Cool Things: Calvin and Hobbes

The other day I mentioned the wondrous sport of Calvinball to a guy just a few years younger than I am and got a blank reaction. It was depressing and enlightening at the same time. My family and I are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes, the classic comic strip by Bill Watterson, but it’s coming up on twenty years since the strip went out of print.

That’s kind of sobering. I know I wanted to learn to read so I didn’t have to bug my older sister to read Calvin and Hobbes to me when the newspaper came each day. Calvin and Hobbes was a classic comic strip rivaled only by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and, just like Peanuts, it offered a lot of cool things crammed into three or four black and white panels a day. So if you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, sit down and I’ll enlighten you! If you’re already a fan, join me in a bit of wistful reminiscing.

The main characters of Watterson’s comic strip are the eponymous Calvin and Hobbes. No, it’s not a comic strip about philosophers and theologians, although Watterson did sometimes ponder the deeper questions in an effort to bring a little class to the mostly practical or even flat and uninteresting “funny” pages. But the wild, hyperactive six year old Calvin and the sardonic, laid back stuffed tiger Hobbes were named for philosophers and theologians, and from the beginning hinted at something different about this little comic.

Many things about Calvin and Hobbes made it cool. Calvin was a wild child and a firebrand, constantly raging at any and every problem in the world around him, no matter how small or trivial. He would assault them with vigor and imagination, displaying a vocabulary light-years beyond most children the age of six, making one wonder how he could consistently get such bad grades in school. In addition to his clever verbal rants, Calvin also approached problems with a great deal of creativity and well applied tools, such as his sled, red wagon and cardboard boxes.

Watterson fearlessly delved into Calvin’s imaginary worlds, showing us Calvin’s many alter egos and the real life circumstances that inspired his flights of fancy with equal whimsy and enthusiasm. He might appear as a dinosaur, a space faring explorer or a hard-boiled detective, inserting the people he knows into whatever role is appropriate at the time (although the school teacher, Ms. Wormwood, was almost always a monstrous space alien.)

Hobbes, part time stuffed animal full time tiger, was an interesting example of this. Calvin finds Hobbes in a “tiger trap” he dug outside his house. Neither of his parents see Hobbes before Calvin drags him in over one shoulder. To most of the cast, Hobbes looks like an ordinary stuffed animal, but to Calvin he’s a living, thinking anthropomorphic tiger who frequently displays more good sense than Calvin does. In one of the clever moves that gave Calvin and Hobbes it’s defining flavor, we’re never really told exactly what Hobbes is. While only Calvin sees him as anything other than a stuffed animal, we frequently see Calvin in situations he couldn’t realistically have gotten into without the help of someone else. And that stuffed tiger is the only other one around…

Calvin lives in a world with varying levels of definition. For example, his parents are never named, and most people he knows have either fist names or last names, never both. Character who threatened that ambiguity, like Calvin’s Uncle Max, were quickly removed. Calvin, it seems, has the potential to be any hyperactive child we meet. Perhaps a warning to those of us who have gotten older and forgotten the days when scientific progress did, indeed, go “boink”.

But to me, the seminal moments in Calvin and Hobbes were always when the Time Fractal Wickets were taken out and they’d play Calvinball. There rules were simple – make it up as you go along and never use the same rule twice. It was a mad, slap-dash sprint through a dozen different sports with the ultimate goal of having fun and pushing your creativity. Just watching them playing it made your creative juices flow better.

Through the course of it’s ten years of publishing (interspersed with sabbaticals by the author), Calvin and Hobbes  introduced us to all sorts of weird and wonderful things. The G.R.O.S.s. club, dedicated to the annoyance of Susie Derkins (the only major character with a first and last name!), dozens of different kinds of weird snowmen (some of which moved around on their own and propagated the species!), and the cardboard box Duplicators and Transmogrifiers. We went up and down hills, around rocks and trees and into bushes while being taken on kinetic meditations on politics, philosophy and human nature. And at the end, we watched our friends sail off into the snow, crisp and clean like a blank sheet of paper. I have no doubt their adventures there were and are just as great as the ones they shared with us.

Watterson was very critical of the relationship between comic artists, newspapers and syndicates, and he felt that as long as the medium remained constrained by their demands it wouldn’t grow and would most likely grow stagnant and die. Two years after the disappearance of Calvin and Hobbes, Pete Abrams started publishing Sluggy Freelance and Illiad joined in with User Friendly just a short time later. As two of the longest running webcomics in existence in many ways they mark the beginning of the end of syndicate/newspaper domination of comics. Fifteen years later, they continue to thrive. Many others have come and gone in that time and, while none have the whimsy or imagination of Calvin and Hobbes, maybe for Bill Watterson it’s enough to have a step in the right direction…

Heat Wave: Flash Point

Helix

“Ortiz’ daughter was named Teresa?” I leaned back in surprise. “Okay, I wasn’t expecting that.”

“What were you expecting then?” Cheryl asked.  “You are the one who wanted to see the file.”

“One of the EMTs who came to the scene was named Herrera.” I tapped the appropriate part of the old draft I had found. Cheryl flipped through the stack of papers to the correct final report. “I talked to him way back when, but I was hoping there might be something more on him in the file. Like whether he had a daughter.”

“But you didn’t realize Ortiz had a daughter, or that her name was Teresa.” Mona didn’t make it a question. “I find it hard to believe both men had daughters named Teresa. But if Ortiz’s daughter is the Teresa here now, under the name Herrera, shouldn’t you recognize her? Eight years is a long time, but you make the case sound like such a big deal…”

“I never met any of the families of the victims.” For which I was privately grateful. “Let’s face it, the Project doesn’t have enough coverage to be an effective first responder and Lethal Injection was spread out across two fairly large states. Mostly, by the time we arrived at the scene the locals had usually taken charge of any family of the victim, and it’s not like we have the extra personnel to assign our own family liaisons with. In fact, we tried not to tell the family anything about our investigations.”

“Which is sad but understandable,” Cheryl said as she ran one finger down the page she was looking at. “Here we are. Javier Herrera, married, three children. Doesn’t look like we dug any deeper than that. We don’t usually look too hard at incidental persons on the scene, so that’s not surprising.” She flipped the papers closed. “Still, Mona’s right, it does seem like a stretch to call it a coincidence that a man with Agent Herrera’s last name was there the day Teresa Ortiz’s father died. Ms. Ortiz would be the right age to be Agent Herrera, too.”

“So, speculation?” I tapped my fingers absently on the tabletop. “Did Javier Herrera take in Teresa Ortiz after her father was murdered? That would explain why Teresa Herrera’s records were sealed.”

“It’s possible, but it would require unusually fast work on the part of the local authorities to get it done before she came of age,” Cheryl said, absently stacking the East/West into a neat pile again. “Unless Mr. Herrera had some kind of pull, which you wouldn’t expect of the typical EMT. If Agent Herrera is Teresa Ortiz, then the sealed records are a real plus for her.”

“How so?” Mona asked.

“In the last year two field agents have turned out to have connections to the past victims of talented criminals,” Cheryl said. “In both cases those agents were immediately taken off of field work due to concerns about their objectivity.”

“But they leave field agents with long working histories with talented criminals on the same case for years,” I muttered.

Mona spared me a sympathetic look. “New question. If Agent Herrera is Teresa Ortiz, why did Senator Dawson spend so much political capitol getting a handpicked agent into the Project when finding out such a simple thing could get her removed from her position?”

