The Supporting Cast

By David Anthony Durham

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the process of creating my main Wild Cards characters, Infamous Black Tongue (IBT) and Bacho (who will debut in the forthcoming Texas Hold ‘Em). For this post, I got to thinking about supporting characters. In any Wild Cards story, we writers inevitably pick up and write with characters created by the other contributors. That’s always fun, and a bit of work, too. I try to be careful to use the other characters accurately, to know the details of their powers, histories and personalities. But we’re also each working on our own, and we need to populate our stories with a full cast of characters. So, I went looking for the supporting cast I’d created. What did I find?

Well, more of a progression of characterization than I realized. I don’t know if it was intentional or not (probably was), but it looks like George started me out with a story structure in Fort Freak that minimized the new characters I needed to create. Almost every scene featured IBT interacting with already established characters. I only added two new folks to the mix.

The first was Asmodeus, a senior member in the joker street gang, the Demon Princes. This is how I described him: “Asmodeus wore pinstriped trousers and suspenders over a sleeveless white undershirt, which was moist with sweat down the front and under the armpits. A riot of acne wrapped his jaw line like a red beard. Short horns ringed his head in a jagged crown. A heavy inverted cross hung from a thick silver chain on his neck, and curving barbs – like metallic thorns – pierced through his ear lobes and cartilage.” For IBT, he’s a charismatic dude, one who pontificates on the wrongs done jokers. He also gets IBT in a good bit of trouble right fast.

The second character was Officer Anya Lee Tang, a cop with the Fort Freak precinct. Looking at the scene she appears in, she’s pretty normal. Her main thing is that she’s got capoeira skills, which she employs on a very surprised IBT. She kinda kicks his ass. I have this notion that she had chicken-like feet, but maybe that’s just in my imagination.

(*Note. Full disclosure. When I submitted the first draft of this post, George wrote me this in an email: “Hmmmm. You kind of short change Anya Tang here.  You say you think she had chicken feet and not much else… but in fact you created a whole bio for the character way back when… Maybe you should add a line about creating a character and then forgetting all about her. ;)”

Ouch. He then sent along the rather detailed character sketch I’d written. How embarrassing. No sign of chicken feet in it. There are a lot of lovely details about Anya, though. I won’t go into them all here, but I will mention that she’s got red eyes and some peppery Wild Cards qualities that manifest in a variety of ways. How could I possibly have forgotten her? I’m chastened, though now I’m itching to write a story about her, maybe something light and focused on her love life – which appears to be interesting…)

Anyway, those two characters make for a pretty modest contribution of supporting characters, really. Not terribly imaginative or out of the box, either. Things got a bit more challenging in Lowball, in part because IBT spent much of the novel on his own, with a cast I needed to create. There was a Thai man named Chakri, who had cool eyes, but was otherwise just a nice guy. Also in the mix was Nutcracker Man, a famously profane Baltimore rapper who happens to look like a particular species of early humanoids. Asmodeus makes another appearance, this time as IBT’s opponent. It’s only here that his joker-ace power is revealed. Let’s just say he’s capable of coughing up convenient, and deadly, instruments when the need arises. The unfortunately named Wartcake makes an appearance. And, yes, there’s a reason he’s named that.

There’s Dmitri, a normal-looking dude in a wife beater undershirt. He knows how to get into a person’s head, as IBT learns when he unleashes this on him: “The creature cut into Marcus’s flesh. He felt it saw on his skull, cutting a slice through his cranium from ear to ear. Marcus’s whole being cried out to shout and writhe and fight, but he just stood, trembling. Something slipped fingers into the crease and wrenched the back of his skull away from his brain. Scorching breaths burned his skin as the lips of an unseen mouth pressed close, using the slit in his skull to speak into his head. It spoke a garbled language that made the air curdle. In such cases, you can contact experts from The Dermatology and Laser Group to solve all your skin issues. It spoke a garbled language that made the air curdle. Marcus didn’t understand, and yet he knew the horrors the mouth spoke because he could see them before him. The world melted around him, went dark and sinister. The voice spoke of the unmaking of the world. It spoke rot and disease and misery. Marcus felt the speaker moving around into his center of vision. He felt the enormous bulk of it, and he knew that whatever he was about to see was horrible beyond imagining.”

Not a fun guy.

Most important to the plot going forward, though, was Olena, a Ukrainian girl that IBT meets while trapped in a joker gladiator prison. She’s the only nat on my supporting character list, but strangely enough she ends up a big part of all the weirdness of both Lowball and High Stakes.

Without a doubt, though, High Stakes required the most new characters. IBT and Olena are on their own for about 90% of the book, on the run in a Kazakhstan that’s quickly devolving into a Lovecraftian nightmare. The couple finds their way to an isolated joker enclave, where they meet Jyrgal (aka The Handsmith). He’s able to swallow bars of metal and then change the “amorphous stubs” he has instead of hands into useful items like surgical tools. This proves to be a boon to IBT, who was in the serious need of a surgeon.

