Or Finding Your Own Bad Habits
Now, the first thing I’m going to say about creating characters is Do Not Outsmart Yourself With A Clever Naming Scheme!
I speak from experience. Ignore the weird names in the following examples. Or take them as a lesson on what not to do.
What I’m examining right now is how I introduce new characters when I’ve already got my POV character set. I have to see the new character through his or her eyes, and what the MC sees and infers is the information the reader will get.
Analyzing your own writing can be a bit surprising. Take this bit, a newly hired professor, with the head of the department . . .
“Now, we’re short on office space, here. I’m afraid that with a staff of just three, including yourself, that the Magic Section staff gets stuffed wherever we can squeeze them in. Unfortunately the Languages Department claimed Dr. Yppo’s office . . . and they were right that we’d borrowed it years ago from what was originally their part of the building.”
Rael eyed Department Head Eshy.
He’s enjoying this. Putting the new Professor in her place.
Dr. Eshy stopped a nondescript door, not at all like the paneled oak door of his own office. He was smiling as he handed her a key.
She unlocked the door and pulled it open.
About two and a half meters deep, and the same wide. Three battered metal filing cabinets. An oversized closet. A small file room.
She grinned. “Oh. This is going to be fun.”
“We’ll find you a desk, and some chairs, for student conferences.” A smug smirk on his face.
Rael waved an airy hand. “Not to worry. I’ll take care of redecorating.” And removing that smug grin of yours. “I’ll have it all spiffy before the students get back from Ramadan in two weeks.”
She pulled open a drawer of the middle file cabinet. It screeched and dragged. “Empty? Good. Why don’t you have them removed, and I’ll get busy.”
He looked puzzled, as she giggled and bounced away.
Okay, I think I managed to convey that he’s going to be a real gem to work for, and will deserve the smack down he’s going to get. On the other hand, there’s not a single mention of height, weight, coloring, accents, facial hair . . . Hmm . . . Let’s find another one.
Chancellor Adse didn’t rise as she was ushered in. Nor did the old Princess sitting across the desk from him. Neither of them showed the faintest sign of shaking hands.
Rael tossed a smile at the man. “Sorry you were bothered by this matter, Chancellor. I thought Professor Jues and I could handle it, but give the shocking evidence of long term prejudicial grades and grade adjustments, it probably does need to be handled at a higher level.”
“Excuse me?” The older woman straightened and glared. “Are you questioning my grading methods?”
Professor Jues huffed. “I have been entrusted with the teaching of Introduction to Magic for eighty-four years now, and I have never been insulted in such a fashion.”
Rael popped out her comp and opened it, it searched automatically for the room screen and connected. “Really? But I understand that the Directorate School has had to protest your downgrading of our students every single semester and that you always backed off. Looks like a stupid power play to me. An ego boost to make the Directorate professor crawl.”
The Chancellor growled. “Our instructors can, at their discretion, take or add up to a full point from any final grade.”
Rael paused. “Up to a full point? Is that an actual written regulation?”
“It’s in the School of Magic’s by-laws.”
“I see.” She tapped at the comp and the pleasant picture on the wall disappeared, replaced with a graph. “In that case I suppose fifty years of the directorate students coming in regularly a half a point below the Magic students represent a one point down-grade, corrected to a mere half point down-grade is explained.”
“How did you get the office comp password?” The Chancellor glared.
Next graph. “So I looked at this fall’s group to try to find the problem . . . then I checked a few more years, and this is actually typical. The test grades were a complete mix, if anything those green line Directorate Grades being . . . let’s see I thought I had one with the averages for each group . . . yes. The Directorate students didn’t do any worse than any others.”
“How did you get those numbers?” The Chancellor was turning red.
“Here’s the preliminary final grades sent to Professor Jues . . . and the finals she posted . . . and the differences.” Rael eyed the woman. “Down two full points. Except for these two who had three points removed, causing them to flunk the class.”
“At my discretion . . .”
“Looking at all the students in that class . . . only the Directorate students were downgraded. You upgraded five Magic School students to prevent them from flunking.”
“You have no right to those figures! You hacked my computer!” Jues rose from her chair, fists knotted.
“I’ve got to say I admire your nerve, downgrading Milo here at triple the amount your by-laws allow, and flunking him.”
“That drawling lounge lizard? Lazy good-for-nothing! Is he some relative of yours?”
“Err, no. He’s Prime Councilor Igsu’s son.”
A faint choking sound from the Chancellor. Jues’s eyes widened.