That was a great question, and it quickly became apparent that Mona didn’t have the answer. We stared at her for a moment and she blushed a bit. “Maybe there’s just something about her that puts her ahead of the pack?”

“There’s nothing in her HSA record that’s particularly stands out,” Cheryl said. “I mean, she was efficient and had a good record, but nothing that puts her in the top five percent, say.”

“I didn’t realize they ranked people like that,” Mona said.

“I think we’re using the Cheryl O’Hara Snap Judgement ranking system,” I said, reaching over to tug the East/West file away from Cheryl.

She put one hand on top of it to keep it in place. “You haven’t officially signed that out yet. Maybe Herrera came up with a novel approach to catching Circuit?”

“I’ll sign it out as a resource on Open Circuit later, his phone call certainly makes it relevant,” I said. Cheryl’s hand didn’t move so I relented and pulled back. “And Herrera did have the location of Circuit’s warehouse, but I’m not sure that would explain why the Senator pushed so hard to get her into the Project. It was a minor tip, and very recent. This kind of thing has to have been in the works much longer than that tip was around.”

“Maybe the Senator had a new idea to catch Circuit, and he needed someone to help him try it out?” Mona rested her chin in her hand and stared absently at the far wall, sure sign that the wheels were starting to turn at high speed. “But that wouldn’t explain why he’d choose Teresa as his catspaw.”

“No, I think Cheryl was on to something,” I said, slowly cracking my knuckles as I thought about it.

“I was?” Cheryl straightened a bit. “About what? Herrera not being a stand out?”

“Not exactly.” I drummed my fingers again as the idea coalesced. “It’s just that when I first met Agent Herrera she was with Senator Dawson and I wasn’t quite sure how he could stand being around her. She strikes me as a natural born people person, with tons of charisma and presence and she’s better looking to boot. Why would he let himself be overshadowed that way?”

“You’re not really helping us explain why the Senator would want Herrera in the Project,” Mona pointed out.

“That’s just it, what if he didn’t want her in, but she did. What if she was the one looking for any available route into Project Sumter and decided Senator Dawson was the path of least resistance.” I leaned forward and tapped Cheryl’s file. “She’s got a powerful motivation, at the least.”

“So you think she’s here for revenge? A real life Batman, out to fight the talented criminals so they can’t cause other people grief?” Cheryl asked thoughtfully. “It’s possible.”

“But it doesn’t explain how anyone, no matter how motivated, could get Senator Dawson to spend a great deal of political capitol getting them admitted to Project Sumter when the Project is very likely to kick them out as soon as they stumble across the right file. Which we’ve just proved doesn’t take that long.” I opened my mouth to say something but Mona kept going. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the Senator must have thought there was something worthwhile he could get out of the arrangement.”

“I’ve never met Senator Dawson,” Cheryl said. “And I’m not really that familiar with the Senate Committee decisions, since Records only deals with field reports. What does he want to do that having a field agent in the Project could help him accomplish?”

“He could get information that usually isn’t forwarded to the Senate Committee,” I said. “Or keep abreast of developments in cases without being reliant on official Project sources.”

Cheryl’s face made it clear that, whatever she thought of that, it wasn’t very nice. “While I’ll admit that’s something, I’m not sure it’s worth all the effort it took to get Agent Herrera into the Project. Mona makes it sound like it took a lot of work.”

“It did,” Mona said. “I can’t say much beyond that, but it is something Senator Dawson has been working towards for some time. I’ll agree that whatever he might want Herrera in the Project for, it’s probably something more significant than just an inside source.”

Not something I really wanted to think about. The long and the short of it is, a lot of the safeguards that keep talented people like myself safe from persecution and exploitation rely on secrecy. That’s one of the major reasons why, nearly a century and a half after it’s creation, Project Sumter remains a top secret, undisclosed portion of the government. Secrecy is part of our lifeblood and to people like me, who have been raised with the reality of talent since our births, there’s few things more important. Not even our Senate Committee gets to know everything about us. If compromising Project secrecy was just a side benefit of getting Herrera into her current position, how bad was Dawson’s real scheme?

“Maybe we’re thinking of this the wrong way.” Cheryl leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers, tapping her chin with her thumbs. She didn’t have the same level of commitment to secrecy as I did but, as part of the Records department, it was still a major part of her job. While she hadn’t seemed excited about playing politics with the Senator’s hand picked oversight agent when I first asked for the East/West file, now she seemed a little more invested in the idea.

“The Senator’s biggest failed initiative was his proposal to require all talents to register in a database that would list their name, current location and talent.” She glanced at me. “I can mostly guess why you might not like that idea, Helix, but what are the official reasons it got shot down?”

“Budget,” Mona said immediately. “There just aren’t enough resources allocated to the Project to make such a thing feasible, even if it weren’t kept a secret. We barely have the resources to do normal law enforcement and locate and brief new talents that show up. Tracking all the known talents in the country would require us to tripple our staff, at the very least, and there just isn’t enough money for that, never mind enough trained people.”

“There’s also the privacy and other civil rights issues,” I added. “Many members of the Committee were concerned about what might happen to their careers if they were ever associated with a program to monitor people who weren’t guilty of anything more dangerous than being born with unusual potential. Our friends in the Justice department-” Mona suddenly bolted upright and darted out the door. “-had similar concerns.”

There was a brief moment where we just sat there, Cheryl looking stunned while I tried to think of other recent changes in procedure that might be credited to Senator Dawson. “There was a plan a while back to try and get more experienced legal advisors onto the staff, but that failed for reasons that don’t have anything to do with the Senator. In fact, I think that was actually a pretty popular idea with everyone but the lawyers.”

“Right,” Cheryl said, still looking at the conference room’s door. “More importantly, should I be worried about whatever Mona’s up to?”

“Oh, that?” I glanced back in the direction Mona had headed. “Happens all the time.”

“If you say so.” She blew out a breath. “Why didn’t the lawyers like the idea?”

“I think it didn’t pay enough.”

“Naturally.” There was another moment of silence while we contemplated Shakespeare’s famous suggestion to kill all the lawyers, but before I could suggest we look into that as a new policy initiative Mona swept back into the room carrying a small pamphlet that looked vaguely familiar.

“What’s that?” Cheryl asked.

By way of answer Mona spread the pamphlet out on the table. Among other things there was a prominent picture of Senator Dawson smiling at some sort of event and one of those tear-out donation cards. “Senator Dawson brought in a stack of these during his last re-election campaign. There were a bunch of them left in various places around the building, I don’t think anyone took one.”

“He’s from Wisconsin,” I said. “How many people here could even vote for him?”

“I’m not sure that matters to us right now,” Mona replied, skimming over the pamphlet. “I didn’t take one but I did read one, once. Here we are. ‘If elected, the Senator will push for funding to support research into all spheres of medical stem cell treatments, including existing embryonic stem cell lines, adult stem cells and hybridized stem cells.'”

“What’s a hybridized stem cell?” Cheryl and I asked as one.

“It’s a new approach to gene therapy crossed with adult stem cells,” Mona said. “With adult stem cells you grow new organs or some such based on the person’s own genetic code. But if the person you’re treating has some sort of congenital defect, you’re likely to wind up with the same problem all over again. You can’t grow a good heart off bad blueprints, for example. The theory behind hybridization is, you replace whatever the faulty genes are with functional genes from a healthy individual, then grow the new organ.”

