Ceres’s Story Arc

I’m going to start writing my query letter for The Demon King soon, so I’ve been thinking about how to describe the story, which has two parallel threads that unspool in alternating chapters. The eponymous “demon king” Balthazar (he’s not really a demon king) is the main point-of-view character, as it’s his actions that push the larger narrative forward, but the role of his “nemesis” Princess Ceres (she’s not really his nemesis) as a deuteragonist is equally important and will only become more important as the story progresses.  

Balthazar’s plot arc in the first novella is simple: he says he will go to a temple and find a magical artifact, and he goes to a temple and finds a magical artifact.

Meanwhile, what’s going on with Ceres is more complicated and can’t be succinctly summarized.

Ceres opens the story by sending a hero to fight Balthazar. This “hero” is actually a convict whom she has effectively exiled, and she intends for Balthazar to dispose of him. He does so, but not before the hero kills two people and injures a third.

Back in Whitespire, Ceres grants a private audience to a viscount from an outlying territory who essentially asks to stop paying taxes. Ceres dismisses him, but she allows herself to be seduced by his daughter, who wants the viscount to step down so that she can manage her family’s estate. While engaging in an openly sexual relationship with the viscount’s daughter, Ceres realizes that the viscount himself is being manipulated by a shadowy anti-monarchist political faction. In an attempt to provoke the members of the faction to reveal themselves, Ceres orders the head of her intelligence staff to direct a covert attack on the viscount’s estate.

Members of a separate anti-monarchist faction, fearing that they will be blamed for this attack, offer a scapegoat in the form of an advanced student of magic – a grad student, basically – who has been distributing seditious tracts. Ceres has actually discussed the matter beforehand with one of the leaders of the grad student’s faction, who is her close friend (and happens to be the author of the ongoing series of romance novels that Balthazar is addicted to). She therefore exiles the student, ostensibly to die at the hands of the demon king but actually to study with his friend Melchior, a wizard from a foreign kingdom who has strong anti-monarchist leanings of his own.

Ceres has grown fond of the viscount’s daughter, and she doesn’t want her or her father to become pawns of court politics in the way that the grad student did. She therefore engineers a minor scandal involving the viscount, which serves as the excuse the daughter needs to transfer power away from her father.

At the end of the first story arc, the viscount and his daughter leave the castle alive and unharmed. Ceres hasn’t been able to figure out who was manipulating the viscount at court, but she’s content to have secured an ally in the viscount’s daughter, who will almost certainly manage her family’s estate better than her father.

All’s well that ends well, but the reader is left with the dangling thread of why Ceres is so amenable to the idea of deposing herself from her own throne. In addition, how does she know Balthazar, and why is she so friendly with him? There’s also the matter of Ceres having sent Balthazar a “hero” that he was given no choice but to murder. Balthazar alludes to the fact that this isn’t the first time Ceres has done this, which is even more disturbing.

At the beginning of the second story arc, probably at the end of the second chapter, Ceres is going to address this matter directly and reflect the main theme of the story back on Balthazar by saying that these “heroes” have a choice. What she means is that no one is forcing them to attack the people they see as their enemies, but this raises the question of whether Ceres is giving Balthazar a choice in how he handles the circumstances she has created. This digs even deeper into the story’s theme by suggesting that some choices aren’t so simple, and that people suffer when they try to deal with making these choices on their own.

Also I intend for Ceres to make a lot of jokes about oral sex in her second story arc.

This summary is much more complicated than the story itself, hopefully. Ceres is not an unreliable viewpoint character, and none of these plot elements are supposed to be confusing or mysterious to the reader.

In the end, the goal of all this political intrigue is to set up Ceres’s kingdom as a battleground while establishing that it is primarily a battleground of relationships and feelings.

If Balthazar is a means to look at high fantasy heroic quest narratives from a different perspective, then Ceres is my take on the traditional “pure-hearted princess” trope. Ceres is in her early thirties, and I don’t think a princess can survive that long in a position of near-absolute power without being extremely clever and at least a little evil.

The above illustration of Ceres was created by the stylish and magical Fernanda V. (@artesiants on Instagram and on Twitter + @artesiant on Tumblr), who draws bold and fashionable designs of witchy characters. The prompt I gave her was “an elven princess who is beautiful and ethereal but delights in destroying her enemies,” and I love how she’s mixed diaphanous skirts and delicate jewelry with a lightly armored Amazonian halter that leaves Ceres’s arms free and ready to handle any conflict that comes her way.

