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Day Two Hundred and Twenty-five: Places, Please

January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

The stage manager walked into the green room, clipboard in hand and a pencil behind his ear. “All right, we’re going to need Carly Siminsky on deck, with Peter Wach, Khrys Ferro, and…” He looked up and let out a long, deep sigh of frustration.

“Okay,” he said. “What the hell’s going on?”

The green room was utterly silent except for the little blue fairy sitting in front of a mirror, humming out of tune and plastering make-up onto its hideous face. Contrary to what its makers had promised, the make-up was not helping one bit.

The stage manager stalked over to the fairy and yanked it away by the arm. It yelped and dropped a huge glob of styling mousse on the floor. “Where,” the stage manager asked, “is everybody?”

“Dunno,” the fairy said, twisting to see itself in the mirror again. “They all gone.”

The stage manager let it drop, and it rushed back to the makeup table. “Great,” he said. “We have another hundred and forty-one days to do, and if they don’t get their act together then I’m gonna be the one to explain it to the boss.” He pulled a stool up next to the fairy. “Did you see where they went?” he asked.

“They all gone,” it said again. It turned to him, and widened eyes thickly lined with bright green eyeliner. “And they maaaaad!”

“Mad?” The stage manager stood up and put his face in his hands. “What the hell do they have to be mad about? They just had a month’s vacation!” He spun on the fairy, who wasn’t paying attention. “I sure as hell didn’t get a month’s vacation, and you don’t see me running off and whining about it!”

“Well, maybe you should,” a voice said from behind him.

The stage manager spun around. The man standing there looked like a next-door neighbor you would wave to every morning but whose name you could never remember. He wore a blazer that looked a little too big for him, had thinning, swept-back hair, and wore steel-rimmed eyeglasses. He raised a hand and smiled. “Roger Tillman,” he said. “And I’m the one who drew the short straw.”

The stage manager flipped through the papers on his clipboard, running a finger down the list of names. He stopped and looked up. “Tillman? From 191? The telepath?”

Roger shrugged. “I prefer Tillman, the Best-Selling Author, but ‘telepath’ is pretty accurate too.” He glanced over the stage manager’s shoulder. “You, uh… You might want to see where he got that lighter.” He pointed at the fairy, who was busily flicking a disposable lighter and getting only sparks. Its hair was standing rigid with hairspray. The stage manager swiped the lighter away, and picked up the fairy. He took it to the door and tossed it out into the darkness like it was a disgusting blue furry football. Which, broadly speaking, it was.

Taking a deep breath, the stage manager turned around and tried to smile at Roger, but it was an effort. The man was standing there with his hands in his pockets, trying to look at ease. “So,” the stage manager said. “What can you tell me about why I have no characters here today? Everyone hung over from too much New Year’s carousing?”

“No,” Roger said. “Not that.”

“Is this one of those ‘occupy’ things, then? Do you feel you’ve been treated unfairly?”

Roger shook his head. “Nope.”

The stage manager threw the clipboard to the floor. “Then what? I have a hundred-some more days to go, and there are probably thousands -”

“Dozens.”

A lot of people waiting for new stories!” He poked Roger in the chest and was only vaguely aware that he was screaming. “It’s my job to make sure you people stay in line, that you’re where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there!”

Roger shrugged.

“Fine!” The stage manager picked up the clipboard and brandished it at him. “Fine! That’s what you want, then that’s it. This whole operation gets shut down, and then where will you be?” He jabbed a finger at the door through which he had tossed the fairy. “Out there,” he yelled. “Out in limbo, in nothing, in that horrible in-between place which is where we’ll all end up if I can’t get you people to do what you’re told!”

GEORGE.

The stage manager went instantly silent. He closed his eyes tightly, as if waiting for a blow that was about to come.

GEORGE. COOL IT.

“Yessir.”

LET THE MAN TALK.

“Yessir.” He cracked one eye open and looked around, finally glaring at Roger. “You see what you’ve done?” he hissed.