“They can’t even get stem cells to grow organs yet, regardless of where they come from,” Cheryl said. “Why push such far flung research?”

“I don’t know.” Mona began folding up the pamphlet again. “But we don’t know much about talents and genetics yet, even after several decades of research. What if all it takes is a hybridized stem cell treatment to create new talents?”

My gut clenched at that idea. “You think the Senator was somehow working towards that?”

“It’s a possibility,” Mona said, putting the pamphlet aside. “But it’s based on a lot of fairly fragile evidences and suppositions. The Senator’s campaign goals. Teresa Ortiz as Agent Herrera. The Project’s current lack of significant data on existing talents, which the Senator has tried to remedy.”

That’s a getman’s life in a nutshell. Make fragile leaps of logic. Astound everyone when you’re right. I knew better than to write her conclusions off, and apparently Cheryl did too, but she also saw something I hadn’t thought of yet. “Why does putting Agent Herrera in the Project help Senator Dawson develop hybridized stem cells?”

“Easy,” Mona said. “We can’t maintain a database on all known talents, but criminal talents are different. They’re imprisoned and monitored just like any other criminal. And one of the things we do is take a DNA sample from each talented criminal we arrest.”

“And then, whenever there’s a crime involving a specific kind of talent you compare forensic evidence found at the scene against known criminal talents of the same type. I’ve seen some of those Forensics reports. Records, remember?” Cheryl pointed at herself in case we weren’t sure what she meant. “I’m not an expert on genetics, but I don’t see how those DNA records might help the Senator with his hybridized stem cell schemes, assuming he even has any. There’s only a few hundred criminal talents on record, and half of them probably don’t have DNA on record, since they’d have been active before the technology for it existed. That leaves maybe two or three examples of any given talent for study. Scientists need hundreds of examples to get an accurate picture of gene structures, don’t they?”

“A ambitious field agent with a chip on her shoulder would push aggressively to arrest more criminals,” Mona said, ticking the points on her fingers. “We’ve already seen that in Agent Herrera’s push to arrest Circuit. More criminal talent records results in a larger statistical sample. It also makes it easier and easier to make the case that a comprehensive talent database would save us effort in investigating and prosecuting talented crime.”

“That’s nonsense. There’s no evidence that Circuit was ever even contacted by-”

“Ladies!” I waved my hands for their attention. “I don’t think we’re going to get any farther on just speculation. It’s time to go out and look for some evidence.”

I started to get up from my chair but Mona waved me back down. “Hold on. Where are you going?”

“Um… to think about how to get some evidence?”

She shook her head sadly. “You know, Sanders may have been the one to recruit you into helping manage Herrera, but he’s not the only one Voorman has working on this.”

“I appreciate that, Mona,” I said. “But if anyone has the connections to run down what happened to Teresa Ortiz after her father died, it’s San-”

“Me,” Cheryl said. When we turned to give her that look surprised people always seem to give, she just shrugged. “If the Senator is trying to pull something weird with the Project records I don’t want to be involved in it. But,” she held up a finger to emphasize her point, “if there is no connection between the two Teresas then your whole line of reasoning goes from sketchy to worthless, and I’m out. You can get Sanders to run down the information you need in the future.”

I glanced at Mona, since I wasn’t part of the inner circle in this whole unofficial probe into Herrera’s past it would be better to let it be her call. She said, “That sounds fair. And with the Firestarter case still open and who knows what else likely to wind up on our plates in the near future, what with Circuit still at large and two new talents in town, who knows how much free time Sanders will have in the near future. If you want to tackle tracking down what happened to Teresa Ortiz I don’t see any reason to say no.”

“Okay, with that settled…” I pointed at Mona. “There is something you could look in to. You majored in Biology in college, right?”

“Yes…” She could clearly see where this was going.

“In your spare time, see if there’s anything to that wild stem cell idea. If someone’s looked into it and proved it can’t be done, then that’s probably not the Senator’s actual goal here. Otherwise, try and figure out what other things he might be doing to push that idea while Herrera’s doing her thing here.” I got to my feet and started towards the door, then paused and glanced back at the two of them. “And no one mention this to Sanders just yet. I’ll break it to him.”

Cheryl raised an eyebrow. “You?”

“Me.” I sighed. “East/West was a nasty case for everyone. But of all of us, here, it was probably worst for him. He should find out it’s coming back to haunt him from someone who was there.”

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Fiction Index

Character Changes

To recap – we’re talking about building characters. Not the nuts and bolts part of building characters, where you work out their relationship with their parents, where they were born, where they went to school and whether they enjoyed being in marching band. We’re talking about the action, the plot, the drama – how your character reacts to his story and what happens as a result. In other words, what makes the difference between a character who just takes up word count and a character who sticks in your mind for years to come.

First off, we looked at why your character probably shouldn’t want anything to do with the problems that first face them. (Check the comments for the full story on that.)

Then we looked at the art of believable decision-making. Discussing decisions brought us to the edge of this week’s topic: Character growth.

Before we begin, let me note that character growth is of varying levels of importance to different kinds of writers. Authors of novels and screenplays need to have character development if story is their primary goal. On the other hand, in many TV shows, comic strips and even, to a lesser extent, comic books, status quo is god and character development is actually something to be avoided. That said, I feel that this is just one of the weaknesses of those latter mediums in the modern era, so I’m going to assume that if you want to be one of those status-quo-cultists, you’ve stopped reading this already.

As I mentioned last week, the people we know are changing all the time, so we expect the people we see in fiction to be doing the same. Since we only see fictional characters in the context of their stories, they need to change visibly within those stories or they don’t seem believable. (Note that your story may take place over a very short period of time, and you may have to work at making that change seem believable. It’s important to think about these aspects of the story while it’s still in the planning stages.)

So what kind of changes can your characters make? Well, they might make a totally circumstantial change – going from rich to poor, or sick to healthy. They might make changes in relationships, making peace with a person they had previously been at odds with or, perhaps most commonly in modern fiction, falling in love with someone they met on the way. And finally, they might make a moral change, choosing to stop or start doing something because it is the right thing to do, or rejecting previously held standards as confining or misplaced. The best characters will make changes of all three types, although not necessarily of the same magnitude.

For example, a man might wreck a car, make up with his girlfriend while in the hospital and decide to give up smoking so he can take care of himself better (and make saving up for a new car easier). You don’t always have to tie the changes together like that, but there’s nothing wrong with it either.

What’s really important in showing changes is to make it clear that your character’s decisions throughout the story have led up to these changes. In the above example, maybe the man’s constantly avoiding talking out his differences with his girlfriend have put him under so much stress he wasn’t paying attention while he was driving. His insistence on smoking might be one source of tension between the two or maybe they’re both smokers and he’s resisted giving it up so she wouldn’t feel awkward when they were together.

This week’s example is Kuzco, the wacky narcissistic emperor from Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, a character who showed significant growth and change, even if it wasn’t all in the most believable of ways (how did Kronk and Yzma get back before Pacha and Kuzco?)