It’s so interesting to see how various artists interpret this character, and every illustration of her makes me even more committed to telling her story despite the occasionally stress-inducing intricacies of its twists and turns.

The Legend of Haiku

The Legend of Haiku celebrates the natural environments and quiet moments of the games in the Legend of Zelda series. This 46-page zine collects the work of 28 poets and artists from around the world who have pooled their talents to create a gentle adventure into a beautiful green world filled with mystery and discovery.

🌿 You can download a free digital copy on Gumroad (here).
🌿 There are a handful of physical copies available on Etsy (here).
🌿 You can download the digital zine directly from Google Drive (here).

This project was a journey. I had initially planned to release the zine in November shortly after the end of the submission period, but I received such an incredible diversity of submissions from such a large number of people that I found myself at a loss regarding the best way to move forward. In addition, the pandemic resulted in severe delays with the United States Postal Service, and I actually had to close my store on Etsy because nothing was getting where it was supposed to go. I therefore had to put the project on hiatus for three months, and I was only able to resume work in March.  

If I learned anything from this process, it’s that most people are lovely and patient and kind. I was expecting to encounter more frustration, but everyone was very chill and nice.

I also learned that it’s good to take a big project like this in baby steps until I reach a sense of critical mass and can work for longer periods as I get a better sense of what needs to be done and how best to do it. I wasn’t prepared for the incredible response I got concerning this project, but I’m very grateful for the support of the contributors as I muddled my way through.

Thankfully, the zine turned out to be gorgeous, so it was all worth it in the end.  

I want to give a special shout-out to the cover artist, who goes by @flyingcucco on Twitter and @acro_bike on Instagram. Trina was an absolute pleasure to work with, and she put an extraordinary level of thought and attention into creating a design that captures the themes of the project. The full, unedited wrap-around cover illustration was awarded the honor of being a Daily Deviation on the portfolio hosting site DeviantArt, and I highly encourage you to check it out (here) if you’d like to read Trina’s concise but insightful artist statement.

The Demon King Editing Notes

Starting in April, I’m going to begin putting together a formal query letter for The Demon King. I’d like to participate in the #PitMad event on Twitter at the beginning of June, and I’d also like to finish up this portion of the project so that I can go ahead and get started on the next novella in the series.

If you’re interested, this is my fifty-word Twitter pitch:

The Demon King is a high fantasy adventure comedy about a garbage wizard named Balthazar who seeks to claim a magical relic sleeping within the castle of a powerful and devious princess. Until then, he would prefer to be left alone so he can read trashy romance novels in peace.

I’m going to put the first novella through another round of intense editing in May, but I just wrapped up the initial set of major edits. I’ve been fixing typos and other minor second-draft awkwardness, but I’ve also been thinking about tone and structure, as well as how I relate to the genre of fantasy in general.

Although this will change as the story progresses, the beginning of The Demon King is largely an episodic comedy that plays with tropes from epic fantasy novels and video games. Instead of exaggerating or subverting these tropes, I’m interested in looking at them from the perspective of rational adult characters who fit their assigned archetypes poorly at best.

Each chapter is prefaced by a short introductory section modeled on the sort of “lore” or “flavor text” that a player can unlock in a video game by defeating a certain number of enemies, collecting a certain number of items, and so on. This isn’t made explicitly clear in the first novella, but these intro sections are written by Balthazar, the eponymous Demon King, who is addicted to romance novels and secretly aspires to be a writer himself.

I’ve been putting a lot of work into crafting an appropriately epic language for these sections. What I’m aiming for is a needlessly fancy style that borders on purple prose without being actually poorly written or obnoxious. In addition, I’d like for readers who come back to these passages after they know more about the world of the story to able to see where Balthazar is being ironic, where he’s being sincere, and where he’s flat-out lying.

I had initially italicized these sections in italics, but I think we can all collectively agree that italics are difficult to read. I therefore reformatted the text to remove all the italics on the chapter intro sections. I might put them back in to demonstrate that these are excerpts from “found sources” and not part of the main body of narration, but I think the character-specific perspectives of the chapters are clear enough that third-person omniscient narration stands out strongly on its own.

