For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
Okay, let’s take a look at one of my earlier characters, from a story that really could benefit from some serious re-working.
Elli Acton is the only daughter of a very powerful man – Wilford Acton, who founded Acton Informatics. She’s appeared in two stories, only the first of which is canonical. The second, however, still reveals a bit about her character, so we’ll use it here.
- Her full name is Eleanor.
- She has been divorced more than once.
- She doesn’t often talk to her father – nor does she seem to want to.
- She believes that he has interfered in her life somehow.
- She has brought a gun with her that she plans to use on her father.
- Elli sometimes reacts with violence when her father is mentioned.
- She likes to read non-fiction.
- She has little patience with guys who try to chat her up.
And that’s about it. Clearly the key to understanding Elli is understanding why she hates her father so much. I mean, she really did mean to kill the man, and if you’re going to do that then there has to be some pretty serious hate going on.
My first impulse is to say that it has a lot to do with her father’s work. That’s usually a pretty good starting point, and having a distant, unapproachable father has been a reliable trope in fiction since, well, forever. But it can’t just be that he works too much, and I think it’s the information we get in the second story that really may provide the key. The narrative says, of Acton and his company:
[Wilford Acton] was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet.
Michael, the POV character in that story, wants to work with Acton to create a system that essentially anticipates the wants and needs of consumers by way of monitoring their purchases and finances. So for example, if their credit card activity shows an increase in social activity – like going to bars or restaurants or clubs – then they might receive coupons to local eateries. Someone who lost their job, whose credit activity might be showing a lot of late-night internet purchases, might see a lot more ads for counseling popping up in their browser.
Now, it’s ethically dubious at best, but here’s what I think is going on: Acton Informatics has been doing this for a while now.
I’ve noticed that my Evil Corporations tend to be specialists. Cerbecorp is the best at security, Munin Scientific is the best at memory and storage. Acton is the best at processing and manipulating information. I’ll have to do a longer piece on them before the month is out.
What it boils down to, however, is that Wilford Acton used his daughter as a kind of test case. He managed to collect enough of her data that he could predict her actions with incredible accuracy, and spent years manipulating her into certain decisions. At least one marriage, a job, moving to a new city, that kind of thing.
Elli found out (How? That’s a good question.) and she was exactly as upset as you might expect someone to be. She wavers between trying to pretend her father doesn’t exist and focusing her laser-like fury on him. She absolutely refuses to forgive him for what he did, and has no interest in finding out why he did it. As far as she’s concerned, it was an unforgivable violation of her trust, and she will spend the rest of her days hating him.
Naturally, this makes Elli a difficult person to get close to. She trusts very, very few people, and even those only conditionally. She takes any possible association with her father or his company as a sign of betrayal, and is not willing to hear anything good said about him.
This, of course, offers up a couple of interesting story possibilities. One, of course, is Reconciliation. One way or another, Elli is forced to listen to her father’s reason and understand why he did what he did. She needs to be given the choice to forgive him, rather than completely denying the possibility.
The second story possibility is an Alliance. As much as she hates her father and everything he is associated with, there may come a day when she needs his help more than she needs to hate him. The alliance would be fragile and uncomfortable, but it might go a way towards that reconciliation storyline.
I’m really lucky, actually – I get along very well with my parents. I find it hard, and a little sad, to try and put myself in the position of someone whose relationship with their parents has degenerated into virulent hatred. Maybe in order to help Elli to overcome her issues with her father, I should look into the stories of people with such poisonous relations. How did it start? How was it healed, if at all? Why would hating someone for years be preferable to finding some level of forgiveness?
I suppose that’s one of the real benefits of writing – you get to explore these questions without actually putting yourself through them.
As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.
This story features Elli Acton, the lead in one of the early stories on day 4, Daddy’s Little Firecracker, and Michael Collington, the off-screen character in day 28′s Fiat Scientia whose suicide got the whole story rolling. Considering that they’re from two different eras in (probably) different universes – and one of them is dead – this should be interesting. Let’s see what happens….
