Into the blue again after the money’s gone

I’m pretty sure I know where I met Vasili. He was the second of our characters that I met, but the first that I felt like I connected with.

As the ship was clearing the docks, a lone figure was futilely sprinting towards them. In one hand he held his pants and belt, the other he waved frantically trying to garner attention. On the bridge he was clearly visible.

“Who was he?” Archamae asked idly. She wasn’t know (sic) for socializing amongst the crew much.

“Mikhailovich.” Sephara said at the starboard windows, staring at the desperate crewman slowly being swallowed up by darkness.

“Well, you did say midnight.” Archamae smirked, slamming the accelerator forward several notches. The [Requiem] Dawn responded by lurching forward with impressive speed.

“That I did.” The first mate caught the pilots (sic) eye and they shared a knowing smile.

Mike would be angry if I didn’t immediately communicate that:

  1. This is not from our Skysail books, but from Mike’s work prior, telling instead of the adventures of the crew of the Requiem Dawn.
  2. This is from 2010, so at time of writing, was written eight years ago. Which is basically an eternity ago in terms of life as well as how much better we are at writing.
  3. This is unpublished, unedited, and wasn’t supposed to ever see the light of day.

In the parlance of the role-playing forum from which he originated, this ‘Mikhailovich’ was an NPC, a non-playable character. He was someone who Mike created in order to be thrown away. He was disposable. He was a punchline. He was the kind of person who would be left behind.

To equal out the embarrassment, here’s something I (Josh) wrote, way back when:

You’re free of your worthless, pitiful son, father, Vasili Mikhailovich thought to himself, looking out over a (sic) weak beginnings of a muddled sunrise. Your burden laid to rest.

The fifth son of the petty noble-baron Anton Mikhailovich. And as Anton would put it, the “fifth-most diluted.” The preceding sons received the titles, the inheritance, the law, the church… to Vasili was bequeathed contempt, blame for his mother killed in childbirth for an unexpected son, and the constant threat of banishment from his father’s house.

I should clarify:

  1. This is from a short story I (Josh) wrote, detailing the backstory, the arrival on the airship Requiem Dawn, the apprenticeship under ‘Gregor the Boatswain’, and the abrupt departure of a moody young noble named ‘Vasili Mikhailovich’. The short story paralleled the original role-play forum thread, and filled in what was left unwritten with the crewman they left behind.
  2. This is from 2011, so, seven years ago. I can’t stress enough how long ago that is. A kind of long ago that should be measured in geologic time.
  3. I spent, like, a lot of time writing this short story. Let’s estimate at least 8 to 10 hours on the first draft, and maybe a dozen hours of editing in years after. And I still found that a weak beginnings typo. Ooof.

Such choice, lean cuts of meat these two excerpts are! Just look at them. Energetic, muscular, and glistening. Such artifacts of another, more alien time. It’s like drilling a core sample to find out how things were back then, how we wrote, how good we thought we were, and how little carbon dioxide was still in the atmosphere.

Both Mike and I were pretty excited about these things early on. But now they are just part of the fossil record. These were written prior to us penning a single word of the Skysail novels. Since then, we have made 16,000 changes. We have written and rewritten hundreds of thousands of words. The Vasili we met back in 2010-2011 is still around. As our protagonist, he survives every new layer of sediment that accretes on our saga. But he has managed to surprise us as we have gotten to know him better.

At this point, I should be clear about something: Vasili is not a real person.

I know this. Mike knows this. Neither of us have met someone named Vasili Mikhailovich. We also have not manifested someone named Vasili Mikhailovich into being through our sheer writing prowess. No. Vasili Mikhailovich is a work of fiction. And you may say that to describe the act of character creation and development as ‘meeting’ the character is two parts whimsy and three parts cheese. And I would probably agree with you. I’ve heard this from other authors, and scoffed. Oh, how I scoffed.

But frankly, at this point, I don’t have a better way of describing it.

I wanted to write a blog entry about our process of character creation. And so I started looking back into the process of how we actually created some of our characters.

And it is messy. And it is protracted. And, to be honest, it probably shouldn’t be called a ‘process.’ A process implies a start, an end, an input, and an output. No, our character creation journey hasn’t been those things. It’s been something a whole lot weirder.