“I do believe the man said to let me talk?”

The stage manager – George – nodded.

“Okay, then. Here’s what I’ve been sent to tell you: We are all unavailable for the next month.”

George stood up straight, and it was like a turtle poking its way out of its shell. “What do you mean?” He held up the clipboard. “You just had a vacation!”

“Not really,” Roger said. He walked around George and took a seat at one of the makeup stations. “We were all on call, really. For that ‘world-building’ thing he was doing.”

George shrugged. “That was important stuff,” he said. “But you didn’t actually have to do anything, right?”

“Not as such, no.” Roger picked up an eyebrow pencil and started twirling it in his fingers. “But he still needed us to be there for him. You know – to give information about the world and all that.” With a quick move, he flicked it upwards. The pencil thudded into the ceiling and stuck there. He looked back at George, who dropped his own gaze to look at him. “We want a proper vacation, George. A month off to…” He waved his hands around. “You know, get things done, put our houses in order, do a little cleaning – that sort of thing.”

“And you’ll come back in February?”

“Sure,” Roger said. “If he needs us.”

George held the clipboard to his chest. “What do we do until then?” He hated the way his voice sounded. Whiny. A little bit afraid. “We’ll have to take on a whole new crew.”

Roger nodded. “Yup.” He stood up and smoothed out his slacks. “But it’ll be fun – new people to meet, new places to go.” He put an arm around George’s shoulders. The stage manager flinched. “Think of the adventures you can have!”

“They’ll probably be non-union,” George muttered.

Roger looked over at him and grinned. “A fictional characters’ union?” He grinned broadly. “That’s a fantastic idea!” He reached into his jacket pocket for a pad of paper and a ballpoint. “Gonna have to work this one out…” He waved absently at George. “Good luck,” he said. “See you in February!” Writing furiously, he went out the door into the darkness.

George sighed and slumped into a chair. “I can’t believe this,” he said.

BELIEVE IT.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, looking up at the ceiling.

… DON’T SEE ANY REASON WHY WE CAN’T.

With a deep breath, George stood up and took out a fresh form from his clipboard. “All right,” he said. “Your funeral.” He pulled the pencil from behind his ear. “I’ll talk to casting and see who we can find.” He licked the tip of the pencil and started writing, pausing only to turn off the lights behind him.

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Day One Hundred and Ninety-four: Zombies and Existential Uncertainty

December 1, 2011 Leave a comment

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!

——————

Today, I decided to take out the dice and look at a character. It’s not entirely random, though – it should be a POV character, or at least one who had a major part in the story in which he, she, or it appeared. So let’s take out the list of 361 characters and see how we roll…

Heh… Okay, sure. I can go with that. Ladies and gentlemen: Sean Danfield

Sean has appeared once in this project, in the story for day 156: Character Work, which was about an author trying to figure out his character. A nice coincidence, don’t you think?

According to what we see in the story, here is what we know already about Sean:

  • He’s a fictional character. I mean, in the story. Clearly he’s fictional, it’s just that his writer is, too. Sean’s writer is Wes Silver, a moderately popular penner of horror and thriller stories. His current book is trying to catch the zombie wave, and his protagonist is Sean. Their relationship is… interesting, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
  • Sean was a Navy SEAL. When he became a SEAL, he received a knife as a gift, and he’s kept it ever since, zombies or no zombies.
  • He is resourceful, as one would have to be in order to survive the zombie apocalypse.
  • He considers killing himself before the zombies get to him. He isn’t sure if he can do it.
  • His father abandoned him as a child. This has been one of the major influences on his life.
  • He is Caucasian, with “glossy black hair and deep brown eyes that Wes knew drove the women nuts.”
  • He was very close to a woman named Leah, who saved his life but was killed by the zombies. He says, “I didn’t want her to save my life. Not if it meant losing her.”
  • He can somehow communicate with his author.

That last part is kind of important, because it establishes Sean as a two-leveled character.

