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Writing the Deacon

By James Chew, September 25, 2018 · Exceptional Friendship Fallen London

Hi everyone, I’m James Chew, writer of this month’s Exceptional Story: For All the Saints who From Their Labours Rest. We’ve been blown away by the reception for the story – and specifically the character of the Intrepid Deacon. Today, I wanted to share a few behind the scenes insights into the writing of the character.

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Making Selling Your Soul Seem Reasonable

When I first pitched the story, I knew I wanted the story to explore why someone might willingly give their soul to Hell. I wanted to examine why someone might want to do that from a different perspective than the player’s journey might go in Fallen London, where a devil slowly convinces (or not) you to go through with losing your soul. In For All the Saints, I wanted to explore a character who was much closer to that point – and very enthusiastic about the possibility!

This was a story about someone looking into what Hell was offering, eyes wide open, and choosing it all the same. Of course, being Fallen London, that could only be one possible ending to the Deacon’s story. But the possibility had to be there – and it had to make sense for the character, even if, as far as the player was concerned, it was the road not taken. That possibility formed the thematic underpinning of the character.

From there, I reverse-engineered the Deacon’s backstory – which you can explore in the story – to make his susceptibility to infernal temptation apparent and legible to the player. He’s privileged, but his family’s glory is long diminished. His brother was a deocrated war hero, but as is often the lot of second sons, the Deacon was pledged to a career in the Church. Add a formidable mother and a spell in an elite boarding school into the mix and you have a character who’s privilege has not insulated them from tedium, responsibility or constraint. He’s a character on the cusp of change – and through the story, we explore different influences over him (the Church, his family, his work, his desires) that have shaped him and continue to shape his decisions in the story.

Making You Care

Of course, all of the above is academic if the player doesn’t care. It was important that the player gave a damn what happened to the Deacon – otherwise spending a whole story in his company wouldn’t be hugely fun for anyone involved. Given how much time the player (and the player character) was going to to be spending with the Deacon, I wanted to make his presence in the story as enjoyable and frictionless as possible.

So – how to make the Deacon sympathetic and not feel like a burden? Almost uniquely for a Fallen London character, he is completely honest with the player at all times. He conceals nothing about himself or his mission from the player character. But! The Infernal Yearnings mechanic lets the player know there’s something bubbling under the surface the Deacon himself might not be aware of yet. The mechanic contributes to a sense the player has a responsibility for what happens to him: their actions are having a visible (if unknown) effect on his state of mind. So he’s completely sincere about pretty much everything and we tell the player early on: you’re responsible for him.

Furthermore, he’s in exactly the same situation as the player character: working for the Bishop on the trail of an unknown saint. He can provide commentary and insight – but his knowledge base is the same as the players. Once you leave London, he’s in the same boat as the player – and his goals align with the player. The Deacon isn’t an antagonist or a guide – he is a helpful presence who wants the player to succeed but is just as vulnerable in Hell as you are.

Making You Cry

We’ve dealt with the Deacon’s motivations and his function in the story – but without an engaging personality, the player might have felt like they were saddled with a hell-bound lettuce for the duration of the story.

The Deacon comes from a rareified background and his interests are in books and obscure matters of doctrine. He’s not terribly comfortable with the more emotive matters of religion. It’d be easy for him to feel distant or unrelatable – so I wanted to focus on making him both self-deprecating and self-aware. He has a sense of humour and doesn’t take himself – or his interests – too seriously. He’s sincere – and he likes and is in awe of the player. I can’t control how the player responds to him – but because both player and the Deacon are working together for the same goal – I can define how the Deacon responds to the player character.

Finally – the Intrepid Deacon displays a number of characteristics that we don’t often see in male characters in fiction in general – and games in particular. This was a deliberate choice – I wanted him to be attractive and assigned him traits accordingly. He’s open, sincere, self-deprecating and doubts himself on occasion. He’s happy to not take the lead when he’s not certain about something, and happy to offer advice if required. Most crucially, I think, he’s sweet. Men are rarely portrayed as ‘sweet’. By sweet, I mean the Deacon is honest, open to the unfamiliar, a little shy and a little unsure, solicitious of your opinion and ever so slightly flirtatious. He’s vulnerable and he’s in your hands.

Inspirations

Unsurprisingly, a lot of Victorian poetry was in the back of my mind while writhing this. Chiefly, Percy Shelley’s ‘Alastor’, but also Swinburne’s embittered ‘Before a Crucifix’ and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ helped set the rough atmosphere and emotional tone I wanted for the sections in Hell and fleshing out the Chandler’s backstory.

I tend to listen to a few tracks on repeat on various hastily assembled playlists when writing – For All the Saints Who From Their Labours Rest was no exception.

To properly conjure the intense dismality of Hell’s Hinterlands, I listened to a lot of Dead Can Dance on a loop. Ocean turned out to be completely integral to getting the tone of the Chandler’s Chapel just right.

For the Deacon himself, I found a lot of upbeat maudlin pop really useful for getting into the character. Both Baths‘ techno-melancholy and Years & Years‘ dancing on the sacred/profane divide were particularly helpful in capturing the Deacon’s unique worldview.

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