When the Emperor gets turned into a llama he’s in real trouble, particularly with his old adviser trying to make sure he doesn’t get back to normal. And it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to drag himself through the jungle all on his own. Enter Pacha. He’s got some disagreements with Kuzco, and a generally better view on life, but he’ll let himself be bribed into leading the Emperor back home. It’ll take a number of double crosses and at least one blatant plot hole to get him there, but by the end of the journey Kuzco’s attitude has improved for the better and the differences between Kuzco and Pacha are mostly resolved. Now if only extract of llama could be gotten from the neighborhood parenting supply store…

A challenge for you this week is to go back and reread (or rewatch) one of your favorite stories and write down all the characters who you feel changed, how they changed and what contributed. Once you’re done, you should have a better idea what kind of stories you want to tell about your own characters.

Cool Things: Columbo

Lt. Frank Columbo, played by Peter Falk, was the police detective with no first name. He solved cases involving the cunning, educated and frequently wealthy people of the LA upper class. It’s been about ten years since the last mystery featuring the rumbled, occasionally mumbling, always absentminded police detective aired on ABC. Some people these days may never have heard about him, or be familiar with how his stories typically unfold.

When you sit down to the typical murder mystery you meet the protagonist, who is typically a detective of some sort, be it police officer or hired investigator, the victim (sometimes) and the suspects. The murder may have occurred already, or maybe you’re given some time to watch the characters in their natural environment. Regardless, a corpse turns up and we watch the detective and his associates gather clues, piece them together, interview suspects and eventually pin the crime on someone (usually).

The typical episode of Columbo, on the other hand, opens with the careful preparations of the murderer. We know who he is and we see most of what he does to commit his crime and create an alibi. For the most part we don’t see Columbo until ten or fifteen minutes into the show. Then he arrives on the scene, spends approximately fifteen seconds looking around and notices it. That one detail. The one thing the murderer didn’t think of, or forgot in their hurry. And from that moment, Columbo knows, just as well as we do, who will go to jail at the end of the story. He just needs to prove it.

What follows is a series of escelating confrontations between Columbo and his prime suspect. Columbo conducts seemingly wandering interviews where he’ll ask a series of seemingly trivial questions and usually gets distracted by something at least once, and then start to leave. As the murderer begins to relax he “remembers” to ask the most significant question of the scene. At first his strange anecdotes about family members, open eyed wonder at the accomplishments of his victims and suspects and absentmindedness (whether real or affected) puts the suspect at ease, but it eventually becomes clear that Columbo is getting close to the truth. The dance gets more complex as people begin using social connections against him, which Columbo frequently counters with his good reputation on the police force and high esteem in the eyes of his captain, allowing him to close the case and put his suspect in jail.

So what made Columbo cool?

Well, a lot of things. Probably the biggest was his incredible ability to challenge those who thought they were his betters with humor, humility and grace. He never claims to be a man of great learning, and he’s frequently impressed with the many worthwhile accomplishments of the people he must eventually send to jail. He takes the time to learn from them and learn about them. And he does it all with a friendly demeanor.

Not that he’s harmless. Far from it. Columbo’s adversaries quickly come to dread his constant appearances, asking just a few more questions in the hope that they can help him sort out those nagging little details that he can’t get quite straight. The same years of experience that let him spot a single out of place detail in a busy murder scene help him sift through the details of a death and find the parts of the story that don’t line up quite right. And the same mind that goes to great lengths to learn more about the people he meets goes to great lengths to learn more about the murders he’s come to unravel.

Underneath his friendliness and strange habits is a cop who knows a great deal about how the world works, who has the cunning to set traps and force people to give up more and more evidence he can use and who won’t let the fact that a person is likable or even pitiable stop him from reminding them of the importance of justice.

Yet in contrast to the many hard-boiled detectives, Columbo remains friendly, good natured and pleasant. He’s mastered his job, it hasn’t mastered him.

Peter Falk was a great actor, and Columbo is one of his best loved characters. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching them at work, I highly suggest you check them out.

Heat Wave: Liquid Fire

Helix

“Circuit?” Nothing but silence met me on the line, and I slammed the handset into it’s cradle. “I’m so glad I could waste ten minutes of my life on that.”

At the next desk over, Sanders hung up another phone, shaking his head in disbelief. “He’s been on the books nine years and we never had a hint he was so… crazy.”

“He’s good, that’s for sure.” I leaned back in my chair and ran my fingers through my hair, trying to gather my thoughts. Just listening to Circuit rave seemed to have driven them all out of my head. “Never shown his hand if he could help it. What scares me is that he apparently found people who agree with him. There ought to be some rule limiting how many cranks of a given type there can be.”

“You can’t legislated what people think, Helix,” Herrera said.

I swiveled in my chair so I could see the desk behind me, where she was sitting. “I’m talking about laws of nature and probability here. I mean really, did you hear that guy? And there are people who are willing to help him out?”

“Doesn’t mean they like the ideology.” Herrera pushed her chair out from the desk and stretched back, then stood up. I blinked and told myself to focus. I took small comfort from seeing several other men in the room do the same thing out of the corner of my eye. “They may think there’s something in it for them, or maybe they’re just natural followers, and an authoritarian personality can naturally dominate them. That is basically what Circuit said he plans to do with the whole nation, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know if I like to give credibility to anything Circuit says, but you may have a point.” I rubbed my eyes and stifled a yawn, then shoved myself up out of my chair. “Someone should find our analyst and have him look over Circuit’s activities since he became a known element, look at them from the perspective of an organized anti-government idealist rather than a simple miscreant.”

“In the mean time,” Sanders said with a smile, “it sounds like your team is going to need to get better acquainted with the Firestarter situation. That’s still my case, at least until Agents Verger and Massif can get back from their last assignment. Agent Herrera, would you like me to give you a quick briefing on where that case stands?”

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “I was on the Firestarter case not four days ago. I haven’t heard about any big breaks in it, so I think I can get our team up to date.”

“Maybe,” Herrera said. “But I’d like you to focus on trying to figure out what Circuit is likely to do next, assuming he actually does plan to try and stop the Enchanter on his own. I’ll get Pritchard and Agent Sanders can bring us up to date.”

Sanders’ expression slipped just a tad, but he quickly recovered and said, “That sounds like a good idea. Meet me in my office in ten minutes?”

“If I can find my analyst that quickly.” Herrera turned and glanced around the room, which currently included the three of us, half a dozen analysts and one or two people who I’d guess were from Forensics or Records. “Has anyone seen Agent Mosburger recently?”

“The new guy?” One of the analysts asked. “I think I saw him headed towards Darryl’s office half an hour ago.”

Herrera headed off that way while Sanders headed to the elevator, presumably to get back to his office, leaving me at loose ends. It was tempting to go home and get some sleep, leaving the problem of trying to anticipate Circuit for later. But I had plans for the next morning, which was my day off, and I didn’t want to leave too many loose ends lying around the office, so I thought it would be a good idea to go and see if we had ever actually gotten anything on the phone trace we were running on Circuit’s call.

That kind of work is handled by a special part of the forensics team, so I headed towards the elevator. I was waiting for it to arrive when Mona caught up to me.

“Come on,” she said. “You need to see something.”

If it was Sanders or Herrera, or even Jack, I might have questioned that, but Mona was my field analyst for two and a half years and in all that time, when she’s said I should see something, it always proved to be something I needed to see. I didn’t think that had changed in the few days since I’d been reassigned, so I followed her back up the hallway to a small briefing room in the corner of the building. To my surprise Cheryl was already there, seated at the table with a stack of paper, clipped and stapled into about a dozen separate chunks, in front of her.

