It’s a rather strange thing to see so many readers and writers develop a morbid taste for books that have to deal with social disintegration or manmade totalitarianism.
I imagine the popularity of this genre beginning in the 20th century is owed to the unprecedentedented rise of ideological “creativity”–if we can call it that. The 20th century seems to have been a laboratory for utopia, of mankind itself endeavoring to create a perfect society in a dark time rife with war. Perhaps the rise of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party began as altruistic, that the leaders and followers of these radical movements though they could better their fellow man by some forced and artificial order.
Such political madness seems to have been predicted by Nietzsche who saw the beginning of a secular movement among scholars and politicians. Religious conviction among elite and common society dwindled. Religion and the stories, traditions, and wisdom it brought –even if it was pagan–was the bedrock of all great civilizations of old. These socities had an aim at something higher and more powerful than humanity, even if many times those highly aimed principles could be misguided. But the age of Industrialization was far different than that of the Rennaisance. No longer did the great artists and thinkers of the age think to draw water from their wise roots, but to remake society on their own terms, to regard themselves as genius’ with their new discoveries and inventions. Society no longer looked back in history or up to the heavens, but rather at itself in the mirror, regarding man as god, as the proper dictators of new nations.
Looking back at the 20th century, we can see the pitfalls of this human hubris, and I believe we find so many authors writing on the subject both prophetically and retrospectively. We should be grateful for the genre of dystopian literature, that our artists have their attention on the greatest tragedy, the tragedy of human hubris becoming a self-reliant autocrat, the pitfall that occurs when our eyes are so set on that which is forward and progressive instead of contemplating on the self-restraint and wisdom of the past.
I was blessed to be invited to contemplate on the genre of dystopian literature as Shepherd invited me to write on my most beloved books and genre. Although my current series, Masks, is not inherently dystopian, elements of the genre exist. Not only do the corrupt authorities create a criminal state through their own selfish hubris, but a band of anonymous Masks called the Den see themselves as the new gods of their era, of being capable to usher in a new age of progress wherein individuals shed off their old names and mortality to adopt for themselves new names, new myths.
I also hope you’ll find yourself a copy of my book, Masks: The Unmercenaries, as it is a proper read for this upcoming autumn, being based itself around the holiday of Halloween. This novel begins with everyone’s favorite holiday of costumes and takes you all the way after Thanksgiving, just into Black Friday.
In honor of Halloween, and to provide the masses with a taste of this book before doing a deep dive into this novel of crime fighters and villains, I’m releasing Chapter Thirteen of my book for free.
But why throw you into the middle of the book instead of something more introductory?
Chapter Thirteen has a special place in my heart. It’s a “good ole fashion bank heist” with a pair of villains that see the world differently and their actions and goals even in conflict with one another. In this chapter, we see the embodiment of philosophical nihilism pit against common altruism.
This chapter also happens to have not too many outside references that require explaining. That being said, just a tiny bit of context may be helpful: Den refers to the masked criminal syndicate to which our villains belong to, Devil’s Dust refers to a “truth serum” kind of drug that renders its victim totally suspetible to any command, and “Masks” when capitalized refers to any individual (vigilante or criminal) that puts on a mask and a new identity.
With that, I give you…
Masks: The Unmercenaries
Chapter 13: Thief
Overman sat uncomfortably next to Baron in the back of a cramped SUV. His bright blue eyes peered out from behind his birch mask, scanning over their jittery bunch of lackeys stuffed inside the vehicle with them. The lot of them wore grey suits and birch masks similar to Overman’s. Only Baron stood out from them, donning a black tuxedo and top hat that paid homage to his Haitian loa. Though Overman found his matching tuxedo confining and stuffy compared to his breathable fabrics, he happily went along with the attire change given the occasion.
“I hate robbin’ banks,” Baron groaned, chewing nervously on an unlit cigar.
“And I love it,” Overman answered flatly, picking at a loose thread hanging off of Baron’s suit jacket with one of his knives.
“Dey are cliché, and never wort’ de pay when you consider de risks.”
“And selling drugs is so glamorous?”
“It’s crime dat pays well. How can a criminal argue wit dat?”
“Because peddling is for businessmen. Trafficking your product may be illegal, but it’s mere business, and so that makes you a businessman. A true criminal is a thief.”
“You splittin’ hairs. What difference is der between a businessman and a t’ief?”
“A businessman sees the world and wonders what he must offer for it. A thief sees the world and wonders how he might take it.” Overman made the lackey crammed in the seat next to them flinch with a single tap of his blade against his birch mask. “I wonder, how many businessmen you brought today, Baron, and how many thieves?”
“Nei’der. I brought soldiers.”
“They look a little nervous to be called soldiers.”
“It’s not nervousness you see. It’s amphetamines, da drug of war. Increases response time and aggression. Dat’s what helped Silverback’s Sanzaru get de job done at the police headquarters shooting.”
