Central Casting

Chris Penycate

How real are the characters in this story?

Yes, I've seen your advertisements in the papers: Hero, six foot five, thirty-eight inch chest, must like reptiles; Princess, beautiful, must be ready to go naked. And so on.

I don't do it like that; I go round to Central Casting and say "Bert," (the honourable Albert Fotherby-Soams, but don't hold that against him. He dumped the author who wrote him many years ago. And I only go round when he's on duty, because he cares about his characters, and matches them to writers by feel, not computer analysis) "who have you got that really wants to be written?"

His room is lined with loaded bookshelves, and a screen rises from the table at which he was seated, but he made no move to retrieve information from either. Another room might have filing cabinets, or spinning brass gears, or even chained demons, whatever symbol might appeal to that particular scribe, or researcher. Perhaps the books were mere props, but the place felt right, and smelled right, for its occupant. The light couldn't have really been coming through those high-set square leaded windows, for the room was in no way gloomy, but gave the impression it was. A comfortable space, dark wood and cloth, none of the stainless steel and plastic, or magic and weirdness favoured by other agents.

"I don't know if I've got anyone desperate enough to get mixed up with your crazy plots." He always says that, but he always comes through. "What's the setting this time?"

"Near future, very Big Brother, but supernatural elements."

"So you don't insist on humans? How about a lesbian kung-fu vampire?"

"Sounds promising. What's her name, and is she beautiful?"

He chuckled. "I know better than offer that to you. You wouldn't take a beautiful one if she stripped down and gave you a blow job at the end of each chapter."

Your terror is an educated reaction to the very real dangers
"You're right; I don't write stories like that. At least, I haven't up to now. And remember the last beautiful one you sent me? She spent so much time with soap and hairbrush we were barely making fifteen miles a day. If I hadn't dropped her off at that inn in chapter three, and replaced her with the landlord's dumpy daughter, glaciation would have set in before we completed the quest. And the new girl could snare, skin and cook rabbits, and had a wicked sense of humour. When we collected your protégée in chapter eleven, she was furious at having missed the action."

"And came back here and joined a barbarian novel, where even charging into battle wearing high-heeled boots, a chain-mail skirt and nipple rings didn't outweigh the advantage that her beauty didn't require maintenance, while you always described the state she actually got into after days of mud, outdoor camping and not wanting to bathe in glacier-fed streams. I seem to recall that the dumpy girl was pregnant when she got back to the inn."

"Was she complaining? She'd been boosted from a non-speaking, practically invisible role to a fully fledged secondary character. Her child starts off with a 'searching for my father' plot, in which she's bound to have a major part in the first chapters, at least. We each left a unique symbol, as it wasn't clear which of us... and we left enough money that her father wasn't upset one little bit."

"No matter. The vampire's name is 'Maunissa', but I suspect she'd change if you asked. I think her original author wanted her to be beautiful, but couldn't quite carry off the description; she's got all the right features, but they just add up to 'ordinary'."

"I suppose I'd better meet her, but she sounds pretty promising - well, promising, at least. And you reckon she's OK with technology?"

"Treats it as magic as any mediaeval central European would - but how many modern characters do any different? She's not terrified of it, anyway." He made a couple of gestures over the thick, brassbound book that served him as computer interface or grimoire.

"Unlike me, you mean."

"Perhaps we could class yours as 'informed caution'. Your terror is an educated reaction to the very real dangers... ah, here we are."

A magical fantasy author would say something about materialisation, an SF one would mention the waft of displaced air, or the hologram-like shimmering. Actually, she was just there, as if she always had been.

"Maunie, meet Rupert Denver; he's an author."

Her face had indeed missed beauty by all the critical details, but the expression that lit it up almost compensated for them.

"A genuine author? And Bert wouldn't drag me out unless there was a real hope of a job. I could kiss you"

Considering the hardly subtle set of fangs she sported, this was an interesting, if slightly disturbing, prospect.

"Better read some of the stuff he's written first, girl. He's not to everyone's taste; you'll never be a best seller with him."

"He could write me stark-naked in an alligator tank in front of a night-club full of drooling voyeurs and it would still be better than this grey non-existence. And he doesn't look like an alligator person."

"I'd have thought," I said, breaking in on their obviously well matured friendship "That, with the number of vampire rip-offs being written now, there'd have been no difficulty finding work."