Mona closed the door behind us as I sat down at the table. “I take it this is about the East/West file?”

“You got me curious so I pulled it up, but I’m not really sure what you wanted it for,” Cheryl said, thumbing the corner of the stack of papers. “I gave it a quick glance over before I signed for it and came down here, but I didn’t see anything that seemed to have bearing on active cases. Unless the fact that it involved Open Circuit is enough to make it relevant.”

“Actually,” I said, “since he just mentioned it to me a few minutes ago, it might.”

“Wait.” Mona held up a hand as she sat down, looking almost as if she was waiting to be called on in class. “Before we go any farther, does anyone want to tell me about the East/West file? Is it an operation file, a research file, a file on a specific talent…?”

“An operation file,” I said. “Operation East/West refers to the manhunt for a talent known as Lethal Injection.”

“And how does Open Circuit come into that?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Darryl never mentioned this case to you at all?”

“Why would Darryl mention a case she’s not cleared for to her?” Cheryl asked, clearly a little scandalized at the idea that someone would break with procedure like that.

I tried not to look impatient. “It was a significant case in recent history, as well as the first case I worked on. It’s when I met Darryl and Sanders, in fact. And as so many people have pointed out recently, I’ve spent a large portion of my time with Project Sumter working on one thing or another that has Circuit as it’s root cause. That might have made East/West relevant to my analysts at some point, don’t you think?”

“If it did, no one ever mentioned it to me around the office,” Mona answered. “And we don’t bring work home. Darryl’s too much of a perfectionist to ever be able to put it down if he did, and you know I’d just feel insecure about whatever calls I’d made on a case during the day and spend all my time on the phone changing my mind. It’s much simpler to just police each other and never let work in the door.”

“Reasonable,” I said. “And East/West isn’t exactly the kind of thing that comes up in casual conversation. It’s the only case in my time with the Project where we actually went to Condition One.”

“I saw that,” Cheryl said, picking up the top stack of paper and flipping a few pages. “In fact, going to Condition One was one of the first actions taken on the case. But there’s no mention in here of what it means, and I didn’t have a time to look it up.”

“Condition One is when the Project goes to battle stations,” Mona explained. “It’s kind of like a state of emergency. I don’t think it’s been used all that often, though you’re in a better position to know that kind of thing than us. Basically, I think the Project only moves to Condition One when they know for a fact that a talent has used their abilities to kill someone.”

Cheryl bit her lip. “Yeah, I can see that being a cause for alarm for a bunch of reasons. It’s tough to keep quiet, it requires particular care in handling arrest and prosecution and then there’s the family of the victim to consider…”

“Victim?” I shook my head. “You misunderstand. Condition One can be called whenever a talent directly causes a fatality, whether they used their ability maliciously or in self defense, accidentally or intentionally. We don’t go to Condition One every time we find an incident like that, but we could.”

“Really?” Cheryl looked a bit surprised. “That seems like awfully vague. Not that vague is anything new for the Project. But, even assuming it’s intended for containment of fatal incidents where talents are involved, what does it actually mean?”

Mona shrugged. “That part is fairly straight forward, really. First off it involves taking all field agents off their current assignments and reassigning them to working on the fatal incident, usually as containment or to follow up leads that would normally be left to local law enforcement or associated federal agencies, to cut down on the bureaucracy involved.”

“I’m not entirely sure it helps there,” I said. “Since the Project is hardly the paragon of red tape cutting.”

“Secondly,” Mona ignored my interruption, “while we’re under condition one the rules about civilian talents staying out of Project business are lifted.”

Cheryl’s eyes widened. “You mean we don’t enforce the anti-vigilantism rules under Condition One?”

“It’s worse,” Mona replied. “Talents with criminal records can also contribute to solving the case, with the possibility of receiving a reduced sentence or even a pardon for previous actions.”

“That’s how Circuit’s name wound up in the East/West file,” I said. “He got wind of what was going down and spent some time looking for Lethal Injection himself. In fact, as he has so recently reminded me, he gave us the tip that actually led us to Injection.”

“I suppose he wasn’t interested in the pardon then?” Cheryl asked.

“No, he obviously wasn’t, although we did hold off on actively trying to chase him down until he did something illegal again.” I shook my head. “Circuit’s involvement with East/West wasn’t what I wanted to look into when I asked about the file, though it’s certainly become more important in the last hour or so.”

Cheryl restacked her papers and said, “Well, if it’s not about Circuit, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Condition One, what were you wanting to know?”

“Actually, it’s about one of Lethal Injection’s victims.” I fished out the handwritten piece of paper I had found while rummaging through my desk. “I don’t have the name, but I do have the date we were on the scene. 30 May.”

“Hm…” Cheryl flipped through the various piles of paper with a practiced eye. “First victim, Nolan Richards, found dead on the third of the month. Second victim, Hernando Ortiz, killed May 30th.” She pulled out the relevant bundle of reports and went through them, then stopped on one page and turned pale.

“Cheryl?” Mona leaned forward, concern evident on her face. “Are you alright?”

She turned the page with a shaking hand and said, “There were pictures, that’s all.”

Which I should have thought of. While there’s probably no such thing as a good first case for someone in law enforcement, Lethal Injection had proven to be a very, very bad one. “Sorry, should have warned you.”

“Warned her of what?”

“How bad it would be.” I rubbed my forehead. Even eight years later, thinking about that time was tough. “Lethal Injection was more than just some guy who caused a fatal accident with his talent, or a crook who let things get out of hand during a job. He was a honest to goodness, talent wielding serial killer.”

“No wonder Darryl never told me about him,” Mona said in a hushed tone. Serial killers are something no one in the Project likes to think about, for all the usual reasons plus the added difficulties of containing and managing the existence of the talents involved in that kind of a mess. “What was his talent?”

“Waterworks,” Cheryl answered. “Manipulation of the viscosity of liquids. Not exactly a dangerous talent.”

“Not on the face of it,” I said. “But when you find ways to get toxins and acids into highly concentrated liquids that you roll up into little beads? That’s what happened to Ortiz. Injection tossed little balls of sulfuric and hydrochloric acids on him until they either caused enough damage to kill him or the shock did him in.”

“Not to mention that blood is a liquid,” Mona added.

“He figured that out, too,” I said bitterly. “Eventually.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence after that. Then Cheryl started skimming the case file again. “Ortiz was a postal worker, doesn’t say what part of the postal service he worked in. Worked for the USPS ten years, nothing remarkable about his record. Thirty-nine years old at time of death. Not in financial trouble. Good looking man, when he was alive.”

I resisted the urge to point out that that wasn’t exactly an appropriate thing to say about a dead man. Cheryl turned over the page and continued reading. “He was a widower, doesn’t say how his wife died. They had one daughter, sixteen years old at the time, who found the body.” Mona made a little pained noise at that, but didn’t say anything. Cheryl paused for a moment, and at first I thought she was just waiting to see if Mona would say anything else. But then she looked up at me and said, “The daughter’s name was Teresa.”

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Fiction Index

Decision Points

So, what do you do when you have a character who wants nothing to do with what’s going on in your story?

Well, you have to persuade them to change their minds. And to do that, you have to understand how to show believable decisions in fiction.