“Actually I wondered if . . . well never mind.” Rael looked beyond the woman to the Chancellor. “As your staff has clearly exceeded your by-laws in a clearly prejudicial attack on Directorate students, I expect you to correct this situation.”
The Chancellor rose now and lean over his desk. “Oh, you expect, do you? And what if we don’t?”
“It’s too late.” Jues sneered at her. “Those grades are on their permanent records, now.”
D’you know? I really had no idea I was so bad at mentioning physical details. Personalities, yes. Hair color? Zip. Good thing that’s an incomplete rough draft.
Now I’m going to have to find some good physical descriptions just to salve my wounded self-image.
The wolf heard it first. Slinking down, ears focused beyond the next hill. Xen went to one knee and watched where the wolf was focused. And caught an odd sound . . . not a clanking, more of a smooth metallic sliding, thumps and rustling grasses. He tried an illusion of grass . . . no idea if it worked.
Movement at the crest of the hill. Metal . . . coppery metal that brought up some bad memories . . .
A robot climbed over the crest of the hill, details emerging. The head with glowing red eyes. Xen could see the exposed metal and plastic scaffolding of the legs.
He blinked at the lack of much in between the head and the legs, then the robot turned a bit and Xen could see the long metal muzzle, could see that the body was behind those legs, wide and solid. With another pair of legs behind. A robot in the form of a fat dog?
Crap, I really hope that thing is not here to hunt down people who survived their being injured and dumped here.
The dog’s head turned and studied him.
An illusion won’t fool a camera, a computer. I haven’t tried a light warp yet. I wonder if I can slice?
Then a synthesized voice from the hill. “Miss Cali? I have located a human.”
A head popped up from the broad body. Human. Messy brown hair.
“Is it Daddy? Did you find him?” A little girl voice, barely heard.
“No Miss Cali, it is a stranger.”
Xen stood up and banished his possible-illusion. He raised his voice. “Hello. I’m Xen Wolfson.”
The little girl conferred with her robodog in a low voice. The robot’s replies, urging caution, were clear. And finally, “Accepting order, Miss Cali.”
The robodog walked down the hill toward them, an odd sliding gait without the slightest jolt to the body between steps.
The Master Hunter backed away growling, then turned tail and bolted.
“Oh!” Miss Cali stood up inside the dog’s body and watch the fleeing wolf. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare your doggie.”
“It’s just as well he ran off.” Xen studied the robot as it neared. The wide body was an oval bowl, about right for the kid to curl up in. “Hunter’s actually a wild wolf and not completely safe to be around.”
The robodog stopped a few feet in front of him.
If it attacks now, I’ve got no time to see what works.
The girl climbed out a side that suddenly bent outward and formed a step for her. Then snapped back into place and the whole body scrunched up into a nice slender robodog body.
Xen decided to start the ball rolling. “A man came to my world, sitting on a throne, on a copper carpet.”
The girl hunched her shoulders. “That’s the judge.”
Xen touched the ugly barely healed scar on his chest. “He hit me with an electrical current, and I woke up here, three months ago.”
The girl nodded. “They were going to transport Daddy, and Uncle Connor, and Uncle Jerry, and Uncle Sam. I ordered Killerbite to run and jump onto the Carpet of Judgement right when they transported . . . he had to go so fast . . . then they transported . . . and he ran right off the other side. He turned around to run back . . . and they transported again.
“Now I don’t know where they sent Daddy.”
“Kill . . . o-byte . . .” Xen cleared his throat.
Right. I spent three times as much verbiage describing the robodog than describing the girl, but then, anyone can picture a little girl with messy brown hair. Further details of her appearance aren’t needed. What matters is that she’s a nice, polite little girl who’s looking for her Daddy, who’s in trouble.
And when it’s all said and done, it’s getting into the reader’s mind and getting them to picture the character themselves that should be your goal.
They should see in their minds the smug jerk, like that guy they used to work for. Or the people in the other department who’ve been messing up for years and aren’t about to admit wrongdoing. A little girl with a problem, and a robodog.
Take out your work in progress. Give your introduction to the characters a good look. And see if (ahem, like me) you need to drop in just a bit more description, or if you have to opposite problem and leave the character of the Character opaque.
Rael eyed Department Head Eshy. Tall, bulky. Expensive suit. Good head of hair, for a guy who must be pushing the century mark. Distinguished silver streaks. Bet the black part’s dyed.
And he’s obviously enjoying putting the new Professor in her place.