The first thing Michael Collington said to Elli Acton was, “I’m a great admirer of your father.”
This was immediately followed by Elli knocking him at least three places down the bar with a right hook to the jaw. She emptied her drink over his head and said, “Go to hell, fucker.” Then she picked up her purse and strode out of the bar.
He didn’t see her again for six months.
He ran into her again in a small Los Angeles coffee shop, reading a book. He had to pass by her a few times to make sure it was her, but as soon as he was certain, he introduced himself. “Hi,” he said. “Can I buy you another cup of whatever it is you’re drinking?”
Elli turned a page in her book and held out the cup. “Caramel latte,” she said, not looking at him. “Make it quick.”
Mercifully, the line was short and he was back with her drink in under five minutes. She took it from him while she read and muttered “Thanks.” Michael lowered himself into the seat next to hers and sipped his own drink, a black coffee. He waited, watching people move past, coming in, ordering drinks and going out, and occasionally glancing over to see if Elli was doing anything other than reading her book.
After about ten minutes, he took a chance. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said. He’d found during his time in the United States that his native British accent was considered charming, so he tried to play it up a little whenever he could. “I’ve noticed you’re reading the new Nicholas Calviani book. Is it any good?”
She continued to read. After a few seconds, she turned a page, coming to the end of the chapter. Then she said, “Yes,” and continued to the next.
“Ah,” he said. “I see.” He took a drink from his cup, emptying it. “It’s just that I find his theories on the causes of inner-city poverty to be rather simplistic and he never really offers a solution to any of the problems he brings up in the book. I mean, if all it took to ‘fix’ poverty was a rousing sing-along and an outpouring of community feelings, we would have solved it by now, don’t you-”
Ellie snapped the book closed and put it into her bag. She drained the last of her latte, stood up and walked out of the coffee shop without a word.
Michael sat at the table and watched her leave. “Damn,” he said.
They way he had come to know her – or at least know of her – was through a magazine interview he’d read with her father, Wilford Acton. He was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet. Acton’s systems were elegant and simple, and the moment Michael read about them, he knew he wanted to be a part of the bigger picture.
He had ideas. He’d always had ideas, ever since he was a kid, but they never seemed to work out. Either someone else would get there first, or he would realize that the brilliant plan he’d put together would be impossible to actually work out. He might lose interest in one in order to pursue another, which he would usually drop when another, grander idea came into his head. The result of this was that he had a general working knowledge of many topics, from science and technology to art and music to sociology, psychology and astrophysics. But he was an expert in none, and didn’t have the connections to the people who were experts, so he feared he would be forever lost to progress.
The interview he’d read, however, seemed to be the chance he was looking for. He had thought of ways that companies could use interconnected databases to analyze their customers’ buying habits and then extrapolate their needs. So by looking at their credit card purchases, for example, a company might know when to target them for certain products. If someone suddenly started buying more health foods, for example, instead of their usual purchases, it might be time to make sure they see an ad for a local gym or an at-home exercise machine. Someone whose statements showed more social activities – restaurants and bars, for example – might be dating again. The perfect time to send coupons to local eateries. By keeping a constant watch on people’s purchases, companies could better tailor advertising and product research.
Michael had mentioned this to a few friends, most of whom thought it was a massive ethical violation, akin to spying on people, and he conceded that they had a point. But he knew it would work, and that it would change the world forever. So he studied up on Acton Informatics and learned about Acton’s daughter, Elli. She was young, smart and once again single, so Michael did a bit of research online and managed to find out a bit more about where she liked to spend her time.
What he’d somehow managed to miss, it seemed, was how she felt about her father.
He was determined to try again, though. He’d found her on Facebook and Twitter and followed her on both. He kept notes on where she went and who she seemed to talk to a lot, and produced what he believed to be a good dossier of her likes and dislikes, the latter list being topped, in large red letters with “HER FATHER.” He studied his notes constantly, taking time to make predictions about her behavior and see how well they bore out.