Step One is to come to grips with the fact that reality is frequently unbelievable. Many things that you do in your day to day life are going to look flat out unbelievable if they’re used in fiction. A case in point, every day you make decisions, both significant and insignificant, with little or no thought, deliberation or outside input. You can eat toast with peanut butter every morning for the rest of your life for no reason more significant than it’s a fast and tasty morning meal.

However, the Law of Conservation of Detail says that everything you show your character doing must be important to them. If your character eats toast and peanut butter every morning, it had better be because they love peanut butter. In fact, whenever they eat it there had better be something peanut butter based around, and they should vocally proclaim the superiority of peanut butter to anyone around. (A simple enough task for anyone who’s ever tasted it.)

Second, you need to remember the Law of Cause and Effect (sadly without a TV Tropes page) – everything must happen for a reason, and your reader has to be given a chance to see what the reasons are. That takes a lot of different forms, but for the purposes of character building, it means that whenever your character makes a decision the reader has to know why.

You probably make a dozen decisions every day without any kind of prompting or ever stopping to reflect on it or explain yourself to anyone, so it can be easy to slip into the habit of writing characters who just do something on the spur of the moment. But in order for your characters to be understandable and believable, you need to do something that, on the face of it, may seem unbelievable: You’ll need to show what leads up to every decision your character makes. (And remember, Conservation of Detail says every decision you show them making had better be important.)

That can take several different forms. Characters can talk over decisions before they make them. That’s probably most suited for major decisions that are going to impact a large portion of your cast. On the other hand, a character can take some simple action that illustrates the reason for his decision. For example, if the protagonist decides to take his group of friends to a specific restaurant for dinner, he glance around for the favorite uncle who manages the eatery.

There are other, more subtle ways of showing how the character’s decisions are influenced. Other characters might say things that later prompt the protagonist to action, things a character reads, hears on TV or on the Internet might have the same effect.

The most important part of believable decision making is making sure that the cause is in proportion to the effect. If all the character is trying to decide is where to go for dinner, a simple prompt, like knowing someone who owns a restaurant, is all that is needed. However, we’ve established that the best characters are often very unhappy with the situation they find themselves in, so the causes that lead them to accept and engage in that situation have to be much more significant.

The third part of believable characters is significant change to the character over the course of the story. If you’re sharp, you’ve already seen how these two tie together. While some changes are subconscious and gradual, sooner or later, when you realize how you’ve been changing, you have to decide if you want to try and go back to the way you are. This is sometimes called a “watershed moment”.

The term watershed refers to the way many small tributaries can join together and create a large stream or river. In the same way, characters face a significant moment of decision, usually just before the climax of a story. When your character reaches that moment of decision, all the influences that have put and kept your protagonist in their uncomfortable situation combine with all the things they have seen and heard along the way and we see the character choose to go from what they were to something new and better (or, in some cases, worse.)

As you build a character, it’s important to know what that watershed moment is, and how you want your character to decide it. And then you must gently push them toward that outcome. Not in a constant, steady advance, because that’s not realistic either. But when the time for the big decision comes, your readers will not find it believable unless you’ve shown them how it was arrived at.

This week’s example is Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible. We first get a look into Bob’s head as he struggles with his forced retirement from hero work. When he meets with Frozone, we’re told it’s because they know each other from the old days. When Bob gets fired we’re shown (literally) that it’s because he can’t stand a boss who won’t let him help people. When he’s offered the opportunity to do clandestine hero work, we see him gazing at his memorabilia before accepting. Bob’s watershed comes when, after nearly loosing his family, he comes to accept that they need to be present in all of his life, even his hero work.

So why does your character need to make a big decision at all? Well, that’s because it promotes something called character development. Put more simply, real people change over time. The only time we have to get to know your characters is in the context of the story or stories you tell about them. So, in order for your characters to be believable, they have to change in the course of their story.

Decisions and changes are closely related, so we’ve covered some of that ground already. But next week we’ll look more closely at what kind of changes we tend to expect, consciously or subconsciously, of a character.

So You Want To Be A Sidekick…

We’ve discussed some of the generic things to keep in mind when experimenting with life as a bit player in a comic book. Ironically, it’s always much more dangerous to be a bit player in that kind of story, because the main characters, in spite of being in dangerous situations all the time, are equipped with plot armor that is likely to keep them alive through the entire story. So it might be a wise move to increase your overall importance to the narrative, if for no other reason than to help you keep your head on your shoulders.

Still, sidekicking is a tricky business. If done too well, you could wind up being the hero of your own series, which is great except it’s much more trying and comes with much less in the way of returns (see point #3 on the Minor Comic Book Characters list.) If done poorly you could wind up being the little guy in the next Batman and Robin clone. And the world honestly doesn’t need another Robin.

So what are some things to keep in mind?

  1. Do some research. If you’re given an option in which hero you work with* try and work with someone who’s archenemy isn’t a natural foil for you. For example, if you have hydrokinetic powers, turn down the offer from the guy who’s frenimies with the lighting mage. Sure, you’re not going to be as cool as the hero but there’s no reason to make things harder on yourself every time you encounter his archnemesis.
  2. On a similar note, diversify. Don’t use the same kind of power as your hero. That way, when an EMP bomb knocks out your hero’s power armor suit you’ll be able to drag them to safety with your telekinesis, rather than being just as stuck as he is.
  3. If someone you’re about to bring to justice tells you they’re going to reveal your hero’s dark past to you, don’t stop and listen to them. Punch them in the face and throw them in the paddy-wagon, then ask your hero if there’s anything you should know about.
  4. You and your hero will be shipped, regardless of age, gender, species or personal preferences. Get used to it, or find a different job.
  5. Keep in mind that heroing is an all ages, all genders occupation, and thus so is sidekicking. Even if you’re getting up there, keep in mind that Alfred was just as much Batman’s sidekick as Robin was. And if you ask me, he did a much better job.
  6. That said, as a sidekick, you have certain obligations to your hero. Food preparation, chauffeur services and psychological counseling are not usually among them, at least not until you and the hero have had a long and mutually beneficial relationship. Know how to set boundaries. And generally, it’s better to try and keep your secret identities as separate as possible. Unless, of course, you are the Incredibles.
  7. Work out an understanding of what your hero/sidekick dynamic will be ahead of time.  If he’s expecting an Arthur Hastings it’s a good idea to mention that you’re actually a James Hathaway, and vice versa.
  8. While some people are sidekicks for life, it’s actually not the most common way for things to go. People change and sometimes retire or pass on, at least temporarily. It’s important that you have a plan for the future, discuss it with your employer** and take steps to fulfill it even while still a sidekick.
  9. Do your legwork. In all the rushing around from one crisis to another, heroes can’t always stay on top of all the technological, social and political trends in the world. While it’s not glamorous, keeping up with these details while the hero focuses on his archenemies lets you be helpful to your hero and buffs your plot armor to help you stay one step ahead of the bus.

While points one and two on the Minor Characters list still apply to you, to all that it’s important to add that you should avoid dating your boss’s children. The incredible amount of danger you will be in on a regular basis is bad enough, adding all the relationship baggage to it will be a lethal mix.

I hope this advice proves useful to you when you develop superpowers and take up the cape. Superhero Sidekicking can be a fun, exciting and fulfilling career choice, and if these tips help you make the most of it then I’m happy to have provided them. Just drop me a line and let me know how they worked out for you.

And maybe how I could get some of those superpowers myself…

 

*And what hero worth his salt wouldn’t give you an option?