I hope that this article does a good job of documenting that journey. I’ll start by talking about Vasili, Gert, and Deirdre. Then I’ll let Mike take the microphone on Archamae, Henner, and Hash. We still haven’t decided who is going to talk about Captain Mied, Jonas Semmler, or Judge Gestalt. But we’ll get there. We’ll get there.

Vasili Mikhailovich

The excerpts above show where we first came across Vasili: helpless, abandoned, growing smaller and smaller in the rear-view of an escaping airship. But from there, we had to develop someone who would be our focal point and mouthpiece for an entire saga.

In one of the earliest jam sessions, we had the note Vasili as "the greenhorn". In our ‘Characters’ listing, he is listed as, Vasili Mikhailovich as The Boy. In fact, all of our characters started out as ‘The Boy’, ‘The Father’, ‘The Captain’, ‘The Doctor’, etc. They were less characters, and more archetypal outlines that we needed to shade and color in.

So, to begin with, Vasili had his youth. His inexperience. And that was about it. From there, to evoke the proper 1:5 ratio of wonder and misery that is youth growing into adulthood, developing Vasili was the process of visiting upon Mike and I’s insecurities growing up as awkward teens living at the edge of the world. We had plenty to pick from.

For example, I grew up in the same town that my father had grown up in. I also work in the same industry that he worked / works in. This meant that for every single trip to Costco as a kid, and for every job interview later, someone knew me as “Kenny’s boy.” It wasn’t all that terrible, but there was a certain expectation. A certain inescapability. Particularly when you’re a weird kid who hasn’t figured out what a conversation is.

Mike’s father was in the military. He trained soldiers in Arctic warfare. If I recall correctly, he has summited Denali (the tallest mountain in North America) multiple times, and attempted more than that. Mike’s kids don’t call his dad ‘grandpa.’ They call him ‘Major.’

Don’t get me wrong, we both had pretty great relationships with our fathers. But what we wanted to convey with Vasili was our feeling in growing up, finding your place in the world, and being measured against the generation that came before. And we felt that Vasili’s relationship with his father was the best handle to turn.

Our first cut at Vasili was essentially an angsty, shitty teenager that ran away from home to chase the truth of his father’s legend. But as we got to know him (I’m sorry), and our world filled in around him, we found ourselves giving him more of our own traits (and not just the insecurities). Vasili likes math, and reading, and paperwork. Where his father enjoyed sword fights, airship battles, and generic swashbuckling, Vasili isn’t so sure. He is “lanky, all limbs,” uncoordinated, and pretty bad at most everything.

Vasili does, however, excel in one area. As we were developing Volume 1, we found that Vasili had a taste for the theatrical. He grew up playing characters in his village’s Tellings (the great stories passed on from generation to generation to remember the deeds of one’s ancestors). And for all of his insecurity, and the fears of not measuring up to his father, he felt at home on the Telling stage.

Vasili is a natural storyteller. He is a dreamer. He is an awkward theater kid, seeking desperately for his community. And he is trapped in our dark airship fantasy novel.

Gert Karnaugh

Originally, Gert was ‘Gregor, the Boatswain’ in the same Vasili Mikhailovich short story I mention above. An old deckhand, his hands were succumbing to arthritis, and he was nearing the end of his career on an airship. With Vasili assigned to Gregor, he served as the stern-but-supportive father figure that Vasili never had. He mentored the young noble Vasili in the ways of being a deckhand before falling in a battle with orcs.

That characterization isn’t far from what we see today for Gert, but he took a bit of a detour along the way.

Prior to outlining, or really any plot planning whatsoever, I took it upon myself to write what was called an ‘Intro.’ The record shows that I have done this a few times. It is a weakness of mine.

In this ‘Intro,’ a character named Karn (maybe short for Karnaugh?), a senior hand on the Requiem Dawn, has to visit the coroner’s office to identify a body.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Karn said to the coroner, covering his mouth and nose with his sleeve. On the stone slab before him was the ship’s diviner, an arrow through his throat, dead at least a day. Not Karn’s first corpse, but death was never kind to the senses.

“And what is your… relation… to the deceased?” the coroner asked, a suspicious weight to his words. Karn considered the possible confusion at an old sailor asking after a well-dressed nameless body. He imagined it wasn’t the first time enterprising individuals tried to lay claim on a corpse’s belongings before the next of kin showed.

“I’m his superior, ship-side. He was our navigator on the Requiem Dawn.”