Yeah, that’s better.
Give it a try—get the personality in there _and_ the physical description.
And the inevitable self-promo:
From work in progress, tentatively named “Coffee with Kali The Destroyer”:
“Visitor?” wondered Alice, scanning the café as she took another fortifying sip.
Down toward the back of the cafe was Sarah in her usual spot, the little table covered in pencils and sheets of art paper as usual. Sarah had skipped the Goth makeup and settled for black jeans and a Sisters of Mercy tour t-shirt. She was sketching furiously.
Seated across from her was a very cute Indian woman. She was petite and shapely with perfect skin, luminous brown eyes, long black hair parted in the middle and done in a pigtail all the way down to her waist. She wore a lovely blue salvar kamees suit with rich embroidery on the eight cuffs of the sleeves. Because she had eight arms.
“It never stops, Nike,” said Alice conversationally. “Every week, a new thing.”
“No, it never does,” replied Nike. “I just launched coverage, I’ll have major heavy backup here in 72 seconds, minor elements are here now.”
“It’s probably okay, Sarah and Margaret would have hit the panic button,” sighed Alice, her plan for a morning of lazy coffee consumption unraveling before her eyes. “I can’t see anything bad about her, just the arms. You see that too, right?”
“Yes, and what I’m seeing doesn’t obey the laws of physics,” said Nike. “Two shoulders, eight arms. She’s like a painting.”
“More 28-dimensional magic horse shit,” grumbled Alice, touching the worn Colt 1911 in the holster behind her right hip, just to reassure herself it was still there. “I was hoping it was just sleep deprivation.”
Nice! I like how you start out so normally and just slide casually into strange.
I love doing that. Nice normal day, walk into your regular coffee joint, you see some cute girl, annnnd its Kali. How the actual hell did she get here?
Other days there might be robot bugs the size of refrigerators, sexy giants in really short skirts, occasionally a dragon, and most days a werewolf.
The werewolf likes her cappuccino, y’know. ~:D
But what’s the first thing I notice about Kali? I’m a guy, so I see cute girl, nice hair, nice outfit, then I’m doing a double take because too many sleeves and holy fructose that chick has eight arms. Dang, bro!
I’m told women see all that in a different order starting at shoes, but the eight arms is still going to register late in the survey.
Shades of Draco Tavern?
Callaghan’s Cross-Time Saloon, maybe? Or Niven?
There’s a few people out there who do that with great success, so I stole it as hard as I could.
Sexy giants in really short skirts… How tall are these giants? My eyes are at about 5’4″…
The short skirt, used as a weapon. ~:D
I’m probably in the minority, but I don’t really like reading physical descriptions of characters.
A detail that helps define the character? Great.
A detail that will be important later? Awesome.
A detail for administratively distinguishing between characters? (Sigh) Fine. Shorthand has the virtue of getting to the point.
Half a page of what the already-familiar character is wearing this time? Kill it. Kill it with fire. She likes clothes. Get it. Don’t care. Story now.
I’m with Luke. Apart from useful details, I don’t much care about the physical description of a character. Short and touchy about it? Fine. The only black-haired girl in a country of blondes? May be useful.
Clothes? Only those details that help define the character, please, and not too many of those.
(Granted, ‘too many’ is somewhat dependent on genre. I’m working on a Regency fantasy with a protagonist who can work thread magic and who partners with a dressmaker… Sigh. Given Regency readers’ expectations of costume descriptions, and the protagonist’s lifestyle, I can see many hours of reading Ackermann’s Repository in my near future.)
Just get the corsets right. I have a young relative who is a Costuming Nazi, she yells at the screen when the corsets are from the wrong era for the setting.
Fortunately, it is possible to write an entire Regency romance without ever mentioning corsets. But the readers expect to hear about pelisses, round dresses, walking costumes; sarsnet, jaconet,merino; tippets, bonnets, veils… I can get into quite enough trouble as it is, I’m only thankful the characters leave their clothes on!
Thanks Pam! That was useful information, pretty briefly and concisely delivered. I always wonder if I’m being too stingy or too verbose when it comes to descriptions of characters or settings.
I know I’m bad at including descriptions (after all, I know what everyone looks like) and I also forget smells and sounds.
As a writer vs. as a reader though, I suspect that there may be a difference in perception. I don’t include those things when I write because I don’t notice them when I read, but that may not mean that I don’t *need* them when I read. It may only mean that I don’t notice them. Much.