There’s Sean Danfield, the character in Wes Silver’s book (which I should probably find a title for), but then there’s Sean Danfield, the actual person, who isn’t quite what Wes thinks he is.

Sean is somehow aware of his status as a fictional character, and is aware of the time that passes while he isn’t being written. He knows that he’s not fully in control of his destiny, and yet he accepts it with a kind of stoic pragmatism. Or at least, he did. In the conversation with Wes that is detailed in Character Work, Sean actually considers giving up, and asks Wes to just write him a death so that they could both be done with it:

Sean took a deep breath. “What if I don’t want to go on like this?” He looked up, and his eyes were full of despair. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes,” he said. “Losing my friends? Running just a half-step ahead of certain death all the time? Watching the world I knew just…” He spread his fingers and stared at his empty hands. “Just fall apart?”

He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes. Let them in.” He stood up and walked slowly over to the computer, caressing the screen. “Let them break down the door. The blockade I made isn’t that great, after all. They’ll get in eventually.” He tugged the knife from the desk. “Give me a moment to use this, and it’ll all be over. For both of us.”

He stared at the knife, turning it to catch the light, and Wes felt for the first time like he was in some real trouble. “Sean,” he said, carefully putting an arm around the man’s shoulders. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Sean whispered.

That was a tough question. Wes had an answer for it, of course, and any good writer would have had the same answer. He just didn’t think that Sean would believe him. He took a deep breath and let Sean go. “Because that’s not the kind of character you are, Sean Danfield. And you know it.”

At this point, Sean breaks down in tears, which Wes certainly never expected, and frankly neither did I. One of the joys – and occasional frustrations – of writing is that sometimes a character will do things that surprise you. I told The Boyfriend about this, and he thought I was nuts. You see, he was under the impression that I, as the author, exert total control over my characters. Yet they do, from time to time, say or do things that I never expected, and so it is with Wes and Sean.

Sean recovers from his self-doubt when he’s reminded that he’s a SEAL, dammit, and that’s not how they trained him to react to being chased by zombies. [1] He bucks up and helps Wes write an escape for him so that he can go on to do… whatever it is he’s going to do.

And that’s the tough thing about Sean as my character. I’m not writing him, at least not within his story. That story belongs to Wes Silver, who in turn belongs to me. If I write Sean’s zombie story, I have to either write it as Wes, or take it away from Wes and write it myself, which will probably piss Wes off no end.

Regardless, let’s take a look at Sean and see what the Elves of my unconscious have come up with for him so far.

The father / abandonment issues spring to mind first, of course, as childhood trauma is very adept at shaping the adults we grow up to be. Sean’s father left when he was six or seven – old enough to know what was going on, but not really old enough to get why. His parents had married far too young, with far too little understanding of what it took to be married and raise a family. If Sean hadn’t come along, they probably would have gotten divorced much earlier, but they tried to stick it out for his sake.

His father broke first, and fled. Sean’s mother never blamed her son for anything, but the more Sean learned about their life together, the circumstances under which they’d married and eventually had him, the more he came to understand that he was the thing that kept them together – and miserable – far longer than they should have been. Whether he understood rightly or wrongly is irrelevant – that’s what he really and truly believed.

Growing up without a father is rough on any kid, and it wasn’t until he was in high school that Sean realized the weight of responsibility that had been placed on him. The entertaining mix of adolescence, insecurity, and his mother’s refusal to discuss things with her son led to him growing up as kind of an asshole kid. It wasn’t until she was hospitalized for a back injury at work (I want her to be a manual laborer of some kind, but I feel like I’m skating really close to a cliche there) that he realized how much she did for his benefit. She died when he was twenty, but he spent the remainder of his time with her trying to make up for the misery he’d put her through. This fostered a sense of responsibility that would form the core of his character as an adult.

When she died, he was left without a college education or a job, and decided to join the Navy.

The zombie plague broke out about five years later. He’d been through SEAL training a few years before, and was romantically involved with a young woman named Leah. She was the one who gave him the knife.