**Unless your plans involve a turn to villainy.

Heat Wave: Short Fuses

Circuit

A rush of garbled voices on the other end of the line met my announcement. I heard the unmistakeable sound of someone putting his hand over a handset and they became completely unintelligible, but I didn’t really need to hear much of what they were saying to guess the content. It probably boiled down to everyone asking, “How did we manage to miss that?”

“Helix.” I said, in a normal tone. The babble continued, so I raised my voice a bit and repeated myself. I had to repeat the process twice more until the voices quieted down.

A moment later, Helix’s voice came through clearly, saying, “What do you get out of doing our job, Circuit?”

“A lot of things, Helix,” I said, trying, and mostly failing, not to grin at his confusion. Even if he wasn’t there to see it, a sloppy habit is a sloppy habit. “The three most significant benefits are these. I keep the public blissfully ignorant of talents, a situation that benefits me just as much as you. I keep the Enchanter from gathering other people to his cause. And I do a little something to convince you that I’m not the villain you think I am.”

“Not a villain?” Helix scoffed, which is something you don’t hear much any more. “Not a villain? Have you forgotten what happened in Morocco already?”

“Do not-” I slammed the heel of my hand down on the console in frustration. I knew that was going to come up sooner or latter, but somehow it still managed to surprise and irritate me. Heavy Water was staring at me from the next chair over and I waved him back to checking his gear, then turned the motion into a general shaking to get the tingling out of my fingers.

Helix remained silent through the whole process, whether startled by my outburst or stewing as he waited for a real response I couldn’t tell. After a second or two, with my temper mostly under control, I said, with diction as careful and clear as I could make it, “Do not blame me for Morocco. What happened there was in total disregard of my express orders. Yes, the funding came from me but it was not properly used.”

Still irritated, I got up and paced to the back of the van, a journey of about two steps, then back to my seat, and repeated the process, nearly making myself dizzy as I went on. “Morocco was a mistake and I will not repeat it. But I saw what it was and I closed it down. I did, not you. Just like I did with Lethal Injection and like I’m doing right now, with the Enchanter.”

“All you managed to do in those cases was make bigger messes for us to clean up.”

“I stopped what was wrong, Helix. I don’t think even you will argue with that. The fact that my organization does not have the resources yours does in terms of containment and cover up does not change the fact that something needed to be done.”

There was a long pause and I leaned against the back doors of the van, trying to give my simmering annoyance a chance to cool by wondering what Helix was doing. Massaging his temples? Rubbing his forehead? Throwing paperclips at the other members of his team?

Unfortunately, I kept coming back to the little issue of his being completely correct. A couple of years ago I had tried farming money raising activities out to certain elements in Africa. Unfortunately, I hadn’t ever seen any return on that investment and I’d found my name and organizational weight being thrown around ways I never even dreamed of.

I shut that operation down. Permanently. Apparently Helix got stuck cleaning up afterward. I should have expected that, really, because who else would they send?

“I apologize for the inconvenience I’ve caused, Helix, but I do admire your capacity to deal with it. That’s one of the reasons I’m offering you my help this time.”

“Help?” Helix’s voice rose to a shout. “Is that what you call it? Circuit, I don’t care if you were outside of US jurisdiction, you still provided the funding, the training and the organization to let those people do what they did. That makes you responsible for what they did. The fact that you’re sorry about it doesn’t mean you’re not scum.”

“Scum?” My voice dropped down until it was barely a murmur. Heavy glanced up with a worried look and began shutting off the equipment at the work stations, which was probably a smart move.

“Do you know the difference between the two of us and people like the Enchanter, my late, unlamented associates in Morocco or even the Senator who runs your Project?”

Helix matched my icy quiet with an equally dry tone. “Enlighten me.”

“We do something, you and I. By any objective standard, the bandying about of words that passes for modern politics is as superfluous to society as the brutality of a dozen street thugs in the Third World. Enchanter and anarchists like him see the politicians and the thugs and they think they’re the problem, when they’re actually a symptom. The Enchanter wants to burn down modern society and replace it with the basest barbarism because they think that will make them free. What they don’t realize is that all it will do is make the politicians and the thugs swap places. But you and I, we know the real problem, and we’re doing something about it.”

“I have a newsflash for you, Circuit. If you think the problem is that there’s too many thugs out there sucking air, then we definitely aren’t dealing with the same problem. In fact, I’m not sure we’re even in the same zip code.”

Even though I was leaning against the back door of the van, far from most of the electrical wires in the vehicle, I could still feel the current moving through them, balancing potentials. There was a beauty and elegance to the simplistic focus of electrons moving through wires that I have always loved. It’s a trait Helix shares with electricity and, I think, one of the reasons why I’ve never taken his constant interference in my work personally. He can’t not do his job any more than negative charges can seek the positive.

But there’s a rhythm and pattern that even the simplest of computers brings to that single-minded electronic drive. It’s hypnotic, at times, and soothing at others. And it has a simple lesson to teach the attentive. “The key is control.

“In olden times, people had self control. The States never could have united if their leaders didn’t realize that giving up a few of their prerogatives to form mutually binding agreements would result in greater power, a power needed to gain any meaningful freedom from Britain. Back then, in a way, each man was a tyrant in and of himself, ruling his life with an iron fist so that the excesses that would prevent him from living meaningfully would be controlled.”

“So, what? Are you calling yourself a founding father?”

“Hardly.” I was distantly aware that Helix was trying to make fun of me, but I refused to rise to the bait. For one thing, it would do a lot to undermine my point. “The world you and I live in is nothing like theirs. People don’t learn to control themselves anymore, and they don’t believe in building anything. Instead of useful work we get empty protest, noble ideas are replaced with vapid “dialog” and self restraint is belittled while anarchy and indulgence are the height of culture. All the while the handful of people who do anything meaningful are expected to carry the burden of providing for everyone else.”

Helix grunted. “You’re not wrong. But I think a man of your abilities who really wanted to fix those problems would do more good as a teacher than as a… whatever you are.”

“Oh, but I am a teacher,” I said, feeling the electricity in the van begin to pulse in time with my words. “People today expect someone to look after them. They’re not even qualified to eat without a half a dozen rules to help them make the right choices. Well, we live in the information age, where power is in the hands of the one who can master the circuit just as much as the one who masters the gun or the dollar. Who better to run the show than a man even the government recognizes as a master of circuitry?”

“What are you saying, Circuit?” Helix’s voice had gone just as cold and low as my own. “That you’re the new Messiah? A one man army, come to set the world aright? Lots of other people have tried that, none of them have succeeded.”

I snorted and the surge of current shorted out the van’s dome light. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s true that, to a certain degree, it will take a single man with a clear vision and immense power to create and enforce the new rules. But I need other people, just like anyone. I have some allies. I need more. You, and most of Project Sumter, are cut from the right stuff. You can keep secrets and know the importance of law and order. And, whether you like to admit it or not, the slipshod way you go about trying to find and educate talents right now is not going to be enough in the very near future. You can’t keep a lid on talents forever, but once the genie’s out of the bottle the government will never be able to deal with the backlash. You need me.”

“So we should put you in charge?” Helix actually sounded a little thoughtful at that, and I felt a spark of optimism. If he was taking the dangers I foresaw seriously, then implementing a solution in time to save society from total disintegration might not be a pipe dream. “Sorry, Circuit, but no dice. I’ve seen what your problem solving looks like. We don’t need more of that.”