I recall an earlier posting where Sarah Hoyt mentioned including other senses, particularly smells.
It was a really hot day and the gym had the fans and the AC going full blast. One of the better looking adult women took a break, ‘glowing’ from her level of exercise and the heat. We smiled as the dark-haired, woman in white positioned herself in front of the fan.
“Hey! She’s taking all our air!”, Jeff complained.
“Yeah, so what?” I replied with a smirk. I inhaled deeply. “Can you smell that? Chanel Number 5 and hot sweet sweat.”
Yes, we see the scene, the people in our minds’ eyes. We know them, as we write them.
How much of that gets on the paper/electrons? That why we have to stop occasionally and analyze the story, the character introductions, the scene and action descriptions . . .
I frequently revise them in.
Always remember the point of view! Characters will notice different things.
This kind of thing is why I like to think in terms of the “invisible characters”–the narrator and the listener. Who is telling the story, and to whom is it being told?
The modern conceit is that a story told in third person is being told by nobody, which is why so much modern fiction reads like the owner’s manual for a crockpot.
It’s feels weird when you try it, but I strongly recommend as a thought exercise writing out the story behind the story. Invent a person who would know all the relevant details and someone who could be expected to want to know them. Just jot down a time and a place and two people having a conversation about what happened, then keep that scene in mind when you write.
That scene is just for you–there’s no reason to ever share it with your readers. But I’ve found that it makes it easy to know what details to include and which ones to gloss over, because I know what details that particular storyteller would notice, and which details that particular listener would be interested in.
I’ve heard people talk about distance within 3rd person, that it can be removed as if no one is telling the story, or it can be extremely intimate to the POV character, just still in 3rd person rather than 1st. Everything is still constrained to only what the POV character knows or can see and includes the POV character’s opinions, interpretation of his or her surroundings and assumptions about the motivations of others.
Sometimes I think authors over-do that as well, thinking mostly of romance trends. Ends up inside the POV character’s head so far that everything becomes “telling” about the emotional state with very little showing. And people get lazy because you don’t have to imagine what you’d feel like if someone just snubbed you or the opposite, because there will be three or four paragraphs telling you exactly what you’re supposed to think about it.
Scenes need a setting, but _usually_ not that much. Look at my second example
“. . . sitting across the desk . . .”
“. . . her comp and opened it, it searched automatically for the room screen and connected.”
“. . . the pleasant picture on the wall disappeared, replaced with a graph.”
That’s all the scene needs. Office, ultra modern information age.
Now a historical romance would need a _whole_ lot more. Colors, plushness, what every one was wearing, the correct names for the era and so forth. As Marget Ball said above (brave woman!) the readers expect it.
Invent a person who would know all the relevant details
A century ago, it was common for this invented character to write an introduction to the story, explaining how this adventure came to be written and published. Nowadays, you will find that only when the author is consciously trying to invoke the era of Burroughs and Haggard.
Some old time fans used to try to assemble a ‘biography’ of the ‘Edgar Rice Burroughs’ who appears in these introductions. One ERB was a nephew of John Carter and sometime vacations on Lord Greystoke’s jungle estate; the other lived in California and wrote adventure novels,
That’s why I suggest not sharing the narrator with the reader, because it does seem old fashioned today. But I think it’s a good habit for writers.
I took part on a chain of writers interviewing their favorite Character, and posting it on line, then tapping a couple more writers. It was a fun way to view your own inner vision of the characters, as well as a bit of marketing.
So, I’ve got a story simmering on the slush, and I’m describing my main character through his interactions with other characters, so…
My first stop, after leaving the parking garage, is to head for Arlington Heights. One of my old Marine buddies, Abel Mastone, is paying off a fifteen year mortgage note on a decent two bedroom house around here. I helped him to get the house, found him a real estate agent that was a miracle worker, and found an honest contractor to make sure the whole house was ADA compliant.
I pull into the driveway of the house, and Abel is sitting on the front step, sipping coffee that I know has to smell like engine sump oil. With the exception of one leg resting on the low stone wall in front of the front door, you couldn’t tell that he didn’t have a left leg below his knee and a right leg above the knee from a rag-head IED. Serious weight-lifting habit, even now, which makes him look strange at his usual day job working for one of the studios as a network admin wizard. Major geek, and the way he sees it, he owes me everything. I’d never ask for a damned thing, but he’d give it anyways-from some of his jokes, he was seriously thinking about blowing his own brains out after he came back to the World. The VA was being a dick, physical therapy was not working for him, and not even the hookers would look at him in a wheelchair.
