Character Design and Discovery (CHAR 101)

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 2,403

Talking a bit about how I come up with characters today.

I’ve got an agenda here; namely, I want to be able to talk about the characters I’m working with, but in order to do that I’ve got to talk about the process first, so any readership I have isn’t left in the dark.

I’ve heard writers talk before about how they don’t like to think of themselves as creating characters, but rather discovering characters that were already there, and using them. I normally hate this kind of stuff, it reeks of pretentious artsy-types and squishy thinking. But, in this case, there’s definitely something to that way of thinking.

When I create a character, there are definitely elements of discovery to it. Normally, I’ll end up creating a vague outline of what there character is: a very general personality. You can always tell the mediocre fiction writers because normally stop here. Their characters aren’t completely flat, but they don’t have any depth either. They tend to have only one emotional state, and one frame of speaking, and repeat the same things over and over in dialog. They feel like bit characters—they’ve been drawn using only one crayon, with the only degrees of changing being whether the author was pressing down normal-hard of really hard. Another telltale sign is that you’ll see characters pop up that just appear to be there for no reason whatsoever. They’ll typically have their moment in the sun for two pages in one chapter, and then vanish into the background, doomed to float spectrally behind the rest of the cast and pop in for one unimportant line of dialog here and there again. This is because when the author came up with the character, it was just the character—the personality—and not a role for that character to play.

When I come up with the beginnings of a character, I only come up with the vague outline of a personality that I came up with before, and I also come up with a role for that character to play. If I can’t come up with one on the spot, I normally put the character on hold until I have a clear purpose for them. Never include a character that has no purpose in the final product of the book, because the reader will be able to tell. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t create characters spontaneously. A writer’s instinct is a powerful thing, and some of my favorite characters have been throwaway cast that I added into a story on whimsy. Some of them were weeded out as unnecessary. Others turned out to be some of the finest characters I’ve ever made. But be flippant about it in the drafting process; if a flippantly made character is still flippant by the time you’re submitting to publishing houses, nix the poor sucker.)

At this point, I’ve got the two of the three most important parts of the character down—purpose and overarching personality. After this comes the discovery. There are any numbers of ways to do this: you could play the what-if game, or write little short stories involving the character, or write an imaginary interview with the character. I’ve heard it all, tried them all, and find all of them useful to varying degrees. But honestly, I don’t necessarily find any of them to be the final answer.  To put what I do in the most succinct way possible, I do on instinct.

An aside: The writer’s instinct is an important part of the process which can’t be ignored but also, sadly, can’t be taught. Having a good sense of aesthetic and character are indispensable to a writer, both in character development and other things. If you don’t have them, don’t despair, they can’t be developed. You’ll find some say ‘read, read, read’ and others say ‘write, write, write.’ I say ‘read, listen, observe, write, sing, speak, do things as well as you possibly can do them.’ Explore other art forms, look at Rembrandt, listen to Mozart, read a Calvin & Hobbes comic. Form and beauty are all around you—if you stop and pay attention to it, you can learn how to emulate it. And don’t be a genre snob, or a form snob. Go outside your comfort zone to see things you don’t necessarily appreciate as much. If you like Bach, listen to some Barenaked Ladies. If you are all into Ghost in the Shell, go read some classic lit. If you like to watch American Idol, go rent an old, black-and-white silent movie. But remember that nothing gets done if you don’t practice either, pay attention, then write while you do it.

Aside over: when I go with instinct, it mostly takes the form of finding out what kind of character is most appropriate to the story I’m trying to tell. The plot will shape the character—if you know what you need the character to do, make sure you’ve created a character that would do it. If your character doesn’t fit your story, you’ll have to fight the entire way through to get the character to behave. But keep in mind that the character will also shape the plot—if you’re having to force your creation to do something directly out of character, perhaps your plot needs to change. There’s a balance here. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, your characters will develop personalities of their own and start guiding you in this process. If they have too much freedom, you’ll never have a story because they don’t cooperate, but if you don’t let them muck about and play, you’ll kill them, and lifeless characters destroy a book faster than a disgruntled review columnist.

It’s much like pruning a tree: you have an image of what you want the tree to look like, but you can’t just force the tree to look like that image. You’ll cut off too many branches and leaves, and kill the poor thing. But if you just let it grow unchecked, you’ll have some monstrosity that doesn’t look good, feel good, or fit anywhere in your story.