“Let me prove it to you. Share your files on the Enchanter with me and I’ll run him to the ground. I have connections that won’t talk to you, and ways of gathering evidence shortsighted courts might not approve of.”

“How simple can I say this?” Helix bit each word out. “No. We will catch the Firestarter ourselves. And if you come anywhere close to this investigation, I will personally cuff you and throw you into a hole so deep you’ll forget what daylight looks like.”

“Fine.” I felt something in the van’s power locks short out under the force of my reply. “But the change is coming, Helix. It’s necessary and unavoidable. The people of America no longer know enough about governing themselves to ever hope to govern anything else. Once the society collapses it will be a new dark age unless someone does something to stop it. Someone willing to grind common sense back into them no matter how little they want it, who’s willing and able to force them to fight for their independence again. What it amounts to is, if they can’t or won’t rule themselves then they will bow to me.”

The stray charge that had built up in the wires near me as I spoke burst free and flooded the van for a brief second. My headset gave a brief click and then died. I absently pulled it off and threw it to the floor. “Heavy!”

“Van’s locked down, boss,” he called from the front seat. “Grappler got most of it sequestered before you started raving.”

“It’s not raving, Heavy, it’s telling people the truth. They frequently look very similar.” I pulled the disposable phone I’d been using from one pocket, checked to make sure the same pulse that fried my headset also fried it’s memory, then tossed it on the floor. “It seems like Project Sumter is unwilling to cooperate with us.”

Heavy raised one eyebrow. “Meaning?”

“Meaning, we have to do this the hard way.”

He rubbed his hands eagerly. “Boss, that’s just what we’ve been waiting to hear.”

Character Sketching

Okay, so we went all over world building last month/year. Worlds are an important part of speculative stories. But I, and many others with an interest in the category, feel that they are only a part of the story, created to help us examine the important questions. What is human nature, and what is our place in the world?

By showing a world that is different we get the opportunity to show the enduring nature of the human condition in what is hopefully a new light.

However, in order to do that we need something just as important as a good, believable and well imagined world. We need real, believable people to inhabit it. Unfortunately, building solid, believable characters is a much more challenging task that doing the same for worlds. As odd as it may seem, characters can be more complex than worlds. After all, people have free will, worlds don’t, at least not in the technical sense.

So how does one go about creating good characters?

Well, the answer is, it depends. Unfortunately, there’s no one magic recipe for making a wonderful character. The things people normally look at, things like back story, important figures in a characters life, defining events or ideas, are all important but not what really makes a character come alive. They’re the ingredients, but not the recipe. The key is that we relate to them, however those superficial circumstances make them seem different from us. Today, and on the next two Fridays, I’m going to look a little at how that’s accomplished.

Good, relatable characters have three things in common. They start off with little seeming relevance to what’s going on, they show growth and change over the course of the narrative and they make believable choices that hold up through the end of the story.

Let’s look at those ingredients through the prism of the classic film Casablanca. If you haven’t seen the film before, I highly recommend it. I’ll try not to spoil anything for you here, although if you’re genre savvy enough you might be able to guess anyway.

Casablanca starts with a MacGuffin, two letters of transit, being stolen from a pair of Nazis near the beginning of WWII. These letters work their way to the city of Casablanca, where many would like to use them to get passage to Lisbon and on to the United States. There, one Richard Blaine, an American with no political leanings, a self-professed tendency to stick his neck out for no one and who can’t return to the US, runs a night club.

Rick may sound like a very unlikely protagonist to exist in an era defined by its politics and sacrifice, much less to be placed in a story about an item he cannot use. But it’s those very things that make him so useful as a protagonist. He’s just trying to live his life, without all the headaches that stem from the investigation into the missing letters brings. We want to know more about him to find out why he’s avoiding the problem so studiously. Also, his avowed ignorance of the matter means everyone is trying to cajole and convince him – meaning the audience also gets to be cajoled and convinced. A protagonist who simply runs with anything set in front of him isn’t just kind of boring, he’s very hard to understand, as his motivations and reasoning is never likely to be expressed to the audience.

This applies to any character, not just protagonists. The best villains are those who’s goals are not immediately clear, who’s motivations are so dark we do not grasp them at first and who we may not even be able to identify at first. Supporting characters are often roped into their proximity to the protagonist or antagonist, and show us who and what they are in the way they deal with their friend/employer/whatever.

In short, to lay the foundation for a good character, you have to start with someone who makes the reader think, “Now who is this person and why are they here?” After all, they’ll never connect with a character if they’re never spurred to think about him.

Of course, one of the most important parts of learning about a character is looking at how they act. And that brings us to next week’s topic – characters who make believable choices. Hope you’ll drop by next week to hear all about it!

Cool Things: Fables

There’s a lot of takes on the Urban Fantasy genre, but one of the best and longest running is undoubtedly Bill Willingham’s Fables. Created and based on the enduring legends of Europe and the Middle East (and possibly even farther, more exotic places), Fables asks a simple question: What if all the characters we once knew and loved from the storybooks of our youth had to leave their simple, low tech, magical worlds and move to New York City?

I know it’s a question that has kept many of you awake at nights.

Well apparently Bill Willingahm has struggled with it too, because on a fairly unremarkable day over a decade ago the first volume of Fables was published, and a new benchmark for quality in the comics industry was set. In Fables, the story takes first place, as you might expect from a series that takes its name from a form of narrative. Further, while the story introduces many new elements to what happened after familiar stories ended, Willingham never changes the familiar narratives and, when dealing with the less familiar stories gives the reader enough to understand the story without causing clutter.

In this way Willingham sidesteps two of the most frustrating barriers to entry in modern American comic books, their tendency to stretch franchises out ad naseum, with no regard for where they ultimately intend to go with their characters, and their tendency to rely heavily on backstory established three to five decades ago which can be difficult if not impossible for new readers to find. There are other ways Fables is a nice change from the norm. No one character is constantly at the center of the story, and so they can’t become tiresome or require constant reinvention to keep them interesting. Neither is there constant narration to expound on the things that should be told to us by the artwork or dialog. While many comics forget they are visual media, Fables never does.

However, Fables also remembers that it’s there to tell a story. Willingham keeps things moving with drive and zest, moving quickly from establishing his setting to showing the dynamics of the Fable community, to exploring the threat from the Adversary, all while also managing to make stories very personal and character driven. While the bulk of the story takes place in New York in the modern day, he also gives us glimpses into the histories of his characters and the worlds they came from, as well as the extraordinary circumstances that brought them all to the world of refuge they now call home.

One of the most charming points of Fables is Willingham’s clear love for the forgotten stories. No Fable is sure why, but their life stories somehow became known to the people of the world they live in, passed from person to person until the details became blurred. And curiously enough fame translates to increased vitality and strength, making some Fables very difficult to kill. But it’s often the Fables without any fame, who you might not even have thought of when writing a story about storybooks, who step forward and surprise you. Little Boy Blue, the Frog Prince and even Snow’s mostly forgotten sister, Rose Red step forward and show us what their made of and, frequently, prove to be more personable, likeable and relatable than their better known costars.

If you like magic in the modern world, if you like clever writing and great characters, or if you just love a good story that’s written for the sake of good story, I suggest giving Fables a go.