Welcome to a new concept for Universe Factory. In this blog post a panel of people are going to work together to deconstruct my recent short story “Where is Will Hicks”. While it may not be immediately obvious there is actually a surprising amount of world building involved in the story and after a brief discussion of the writing itself we will be drilling down into some detail of the world built for the story and the decisions taken in the process.
Naturally this discussion will involve a lot of spoilers so I recommend reading the story before coming back to read this deconstruction.
The panelists for this discussion are:
The origins of the story
TB - The story originally came from a simple mental image, a prisoner being held somewhere and questioned by people. The question “Where is Will Hicks” being asked over and over. I wrote this story to answer that question.
I knew that the story would be told from the perspective of the prisoner but that the fact that the prisoner was indeed responsible for the disappearance would be revealed only gradually. In fact ideally readers would not realize the guilt until the twist at the end but upon looking back would see clues throughout the story.
The writing style
TB - I experimented with a new style for this short story, writing not only in the present tense but in the highly unusual second person. This was to try and draw people more immediately into the story, have them feel things from the perspective of the prisoner. It also allowed it to be written gender neutral, at no point in the story is the gender of the prisoner mentioned at all.
MC - The second-person style is unusual, yes. Oddly, even though that was your intention, I didn't actually see myself in the story, and pictured the prisoner as a nondescript male.
TB - That doesn't surprise me at all, I did what I could to avoid it happening but the cultural bias to assume male is very strong and I didn't want to explicitly reveal the captive as either male or female. In my head I also tended to see him as male despite trying to write it as neutral which may have been an influencing factor.
I think this is possibly a concept worth exploring in a future story and it reminds me of the infamous Prodigy “Smack my Bitch Up” music video. (The video is on Youtube but very dark and definitely NSFW so I’m not going to link to it. If you watch it then make sure you watch the last few seconds).
BP - The Problem with second person is that it is a way to identify what is happening to the reader. But in this case the horror is too far, and for a short story you don’t have the time to provide the immersion. Maybe first person would have worked better?
TB - I didn’t really consider first person and perhaps I should have done since it would be a way to portray the same view of events. I’m not sure how well it would work though as there is no reason for the captive to be telling the story afterwards and that’s the usual way to handle first person. It was definitely an experiment story and the first time I’ve written anything in second person so I’m not sure if I would try it again. I usually write in the third person and perhaps that would have worked better here.
MC - The writing style is also sparse -- not a lot of details or description, just the essentials. That works well for this kind of story, where the POV character is in distress and not focusing anyway.
TB - I was very much trying to focus on the experience of being there and what is happening. Anything not essential to the core story got cut down to a minimum.
MC - Because the interrogators always asked about "Will Hicks" and not just "Will", I didn't identify them as family until you started dropping bigger clues about that. I guess I expect a father who's upset about his missing son to be less formal.
TB - It's interesting that you say this, because it was meant to be unknown to both the prisoner and the reader who the captors are and then revealed over the course of the story.
In day 3 and 5 they ask where is "Will Hicks", but they also ask "where is he" and "where is Will". By day 7 they've become completely desperate and just ask "where is Will". After that the only use of the full name is either by the prisoner or described as them asking rather than being dialogue.
BP - I somehow concur with MC. The father and brother are, up to a certain point, extremely professional. Or at least they appear to me like that. I would imagine a father trying to get revenge to have dialogues somewhat more distressed. And not always calling him Will Hicks. He was his son, he probably called him “Will”.
TB - That’s a fair point.
BP - I can understand that a father would go to such lengths to avenge his son. But not everyone, even in a fantasy setting, has a cell in his home.
TB - Yes, and in fact the cell wasn't in the father's home, it was an abandoned building in the forest that happened to have a cellar beneath it. Perhaps that is something I should have expanded upon but there are hints such as arriving by cart, only turning up infrequently, no sounds of anyone else, etc that point to it being isolated.
Quite where or how the cell came to be isn't something I addressed for the story. It could be as simple as a storage cellar they re-purposed.
BP - That is of course one of the difficulties of short stories. Maybe mentioning the cart, maybe mentioning forest noises, etc. would give some indication about it. But on the other hand, it isn’t essential for the story.
TB - Well the cart is mentioned right at the start but yes the isolation of the location could have been emphasized more. I don’t think it was directly relevant to the story though so although I knew the location (to make sure everything stayed consistent) I didn’t see the need to explicitly reveal it.