Now? I think he has a girlfriend here this morning, but he doesn’t share his personal life with me most of the time. I had helped him out at the start as a good deed, and I’d still help him out as a good deed today. Paying him for consulting was just icing on the cake. “Hey there, Hawkeye,” laughs, perfect white teeth from implants in a cafe-au-lait face, “what brings you around here today?”
Abel is one of the few guys that can get away with my nickname. “Got a weird one here, need some deep nerdery on some video files.”
“Do tell,” he asks and I recap the entire conversation with Greg in ten minutes. He offers me a cup of his coffee and I take a sip. It only tastes like clean engine sump oil, and he always takes it black. “So, you want me to check to make sure somebody wasn’t messing with the video-hacking, time stamps, that kind of thing.”
“I think Greg has finally sniffed something that is messing with his head,” I sighed. “So, I’m aiming for the low hanging fruit. How soon do you think you can find out either way?”
Abel rubs his fingers of his left hand together as he thinks, and chuckles. “Tuesday afternoon or evening work for you?”
“Perfect,” I smile, and pull out my wallet and count out $50 dollar bills. Abel prefers cash for these jobs, and he is leery about $100 bills.
He takes the small wad of bills, folds them in half, and sticks them in his shirt pocket with the SD cards and memory sticks I gave him. “That is a weird one, no doubt about it.” Then, his face twitches a bit. “That sounds like some kind of hoodoo shit,” he offers, and his Cajun accent appears for a moment out of his carefully trained General American voice.
I groan and Abel chuckles. “Such the skeptic, Ben,” he laughs. “Yea, a lot of the hoodoo shit is for the tourists and the gullible, but there’s some serious shit out there. And, if this is hoodoo shit, you need someone good with hoodoo.”
“Any suggestions?” I ask, sarcastically.
Abel thinks about this for a moment, seriously. “Didn’t you know some witch in the Art District that you needed a consult on?”
I think about this and groan. “Hilda is someone you need when you need scholarly help and to spook people that believe in that kind of thing,” I reply.
“Met her once,” Abel notes after a sip of his coffee. “She’s pretty deep in the White and Light sides, but that kind of thing, you make contacts on all sorts of sides. Worse case, she’ll make you some of her tea.”
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned. Hilda, aka Stephanie Dupree, tended to brew interesting teas, and the last time I had one, I was tripping balls for four hours. Strange woman.
“Hey, leave your car here, take an Uber, and ask,” Abel salutes me with his coffee cup. “At least the parking is free here.”
I pulled out my phone and sent her a text message. “Might as well,” I offered. “I don’t think any of the talent is going to be up before noon on a Monday, short of pouring this on their heads,” and I waved my coffee cup at him.
Abel takes the cup back with exaggerated patience. “Don’t go insulting my coffee,” he laughs and before I can reply, my phone buzzes. I look at the screen and shrug. “That was fast,” he notes.
“Yea, and she wants to see me ASAP,” I look at the screen in confusion. Hilda isn’t known for things like punctuality or anything that makes her move faster than the studied languor she portrays.
“Calling an Uber?” Abel asks, catching a bit of my worry.
“Already booked,” I replied.
Oh . . . Kay.
Your POV character is a nice guy (“Hawkeye” and Ben aren’t definite, but a reasonable assumption). Ex military. That’s it. I think you might want to toss in just a little bit more.
“Hey there, Hawkeye,” laughs, perfect white teeth from implants in a cafe-au-lait face, “what brings my favorite [insert descriptive insult] around here today?”
I’ve got another bit of the character, starting out, and I’ll post that shortly.
Ah, good. Mind you, it’s a good intro of Abel. But as an intro, it left the main character opaque.
I’m describing the main character through his interactions with other characters, and I had a big description of the MC early on. It’s not posting here, I suspect it’s too long.
I know what the tradition is for stories like this, and you don’t get “dark and stormy” nights in June.
Which is why this story starts as I’m pulling into the underground garage of this absolutely gaudy steel-and-glass monstrosity in Beverly Hills on a heating-up Monday morning in June. The Jaguar’s air conditioning is actually nice today, and Gregory Touch might be the rarest thing in LA short of an actual virgin over age of consent-an agent to the stars that has a soul. It might be small, and it’s going to take a lot of work, exercise, protein powder, and happy thoughts for it to become a Real Little Boy, but Greg actually gives several kinds of a damn for the people he works for. One of my first jobs after getting my PI license was figuring out that one of his star talents was being robbed left and right by his mom and his “girlfriend” at the time, and Greg likes to call me in when he needs someone that can be nice and not a doormat.