Again with the instinct: if you do it right, you’ll know. You’ll be able to work with the character to tell the story, instead of just forcing pieces about on a chess board. Things will start to work, narrative connections will start to flow, and you’ll write better without even having to try. The character will, in as much as a technically non-existent person is able, get to know you, and the vice versa will happen as well. And sometime down the road, probably years after the novel is published and you’ve moved on to other projects, you’ll feel like you finally know the character well.

And, as a final note, sometime in this whole process the character gets a name. Names are important—I’m going to swear by that till the day I die. They help define a character. Not in the artsy way, like, someone named Brian (which means ‘defender’) will be stalwart and strong, but in a much more subtle way. Sometimes the names will just happen, and be built into the character from ground zero. Other times they’ll take forever to nail down, and you’ll have the entire groundwork for a character worked out prior to naming. I always find that I have a name before I the character starts revealing details to me. I’m not sure why, but it always seems to me that it’s when a character first gets a name that they start feeling more alive to me. The name is what lets them talk back.

The name of a character is a character’s life.



          First Draft of this guy: I get to workshop it in class on this coming wednesday. I’ll post an edited version as well, once it is closer to finished. Hope you like it.


            When Officer Rebecca Clives had signed on to the Seattle Police Department, she had been expecting to do something to improve the city. She had wanted to fight crime. Bust bad guys. If nothing else, she had wanted to drive one of those spiffy cars with the flashing lights on.  

            And, for a week, she had gotten just that, but only for one week. The chief took the car away after she had managed to pull the mayor over for speeding and then, after apologizing profusely and tripping over her own feet while retreating away from his Mercedes, backed her car over the curb and into the nearest building so hard that ‘Bank of America’ was imprinted in reverse on her dented trunk from where the metal had wrapped around the a commemorative plaque mounted on the building’s cornerstone.

            After that first week, she was put on foot patrol for some of the harbor-side street markets. That had also ended badly, for she had bought some shrimp from the Pike Place market, gotten food poisoning that night, and when she had crawled out of her bathroom two days later, had rushed to arrest them for assault on an officer. One short and comical trial later, Inspector Clives was taken off of patrol for the remainder of her career, and began doing deskwork at the precinct.

            Today, like she did on most Fridays, Officer Clives arrived at her apartment angry and depressed, with a six pack of beer, a six pack of pudding cups, and a package of Oreos, all of which would be finished (and perhaps thrown up) by morning.

            Bumping the door to her station wagon (which had no flashing lights) shut with her hip, she padded her way to the back entrance to her apartment, which was the upstairs sweet being rented by an elderly widow woman. Rebecca paid a small rent for it, and took care of Mrs. Dinwiddie’s cats then she was visiting grandchildren.

            There was a stairway in the back that Mr. Dinwiddie had made with warped two by fours and already-used nails before he died. Once, there had been paint, but that had come up, leaving the wood blotched green and pale with water stain.  

            Rebecca made her way up it, tripping, as usual, over the third and sixth steps, which were badly warped and never where she expected them to be, no matter how many times she went up and down the stairs. She dropped her Oreos each time, and by the time she fumbled her key from the side pocket of her black police slacks to let herself into her one-bedroom, she could feel through the plastic that they had been reduced to chocolate crumbles coated in smudges of the white stuff.

             The inside of her apartment was spare: She had a sofa and a television in the living-space/kitchenette, along with a vintage 1960 oven-stove and a fridge so old that it had rounded corners and no water dispenser.

            The Oreos had been smashed too much to dip in milk, so she took a small handful, mixed them in with her pudding.

            Rebecca had a nice set of China, for two, and she normally scooped her pudding into one of the bowls, added a little whipped cream on top for elegance, and ate it at the table, after her supper.

            Today, she flopped herself on the sofa like a drowning fish on the basin of a canoe, clutched her beer in one hand and the pudding in another, and slurped it with her tongue straight from the plastic tub while The Daily Show with John Stewart played on the television.

            It wasn’t just that earlier in the day, she had spilled the chief’s afternoon coffee all over that morning’s paperwork, or that she had gotten a ticket—getting a ticket in a police uniform, how embarrassing—going into work that day. It was that she had been doing the same thing and tripping over the same steps heading up to her apartment for the past two years, and had yet to bust a single drug lord, or even arrest a drunk, or even give a suburban soccer mom a ticket for speeding to her precious Tommy’s ball game.