I also decided is that everyone is going to be represented as speaking English. If the viewpoint character – usually Balthazar – can understand what someone is saying, it won’t be accented with italics. Perhaps other characters might comment on the fact that he understands speech they don’t, but I don’t want to play games with fantasy languages. Along the same lines, I deleted all mentions of fantasy language names. Nobody needs that.

One of my most hated of all sci-fi and fantasy tropes is when a story gluts itself on constructed terminology, especially in lieu of meaningful worldbuilding. I therefore tried to keep fantasy words at an absolute minimum. The crow people (called starags, after the Gaelic word for “crow”) have their own name because it would be silly to call them “crow people,” and the concept of a “gaesh” (a type of semi-telepathic soul bond that facilitates magic sharing) is something that I want to feel strange and alien to the reader, but I think that’s it.

I leaned into this by using common words for elements that are native to the story. For example, Balthazar is not a “demon” in the usual sense of the word, the “gargoyles” who appear about halfway through the story are actually bat people, the “artifact” Balthazar is seeking is something highly unusual and specific, and the creatures that Balthazar calls “dogs” and “horses” are not dogs and horses by a long shot.

As the story continues, I think it’s going to be fun to play with the disconnect between what various characters take for granted as common knowledge, but I want this to remain comfortably in the realm of comedy and not venture into the territory of “who knows what secrets at what point in the story.” If anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from me, but plot is overrated. The plot of The Demon King is going to become more interesting and intricate as more layers of its story are revealed, but I want the reader to care about the characters before the plot ever becomes a concern.

That being said, there are major conflicts between the characters that have no easy resolutions, so I took care in my edits to make sure that each of the main characters states their goals clearly. Figuring out why these characters insist on pursuing these goals is the story’s primary source of forward momentum, so I’m doing my best to set up these mysteries while also providing ample clues and a healthy dose of foreshadowing.   

Hopefully the process of writing a query letter will help me clarify the themes and narrative structure so that I can continue to hone the story when I return to it in May for another set of edits.

For the time being, I’m hosting the first novella in The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

This post’s illustration of Balthazar is by the lovely @Lemonscribs on Instagram, who was kind enough to compare the character’s aesthetic of Katie O’Neill’s fantasy slice-of-life comic The Tea Dragon Society. What an apt observation, and what an incredible compliment!

Draw Me Like One of Your Anime Boyfriends

It is an anime truism that a villain is evil in direct proportion to how stylish and attractive they are.

We can therefore infer that Balthazar is neither good nor evil, as he is not particularly attractive and wears the high fantasy equivalent of a track suit jacket over pajamas.

Memorabilia Zine


This is a preview of the short story I contributed to Memorabilia, a Legend of Zelda fanzine devoted to the archaeology and architecture of Breath of the Wild.

“A Noble Pursuit” is about Rhondson, the Gerudo tailor who moves to Tarrey Town, embarking on a husband hunt to the Akkala Citadel Ruins after Hudson goes missing. It’s a story about exploration and discovery, as well as different views of the past and hopes for the future that awaits Hyrule beyond “happily ever after.”

Pre-orders are open (here) until Sunday, March 14. This zine contains more than a hundred pages of brilliant writing and awe-inspiring art. It’s certain to be a treasure to anyone who enjoyed exploring the ruins and history of Breath of the Wild – and to anyone fascinated by the lore and environmental design in Creating a Champion.

You can check out more previews of the zine on its Twitter account, @MemorabiliaZine, and on its Tumblr account, @memorabiliazine.

Dungeon Etiquette

We live in a society.

Trying to apply real world logic to video games is a fool’s errand, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that most of what “heroes” do is awfully close to war crimes.

…I write, having just spent two hours leveling up my JRPG adventuring party through wanton murder and environmental destruction.

The Demon King, Chapter 9

I just posted Chapter Nine of The Demon King on AO3 (here).

This is the second-to-last chapter of the novella, and it’s meant to function as a narrative climax. At the beginning of the first chapter, Balthazar casually murders someone; and, at the end of this chapter, he destroys an entire ecosystem. He has his reasons for doing what he’s doing, but I want to make it clear to the reader that he’s not fucking around. I also want to make it clear that this story is not YA fiction, so the language I used in this chapter is a bit… tumescent, let’s say.