And, be very naughty as needed. I’ve never disappointed him, and he always pays his bills immediately, on the “before I even leave the building” scale of immediately. Which is why I am cutting him a lot of slack by seeing him at 8 am on a Monday morning.
I get out of the car and pull out my suit jacket from the hanger in the back. It’s the LA basin, and everybody is some kind of character and you’d damn well better figure out pretty quickly which kind you are. After a few failed efforts, I stuck with a good three-piece black suit, creases that my DI could use to shave his head clean with, a clip-on tie that looked like a thousand dollar power tie, and a great button-down shirt. Who am I? I’m the Serious Guy, the one that comes in with his hand-tooled leather Oxford shoes (actually very nice and reasonably priced shoes that I’ve chased people down and kicked their asses in a few times with), never curses, never swears, but brings The Word Of The Man down to the masses. I even have cufflinks-black onyx ones-and a wristwatch the size of a soup can lid.
I pull my briefcase out as well-the classic Zero Halliburton aluminum briefcase in silver, of course-and walk to the elevator. Look at my reflection in the mirror-perfect shave, not a hair out of place despite getting both Mom and Dad’s receding hairline and growing bald spot, bit of a cheerful smile on my face-and you can’t tell that I’ve barely had three hours sleep and breakfast was two protein bars and “forget the water” espresso. All to try and catch one particular starlet for a studio that didn’t want any scandals to happen when her G-rated blockbuster film was to come out in a few weeks.
If it wasn’t for the occasional bursts of excitement, an even dozen starlet girlfriends before I met Chiasa, pretty damn good money, and having alienated most of law enforcement in one way or another in Southern California, I would have tried and appealed not being hired by the LA Sheriff’s Department seven years ago. It’s a company town in LA, and most of the companies are cheap pikers.
Checked the smile again in the brushed metal of the elevator door, and walked confidently through to the office. The receptionist-beautifully decorative and smart as a whip-doesn’t even let me sit down before she says, “Good morning, Mr. Pierce! Mr. Touch wants you to go in right now. Do you need anything?”
“A bottle of water or two?” I ask, cheerfully, and grateful that she didn’t use my full name. Or even my first name, which would have lead to questions and probably all the bad jokes you could imagine.
“Sure thing,” she smiles massively, and I walk back and make the one left and one right turn to get into Greg’s office. I knock on the door and there’s this vague sound of him wanting me to come in, and I do so.
Greg’s “meeting” office, not his “working” office is pure minimalism-stainless steel tubes and black leather seats, frosted glass desk, iMac on the table and the keyboard and mouse on the blotter next to a phone that has enough extensions to run a small Carribean nation, not a single piece of paper or dust anywhere. Which doesn’t describe Greg at all-he’s a string bean of a guy, somehow simultaneously short and thin but chunky and insistent that he isn’t on cocaine or some other substance. Frizzled black hair that would be an afro if he was black but makes him look like a mad scientist, perpetual five-o-clock shadow, and probably the most sloppy dresser I’ve ever seen in clothing that about a thousand dollars per item. He’s finishing a bite of some kind of breakfast burrito and I can smell the serious salsa he’s eating from the doorway. He waves me in and as I close the door, he finishes his bite with a large chug from a bottle of Perrier. “Hey, Eleven!” he grins cheerfully. “How are you doing?”
Once upon a time, Greg had learned about what my MOS was in the Marines-5811, Military Police Occupational Speciality-and he’d always call me Eleven after that. He didn’t have to-he was one of the few people that I’d take it if he called me by my first name-but he knew how much I didn’t like my first name. “Long weekend,” I reply, sitting down in the left-hand chair. “Spent way too much of it chasing the sun, and was hoping to sleep in today. What’s up?”
Something unnerves me as I sit down in the chair and I realize that Greg is confused. I’ve never seen him confused before, not on the scale that the rest of us mere mortals would ever understand. “I’m not sure,” he starts off, slowly. “You know I was out of town for two weeks, right?”