“I see… and you are assuming responsibility for his affairs?”

“That is correct… unless, what… is there a fee?”

We had this ‘Karn’ as a sort of tired but dutiful crewman. Someone the captain relied upon, and occasionally confided in. Has a sense of humor, but also a mouth that got him into trouble as he voiced his opinion. Think Long John Silver, but with both legs. And instead of a parrot, it’s a mustache.

(Note: While I knew about Treasure Island for some time, I had never really known that it was anything more than “that one famous pirate book I never finished.” My only experience with Treasure Island is its 2002 adaption, Treasure Planet, which I had somehow never seen until I was in my 30’s. My apologies if the comparison is rough.)

Somehow, eventually, the prototypical ‘Karn’ turned into ‘Gert Karnaugh.’ Taking on the role of mentor, supervisor, and Long John Silver-type character for Vasili, his development consisted of amalgamating the older male figures that Mike and I grew up with. And then making him lovable, flawed, and terrifying, like some of the older male figures that Mike and I grew up with.

As I said above, my dad had and has no shortage of friends. As I grew up, he would have me (and my sister, when she wanted to go) on hunting, fishing, and snowmachine / snowmobile trips with his friends. While some trips were family affairs, some were just the guys. Usually, a “guy’s trip” just meant a lot of drinking and food. But often, it meant a heavy emphasis on shooting guns, blowing things up, and telling stories about what things were like before they had kids. When they were my age.

As a young man, trying to understand what it means to be a man, having more data points was, of course, invaluable. It didn’t mean that they were great data points. But, you know, data is data.

I heard stories about climbing out of your car window, going over the roof, and coming back in the other side (all at highway speed). I heard stories about knocking your front teeth out trying to ride your sled behind a school bus. I heard about ex-wives. About their kids, and how well or not so well they were doing compared to me. About cool cars, motorcycles, and boats they used to have. About getting in fights at school, or at home. I heard them speak about their own fathers. I heard them speak about politics, the military, and how things were different back then. During the war. After. How you used to be able to bike across town and be gone all day and nobody would worry. How to never start a fight, but to always be the one to finish it.

When I described some of these stories / people to Mike, he knew exactly the type of person I was talking about. And that is where we found Gert.

Gert is a man who used to be younger. Where his peers skated by on luck and charm, Gert has worked long, fought hard, and earned his place on the ship. But the skies are no longer what they used to be. Where the bunks used to be filled with those like Gert, now they sit vacant. He remembers their stories, but maybe a handful of their names. He’s too old to be seeking out trouble anymore. But there is a violence to Gert that Vasili fears, something that bristles whenever Gert’s eyes pass over Vasili. Gert’s stories don’t speak of his patience, or his diplomacy, or his candor. They’re about how a lot of people got hurt, and Gert survived.

Also, Gert likes dancing. Really, really likes dancing.

Deirdre Vara

There is a weird note from us, written in April 2013:

Physicker (female):

With the mage, they are two sides of the same coin… in terms of how magitek has evolved over the last X years. There are different organizations that represent magicite, and how it is used… Poisoning, application, withholding of information… societal aspects.. East vs West medicine. Both valid in different ways.

Ooof. So. A couple of things:

  • Early on, Cauderon was called the ‘mage.’ This hearkens to our fantasy roots, but we’ve since walked away from using ‘mage.’ Cauderon, and the people like him, are called ‘odeum tolerant’ in polite company, and ‘dusters’ otherwise.
  • For a lot of years while developing Skysail, we called the magical technology in our world ‘magitek.’ This was a placeholder, borrowed directly from the Final Fantasy games that used the same term. We now call it ‘oderics’ and ‘odeum,’ with the hope that we avoid any copyright infringement.
  • A ‘physicker’ is one who is trained and educated on the ‘body physick’, what we would have called ‘natural philsophy’ in our own history.

At that point, the job of the doctor (the ‘physicker’, which we later changed to ‘physiker’, for no good reason other than I thought it looked cooler), was all that Deirdre had to define her character. That, and the doctor, as a result of her exposure to odeum, had suffered some degree of neurological damage. She was supposed to be (according to early jam sessions):

  • Weird. Unpredictable.
  • Crazy, but what kind of crazy?
  • crazy-pills personality
  • Her brain does not turn off
  • Free associating edge of those amped up on stimulants

So she was supposed to be crazy. If I recall, we were thinking somewhere between the Mad Hatter and an eccentric frontier doctor. (Sidebar: there is also a note that says, Is [she Mike's wife?] which is funny for a lot of reasons).