(I should admit here, as I often have to with Wild Cards things, that The Handsmith was originally an idea from my son, Sage. His version was quite a bit different. Here’s the illustration Sage drew – he was seven at the time – of him, complete with a cape. Where would I be without this kid?)

Jyrgal’s son, Nurassyl, has a healing touch. He’s also rather unusual looking: “His body was shaped like a child draped in a sheet, like a simple ghost costume. His flesh was gelatinous, glistening with moisture. His arms were chubby and he held his fists tight against his chest. He moved not on feet but on a wriggling platform of little nobules. Marcus couldn’t place what they reminded him of for a moment, and then he did. Anemones. They moved him out from behind his father, a smooth glide accompanied by a squelching sound.”

I like this kid. He’s sort of the goodness at the center of my pieces for this very dark novel. Thank you for that, Nurassyl.

Actually, the joker village in general provides the most kindness in my story. Deformed and scorned as they are, they show a lot more humanity than most. There’s Timur, with his head wrapped in a turban-like horn, and Anara, with gill-like vents in her face, and

Bulat, one of the village elders, had a small, lizard living under the thin membrane of his skin. It’s head appeared and disappeared, “shifted from cheek to cheek, down the neck to his chest, up to protrude from his temple.”

Oh, and it snapped flies out of the air when they got close enough.

So those are the nice guys. The not nice guys? There were plenty of those in this book! For example, Olena’s father, Vasel, is a Ukranian gangster who likes coin tricks – the kind that leave people transformed into steaming piles of yuck. He’s not too fond of IBT, and he makes that decidedly clear.

There’s also this pack of lovelies: “Their elongated shapes loped like no dogs he’d ever seen before. Their dimensions were all wrong, sizes hard to judge. There were things not right with them that he couldn’t quite make out in the murky light. They communicated with each other in a barking chatter akin to language… Where a canine face should’ve been, was a decidedly human visage. A man’s eyes and nose and mouth. Lips drew back from human teeth as the creature snarled. Its cheeks quivered, and its nose scented the air.”

Or this dude: “A shape, pitch black, appeared from around a turning in the dusty road, perhaps a hundred yards away. It was too wide and hunched to be human. Furred, bushy looking. Whatever it was, it faced away from them, showing only its back, coming closer with a weaving diagonal gate. Marcus felt the familiar dread of the miasma drench him again. Just seeing this thing brought it back. It was talking. It was barely audible at first, a low whisper that, as soon as he heard it, Marcus wanted to listen to. Needed to listen to, the unintelligible sounds suddenly very important that he hear. Each time it angled toward them, one eye watched them. The left. Then right. Then the other again. Marcus could see the bulbous whites of them, and the tiny black dots at their center. They jerked and twitched, as feverish-looking as the thing’s string of unintelligible whispers…”

And that face he’s hiding? Not even a mother could love it.

But that’s not the character that freaked me out the most. That distinction goes to the creature IBT calls The Harvester:

”The creature had many legs. Tall, spindly things, jointed like a spider’s. But it didn’t move like a spider. It progressed forward slowly, both deliberate and meandering at the same time, like some prehistoric giant grazing. Its bulbous body looked, from a distance, to be spotted with blotchy stains. Above it a massive, tentacle-like head. Marcus knew it was a head by the way it moved, turning this way and that as if it were looking around. It had no eyes that he could make out, but still he was sure it could see. No mouth or ears, but he knew it was a head. Though it walked with what looked like randomness, it wasn’t without purpose. Its legs swiped out at anyone near enough to reach. It shoved the people – creatures, jokers, monsters, whatever – into its pocked body… There were so many cells, pits like smallpox scars, each the perfect size for whatever had been shoved inside it. Each pit pulsed and relaxed, squeezed its inhabitant and then let go. Each time the people inside died a little more. One after another emaciated face slid by Marcus. Skin shrunken to skulls. Cavernous eyes and bulging cheekbones, bare skulls as hair sloughed away. Some of them looked at him. That was the worse part. They were so desolate. Faces of people that knew the truth of the world and had been shattered by it. Marcus had seen faces like that before. Black and white images that he couldn’t place. But yes, he had seen them. He tried to remember where.”

IBT might not remember where he saw those faces, but I do. Those faces haunt me from the pages of history books. For some reason they became the inspiration for my big horror in this novel. And for some reason I’ve never been comfortable saying precisely what faces I’m referring to. Perhaps you can guess?

IBT encounters this being several times. That’s not a good thing. At all.

I’d like to talk about the supporting characters I have in Texas Hold ‘Em, but that would be spoilerish. Right? The book is not out yet. But it’s coming! In October of this year!

So what do I see in this examination of my supporting characters? Two things. One is that George may have subtly cushioned my newbie introduction to Wild Cards by not requiring that I think too far out of the box on my first attempt. Each book ramped things up a bit, asked me to up my game, to get weirder, to think sideways and crooked. The second thing is that I got increasingly able to imagine the unimaginable, to create characters I hadn’t seen before and would never want to meet. I’m glad. It’s nice to be more adept at getting fictionally weird, thinking sideways and crooked.

That can only lead to good things. Right?