I shrugged. Greg has a working habit that happens in sprints-lots of furious activity for a short period of time, then lots and lots of rest. He also seems to pick up on any of the celebrity ways to try and make the most of his down-time and he’s done some weird things. Nothing illegal, but enough that I’ve had to bail him out of at least one cult. “This time,” he continued, and his tone was of “yea, I’ve done some silly things, but not this time”-”I was on an island in the Pacific, ‘total disconnect’ resort. Two weeks of no Internet, no TV, no radio, nothing but sun, surf, and one big-ass library. Actually was pretty nice, I’ll have to do it again soon. Anyways, I get back home, and they sent me the video for the next Skull Biters video,” and my rolling eyes has to have been audible to him, as he was pulling something up on his iMac. For some reason, Greg loves to be the agent for heavy metal and death metal bands-the darker and nastier and satanic, the better. I had to help clean up after one particular event, and the only reason why the lead of that band didn’t go to jail for biting one of the backstage girls they had after the show was that she bit him first-and actually took a good size chunk out of the guy. “Trust me, you’ll like this.”
He pulled the video up-sound muted, and I’m only shocked that Greg would be the agent for this bunch, an all-male band who looked very effeminate. They were dressed in costumes that were cheerfully tap-dancing on the gender lines and their hair and makeup was perfect for girls. One of them, I swear to God, looked like he was starting to develop a decent set of breasts. Of course, it was the drummer, so weirdness like that was to be expected. “I didn’t think you were into cute J-pop metal bands.”
“I don’t have any kawaii metal bands signed,” Greg corrected me. “Not one. But,” and here he pulls out his tablet and flips through his videos, “watch this.”
Another music video, sound off, and this was more Greg’s taste. Lots of leather, lots of metal, piercings, and every member of the band had a beard that was at least down to their breastbone. One of them, the bassist, looked like he ate kittens raw for taste. I looked at it for a moment, and there was this quiet sort of realization about three minutes in. “So, you’ve got band members that have younger siblings that are pretending to be David Bowie,” I shrug and Greg drops his tablet.
“No, these are both music videos from Skull Biters. The one here,” and he jabs a long, bony finger at the tablet, “was one that they had released before I went on my trip. This one,” and he stabbed at the computer, “came out on Friday. I saw it on the flight home Saturday morning.”
I was confused, and it had to show on my face, as Greg sighed and gave me a bone. “So, I’m thinking ‘prank,’ and somebody’s messing with us, doing those ‘deep fake’ video sorts of things. I call in to the tech people, and guess what they tell me?”
“North Korean hackers with a strange sense of humor?” I take the straight line and Greg sighs.
“I only wish it was that easy. According to them, nobody’s messed with the video. Nobody. And, I pulled up the video from the same song I have on my table,” Greg fiddles with his tablet and his iMac and hits some buttons. “Watch.”
I watch both videos and even to my eyes it was strange. The one on the iMac was of the more…cute?…band and the one on the tablet was of the heavy-metal band. And, it looked like it was a perfect, cut-for-cut and shot-for-shot duplicate of each other, so much so that if one of these was a fake, I couldn’t tell. “Okay, that’s impressive. Have you talked with them yet?”
“Yea, called them in on Sunday. Dietrich,” and here he stabs at the tablet, to a guy that looked like what you got when you mixed a 1%er Hell’s Angel and the sort of guy that the Gestapo hired to beat people to a pulp, “and a few of the other band members came in. This is their promotional photo,” and he flipped things around on his tablet to show me a standard “poised in front of their instruments” photo. “And, this is a photo of them yesterday.”
He flipped to another photo of Greg standing between five…guys? The five band members on the music video were even more on the “female” side of androgyny, clothing and all. Their builds had changed, the drummer was actually developing some actual cleavage, and the rest were starting to look very feminine. But, they all had a family resemblance to the original band members he had pointed out. “Talked with Dietrich…but, he’s calling himself Danya now, even his ID says the same. Paperwork as well here, and they’re just as confused, and they don’t understand why I think I have two bands with the same name working for me.
“So, I started to check all of my other musical acts. It’s only the metal ones, but every single one of them,” and he slaps the table for emphasis on ‘every single one of them’, “that I have records for them here on my tablet and in my head, have changed. Either I’m going completely mental, or something is going on. Something strange.”
I sat there and I had to wonder the same thing. The issue was that Greg might be dipping into his own supply and God knows what that would do to his head. I held a finger up and asked, “Greg, I have to ask. Have you been sampling some of your own products?”
Greg looked at me, offended. “Hey, I watched Scarface, like, fifty times. Never ever sample your own product, I know that. And, I wouldn’t deal in anything that was this nasty to my talent-I’d be the first to get them somewhere to clean up if they did. Besides, most of them are booze and pot fans, not anything harder. Well, except for one guy’s a coffee fanatic…,” and here Greg’s voice trailed off. Then, his voice picks back up energetically. “So, I want to know if I’m going nuts or there’s something going on. And, if there is, what is happening and how in the hell do you fix it?”