He was as surprised by the zombies as anyone else, and believes that the only reason he and Leah escaped with because of luck. They were in a supermarket and fled into the L.A. hills. They made their way back to their house, armed up, and fled the city. They remained on the run for about two weeks before Leah died. She broke her ankle as they were traveling. As the zombies got closer, she insisted that he leave her behind, which he, of course, refused to do.

Since her death, Sean’s life has pretty much been trying to get away from the zombies. He will, I think, meet up with other humans at some point, and if Wes would like to sit down with me and plot out the novel, I’d love to hear it.

All that, of course, is Sean as the character in Wes’ book. Sean as the meta-character is all that, but he’s all that plus the awareness that he’s not in control of his life. He knows that everything that’s happened to him – from his parents’ tragically young marriage up to getting trapped in a pumping station with no way out – has been planned and orchestrated by a single individual for the amusement of others. Sean knows exactly what he is, and he’s slowly losing his ability to be cool about it. He’s not a very philosophical person, but these repeated meetings with his creator are causing him to ask some very serious questions about his own existence. There may come a time when he refuses to go on the path that Wes has set for him.

Of course, the way Character Building was written, it’s entirely possible that Sean-as-real-person is nothing more than Wes’ hallucination, or a mental construct that he’s created in order to figure out how to get out of the corner he painted himself into. Hell, I’ve argued with characters like that before too. But I find it more interesting to assume that Sean really does have an existence that extends beyond the story he’s been written into, and that his visits to Wes are entirely real.

Which means that at some point, he might be able to take action against his creator. And who hasn’t wanted to do that from time to time?

Research necessary to build Sean’s character:

  • Navy SEALS. It would be good to know more about the training of a SEAL and what kind of person not only chooses that life but flourishes in it as well. I imagine it takes a very specific personality type to be able to do that [2], and it would behoove me to know what comes with that, both good and bad.
  • The effect of growing up fatherless. I know what I’ve heard on TV, but given the moral overtones of the issue, it would be better to look at actual research into how kids cope with being abandoned by their father. For all I know, the affect on Sean that I’ve come up with could be the outlier.
  • Los Angeles. Okay, I had no idea he started out in L.A. until I wrote it up above about thirty seconds ago. Thanks, Elves.

Red Flags:

  • Why the Navy? I mean, I know why he chose to join the military – it was a choice a lot of poor kids without a bright future might make. But I honestly have no idea why Sean chose the Navy over any other branch of the military. I needed him to be a SEAL when I wrote the story, so there we go. One of the primary rules of character-building is that if you give your character a trait because “the story needs it,” then You’re Doing It Wrong. Of course, I could blame it on Wes, but I won’t. In any case, I need to think of a reason why he chose the Navy. And it has to be the right reason.
  • Why did Leah give him a knife? Yeah, that’s a weird gift to give your boyfriend just after he’s finished training to become a member of one of the deadliest military teams in history. But who else would have given it to him?
  • Why did he let Leah sacrifice herself? I need to figure out how Leah managed to sacrifice herself without Sean stopping / joining her. He definitely believes that he is responsible for her death, just as he believes he was somehow responsible for his mother’s death. So there’s definitely a kind of Rand al’Thor / benevolent chauvinism thing going on here.

——

[1] Request to any SEALs reading this: what was in the standard run of anti-zombie training? As many details as you are permitted to reveal would be greatly appreciated.

[2] And that personality is definitely not mine.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-six: Character Work

October 24, 2011 1 comment

Sean slammed the door and started piling furniture in front of it. The pumping station was quiet, except for his breathing and the scraping of  steel desks against the concrete floor. He had blocked the main entrance, but the zombies would get through that pretty quickly. All he had to do was keep them out, and he’d stay alive.

But for how long? With the door blocked, he lit a flare and propped it in the corner, filling the station with red, flickering light. The great machines cast terrible shadows against the high ceiling, and those shadows made him nervous. Too many places to hide. He wanted to check his watch, but there was no point to that anymore. He’d locked them out, yes, but unless they decided to go off and hunt someone else, he’d also locked himself in. 