            Somewhere between tongue-fulls of pudding, the beer paused halfway to her mouth, and she watched, with chocolate and Oreo crumb clinging to the corners of her mouth, the television flicker.

            In a daze, she put down her beer and pudding, and turned John Stewart off. Then, just inebriated enough to have an excuse for her clumsiness, she made her way to her bedroom.

            It was small, but with a full size bed and room enough for a bookshelf besides. The book shelf was littered with classic Noir—old beta tapes, mostly, and a few of the fifties books—and the complete set of Sherlock Holmes novels and fictions, along with an entire shelf devoted to penny-book store mysteries. Tucked on the bottom shelf, where they were hard to see, and could easily be hidden should visitors come calling, were most of the Nancy Drew mysteries, with their covers well worn.

            Above her bed was a poster of Daffy Duck in a trench coat, proclaiming that, wait a second, he was Dick Twacy, and on her bedside table was volume three of the ultimate collection of the actual Dick Tracy comics,

            Officer Clives paid no heed to these things, because they’d be waiting for her when she had cheered herself up. Instead, she stalked directly to the single luxury that her apartment afforded her, which was a walk-in closet.

            In the back, past the spare police uniforms, slacks and skirts, was a full-size mirror covered by a charcoal-grey trench coat.

            She pulled the coat off, and slipped it easily over her shoulders, and it fit perfectly. She tied the belt, enough so that it still showed off what figure she had, and mussed her hair just a bit. By itself, on a shelf just above her head, was a grey fedora hat, which she lifted reverently and placed on her head.

            Then, reaching into one of the front pockets, she pulled a carved wooden pipe, and jabbed it into the corner of her mouth. She puffed it experimentally, and then gave a fetching smile to her reflection.      

            “Clives,” she said. “Inspector Rebecca Clives, Private Eye.”     

            Then, as if to make sure there was nobody watching, she backed out of the closet and glared suspiciously around her room, and returned to the mirror.

            She smirked at herself, and said, in a gruff, low voice. “Well, Inspector Clives, it seems I’ll have gotten rid of you at last.”

            Then, in her normal voice, “I don’t think so, Kingpin. You think you can get away with your crimes?”

            “I think I already have, Inspector. Here you are, in the middle of my headquarters, surrounded by dozens of the most skilled assassins in the world. How do you plan to escape?”

            Slowly, with great satisfaction, Rebecca brought both arms up to her sides. The index fingers of each hand were extended, and the thumbs sticking straight up perpendicular to them.

            “I thought you’d never ask, Kingpin,” she said, and flung her arms out to the sides, hands ratcheting with nonexistent kickback, spitting out little kshew, kshew sounds as she mowed down imaginary opponents on either side of her.

            With surprising agility, she danced back in the closet and darted behind a denim dress for cover as twin thugs with machine guns darted in, opening fire on her.

            (“Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh,” said Rebecca, as they fired.)

            Then, when they paused to reload, she dodged out, with an impressive sideways roll from the denim dress to her ceremonial uniform hanging on the other side of the other side of the closet, firing off two shots, kshew, kshew, as she did so. The machine-gun jockeys fell, and all at once it was just Inspector Clives and the Kingpin again.

            “Not bad,” said the Kingpin, in Rebecca’s man-voice. “But not good enough, Inspector. You haven’t caught me this time.”

            Inspector Clives leveled one of her finger-pistols at her reflections head. “Oh no?” she said. “I think I have, Kingpin. You’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars you… you…”

            Rebecca’s imagination failed for a moment, trying to come up with the most odious thing imaginable.

            “…you criminal.”

            She fired a shot, but so did the Kingpin, and they both dodged in the same direction—backwards.

            At the entrance to the closet, Inspector Clives glared at her opponent over her shoulder, and the Kingpin did the same.

            “I’ve rigged this building to blow up, Inspector,” the Kingpin said. “I suggest you run for it. Perhaps you’ll have better luck next time.” And then, at the same time, Inspector Clives leapt for safety, the Kingpin disappeared from view.

            Rebecca landed on her bed, breathing heavy but smiling.

            There was a sound pounding in her ears, and it took her a moment to realize that there was someone knocking at the door. Entirely unsure as to why, Rebecca did not take of either her trench coat or her hat when she went to answer.

            It was Mrs. Dinwiddie, who was possibly the cutest old lady in the world. She was a short woman, and stooped over a can always. She had a long, banana nose upon which rested half-moon spectacles which made her eyes look several times too large for her face. She wore a red kerchief on her head, tied neatly underneath her chin.