Building the world
TB - With the outline of the story established I knew that there would be two captors, that they would be questioning the prisoner and asking for the location of a third person. I also knew that the prisoner had actually killed the third person and that the prisoner would escape by tricking one of the captors. I needed to flesh out all of those points and build a world around the framework they presented.
The wider world
TB - I had a lot of freedom here, it could be modern, fantasy, or even science fiction. To decide between them I considered all the possibilities but settled on fantasy for a number of reasons with the primary one being motive.
Why would the prisoner do what had been done? A motive was needed and serial killer or sexual predator are both very over-used tropes. Something like a vampire that fed on their victims would be ideal and could be used in either a fantasy or a modern paranormal setting, but again vampires are over-used. However there is a wide range of fantastical creatures out there that would fit the bill.
With the setting chosen as fantasy I then dug down a little deeper into how prevalent the magic would be and decided on a low-fantasy setting both for simplicity and to avoid having to deal with introducing and explaining magical concepts that distract from the focus of the story. The use of a cart and straw along with the lack of artificial lighting would immediately introduce a medieval technology level. Half way through the story I can also make it clear this is a magical world by mentioning a mythical beast, in this case pegasi.
MC - When he mentioned the pegasi I found myself thinking "huh, ok, fantasy setting -- hasn't been relevant up until now". Then it wasn't relevant again until the end, when we find out what the POV character is. Once we got the reveal it became obvious why you had to drop the earlier clue (so the reveal wouldn't be too out of left field if the reader was assuming a generic medieval setting), but until then I wondered why you'd bothered to tell us about the pegasi.
TB - Yes, it was hard to place clues as to the fantasy setting, and especially a low fantasy without commonplace magic, without breaking out of the very sparse style of the story.
BP - As far as I am concerned, the story works equally well regardless of the time and age where it takes place. A modern fantasy (that is not medieval fantasy) could have the same things entirely. In that respect the pegasi-clue could have been removed.
TB - The story could indeed have been set in a wide range of different settings, however once one had been chosen I did want to anchor it in that setting just to lead into the final exposé.
TB - There needed to be two captors, one who would fall for the (non-sexual) seduction used to escape, one who would provide the threat. The captors would also need a motive for this. What was their relation to Will Hicks?
The obvious choice of a father looking for his son would explain desperate and brutal measures, it would also explain the physical strength used in the assaults that would be harder to justify from a female captor. The choice of the partner though was a much more interesting one. The stereotypical choice of having a “soft” female and “hard” male captor and then the weakness of the female one allowing the escape seemed very misogynistic so a younger male was chosen. That then fell into place with him being the elder brother of Will Hicks (to put him in a protective role) but subordinate to the father.
MC - Yes. Thank you for not going down the stereotypical route.
TB - Throughout the story I made several efforts to avoid conventional choices but this was possibly the most important. I'm not interested in trying to preach through story but equally I profoundly disagree with the concept that female means weak (beyond the obvious raw physical power that testosterone provides). This sort of perspective is embedded so deep into society it is easy to fall back on but I try and avoid perpetuating it where I can.
BP - It works very well with only brothers and fathers. Though when we get to learn about the relationship, we start wondering what about Will’s mother. But it isn’t essential.
TB - You are right, the mother is not mentioned at all, which is mostly due to keeping the story down to the essentials only. I did very little worldbuilding in this area once I decided she would not appear. It’s entirely possible she died in childbirth to lend even greater tragedy to the situation but equally she could have been out searching or even keeping other people away while her husband and son questioned the prisoner.
BP - There are only a few days mentioned. This is to provide some rhythm, I suppose. But I’m wondering if there’s more to it? Mentioning days without contacts might have provided support to build a desperate feeling of the prisoner, even if it would have slowed down the story..?
TB - The hours and days without contact were the father and son out searching in a conventional way for their missing son and brother. It’s true I could have filled in the missing day 4 and 6 but I was worried about slowing down the story too much. Additionally I wanted to emphasise the fact that even though it was bringing pain and suffering the prisoner’s life was already starting to revolve around those visits. Any day left alone in the cell was a day that didn’t matter.
TB - Now we had the unfortunate family with the two captors and the missing Will Hicks but there was still one more element of the world to build. I chose a fantasy setting simply to explain the murder. The prisoner had killed and fed upon Will Hicks in some way and then hidden the body. His family are desperately looking for Will in the hope he was still alive, or at least to recover his body and get justice if he was not. As I already mentioned, Vampires are overused and have too many ways to escape the cell, so I ruled them out.
Of other mythological beasts werewolves were a clear candidate, but in most cases they either control their beast form or do not remember what the beast did. A werewolf both being able to remember what happened and yet not control it would be unexpected. Werewolves are also unlikely to be hiding bodies and would leave noticeable tracks that would make what they are obvious to an experienced tracker.