"In those? I'd spend most of my time flashing these." She gestured to her breasts, which were 'high, firm and pointed'; they'd have been enough to get her a film part in reality, but here in fiction they were just typical. (In CC, find a character who can't get by without a bra, and firstly, she has to be quite outstanding - only not there - and secondly, she has to have been written by a woman.) "And I'd have less personality than a face flannel. Crucifix fodder, and maybe a paragraph's erotic interest. Not that I'm averse to erotic interest, you understand - I was written for it - but there has to be more in literature than sticking bits of one being into another, be they teeth, fingers or..."

"I'm sure he's understood, my dear" Bert had been written as Edwardian upper class, and was actually blushing. "Denver doesn't write bodice rippers, or at least he hasn't done so up to now. Sex yes, but copulation off-stage."

"Don't make promises for me, Albert," I interrupted, "I seem to remember that in Last night in La Scala the 'copulation' was actually on stage, even if the audience weren't present." Where Bert had managed to make the word copulation sound natural, from me it was a mockery.

By now I knew, and Bert knew, and I suspect Maunissa was fairly sure too, that we would be working together, but an interview should be longer than that, or the interviewee doesn't feel taken seriously. "By the way," I asked, "How did he, your author, explain away the kung-fu elements, given your difficulties with running water?" Her features had a trace of Mongol in them; perhaps she'd attained vampirehood only after arriving in Europe.

"Huh. Him? He'd got a family of vampires running a camel caravan along the silk road. The robes protected them from the sun and, since it's desert, obviously no rivers or streams, don't you see? I suppose that, since it's futuristic, my fighting skills are useless. Would you be my leading man, if I were chosen? "

"No, there is a standard leading man in this series. I'm his biographer, sidekick, his Dr, Watson. And you're on, if you still think you're desperate enough. I'm sure the kung-fu will be useful, once I've worked out how you can travel; nothing is ever wasted, and it'll be great for the film version. Um, film? Moving pictures? You've heard of them?"

She shook her head, flung her arms round me and gave me a kiss (the fangs don't disturb at all) then bounced off to do the same to Bert, before returning to limbo. Slightly flustered, (Aha. It is possible to embarrass him. I'd have thought things like that happened to him all the time) Bert shuffled some unnecessary papers for a few seconds.

"Now, bit parts, " Bert continued. "I've noticed they are queuing up to join you; you have a reputation for making sure they always have food and shelter, unlike a lot of authors. Do you have any special requirements…?"

The conversation trailed off into technicalities I won't bore you with. Instead, I'll bore you with some details about me.

I was written to be an author, for first person narrative, but my creator, the guy who wrote me, gave me permission to rewrite some of my own details. That is rare; most authors (even me) are so proud of the words they've written they wouldn't let an editor fiddle with them, let alone one of their own characters.

That's how I fixed up my bad knees, which gave me far more flexibility in horse-riding cultures, and accepted weak ankles instead; good, well-laced boots could compensate for them.

But, even more than this, he let me edit him – how many authors would have that much confidence in their creations? I didn't change him much, just a slight improvement in his eyesight, so he could get around without spectacles, and a bit more depth and authority to his voice, which I took back out when we'd finished the editing.

Tubby and unfit, he panted round the quest with us, unwilling to let his physical disadvantages slow the rest of us down, and his friends must have been quite surprised at his fitness afterwards. What would have happened had he died on the adventure? I don't know, and I don't want to find out. Many characters have lived on after their creators' deaths, and some have even had further adventures, but none, to my knowledge, have been responsible for that death.

Anyway, my creator came out of the experience with new insight into what it meant to be a character (and better muscle tone, and lots of bruises), and no author can resist a new insight. Certainly I can't.

I promise you, my fictional and probably imaginary reader, that that was less boring than our discussion as to how many secondary characters and how many zombies (we're not talking real zombies here, but cyphers, moving wallpaper, cut-out figures with no need for personalities) I'd be needing to make my crowd scenes effective, then we took a cup of virtual tea .

I copied the folder containing the new companions I wouldn't meet until I reached their part in the story, and closed the CentralCasting window.

Now I just needed to get creative.

© Chris Penycate 2008 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 01:00 Sat 22 Nov 2008
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