Part of Michael was aware, to some degree, that what he was doing might be considered stalking. That if she ever found out about it, he could be arrested, or at the very least forced to keep as far away from her as the law would allow. And that he would lose his only possibly means of getting to Wilford Acton.
But he didn’t care. The ends justify the means, he told himself, and knew that one day, if necessary, she would forgive him.
He stood in front of a small Italian restaurant where Elli’s birthday party was being held. He’d managed to get on the invitation list through a friend of hers, and he’d brought a bottle of her favorite scotch. He’d wisely left his dossier at home, but he didn’t need it. He knew her likes and dislikes and what would probably get her talking. The first time, he’d gone in blind. The second, he’d been a complete amateur.
This time, he would win over Elli Acton.
After that, the world.
Elli sat outside her father’s office, feeling thirty years younger than she was. She almost expected to be able to kick her feet under the chair like she did when she was a child, something that never failed to earn reproach from either her father or from Aswell, her father’s secretary.
“It’s been a long time since you were here, Eleanor,” Aswell said from behind his vast oak desk. The man’s voice was a croak, the sound of something that should have died years ago. Despite the natural fastidiousness of his position, he had always looked a mess – ill-fitting clothes and an ever-expanding frizz of hair that threatened to fly off his head. Elli’s father had bought him a tailored wardrobe and the best stylist money could buy, but they didn’t last. His return to form was as inevitable as the tides, as gravity.
Aswell adjusted his glasses, the tiny lenses glinting in the setting sunlight through the window. “Your father misses you.”
“Really?” Elli snorted. “I’m surprised he remembers who I am. This is the first I’ve heard from him since My Divorce.” She took special pains with the words, knowing what they meant to her father.
Her mouth twitched. “Touché.”
“He does think of you, Elli. He’s just -”
“A very busy man, yes. You gave that speech after I dropped out of Vassar.”
“It’s still true,” he said. “And like it or not-”
“He’s still your father,” Aswell finished. “You owe him a great deal.”
Elli ground her teeth and tried very hard not to clutch her bag to her chest. “Yes I do,” she growled. Her hands itched to open the bag, to grab the gun and to just finish it all now. She could do it. She was pretty sure she could. Aswell, her father, anyone else in her way. And it had to be done. He had lied to her for the last time. He had interfered in her life for the last time. He had -
She looked up. Aswell was standing in front of her, one hand outstretched. She hadn’t heard him move. He was lit from behind by the last rays of the sun, and his hair made a halo around his head. “Give me the gun, Elli, or I’ll have my men take it from you.” She glanced aside and saw the anonymous man-mountains who always seemed to be on guard. When did he call them? His fingers wiggled. “The gun, Elli. These are not nice men.”
Elli blinked. “What gun?”
Aswell pursed his lips and then snapped his fingers. One of the cyclopean men glided over and snatched her bag with a fist the size of her head. The man gave it to Aswell, who deftly undid the straps. He looked in and one of his eyebrows twitched. He showed the inside of the bag to the guard, who made a noise like a continent shifting. “A Desert Eagle?” Aswell asked. “Fifty caliber?” He pulled the gun out of the bag, and it looked entirely wrong in his delicate hands. “My dear, the recoil alone would break your wrists. Why on earth would you buy a gun like this?”
“It doesn’t matter as much where I hit,” she said, forcing herself to lean back and be casual. “It seemed like a good idea.”
Aswell handed the gun to the guard. In that man’s hands, the gun looked almost normal. “Well, it wasn’t.” Aswell wiped his hands on his trousers and went around to his desk. The guards didn’t move. “You’ll just have to come up with some other ridiculously impractical and unnecessary show of defiance.” A buzzer sounded, and the great mahogany doors swung open. “Your father wants to see you.”
Elli stood. She wanted to smooth out her skirt, to run her fingers through her hair, to crack her knuckles. She wanted to jump on the giant holding her gun and somehow wrestle it from his grip. She wanted to rain blows on his head and make him mad. She wanted to scream, to cry, to fall on the floor and sob.
She took a deep breath. She smiled. She walked into her father’s office.