My style of writing is a mix of planning and pantsing, and for some elements of my current WiP I definitely didn’t plan as much as I now wish I had. One of the elements I introduced without a lot of planning was an invasion of my peaceful egalitarian Great Valley by a warlike patriarchal culture from over the mountains. I based this on a very brief study of one archaelogists view of what happened in ancient Eastern Europe. When I got to the point of editing two NaNovels into a coherent whole, I needed to motivate the invasion – which meant motivating the leader behind the invasion, the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), and possibly Evil Overlord.
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This is a secondary-world fantasy, and some of what I’d written required that the BBEG have supernatural abilities that the protagonists’ own magic has to overcome. If I wanted to retain that element, then the BBEG needed to be a supernatural creature or a magic-user of some sort. So why would such an individual want to conquer, and why would their army follow them? The fundamental principle behind creating engaging villains is that they don’t think of themselves as evil – not even something as evil as Sauron, who was trying to set the world right. The BBEG needed believable motivations.
The first thing was, why would the horde be warlike in the first place? The movie Arrival said that the Sanskrit word for “war” derives from “a desire for cattle.” Whether or not that’s true, it plausibly suggests that war is cattle raids writ large: a desire for, and possibly a need for, additional resources. The Great Valley has plentiful resources, allowing the inhabitants the luxury of self-sufficiency and peaceful trade of surpluses. The land across the mountains is harsher; its culture originally consisted of moderate-sized tribes that constantly raided each other. If nobody has a surplus, there’s nothing to trade, so peace didn’t seem like an option to them, for centuries.
So how did small raiding tribes become big enough to threaten the protagonists’ homeland? One parallel that occurred to me was Ghengis Khan, whose Mongols were originally just such a small warlike tribe that came to unite the steppes and create the largest ever contiguous empire in the world. There were apparently three factors:
- In playing off the warring steppe tribes against each other, for a time the Jin dynasty supported the Mongols, giving them enough resources to become a major player.
- The nomadic Mongols didn’t have a rich native material culture, but enjoyed the luxuries of their neighbours. As his army grew, the Khan needed more and more spoils to support them.
- Those two factors might have led to a moderate local empire. An idiosyncratic incident provided the spark for further expansion: a neighbouring empire killed the Khan’s emissaries, which insult had to be avenged.
So that gave me a structure to adapt. A supernatural BBEG needs (not just wants) something from the Great Valley that they’re not inclined to give it (or at least, so it believes). In turn it provides a local tribal chieftain with resources, including magic and technology, that allow his tribe to expand. When the army is large enough, the BBEG gets the chieftain to direct some troops into the Great Valley, and the novel proceeds from there.
Here’s hoping you’ll get to read the details in a small number of years!