by David Anthony Durham
One of the many challenges about writing for Wild Cards is that you’re not only required to create and write about your own original characters, you’ve got to include other people’s characters in your stories as well. Much of the energy of the series comes from the crossing of story lines, the intersections of characters’ dramas tighten the web of stories that make up each novel.
I tend to take this aspect of being a Wild Cards writer seriously. I mean, I’m borrowing somebody else’s creation. I damn well better do my homework and bring them to life in ways that their creators won’t hate. It goes further than that. It’s Wild Cards code that when writing another author’s character in any significant way you must run the scenes by the creator for approval. No approval, no dice.
How many Wild Cards books are there? How long have some of these characters lived and breathed in how many stories? So many of these characters are iconic, canonized, legends: Dr. Tachyon, the Sleeper, Chrysalis, Fortunato, Golden Boy, the Great and Powerful Turtle, Midnight Angel, Peregrine. My thoughts? Steer clear of those dudes. Newbie that I was when I entered the Wild Cards world with Fort Freak, I had one character to worry about, my own Marcus Morgan (aka Infamous Black Tongue). Safe territory, right? I’d just write about him. I could handle that.
If only it was that easy.
When I got George’s notes on my three-part story arc, there was a lot to love about it. And one thing in particular that caused some concern. George proposed that IBT, desperate and on the run from the cops, might seek out Father Squid. I was a big fan of Father Squid, but the idea of writing him was daunting. He was created by John Joseph Miller. John was a Wild Cards writer from the very beginning. He was there beforethe beginning, for that matter, as one of the New Mexico based gamers that collaboratively turned their love of gaming into what became the world of Wild Cards. Father Squid first appeared in the third book, Jokers Wild, back in 1987, and he’d appeared in many books since. Now I was going to have to write Father Squid? Well, I didn’t haveto. But the more I thought about it, the more obvious it seemed that it was the right move, and something I needed to take a shot at. It was time to study up on cephalopods.
I read everything about Father Squid that I could. I wanted to get the description right: the voice, the temperament, the cadence of his speech, his hulking physical presence and haunted history. I apparently noted the small details too. Rereading the story now, I see they’re all there: the suction cups on his fingers, his gray-skinned face, large eyes with their nictitating membranes, the cluster of tentacles that hung down over his mouth, the faint scent of the sea that hung around him, and – if that’s all sounding a bit disturbing – also his gentle gestures and kind, caring demeanor.
IBT’s encounter with Father Squid is quiet and intimate, the two of them talking over tea in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Misery. IBT is scared, hunted, angry. He is a kid in trouble. Father Squid is the perfect person to turn to for help, and he doesn’t fail to deliver. By the time I was done writing him, I loved the squid even more. That’s what makes what happened next even more unexpected.
I pitched for Lowball, the next book after Fort Freak, and George approved my story idea. By this point, IBT looks to Father Squid as a mentor and a friend. And, increasingly, the priest is pushing IBT to use his talents for the greater good, to aid jokers in need. Reluctantly, IBT is growing into himself, finding a cause and a meaning to his life – thanks, in large part, to the squid. All sounds nice, yeah? Happy story. Life affirming. But this is Wild Cards, so it isn’t long until things for both IBT and Father Squid get dire. They’re kidnapped and thrown into a violent, brutal, gladiator-style fight club. Fight-to-the-death club, that is, with the powerful aces Baba Yaga and Horrorshow feeding on the fear and misery for apocalyptic reasons of their own.
(I should warn that there’s a major spoiler ahead. If Lowballis on your bedside table right now, you might want to stop reading. Still there? Okay, I’ll proceed. I’m coming to the crux of what this piece is about.)
The further along in the story I got the more I realized that everything was heading toward one inevitable ending. I wrote George and Melinda and spilled the beans; Father Squid might need to die. I made my case for how and why. To my relief, neither of them hated the idea. Kinda liked it, actually. But both of them asked, “Did you run this by John?”
Oh… Right. If I was seriously thinking about doing this, I would have to write to Father Squid’s creator and ask his permission. There was no guarantee that he was going to let one of his beloved characters go. It was his call.
In a message dated 10/21/2011 7:11:34 A.M. Mountain Daylight Time, firstname.lastname@example.org writes:
I’m writing to you with a question about one of your characters: Father Squid. As I’ve been working on my three-part story for Lowball, I’ve come up with a plot line that features him. I’ve run it by George and Melinda. They both think it’s a strong idea, but we all know the final say on it is yours alone. It’s a particularly big decision because the plot line might result in Father Squid’s death. It’s a death of self-sacrifice that makes him the hero of the story sequence and leaves him as a lasting physical symbol. (There’s also a second option that leaves Father Squid alive, but in a very changed state. I’ll detail that as well.) I realize this is a lot to ask. Please know that I do it with the utmost respect for the character you created. Let me explain what I have in mind…
I made my pitch and concluded with this:
So, John, that’s the idea. Believe me, I’m nervous asking you about it. I certainly hadn’t started out thinking along these lines. It’s just that the plot elements I had to work with quickly took on this shape. I don’t take lightly killing off another author’s long standing character. The main thing that pushes me to present it to you is that I would intend it to be a noble conclusion to Father Squid’s story, one that leaves him a lasting symbol and a physical manifestation of his life and legacy. If you do approve the idea, I would run all the Father Squid material by you.
Please let me know what you think. I’d be happy to discuss any of this by phone also.
And that was that. He got back to me promptly, saying, in part:
I don’t think I could come up with a better way to round off the good Father’s character arc through the WC universe. I would say that the killing him option is the better one, so go ahead. The only suggestion that I have off the top of my head — and as I don’t know anything about the BY’s power, I don’t know if this is feasible — he could hang on to call out Lizzie’s name as he dies, and maybe end with an expression of wonder or a smile on his face (if it’s still recognizable) or something of that order. I’d find that pretty appropriate.
Well, hey, that wasn’t so hard after all! I found his suggestion fitting, certainly true to character, and a way to tap into the hidden love story that had been so crucial to Father Squid’s life. With permission granted, I went to work on the final scenes. George and Melinda read them, liked them, and they both asked, again, “By the way, did you run this by John?”
No, strangely enough, I hadn’t run the scenes past John. When I did, John came back with this:
Hey David —
Good job with Father Squid. I have nothing to change. I’ll miss him.
And in that casual, generous manner, a character died. I’ll miss him, too. But, also, I’m glad to have killed him well, in a manner his creator was pleased with.