He took a deep breath and reviewed what he had. A handgun, with no ammunition. A shotgun. Also, with nothing to fire. No more grenades, only a couple more flares. He still had his knife, though. The one he’d gotten when he finished SEAL training. It had never left his side, and he hoped that he’d be brave enough to use it on himself if the zombies did manage to break through. No food. No water. Soon, he’d be able to hear the ungodly gurgle and howl of the zombies outside the door.

Sean gripped his knife and took a few deep breaths. One way or another, he was dying in this room tonight.

Wes practically slammed the enter key when he finished that line and fell back in his chair. He took a deep breath and let it out, and then rubbed his eyes for a few moments before saving the document. He had been writing that sequence for days, and when he finally got his teeth in it, he blasted the whole thing out in a couple of hours. He did a quick check of the word count – a hair under seven thousand, which wasn’t bad at all. Great, actually, considering the story had been coming in drips and drabs for the last few weeks, barely shuffling along any faster than the zombies that were supposed to be the driving force.

“Why did I choose zombies?” he asked himself as he saved the file again and set it to print. This book had been sitting on his hard drive for ages, taunting him. He’d have an inspiration, spend a weekend pounding out the pages, and then it would all go away again, and he had no idea why. He liked his characters – even the ones he’d killed in gruesome ways. And Sean Danfield was a good character. You can’t go wrong with a Navy SEAL in this kind of story, and what with the abandonment by his father when he was a kid, Wes figured he could have the poor guy searching for some kind of psychological closure all the way up to the end of act three.

It was just getting him to act three that was the problem. “How the hell am I going to get you out of there?” he muttered.

“Wait just one goddamn minute,” a voice said. A man stepped out of his hallway, bloody and exhausted. He probably would have been handsome in a normal setting, if he wasn’t covered in gore and looking like he was about to snap and kill someone. And holding a giant knife. He had glossy black hair and deep brown eyes that Wes knew drove the women nuts. Or at least, they had done in the first chapter, before the zombies showed up. He strode towards the desk, the knife clutched in his hand. “What the hell do you mean you don’t know how to get me out of there?”

“Now isn’t a good time, Sean,” Wes said.

“The hell it isn’t!” He slammed the knife, point-first, into Wes’ desk and the wood nearly split.

Wes looked up at him. “Please, Sean. This is IKEA. It can barely withstand the tremendous pressure of just being a desk.” He put on what he thought was a kindly smile. “Don’t worry, Sean. I’ll find a way out of there for you.”

The big man was trembling as he stood there, and then he walked to Wes’ big overstuffed chair and slumped into it, his head in his hands. He didn’t cry – Wes was absolutely sure that Sean Danfield didn’t cry – but he was as close as he’d get to it. His voice was thick and quiet. “When?” he asked. “When are you getting me out of there?”

Wes levered himself up. “I don’t know, Sean. Eventually.”

“Eventually?” Sean looked up and his eyes were rimmed with red. “No no no no.” He stood up and rand his fingers through his short-cropped hair. “I can’t do eventually. Not like the time you left me in that police station for – what was it, six months?”

“A year,” Wes said. He almost felt ashamed.

“A year,” Sean whispered. “Jesus.”

Wes watched him for a moment, and then went into the kitchen to make coffee. It usually did a good job of calming Sean down. The first time Sean had shown up in his living room, Wes was terrified. That would, of course, be the only rational reaction to having a complete stranger, armed to the teeth and scared out of his wits, show up out of nowhere in your apartment in the middle of the afternoon. But once it became apparent what was going on, the relationship between the two men turned… different. Sean was well aware of the fact that Wes technically controlled his destiny, but Wes was equally aware of the fact that he needed Sean if he was going to finish the book. And so an uneasy detente was formed. Sean agreed to spend as much time as possible in the story, or wherever it was that he spent his time, and Wes agreed to write the story to the best of his ability.

