When trying to get the hang of writing a character or characters, I will sometimes do word-sketches to try and feel out their patterns of interacting. When Shaenon and I were hashing out the primary cast of the webcomic “Skin Horse” I did a series of short scenes involving the characters of Jonah Yu and Nera Vivaldi to practice with them. In honor of their recent re-appearance in the strip, I thought it would be interesting to show you a couple of them:
* * *
“Specialization,” said Jonah.
Nera looked at him. “Your point being?”
Jonah gestured expansively. “Specialization,” he said. “Nature took a look at all these single-celled organisms and thought to itself, y’know, I can do one better than this. Instead of having one little cell try to do everything, you get way better results having one cell be, like, brains, and one cell be muscles, and so on and so forth. It’s a fantastic design. It’s the reason why we’re not all protozoans.”
“Not me,” said Nera. “I’m not a protozoan by sheer force of will.” She frowned, deeply. “You wouldn’t believe the temptation to just let go, sometimes. I’m… tired, Jonah. I’m really tired.”
“Shut up,” said Jonah. “You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Well,” said Jonah, “what if we’re living inside a story? What if the story began just a few minutes ago when I was talking about lemons, and the people reading the story now have no idea who we are? They wouldn’t know that you’re a perfectly normal human being! They’d think you’re actually some kind of involuntary shape-shifter who really struggles with this sort of thing, instead of a deadpan bullshitter.”
Nera sat up on the bed. “So, what?” she said. “We’re just supposed to go around announcing who we are and what we look like just in case, hypothetically speaking, this entire conversation is nothing more than a story?”
Jonah shrugged. “Couldn’t hurt,” he said.
Nera considered, for a moment. “Okay, you sold me,” she said. “Attention readers: My name is Nera. I am an incredibly intelligent young woman who lusts for adventure.”
“Describe yourself,” prompted Jonah.
Jonah pursed his lips. “You’re black-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned. About average height for a girl. You’re classically attractive in a somewhat chunky fashion, and you carry yourself in such a way that suggests that you haven’t quite grown into your body yet, but when you get to that point, you’ll be beating suitors off with a stick.”
Nera rolled her eyes. “Oh, please,” she said. “Why is the first thing anyone wants to know about a woman is how ‘pretty’ she is? You can’t even get past your first descriptive paragraph without mentioning physical attractiveness. And if this story really did start back when we were talking about lemons, it’s been going on for about ten minutes now and still nobody knows what the hell you even look like, much less if you’re ‘attractive’.”
“This really bugs you,” said Jonah, propping himself up on the bed.
“It’s just such a frikkin’ double-standard,” said Nera. “The fact that I lust for adventure is far more important than any specific detail of my physiognomy or composition. And meanwhile, you could be a hyena, as far as the readers know.”
“I am a hyena,” said Jonah.
“Now you’re just trying to screw with their heads,” said Nera. “ATTENTION READERS!” she said, then, shouting to the sky, or at least the ceiling lamp. “JONAH YU IS NOT A HYENA! HE IS A MERE HUMAN BEING!”
“‘Mere’? said Jonah, mildly.
“What, you want to feel special?” said Nera. “How about this. ‘Jonah Yu is classically weird in a somewhat pathetic fashion, and he carries himself in such a way that suggests that he hasn’t quite grown pubes yet, but when he gets to that point, he’ll be bragging about it so hard we’ll have to beat him with a stick.'”
“On reflection, I’m not sure the descriptive portions of this story are really all that good of quality.”
“Maybe you should just go back to what you were talking about before.”
“Fine,” said Jonah. “Specialization. It’s a good idea. I learned about it in Science Olympics.”
“So like that part in Rollerball where Houston is the Energy City, and all energy comes from there, and, Peking was like, what, the Food City? Is that what you’re talking about?”
“Kind of,” said Jonah. “People do best when they concentrate on the thing they’re best at and rely on other people for the other parts needed to sustain an entire life and culture. Just like bodies do better when one cell can just throw itself into being the best bone cell it can be. Human endeavor should be as specialized as we can possibly make it.”
“How does this tie into writing?”
Jonah shrugged again. “Write what you know,” he said. “If everybody writes what they know, then we’ll eventually have a full body of literature on all possible topics, all of it exceptional. And there’ll be no crappy half-assed Wikipedia-researched novels out there to make me crazy.”
“The flaw,” said Nera, “is that the thing that writers know best of all is writing. When you take your argument to its logical conclusion, all you get is an entire body of works about people working on their next novel. There’s already way too much of that. How many Stephen King books have an author as the protagonist? How many iterations of Rent do we really need?”
“And then there’s that movie Wonder Boys.”
Nera shook her head. “We made a pact never to speak of that film, Jonah Yu.”
“Forgiven.” Nera stood up, then, walked casually over to the far wall, and quickly spun around. “No, I’m afraid I’m going to have to break with you on this, Jonah. If we all lived like you want, all the stories in the world would just be… they’d just be two people going on and on about writing stories. And how boring would that be?”
“So what are you gonna do about it?”
“I’m going to write a novel,” said Nera, “about being a world-famous brain surgeon. And you know what the last line in the book will be?”
“It will be, ‘Screw specialization. I am going to fucking do it all. I am going to live long enough, live wide enough, that in the end, there will be nothing I will not have done.'”
Jonah thought about this and sipped at his Mountain Dew. “I should tell the audience I’m drinking Mountain Dew,” he said.