            “Rebecca, dear,” she said in a way that suggested that just because she wasn’t Rebecca’s real mother didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed to try. “How are you today?”

            “I’m well,” she said, pleased to find it wasn’t entirely a lie.

            “That’s wonderful dear,” Mrs. Dinwiddie said, and toddled inside, placing a plastic-wrap-covered tray on the entrance-way table. It looked like it had cookies or perhaps scones on it. “You’re eating well?”            

            Rebecca hopes she didn’t notice the pudding cup and the half-empty beer can, and said, “Yes ma’am.”

            “I’m so glad,” Mrs. Dinwiddie said. “Rebecca, dear, I was wondering. Would you be able to watch my cats next weekend? I have another great-grandchild coming, and I’d like to be there.”

            “Of course,” said Rebecca, who know that cat duty was much more important to Mrs. Dinwiddie that punctuality in rent payment. “I’d be happy to. Just Saturday and Sunday then?”

            “Monday too, it it’s not too much. And if I stay longer, I’ll call.”

            “Certainly,” said Rebecca, bobbing her head just a little.

            Mrs. Dinwiddie patted her shoulder. “That’s wonderful dear. I brought you some cookie-bars, to help you eat better.”

            “Thank you very much,” said Rebecca.

            “Well, I should let you get off, then,” said Mrs. Dinwiddie. “I wouldn’t want to keep you.”

            Rebecca—who never went out on weekends except to buy groceries and, sometimes, if it was confirmation Sunday, to Mass—said, “Keep me?”

            “Not a costume party?” Mrs. Dinwiddie asked. “I’m sorry, dear, I saw you wearing that dusty old thing, and just assumed…”

            “No,” said Rebecca, quickly, snatching the fedora from her head and wringing its brim in front of her. “No, ah, no costume party. I just found it at a thrift store. I thought it might look okay on me,” she added hopefully.

            Mrs. Dinwiddie looked at her, and said, with the terrible innocence of old people, “I would take it back, dear. I don’t think it flatters you.”

            Rebecca stared at the hat. “No, I don’t think so, either.”

            “Well, I hope you have a good day, dear. Goodbye.” Mrs. Dinwiddie waddled her old-lady waddle out the door, and down the rickety, warped stairs.

            “Have a good day,” said Officer Clives, without much enthusiasm, and closed the door.

            She sat down on the couch again, and didn’t move—not to sip the beer, or to try to get the last smidgen of pudding from the cup, not even to lift the now-bent fedora to her head.

The Making of Friends

I’d like to make a few comments before posting this. I mentioned a post or two ago that I was having trouble with a short work entitled Disciple of the Gauntlet.

Well, I kept having trouble with it, and found two of the reasons that I kept struggling were these: First, it was very long, and really more of two short stories that were only slightly related stuck together. Second, it felt more like part of a novel than a short story, which isn’t a huge problem, except that I was trying to make each individual thing self-contained.

Both of these problems stem from the fact that I wanted the readers to be able to read the story on it’s own, and still get it without having to read any of the other stories to do with Artifice. Well, I decided to forget that, and just fix the problem. Here lies the first of the two quasi-related stories, entitled The Making of Friends, and it is at least slightly recommended that you have read both The Glory of God and The Trick to Fish prior to reading this, although it is most certainly not necessary.

As a final note, if this feels a little half-finished, that is because, really, the stories of Sera and Terri are part of a larger work, and thus the story isn’t finished yet. Perhaps not that beneficial in the realm of short story, but this is stretching boundaries all over the place anyway, so here’s the bit-of-novel/short-fiction, The Making of Friends.


The first time Sera met Terri, was at the Pike Place Market, when Sera had been idly watching the show, and accidentally beaned Terri with a crab.

It had happened fast, and Sera hadn’t quite realized the significance of what had taken place that day. She had, as usual, been using her specs. She had just turned sixteen, and had gotten a new pair for her birthday the week previous. Her old specs had been clunky and too big—like those massive goggles that kids wore at the pool before they learned how to keep water from going up their nose. These were much better—they were to her old specs what a crotch rocket is to a little pink tricycle with streamers coming off the handlebars. Even sitting still on her face, they looked like they were going fast.

The gauntlet that had come with them wasn’t bad, either—great processing power, and a much more reliable wireless signal, so it was always in contact with the specs. Her old glove had looked like something an old lady would use for pulling weeds. This was a proper gauntlet—encased her arm halfway to her elbow, and was streamlined so that, for all the thing’s bulk, it didn’t look like she had a sledgehammer instead of an arm.