“I don’t think I’m qualified to handle the supernatural or acts of God,” I replied slowly after a moment. I swear to God, that’s the first thing that came into my head.
“You’re between gigs, right?” Greg bored in, and wouldn’t let me go.
“Not quite, but I do have some free time,” I realized that I was curious about this as well now. But, I was also wondering if I could stay out of this as well-replace Charlton Heston with Sean Penn, and you have the start of In The Mouth of Madness, Hollywood remix edition.
“A week’s full time, prepaid,” Greg said. “Expenses as usual, even if you find out that this is just me finally going insane.”
I pulled out one of my standard contracts out of the briefcase and filled out the paperwork. Flipped it around to Greg and he filled out the paperwork. “Should have you paid by the time you walk out the front door,” Greg grins. He pulls out from his desk a massive file folder. “All the information I have so far, talent you should talk with, that kind of thing.”
I slipped the folder into my briefcase and start thinking seriously about what I’m going to do next. “I’ll try and get this solved quickly,” I noted.
“As long as you do it right,” Greg shrugs, “I’d rather you billed me for good work than fast work.” Greg in a nutshell right there-prove to him you could do good work, he’d make sure you were paid properly and more. Scam him, and you’d be lucky if the really low end porn studios would even look at you. “Let me know when you find anything out.”
I smile, and wish him a good day as I leave. Before I make to the elevator, my phone buzzes and I pull it out. The banking app confirms that Greg has dropped the first week’s payment in my account. Whatever else, this was going to be interesting.
Okay, rescued it from the span file. Interesting how describing accoutrements can define a character, and by inference, something of the world/situation.
Which is always interesting when talking about characters in the first person perspective.
Got a bit more to throw out-
Hilda lives in a small apartment over her studio, which does triple duty as an art space, a store for the mystically inclined, and a place for her to throw parties that usually keep me busy for a few days running things down to keep people from getting into trouble. She’s popular with quite a few people in the Hollywood set that like to believe that they actually know magic or something, and I’ve never been sure if Hilda is a true believer or just sells her services very well.
From Comely Ave, you can’t see the apartment, but if you go past the front gate, or by the back alley, you can find stairs and that leads up to Hilda’s apartment.
I’m up the stairs and slightly regretting the whole three-piece suit thing as the temperature starts to rise to the usual mid-90s of June in LA. I ring the doorbell a few times, and wait patiently. I know Hilda only locks her doors when she leaves the apartment, but I’ll wait for her to let me in. If I was to just force my way in, she would either curse me, or use one of the several shotguns on the property to make sure I understood that I shouldn’t have entered without asking. The shotgun worries me more.
She lets me in, and I’m wondering if sampling their product has become the new popular thing, as the anorexically thin but limber woman with brown salt-and-pepper hair looks around as she opens the door. “Were you followed?” Hilda asks, and her accent is pure “vere you vollowed?” of bad German movie accents.
“Pretty sure I wasn’t,” I reply and she lets me in and adjusts the white shawl and black tube dress she was wearing. She waves to a table and I pull out one of the chairs for her. She sits down and I sit across from her. A steeping teapot is sitting to my right, and she pours us two cups.
“I’m glad you could be here quickly,” she starts. “Your fate is mingling with things you don’t understand and you need to be warned.”
“Oh?” I asked, eyebrow raised dramatically. I took a sip of the tea and it didn’t smell or taste like anything that I was going to hallucinate after a while. As I’m sipping the tea, she pulls out a carved and lacquered box from under the table and opens it to reveal a silk-wrapped package. She pulls the package out and unwraps it with a sense of ritual, revealing very well-worn tarot cards. “I-,” I started to say, but Hilda holds her hand up for a moment.
“All shall be explained,” she continues, “if you will give me the chance to do so.” She takes out the deck and does a complicated set of shuffles. Considering her dress, there’s no way she could palm a card or false-shuffle, but I keep my eye on her hands as she shuffles. After about a minute of this, she puts the deck in front me, taps her finger on top of the deck, and says, “Draw five cards, place them right to left from you, as they are.”
Clearly you have no problem introducing the cast.
I notice a lot of sliding between present and past tense. Pick one. I recommend past, as it’s more common and easier to read.
I’m working my way through that and fixing things.