We’ve always had the idea that the oderics in our world had long-lasting effects on the people who worked around and with them. ‘Dusters’ like Cauderon, being able to breathe and tolerate the odeum, and so making them able to work in engine rooms and mines, experience detrimental effects over time. It made sense that someone who studied and worked with odeum on a daily basis may be affected as well.

But as we started to get beyond what Deirdre did, and onto who she was, we started to find problems. We wanted to have positive, independent women in Vasili’s life that could teach/direct/ignore him the same as anyone else. And Vasili would, for certain, be interested in odeum (the substance) and oderics (the phenomena). But without someone reliable to learn from, and without somebody on Vasili’s side, that he could trust, Deirdre’s ‘condition’ became pretty unwieldy.

Plus, too, Cauderon is scrambled enough for the two of them.

So we walked Deirdre back to one of her earlier iterations (from July 2012, a year prior). There was (yet) another pre-novel short story that I wrote, this time about Vasili seeking out employment with a woman named Letha, the Organ Tuner.

“W-what…” Vasili took a breath, “What is this place?”

“This place?” Letha looked at him quizzically. “The sign on the front says, ‘Organs’, does it not?”

“But all I see are pipes,” said Vasili hesitantly.

“Pipes for organs. Organs. Not…” she paused briefly in contemplation, “Not organs like the bits inside you, organs, like the kind that make music.”

Vasili’s naivete finally caught up with him with an embarassed, “Oh.” He looked at the floor.

Letha looked upward at nothing for a moment, then met Vasili again, “Am I to understand, my young friend, that you walked into a place that said ‘organs’ on the front, thinking that they would indeed be selling organs? Or even buying them?”

“Well, no…”

“But you were curious enough to enter, no matter, eh?”

Vasili was silent.

“And what if indeed I had a heart over here, a liver over there. I suppose I’d have to categorize, organize by animal, freshness, whether it was medicinal, or could be use (sic) in some alchemical…” Letha’s eyes began to light up a bit, “And what if— What if there was a mystery shelf? Yes! Maybe the customers could guess what it was, where it came from…”

The woman then fell into fits of laughter, only returning to talk with Vasili once she was wiping the tears from her eyes, “Then was that what you expected to see when you came in? Letha’s Organ Emporium, the best in meat… that you can’t eat!”

We borrowed Letha’s sense of humor, her analytical mind, and her technical prowess, and gave it to Deirdre. She has a wry wit. She is well-trained and talented. She is diligent, hard working, and compassionate to her fellow shipmates. Which makes her being on the Apotheosis Break all the more puzzling. She belongs at the University, studying oderics with the brightest of minds. Instead, she has been doing tedious assays on her uncle’s shard hunting airship for the last three years. Why remains a mystery for later books, but her advice to Vasili is “[Y]ou need to decide, Micky, before we get to the next port, whether all this is worth it. And in the meantime, keep your mouth shut. And listen.”

I have to admit, Deirdre’s character building has been a struggle. It would take me a long, long time to recover them, but believe me when I say that there are thousands upon thousands of words of dialog that have churned between Vasili and Deirdre. Words written and rewritten and much of them eventually cut because we were trying to find Deirdre’s voice. The process for finding Deirdre has been closer to trial and error than any intentional, concerted effort.

Much of that error has come from our own shortcomings. We wanted to make her more compelling than Physicker, and parenthetically, (female). We wanted to give her an identity more than just her job and her gender. But, somewhat embarrassingly, a lot of the early notes label her as Love interest. Thankfully, we recanted. As much of a fourteen-year-old boy as Vasili is, and for as many terrible airship romance novels he has read, his mother taught him better. For as much as they have a rocky start, I’m looking forward to writing their friendship.

Looking back, it’s hard to point at any particular thing we did in coming up with these characters. If you’re reading this, hoping to steal the plans for some immediate character creation device, you’re probably in the wrong place. If anything, in unearthing old jam sessions, the old notes, just tells me that every character’s forging was a little bit different. And that maybe our only real tool for whittling them down into a proper shape was trying to write with them, and seeing what works.

Alright. We should get back to actual work. On the actual book. So we can actually finish. I’m tagging out. Mike, your turn.