Sera had been watching the show from afar, using her specs to zoom in and record some of the more entertaining bits. She normally didn’t stop by Pike Place, because it had become a tourist trap over the years, and she didn’t like crowds. After all, she almost always had her specs on, and was at least a little more prone to run into other people than the normal pedestrian. She tried to stay away from streets, too, in case she took a real car for something that her specs showed her, and waltzed in front of it.

Today, though, she was shopping for a present for mom, and Mrs. Bevens was quite partial to the hand-made preserves that the stand just down the street from the fish market sold. She had stopped by, jam in one hand and gauntlet in the other, to watch the fish market just for old time’s sake.

She almost didn’t see the crab coming. It must have slipped from someone’s hand, because it was on a collision course from her head, and she only caught the tail end of one of its pinchers in her telescoped vision.

Pure instinct—Sera had always had good instincts, and good hand-eye coordination—made her reach up and catch the thing with a gauntleted hand before she knew what was fully going on, which earned her a small round of applause. With a few flicks of her pinky and a twist of her wrist, her specs became as translucent as normal glasses and left her staring at a pair of black goggled eyes on stalks like black marbles each glued to a bit of red macaroni. She gave a girlish scream, and flung it back in the direction it had come from.

That haphazard throw ended up changing the entire course of her life, because the crab had flown strait and true, and skipped off Terri’s surprised face like a piece of shale skipping off a pond. The tall girl—who at first, Sera thought looked more like a puppeteer’s marionette, stretched out lengthwise—fell over in a mess of gangly limbs, strawberry-blond hair, and orange waders.

Sera actually had the grace to look embarrassed when Terri got to her feet, stalked from behind a stand of ice-packed squid and up to her.

“You throw this crab?” she asked, holding up the offending crustacean at her.

Terri was tall—very tall. Sera wasn’t, and the older girl towered over her by more than a head’s-height.

“Ah, yes?” Sera offered, wondering somewhere in the back of her mind whether assault by crab was a punishable offense.

“Not a bad throw,” Terri said, waving the google-eyed thing at her. “Crabs are slippery, and it’s easy to botch. You ever thrown a crab before?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Sera said honestly. She was sixteen, and this imposing girl in big orange waders was clearly older—maybe even nineteen. Clearly in another class of adulthood altogether. Sera wasn’t used to being noticed by college aged kids.

Terri seemed to find this response funny, and let out a laugh that would have been more appropriate coming from a man. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Sera. Um.”

“Sera?” Terri asked. “Well, I’m Terri. It’s not a bad job, catching a crab whats been thrown at you, you know, Sera. You must have been paying attention.”

Sera wasn’t entirely sure that because this older girl was suddenly on a first-name basis with her that it worked the other way around.

“I try, um… Ma’am.”

Terri. It’s Terri. That’s what names are for, right?”

“Yeah,” said Sera, although she wasn’t as sure as she’d like to be. “I guess.” Her lips moved for a moment, as if trying to parse a detail from the conversation. “’What’s been thrown at you,'” she said softly. “What, you threw that crab at me? On purpose?”

“Yeah,” Terri said lightly, “I thought you were a Goggle Kid, and they annoy me. Quick crab on the head makes them wake right up, though.”

Sera found herself scowling. “I’m not a Goggle Kid,” she said frostily.

She wasn’t a Goggle Kid, although this hadn’t been the first time she was confused for one. After all, Sera was almost always wearing her specs, and the the folks at her school would be shocked to know that her right arm really did exist under her gauntlet. And she was a little more klutzy than most people, even without the specs on, and so it was easy to associate her with the society of the Goggle Children—the ones that became so wrapped up in the images on their lenses that they forgot the real world even existed. The ones that forgot what trees looked like, unless they saw them in a D&D game.*

But Sera always kept in mind that there was one key difference between her and the Goggle Kids: her opacity settings. Out of her own room in her own home, she never turned hers up past 50%, and settings that high were reserved for sitting on the bus while checking her mail, or working on a paper for school over some McDonald’s. She never played games while walking, or worked on schoolwork or anything. Out in the open, her specs were for observation—zooming in on an interesting scene without looking nosy, or taking a picture or movie when she wanted to remember something. But she never disconnected herself from the real world. There was a line there, and even if she was close to it she wouldn’t cross over. Not into Goggle Kid territory. She would keep her eyes open to what was really around her.