This led me to ghouls, these are usually undead creatures that feed on the flesh of humans. Their powers are less well defined in the general consciousness of the readers so that also gives me more freedom to work with them. In this case I decided that ghouls were alive and could consume normal food but it would not sustain them. Hints can be dropped about this with lines like “He leaves and you drink the soup, but it doesn’t satisfy your hunger.”
MC - Huh. I totally figured that the soup (etc) didn't satisfy hunger because the prisoner was getting a sip or morsel of food every few days. That wouldn't satisfy anybody. :-)
TB - Very much so, this is why it worked on two levels. Reading it the first time then the food not being satisfactory makes sense for exactly the reason you suggest. However "satisfy your hunger" does give connotations of other meanings which hopefully makes sense later.
Perhaps I should have used the word "cravings" rather than "hunger" or otherwise built this up but I was still trying to be reasonably subtle at this point. Maybe too subtle?
BP - Too subtle for me indeed. What about zombies? I know it’s kind of trendy these days, but it is usually more clear that ghouls.
TB - In general zombies are portrayed as completely mindless and slowly shuffling. It would also be obviously fairly quickly that someone is a zombie if you injured one. There is no way you could question a zombie or that a traditional zombie could hide a body. Adding my own twist to a monster can work well but that would be too fundamental a change to still call it a zombie.
MC - Is the ghoul self-healing? At the end his hands work fine, but just a few days earlier all his fingers were broken and his wrist was broken. How'd that get fixed?
TB - He heals by feeding. As soon as the brother got him into the forest and close to where he'd hidden Will's body he consumed the brother's life force. That rejuvenated him and allowed him to heal his injuries but was also fatal to the brother.
BP: In some settings Ghouls have some unnatural features. Like a great strength, or like a zombie they are decomposing. What does yours have?
TB - They are living, or at least can appear living, and they can eat normal food. I see them as parasites, not as alpha predators. A ghoul would be slightly stronger than normal humans, but not enough to break out of the cell or overpower the father. Their feeding would be more mystical than literal, they would devour the life energy of other humans to sustain their own unnatural life.
They have slightly increased strength, they do not age, and when feeding they have the ability to rapidly heal. In combination this makes them hard to kill but it’s entirely plausible for the ghoul to be caught by a couple of woodcutters (or whatever the Hicks family trade was, I never went into that). The frequency of needing to feed wasn't relevant for this story but I expect it's fairly low unless they are injured. If they are injured, as the ghoul was at the end of the story, then they feed to heal.
BP - How does the feeding happen? Eating brains? Some magical effect? Couldn’t the ghoul have eaten its captors during the interrogation?
TB - Ghouls drain the life-force of their victims by touch, but doing so is a slow process. The ghoul was bound during much of the interrogation and then later on it was weak and starving. If the ghoul had started feeding then it would have been left trapped in the chains at best, or reveal its nature but still fail to escape at worst.
BP - So it feeds on the brother while he is carrying him out of his jail?
TB - As soon as they are a safe distance into the woods yes it begins to feed. I considered describing that process to give a more slow reveal of the ending but I decided that it would reduce the impact of having the conversation and then reveal of the fact that the captive was in fact the villain all along.
The ghoul would feed slowly at first, which both strengthens it and weakens the brother. Once it is strong enough it could then reveal its nature and finish feeding without the victim being able to stop it.
This is one area where being third person would have helped as I could have switched the perspective to being that as the brother and describe a slow lethargy descending upon him as he carried the ghoul until in the end he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep.
TB - Even writing what seems like a small and simple story contains a surprising amount of worldbuilding. This is set almost entirely in one prison cell and contains only three living characters and yet the decisions made at each step along the way can have a dramatic impact on the final story. Stopping to think about not just what you are doing but why you are doing can help you shape it all to give the result you are aiming for.
MC - How much of this did you have worked out before you started writing? Or did you work it out as you went?
TB - In my writing that varies a lot. In this case I had the start and the end before I started and then everything else was filled in in-between. I needed to decide the setting and the relationships between the characters before I could start but after that it all just flowed together as I wrote.
Often I have a start and some characters or a location and no ending. For example my previous series on this blog (Decoherence, Red Stranger, Electronic Angel) started from the image of three girls running through a metal maze looking like victims but not turning out to be victims. I had no idea why they were there or how it would end until I started writing. The third story there was written just so I could find out myself what had happened to explain the previous two!