“I think you just did,” said Nera.
“I guess so,” said Jonah.
There was a pause.
“This is the worst story ever,” said Nera.
* * *
“C’mon, Bacon-wave!” shouted Jonah, shaking the small plastic canister of Kitty Num Nums ™. “Get your thing!”
“I have never figured out how you arrived at that name,” said Nera, munching on a chocolate-covered peanut.
Jonah shrugged. “We name all our cats after products found on late-night infomercials.”
Nera idly stroked her hand across the belly of Flowbee, a middle-aged orange tabby mog. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.”
“No more ridiculous than naming them after obscure former nations of the Soviet Union.”
Nera frowned deeply at him. “I think Tajikistan is a very pretty name, thank you very much. We call him ‘Taji’ for short. How do you shorten up ‘Bacon-wave’?”
“Bakey,” said Jonah. “Here, Bakey Bakey Bakey!” he cried, again shaking the cat treats.
Nera nuzzled Flowbee. “Your family is crazy, Miss Flowbee. Yes they are! Yes they are!”
“At least we can come up with names for our pets without consulting Wikipedia.”
“There,” said Nera, scratching Flowbee’s chin. “There it is again. Your anti-Wikipedia prejudice once again shows itself. What do you have against Wikipedia?”
Jonah waffled for a moment. “It makes people feel like they’re experts on things that they hardly know about.”
“You may have misheard my question,” said Nera. “I asked what you had against Wikipedia, not what makes it totally rocktacular.”
“You seriously believe that we’re all better off writing half-assed poorly-informed fiction?”
“Better that than no fiction at all,” said Nera. “I just finished another part of ‘Redoubt,’ where they’re about to meet the strong, cultured, feminine and yet tough-as-nails gunnery officer, who had enlisted in the Confederate army under pretense of being a boy and quickly rose through the ranks, up until the day her entire platoon was destroyed by a giant Godzilla golem. She is the sole survivor of the Fort Fisher massacre, and she joins up with the crew because she wants revenge against the giant monsters. She has a superlative grasp of heavy gunnery and so Captain Wilderburn puts her in charge of the twin ten-inch howitzers in the Redoubt‘s ball turret, AND I RESEARCHED IT ALL THIS AFTERNOON.”
“Yes,” said Jonah. “But is it good research?”
“I mean,” said Jonah, gesturing futilely, “do you even know if they had invented ten-inch howitzers back in Civil War times?”
“No,” she said. “But they sure as hell had done so in fantasy Civil War times. You know how I know this?” Nera got up from the bed, crossed to Jonah, and tapped him several times on the breastbone. “It is because,” she said, “I want them to be there.”
“That’s not an argument.”
“Look, they didn’t have bronze-clad airships either. Wilderburn invented them, and then became discouraged when the Union army wanted to use them to raze cities, so he took his prototype and fled, becoming a maverick who roams the landscape of 19th-Century America with his rag-tag band of monster-hunters, doing good deeds, setting things right and always staying one step ahead of the law. It is a totally awesome story.”
“But it doesn’t make sense,” protested Jonah. “You’ve got emplaced guns mounted on a blimp?”
“An airship, yes,” said Nera, returning to the bed.
“But it’s not a fixed firing position! Every time you fired one you’d be knocked halfway out of the sky!”
“And I suppose you know this for one hundred percent certain?”
“No! Do you?”
“No! So how do you propose we research this? Call up the one expert in the entire world who knows about mounting large weapons on blimps and tell him my idea and see what he says?”
“Either that, or maybe just don’t write the story,” said Jonah.
“I’m sorry,” said Nera, “but did you miss the part where my story is totally awesome?”
Jonah gestured helplessly. “I’m not sure it is.”
Nera narrowed her eyes. “You’re lucky I don’t throw this cat at you. So what are you working on that’s so much better?”
“I’m writing a story about how I walked four miles to the battery store on the east side to recycle some batteries.”
“Uh huh,” said Nera.
“No, it’s a great story!” said Jonah. “I made a promise to myself that I would at least walk into every single storefront I passed by on my way and I saw so much cool shit, you would not believe. Have you ever been to a whorehouse?”
“No?” hazarded Nera.
“It’s crazy!” said Jonah, throwing his arms wide, his mouth forming a capital letter D in his enthusiasm. “There were a bunch of middle-aged ladies in there in their undies and a fluffy white cat and they all scrambled when I showed up at the door because all they do is sit around and wait for a man to arrive!”
“What happened then?”
“I chickened out and I left,” said Jonah. “Then I went to this erotic bakery, and–”
“But nothing happened,” said Nera.
“But there was so much to see!” replied Jonah. “Why do you need a poorly-researched story about a Civil War-era blimp with guns on it flying around and blowing up giant monsters when there’s so much great stuff that actually exists!”
“My story’s awesomer,” maintained Nera.
“That is because,” said Jonah, “I haven’t gotten to the part about the penis éclair.”
Nera mused. “All right, you may have a point,” she said. “Can I read it?”
“It’s… not done,” said Jonah.
“Again with the ‘not done’ thing,” she said. “What’s the last thing you actually finished?”
“My treatise on Choose Your Own Adventure #51, ‘The Magic of the Unicorn.’ You know that. I gave it for you to proof, remember.”
“I mean, your last actual story.”
There was a pause.
“Jonah?” pressed Nera.
“Where the hell is that cat?” Jonah muttered.