“I’m not a goggle kid,” she said again.

“Well, I figured not. You caught my crab,” Terri said. “I’ve hit Goggle Kids before. Sometimes with halibut. They normally only flinch a little. They never catch the thing.”

Sera found herself smiling, despite herself.

“That’s a nice rig you got,” Terri said. “You good with specs?”

“Pretty good,” Sera said humbly, because even though the computer guy at her school called her in to fix things, she didn’t want to assume anything about this older stranger. She found out, later, that she had made a wise decision.

“Great. Do you play Tourney?” Terri said, and she was smiling with a friendly, infectious grin that Sera couldn’t quite help but start to return.

Tourney was a game, and Sera did play it. She was a little nervous about saying so, though, because the game was rated Adult for bloodshed and revealing costumes for the women, and Sera wasn’t quite legally an adult yet, but Terri’s smile won her over.

“Yeah, I play.”

“What’s your username? Maybe I’ll come find you sometime, and we’ll play?”

Terri was still smiling. She had thin lips, and a lot of teeth. She looked slightly hungry. She had lots of hair, too, and it hung almost to her waist in a rather unruly manner, which made her seem much bigger and taller than she actually was. Sera looked up, a little intimidated, and thought of Eric Mathews, from her biology class, who was six foot one. She was fairly certain that Terri was even taller, and certainly more spindly.

“The Glory of God,” Sera squeaked out, and then, because she felt that this might require explanation, “so that when I kill somebody, it says ‘so-and-so has been killed by The Glory of God,’ see. I wanted The Wrath of God, but it was already taken.”

“Right,” Terri said, and rested her palms on the back of her head, bony elbows hanging forward on either side. Sera suddenly thought of a satisfied spider who had just felt a tug in her web.

“Well, I should be getting back to work. I have to stuff a mackerel down my drawers and dance around. If you’ll excuse me.”

She gave Sera a pat on the shoulder, and left towards the fish market again.

That was their first meeting—and Sera really didn’t think much of it. She didn’t realize it at the time, but that was when the words Once Upon a Time found her, and her story started beginning.


*In fact, almost all Goggle Kids did play all the latest Dungeons & Dragons software, and so not only did they almost all know what trees looked like, but most of them knew which ones to pray at to get a +9 defense against ogres, and which ones were infested with level 21 bark-goblins.

Giving Blood

“Would you like to give blood?” was the last thing that Seth wanted to hear, coming out of the cafeteria Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t just that the stupid red cross girl had asked him after every meal of every day this week, not seeming to get that ‘no’ the first time implied that the subsequent answers wouldn’t change. It was the test in French that he had failed earlier in the week, and that there was nobody to blame for it but his own non-foreign-speaking self. It was his roommate, who snored in his sleep with bare-chested gusto. It was how he very, very badly wanted to curl up to a good book and grumble like a crotchety old man when anybody interrupted him.

Karma was broken though, and the girl, with her silly-looking, fake nurse’s cap perked up as soon as he was through the glass doors to the cafeteria, chirping: “Would you like to give blood? You could help save a life!”

He tensed—lips pursed, eyebrows raised—and gave her a look normally reserved for telemarketers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

He had told her, of course, that he had been to Europe recently, and couldn’t, and that he had a blood disorder, and that his blood pressure was too low. As far as he knew, none of these things were true, but he didn’t know for absolute certain, except for the Europe one, and so consoled himself that he wasn’t really lying, he was just speculating.

He wouldn’t have really cared if he was lying, though.

Blood drives, he knew, were good things in a general, academic sort of way. This didn’t help Seth like them any more. He didn’t like the idea of getting stuck with a needle and then bled, like a pig. Maybe he was just prejudiced against people without enough blood—did that make him a bigot?

He wasn’t much more worried about being a bigot than being lier though.

He gave the brainless pretend-nurse a patient smile, and said “no thanks, I’ve already given blood.” It would have been very easy to get snide with her, which was the reason he was careful not to. Besides, if she couldn’t remember the countless excuses he’d already given, she probably wouldn’t realize that he was lying now, too.

The mismatched furniture of the student center had been pushed together and out of the way to make room for the cots, where people sat still, doing nothing while they bled for cookies and juice.

