In March 2021, a fantasy set in a colonised Indo-Persian world and inspired by pre-Islamic Arabian mythology was published. The Descent of the Drowned is a dark, immersive, and powerful debut that also has undertones of the political and sociocultural issues of the region. But it’s biggest asset is characterisation. The morally ambiguous protagonists make it a character-oriented story about identity, redemption, oppression, and hope.
Whether it’s Roma who is a sacred slave of the goddess and must submit to what is decided for someone from her caste, or Leviathan who is the bastard son of an immortal tyrant and trained to become a deadly soldier, both drive this tale through haunting paths and dangerous struggles—while humanity remains at the heart of it all. So it’s a pleasure to have Ana Lal Din, the Danish-Pakistani Muslim author of this epic fantasy, elaborate more on these characters and how she crafted them. To view more such posts by Muslim authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Muslim Musings, spanning over Ramadan 2022. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Ana Lal Din on crafting complex characters — a sacred prostitute and a royal soldier — and writing raw, human experiences.
When I developed the protagonists of this story, I wasn’t thinking about labels such as antiheroes, heroines, and villains. My approach was to write humans. As human beings, we are born with free will and the ability to do both good and evil. Morals are instilled within us through our environment—that is, our parents, culture, faith, and so on. We adopt and we adapt. We are shaped by our experiences, by our world. With this in mind, I developed the environments in which my protagonists were raised as well as the set of values and beliefs that those environments had fostered.
My intention was to write raw, human experiences. I didn’t worry about following any established formula or labels in fantasy but focused on building the layers of my humans through their psychological, emotional, and physical experiences. Some may notice that Leviathan is neurodivergent and on the Autism spectrum, and that his morals and actions are quite questionable, yet he has a conscience, however deeply buried, as well as the ability to feel shame. Roma is incredibly resilient, but she is also equally vulnerable. While she doesn’t start and lead a rebellious army against an entire system, she does start and lead a personal one to break free of a destructive cycle. Those small, significant pieces of my protagonists were conscious choices because I didn’t want them to fit neatly into any mould.
I chose to make Roma a sacred prostitute to shed light on the issue of sacred prostitution in India but also to introduce a female protagonist in upper YA fantasy who isn’t a virgin nor “pure” as prostitution labels women as dirty/spoiled, and I made her dark-skinned because this colour is considered undesirable in South Asian culture. With Leviathan, we have a biracial son of a colonialist who is also a royal soldier, and his blood relation to his mother’s persecuted people puts him in a difficult position. I prefer contrasts such as these when I write complex humans because they can truly make your characters stand out from other similar ones.
The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din
She is bound to serve. He is meant to kill. Survival is their prison. Choice is their weapon.
As the sacred slave of a goddess, Roma is of a lower caste that serves patrons to sustain the balance between gods and men. What she wants is her freedom, but deserters are hunted and hanged, and Roma only knows how to survive in her village where women are vessels without a voice. When her younger brother is condemned to the same wretched fate as hers, Roma must choose between silence and rebellion.
Leviathan is the bastard son of an immortal tyrant. Raised in a military city where everyone knows of his blood relation to the persecuted clans, Leviathan is considered casteless. Lowest of the low. Graduating as one of the deadliest soldiers, he executes in his father’s name, displaying his worth. When he faces judgement from his mother’s people—the clans—Leviathan must confront his demons and forge his own path, if he ever hopes to reclaim his soul.
But in the struggle to protect the people they love and rebuild their identities, Roma’s and Leviathan’s destinies interlock as the tyrant hunts an ancient treasure that will doom humankind should it come into his possession—a living treasure to which Roma and Leviathan are the ultimate key.
Typically, I have four rules which I follow when creating depth: I give my characters neurodivergent thought patterns, allow their behaviour to be influenced by their sociocultural and religious upbringing, tie their emotional and physical responses to past experiences, and let them have flaws that they’re aware of and grapple with. Though this is only the basis of my character construction, it is a strong foundation, and it helps me connect with my characters.
Also, as a Muslim, and as someone who is neurodivergent, I draw a lot from my own background and experiences to build layered characters. For instance, Leviathan and Roma struggle with faith. Leviathan is bitter and angry because he feels unworthy of forgiveness and blames God for his lot in life, while Roma is conflicted about whether she believes in a higher power since everything that she has been taught is a lie. Personally, I have been in both places—that is, bitter and angry, and conflicted—and so it was incredibly cathartic for me to portray the spiritual struggles of my protagonists.
In the end, I want to reflect the complexity of humanity through multidimensional characters who break moulds and force us, as readers, to face their actions and decide how we feel about them. And I want to share human experiences that we normally look away from because they disturb us, but those experiences are important to acknowledge as they’re happening to people in our world.
Ana Lal Din
She is a Muslim author currently based in England. Passionate about culture, religion, and social justice issues, Ana’s story worlds are usually full of all three. What drives her as a writer is developing characters that are psychologically and emotionally complex, reflecting human nature at its darkest and brightest—and everything in between. Since Ana is Danish-Pakistani with Indian heritage, she often explores the intricacies of a multicultural identity through her characters. She can be found at @laldinana on Twitter and @laldinana on Instagram.
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the guest writer’s comments and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.