Would that it were that easy. Wes’ poor habits made it hard to keep Sean’s story moving, or even necessarily making sense. More than once he’d had to backtrack and start a section again, just so he could get Sean out of a bind that had no exit. And it looked like he might have to do that again now. The problem was that they further he got in the book, the harder it would be to unmake the plot without starting over.

He carried two cups of coffee out to the living room and set the black in front of Sean. The man had his head back, and was staring at the ceiling. Wes sat across from him and sipped in the silence.

“Did you know that Leah was going to die?” Sean asked. He bent forward and cradled the mug in his hands.

The silence lingered for a minute. “No,” Wes replied quietly. “Not until it happened.”

Sean put the mug down. “How could you not know?” He put his head in his hands. “How could you not know something like that?”

All Wes could do was shrug. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes the story surprises you. The characters surprise you.” He picked up his own cup. “I mean, it was something she would do, of course. Saving your life like that.”

“I didn’t want her to save my life,” Sean said. “Not if it meant losing her.”

There was really nothing to say to that, so Wes didn’t say anything. He just let his coffee cool on the table for a while. Sean sat, immobile, staring at the floor.

Finally, Wes stood up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to work.” He held out a hand and waited for Sean to take it.

The other man didn’t move. Wes offered it again, but still Sean sat still. Finally the man said, “What if I don’t want to?”

Wes’ hand fell. “What?”

Sean took a deep breath. “What if I don’t want to go on like this?” He looked up, and his eyes were full of despair. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes,” he said. “Losing my friends? Running just a half-step ahead of certain death all the time? Watching the world I knew just…” He spread his fingers and stared at his empty hands. “Just fall apart?”

He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes. Let them in.” He stood up and walked slowly over to the computer, caressing the screen. “Let them break down the door. The blockade I made isn’t that great, after all. They’ll get in eventually.” He tugged the knife from the desk. “Give me a moment to use this, and it’ll all be over. For both of us.”

He stared at the knife, turning it to catch the light, and Wes felt for the first time like he was in some real trouble. “Sean,” he said, carefully putting an arm around the man’s shoulders. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Sean whispered.

That was a tough question. Wes had an answer for it, of course, and any good writer would have had the same answer. He just didn’t think that Sean would believe him. He took a deep breath and let Sean go. “Because that’s not the kind of character you are, Sean Danfield. And you know it.”

Sean crumpled to his knees and – to Wes’ shock – started to weep quietly. The moment was terrible, but there was a part of his writer’s mind that was absorbing the whole thing, thrilled by the revelation that there was a place Sean could go that he hadn’t forced him to yet. That there was still another layer that could be stripped away. Wes could use that, and he felt like a monster even to acknowledge it. He got down beside his character and helped him stand up. “Come on,” Wes said. “Let’s get you out of there.”

He pulled over another chair, sat Sean down in it, and then settled down in front of the computer. He jiggled the mouse to turn off the screen saver and went back to where he had left off. “Okay,” he said. “You’re in the pumping station, the zombies are right outside. What do you do?” He looked over at Sean, who was still staring at the floor. “Come on,” he said. “Is this what they taught you in SEAL training? To give up?”

That got his attention. Sean looked up, and his face finally had some life in it. “No,” he said.

“Okay then!” Wes cracked his knuckles and waggled his fingers over the keyboard. “So. What do you do?”

Sean stood up and retrieved his coffee before answering. “It’s a pumping station, right?” He nodded. “Okay. So there’s probably, what… Maintenance tunnels or something?”

Wes grinned. “There are now,” he said, and started typing furiously. Sean sat down next to him and watched the words pour onto the page and offered ideas where he could. They worked that way long into the night.

When the chapter was finished, and Sean was safe – for the moment – Wes sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, the chair next to him was empty. The other coffee cup was cold. He stretched, saved the chapter and then shut down the computer. Four in the morning, another five thousand words.

“Nice work,” he said. “Thanks for your help.” His jaw cracked in a yawn and he plodded off to bed for a long sleep.