going to be dethroned, and if she’s really unlucky, maybe the Nargleblee don’t believe in equality between genders.
There’s also a good chance the Nargleblee don’t celebrate or recognize Ipeenub saints and holidays, and maybe they go so far as to ban these celebrations.
It’s also entirely possible the Nargleblee only sieged Ipeenub in the first place because they needed the resources the Kingdom owned, and are now strip mining the place.
All of these are good reasons for the Ipeenub to be disgruntled, angry, upset, and rebellious.
Under the eyes of the modern mindset, of course the Nargleblee here would be the bad guys. We do not consider it to be acceptable to deny individuality or rights to anyone or any group of people, and entire ongoing conflicts in the modern age hinge on a combination of resource issues and the social issues of oppressing ones’ people.
Under these issues, it’s no surprise Empires are synonymous with ‘bad’.

But if Empires are always bad, how come there have been so many real ones, let alone the fictional ones?
For our third point, is there a ‘good’ side to Empires?
Well, yes.

While it is easy to say that Empires have only fallen out of favor because we have matured as a species and value commerce and individuals more than ‘glorious conquest’ to get what we want… it’s more complicated than that.
Yes, Empire building was often the path to national strength and prosperity, but we are often thinking of the grand era of Empire building that saw Spain, Britain, and France claiming vast swathes of the world when we talk of that. Empires as a concept are much, much older.
Let’s talk about Rome for a minute. Often, we think about legions of soldiers bestriding Europe, the lethal games of the Coliseum, the oppression of Christians, or barbarians, or women… but in the same breath, we can also recognise Rome for the incredible city-state it was, with its beautiful architecture, statues, baths, social services, and culture.
Ancient Rome is the perfect dichotomy of an Empire to illustrate what was bad and good about Empires.

Sometimes, it was very worth being part of one. Whether it be for the security of the Empire’s soldiers protecting you, access to trade routes or services, an extension of technologies and resources to your own province or a united currency and financial stability, there could be wisdom in joining involuntarily.
While we may look at Rome with (rightful) shade today for its endorsement of slavery, it is sometimes worth remembering that at least Rome afforded slaves a chance of elevating themselves from that station in life to a free man, in stark contrast to some other nations of the day… and sadly well into the future.
Empires have stood for prosperity, safety, better quality of life and, sometimes, better equality just as much as they have stood for bad things, and this was something I really wanted to play with in my work.

RasaalFullForm

The Empire of Rasaal

Rasaal, in the middle of the Imyran continent, is a jungle expanse conquered long ago by an army of men from the northern Kingdom of Arlatene.

After cutting a swathe through the native Nagan populations, Rasaal established a series of cities in various prime regions of the jungle, each ruled by a leader known as a ‘Pir’. All of these were then ruled over by the supreme authority of the first Emperor, one Regus Colel.
Thus, Empire.

By the time of The Meaning of Power, Rasaal has undergone a long stagnation of its governing systems, and would certainly count as an evil empire by the time the story starts.
The current Emperor is barely more than a figurehead, corruption and bigotry are rampant, murder is a national past-time and the economy is so far in the toilet, the class system has taken on a life of its own.

What Rasaal does not have, that most of the Empires I listed at the start do, is success.
It isn’t rich per se, it isn’t influential outside its own borders, and only quirks of nature have kept it from succumbing to its more successful neighbors.
The whole country, therefore, became a character as I drew up lines of demarcation for who is allied with whom, where various nobles are based out of, and even where the mineral deposits are for the dynamics that affects through the wide-ranging story.
The more I worked out around the skeleton of the story I had planned out, the more scenes I had come into my head, and the more the overarching plot tied into itself in very pleasing ways.

Crown

Emperor Deimon

Into this mix of my understanding of Empires, tropes, and politics, plus the history erected for the area, I had the need to insert a current ruler.
He would be Anka’s father, and thus both a major influence on her as a person, as well as the world in which she would grow up. On top of that, he needed to have his own life and personna for his own sake, as ‘villains’ written only for the sake of being the ‘bad guy’ are rarely compelling (unless you are writing Saturday morning cartoons, at which point, you folks still have yet to top Mumra the Ever-living, IMO).

When I first began work with Deimon, I knew he would be a gruff, difficult man due to his own position being far from secure or comfortable. His past, especially with the propensity for regicide in Rasaal, would naturally lead any person to paranoia and dourness, though to survive as long as he has, he would also be made of sterner stuff on the inside.

Abrupt, self-assured, short-tempered and narrow-minded, his outward personality would reflect the world he grew up in and put him at a distance even from his own children.
On the inside, however, I came to realize his strength was really in continuing on despite the crippling weakness. It takes a great deal of internal power to act when you have no one you truly trust, and for every day of faked confidence, there would be a night of reflection and contemplation, without anyone with whom to discuss it.
Being unable to trust the food you eat, the chair you sit in or the bed made for you can only lead to a lack of sleep and good nutrition, compounding any other issues besetting one.
For all he is a stone in Anka’s way as she begins her story, Deimon became more and more real to me as I wrote on, trying very hard to focus on why and how he felt as he did whenever the two interacted. Despite his role as an early antagonist to the plot, I couldn’t help but find myself admiring a tenacity and steadfast willpower in the man as he grew under my pen.

Ruling is hard. Ruling a disparate and quarrelsome Empire is even harder. By the time I reached the end of my very first draft of book one, I was already unhappy with the initial abrupt way I had planned for Deimon to resolve his part in the story. The original idea no longer fit the nature of the human being who had become the Emperor, and it needed changing more than he did.
To my surprise, I realized I knew what changes needed to be made, and that Deimon had a very human core inside him I had not envisioned at the outset. Not only did this human core make resolving his own plot better, it also reflected how much of him is actually in his daughter, Anka, despite their vastly different personalities and actions.

Writing him, and letting myself feel the weight of all he is dealing with as I did so also gave me some insight into how I would handle his successor, and their fight to unite Rasaal as one people, including the naive Nagan species inside its borders.
I wanted to play with the ‘Empire’s are Evil’ trope in a way that didn’t go from ‘good idea, corrupted’ as many real Empires did through history, to seeing what would happen if someone fought to do it the other way around. Taking something rotten and bad, and growing a seed of unity from it.
After all, Federations and Republics are often represented as different people uniting under a common banner to move forward, and there is really no reason why an Empire cannot do the same… depending on how it presents its own inherent values.

I like to think The Meaning of Power presents compelling Emperors, a little different to the standard tropes while also paying homage to why those tropes even exist. I like to think I have handled the development of Rasaal as an Empire in an interesting way… but as always, only time will tell.

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