Even though its narrative arc is complete in itself, this novella is intended to be the first part of a longer story, and I hope this sort of explosive conclusion is equally satisfying and intriguing. I think it can be understood as a natural outgrowth of the concepts that have already been introduced, but my goal is for an astute reader to come out of this chapter with a deeper curiosity about the history and metaphysics of this world.

This illustration of Balthazar is by the brilliant Jennifer So (@hellojennso on Twitter, @jennosaur on Instagram, and @jennlso on Tumblr), who designed the character. This is actually the first character design created for The Demon King (back in November 2018), and I’m excited to finally share it. Jenn nailed the character on the very first draft, and this is how I’ve pictured him since then.

The Demon King, Chapter 8

This illustration of Ceres is by Sali (@salisillustrations on Instagram and @saliechelon255 on Tumblr), who creates beautiful digital paintings based on books and anime, including Studio Ghibli movies and the Harry Potter novels, alongside her original work. Her characters are fashionable and expressive, and they always fit perfectly into their richly detailed environments. Sali has a talent for drawing fancy wizards, and it was a pleasure to be able to work with her on this illustration for The Demon King.

The eighth chapter of The Demon King is the culmination of Ceres’s first character arc. It echoes her introduction, in which she glibly treats murder as the only viable option to a tricky political problem, but now the reader is able to see the deliberation that leads to her decisions.

I’m interested in female political leadership, especially at high levels, when an executive’s position is just as symbolic as it is practical. It’s my impression that, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or Tsai Ing-wen or Angela Merkel, there’s an expectation that a woman needs to be perfectly competent and capable while still being both “rational” and having all the charm and charisma of a male politician. This is impossible in real life, of course, but it’s fun to exaggerate these pressures and expectations in fiction to see where they lead.

In any case, the prompt I gave the artist was “a beautiful fairytale princess quietly plotting murder.”

Although it’s still rough around the edges, I’m posting the first draft of The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

The Demon King, Chapter 7

This illustration is by the brilliant Yura Krokodil (@KrokodilYura on Twitter and @krokodilov on Tumblr). She also posts original comics on DeviantArt (here). This artist is a genius when it comes to environmental painting, and she’s magnificently talented at creature and costume design.

This is a scene from the seventh chapter of The Demon King, in which Balthazar ventures into a creepy mushroom forest and has a meandering conversation with a giant spider named Uniagoliantia. You can read the chapter on AO3 starting (here).

In Return of the King, Frodo and Sam cross through Cirith Ungol (“the pass of the spider”) on their way to Mordor, and along the way they encounter a giant spider named Shelob. The Silmarilion mentions that Shelob’s mother was Ungoliant (“dark spider”), a primordial spirit who took the form of an even larger spider. I think “Ungoliant” is a cool name, but it’s a shame it doesn’t have eight syllables, so I expanded it while making it sound more feminine.

Although there are definitely weird and creepy spiders in the world – just as there are weird and creepy fish and weird and creepy mammals – most spiders are just minding their own business, and I think their big bright eyes and round fuzzy bodies and short little legs are kind of cute.

When it comes to creepy things, I tend to think that mushrooms are much creepier than spiders. Still, they’re very cool-looking. I was talking with the artist about this, and about how the “evil forest” area that always seems to be one of the first dungeons in a lot of RPGs inevitably looks really interesting and beautiful, and she told me that she was inspired by the opening dungeon of Final Fantasy IX, which is called, appropriately enough, Evil Forest. It feels a bit anthropocentric to refer to a place that humans aren’t comfortable as “evil,” and I imagine that the creatures who live in any given “evil forest” are probably quite happy there.

Demons Have Feelings Too

The passage Balthazar is reading is from the introduction to the “Demons” entry of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. The full paragraph reads:

Spawned in the Infinite Layers of the Abyss, demons are the embodiment of chaos  and evil – engines of destruction barely contained in monstrous form. Possessing no compassion, empathy, or mercy, they exist only to destroy. The Abyss creates demons as extensions of itself, spontaneously forming  fiends out of filth and carnage.

And this is just not a very nice thing to say, honestly.

I drew this comic to include as the interstitial illustration following the sixth chapter of The Demon King, which I’m posting on AO3 (here).