The Story Behind the Story: Inspiration for “Kingmaker”

I’m normally really guarded about my writing projects while they’re in progress. I’ll discuss them with close friends when I’m really stuck, and I’ll do “soft promo” kind of stuff where I vaguely allude to that fantasy novel I’m writing, but actual details I keep under lock and key until I’m about ready to show them to the world at large. This time around, though, I thought it’d be fun to share where the idea for the story came from. At its most basic level, Kingmaker began as extremely loose fanfiction about a pair of characters from my game group’s (and my very first) D&D campaign Out of the Abyss and grew from there.

One of them was my own character, a human paladin named Janella Kulenov. Janella was a prototypical newbie RPG character: a Jeanne d’Arc-like young woman who grew up on a goat farm, got called by the Faerûnian human deity Lathander to bring light to dark places, and set out fulfill that destiny. Instead of embracing the aspects of her identity that were the entire reason she was called in the first place, she assumed that she needed to become a soldier to protect the things Lathander valued, becoming more of an outwardly cold, solitary “ice queen” to cope with the grueling training and trying so hard to prove herself to mortals that she neglected to do the job she was called to do. It wasn’t until she was captured, trapped in the Underdark, and deprived of goodness and light that she realized what she was supposed to be and do, and that she was that person right along, her hardened persona melting as she realized that and ultimately helped save the world.

A cartoonish picture of a pale, dark-haired human woman lunging to strike an unseen opponent. She is wearing plate mail, goggles, and a holy symbol with a sun on it. She wields a club that's glowing with magic.
Janella Kulenov, human paladin as she appeared at level 9. Art by a very generous and artistic member of my group.

Enter Sone, the party’s changeling bard. Sone had a tragic past involving a run-in with a cursed piece of sheet music she was trying to destroy when she was captured. She was somewhat relieved about being in a place where no one, including the law, would recognize her, but did miss the sun and was very interested in escaping, ideally finding a way to remove her curse and right her wrongs along the way. She kept the party’s spirits up by playing music and telling stories during rests and, despite a past that would justify bitterness and brooding, she was a source of optimism for the group. She was well-intentioned but impulsive and, in true D&D bard fashion, had a mouth that could get the party in trouble sometimes, especially when the dice weren’t feeling generous.

Obviously, neither of these characters had any business being stuck in the most evil place on the planet. In spite of the rotten situation they were in, they found comfort in each other. Sone’s optimism, goodness, and passion for the arts helped Janella hold on to her own personal light, become a better and more faithful servant of Lathander, and remember what she was called to protect. After a particularly grueling battle, Janella confessed her romantic feelings for Sone, which Sone happily reciprocated. They went on to be the most adorable power couple ever, with Sone converting and taking a level of cleric, the two of them surviving the final battle, and going on to be curse-free and happily married with a daughter on the way.

As for how this eventually evolved into Kingmaker, it’s not a really dramatic story. I just really enjoyed the relationship between these two characters, in particular how Sone inspired Janella, and wanted to write characters in a similar situation, but with somewhat more adventuring experience and only one other party member to hang around. I also find the idea of being called for a specific and world-altering mission, with pretty unspecific guidance on how to go about it or succeed, to be utterly terrifying and therefore a phenomenal source of drama—that’s a ton of pressure for any one person to shoulder without somehow cracking, regardless of their magical powers. Those ideas work well together and served as the personal stakes for Kingmaker’s Janella analogue even before I knew what the global stakes were or even what the titular artifact did that made it so important to track down.

However, despite playing Janella in the game, the primary viewpoint character in Kingmaker is the Sone analogue. When I play RPGs, I tend to play characters that I’m not but wish I could be: my fiction-writing characters tend to reflect more of who I am, warts and all. I can more believably get into the mindset of an artist dealing with trauma in potentially unhealthy ways than I can a divine knight who’s courageous and strong in ways that I’m not sure I can comprehend. This also serves the purpose of making certain reveals about our paladin’s mission, past, and abilities more dramatic: viewpoint characters really can’t keep secrets, and this woman has a few of them.

What started as thinly-veiled fanfiction has become its own story, and only those people who knew about the campaign would be able to recognize the similarities at this point. The setting of Kingmaker isn’t as bleak as the setting of the D&D campaign, and obviously the plot isn’t Out of the Abyss, but the stakes are comparable. The personalities, details, and personal stakes of individual characters, in particular the bard, have been altered in fairly dramatic ways as they diverge from their tabletop origins. There’s still a magical artifact, but it’s tied to someone different, does something different, and might not be actively evil, let alone cursed—I’m still not entirely clear on that one, but someday we’ll all find out.

As for anything else, you’ll have to wait until I’ve written the rest and have something resembling a publication date. I can’t show my entire hand just yet, you know.