Instead of walking through the cots, like a sensible person, Seth took the long way around, crawling about and through stacked furniture when he had to, until he could just reach his bag from the coat rack around an upended couch. He snatched it—it was slim, like a briefcase—and slipped out of the building with a rush of soccer players, preparing to head out via bus to an evening game.

Seth wished them skill before turned off their path, heading to the English and Languages building.

There was an office there, where Seth made a habit of taking over on any evenings when French tutoring wasn’t already occupying the space. Him and Catherin, the French tutor, had an informal competition going to see who could get there first each day. The loser of the nightly competition normally ended up conducting business in a small, but comfortable, nook in the first floor hall, with a couch, a few folding chairs, and a vending machine. The winner got the office, which had a desk and a chair that spun.

If he ever happened to win firm dominance over the space, he might ask her to dinner one night, and sometimes he hoped that if she won, she would do the same. It might help his French grade, after all, and she was pleasant, for a foreign-language person.

Today Seth got there first, which surprised him—he was running late, and Catherin was normally more punctual than competitive. Not one to have mercy on a rival, he sat down at the desk and turned his chair so that he could see out the door to smile presently when Catherin walked by and pretended to ignore him.

Meticulously, he set his briefcase bag against the far leg of the desk, removing from it a stack of papers about a quarter inch thick, and a red pen. He uncapped his red pen, which was the kind with the long, needle-like nub and the clear bit of plastic in the middle acting as a window to the watery ink sloshing around inside. Thus far, it’s the only red ballpoint he had found that worked properly without petering out after the first few markings.

Licking his forefinger very lightly before turning each page, he leafed through the sheets of paper, idly considering what his project for the evening was going to be. He had started a new poem earlier in the morning which could already use some trimming, but there were other, older projects that needed observation before he lost all passion for them.

Finally, he selected an old essay, which he had originally thought to send in to NPR’s This I Believe, but couldn’t because it had been twice as long as the requirements allotted. He had pared it down considerably, but still had about one hundred words too many.

He pulled the two paperclipped pages out and spread them in front of them, so he could see both at the same time. He read the entire thing over without making a single mark. Then he reached down and drew a single strait line across the title of the essay, I Believe in Self Control, because it didn’t sound good on his tongue. He was thinking about what might work in its stead when the door opened.

It was Catherin, who had broken the unspoken condition of the unspoken competition, and opened the door while he clearly had control of the office. She was panting and out of breath, though, and her freckled cheeks were flushed, which was something that normally only happened in Seth’s imagination, and so he decided to forgive her.

“I’m about to go into an exam for French Regional Dialects,” she said, and looked horrified. “I forgot a pen.”

Seth looked up at her over his glasses, capped his and held it up. “Do you mind red?”

“Anything,” she said, and he handed it to her. “Thank you so much, Seth,” she said as she leaned out the door, pulling it closed with her. “You’re a life saver!”

Seth watched her disappear, and tried not to sigh. She really was an exquisite person. He thought for a moment about her panting, and began to think for a few moments more. Then, without so much of a shake of his head, he thought the word nepsis so crisply and cleanly that he might as well have said it out loud. Nepsis, he thought again, all images of panting and freckles fleeing. Nepsis—the control of thoughts.

Repeating that mantra, he reached to his suitcase, and pulled out another red pen—he always kept three of them on him at all times. Well, two, now, but he would quickly replace the lost one.

For a moment, he glared at the title, before writing in above the scratched out title, “I Believe in Nepsis.”

And then, because he realized that the title would require an in text definition and explanation, as well as a reworking of a few examples (which would add no less than thirty words, when he already needed to drop so many), he wrote next to it “Consider in an alternate draft.”

Then he proceeded to read the rest of the text a second time, very slowly. Each time he stumbled upon an unsatisfactory word, he would grimace like a carpenter seeing a poorly made joint, and his pen would sweep down like an angry bird. After an hour, the pages was littered with angry, red scratches, livid and sharp, like blood on the paper.


Some quick notes about this piece, it has nothing to do with Artifice, first off. Secondly, it is pseudo-autobiographical, in that I modeled the beginnings of Seth’s character off of my own habit of correcting what I write with a red pen and my unfortunate phobia of needles, which keeps me from even considering giving blood.

As a note: I have heard the words nepsis used by many an author, but I cannot find it in any dictionary. I think it might be a foreign word that a few of the more learned authors out there talk about from time to time. In light of not having a formal definition, I’ll supply one. Nepsis is the discipline of controlling one’s thoughts—and is no small task to accomplish.