“Sounds like a crutch.”
“I t’ink a better word would be enabler. It takes away der inhibition. Paves a path for dem to der potential.”
Overman rolled his eyes, knowing Baron purposefully used his treasured word to try and convince him otherwise. He didn’t deny that Baron’s drugs brought out something dangerous in his subjects. He simply disagreed with the shortcut taken to access such potential.
“You want to see a city of masked villains, Overman,” Baron continued. “Well, I do you one better and give you a city of supervillains.”
“Super slaves,” Overman corrected. “Your drugs are a mere parlor trick. Show me some free monsters, and then you’ll earn your bragging rights.”
“I’ve already shown dis city monsters. It be your turn to show us a monster, Overman.”
The vehicle lurched to a stop once they’d finally reached their destination in front of a slow ascent of marble steps. The bank’s tinted windows served as a double-edged sword, blocking out whatever defense waited for them inside while also providing concealment once they made it inside. Baron craned his head out the window, curiously cocking his head at the narrow alley leading to the bank’s side exit.
“We really gonna squeeze de SWAT van in dat tiny alley?” Baron asked doubtfully.
“It’ll work,” Overman reassured. “And once it backs in, nobody will have visibility of our exit. They’ll just assume the specialists are stacking up. You and your men just need to work fast enough before the real SWAT team arrives.”
“I take da money, and I set da distraction, but what does da t’ief do in dis one?”
“Run security and take credit for organizing another successful heist. Any other questions?”
“Yeah. You ready?”
“More importantly, are your men ready?”
Baron reached over his seat, threw open the SUV’s side door, and Overman marveled seeing the men pour out like a pack of greyhounds coming out of the gate. Overman watched as they pulled their sub-machine guns from their suit jackets once they reached the bank doors, and smiled hearing muffled gunfire last for but a few seconds before complete silence followed.
“Let’s see how your upper did,” Overman said.
Overman and Baron casually strolled into the bank together, and the two snickered in tandem seeing the bank’s lobby herded into a neat circle as four of their five lackeys circled the patrons and clerks threateningly like a kettle of vultures. Puddles of blood pooled on the shimmering, marble floor around four dead security guards while one lackey stood holding his abdomen from a gunshot wound, his gun still poised at the herd of civilians.
“Four out of five, and all theirs dead,” Overman remarked. “Not bad.”
“Two of them tried surrendering,” the injured lackey reported proudly.
Overman turned toward the injured lackey, stepped slowly in his direction, and cocked his head.
“And you shot them?”
“Jitters? Out of rage? Any particular reason?”
“I wanted to show no mercy, Overman,” the lackey said with forced conviction, though Overman could pick out the shiver in his words.
“We all wear your mask, sir. The resistance should expect no mercy from the Overman.”
Overman looked back at the cowering, rounded-up herd. Few dared to look up at Overman, and those that did quickly craned their heads back into their submissive position. Overman shook his head. He wanted an audience.
“We require access to the vault, and we are asking for a volunteer.”
Overman waited briefly and grumbled, seeing all curious looks quickly averted at his behest.
“Your attention, please,” he started over, pulling a knife from his jacket.
The corralled herd sheepishly looked up, and Overman swiftly inserted the blade into the lackey’s sternum. The herd gasped, the lackey’s comrades froze in terror, and Overman drank in his prey’s look of shock. As the injured lackey staggered, Overman took hold of his gun and effortlessly peeled it from his hand. Overman rescinded his knife from the dead man’s chest, let the body fall at his feet, rested the gun ceremoniously upon its chest, and cleared his throat.
“I said: we need a volunteer from the crowd to access the vault. Are there any volunteers? Any heroes?”
Overman searched their cowering faces, unable to discern among their scared, tearful eyes one hopeful gaze, one resolute stare that would give away an individual of principle for him to play with.
The crowd only clung to one another tighter at Overman’s bark, bowing their heads even lower.
Overman sighed impatiently, knowing he had little time to savor any further theatrics, and forfeit the hope of finding any boldness among them. Arbitrarily, he plucked out a young, blonde clerk by her arm from the herd and placed his blade against the knuckle of her index finger.
“Would you be so kind as to point to whoever has access to the vault while you have the fingers to do so?”
The clerk pointed almost immediately to a portly man at the center of the herd. Although the man kept his head down, he slowly rose to his feet in a slowly as though instinctively knowing he’d been ratted out. The man wore a seething look upon his face, though it was unclear to Overman if it was for Overman’s presence or the blonde’s betrayal.
“Oh, now we have a hero, do we?”
“No,” the man responded curtly, “just the manager.”
“That’ll do. Care to escort my friends to the vault?”
“You know who you’re robbing from?”
“The Spades, a remarkably dated syndicate, bank here, don’t they?” Overman asked knowingly.
“They do. So, I think I’d much rather die protecting their money than give it to scum like the Den.”
Overman blinked at the response. He had hoped for resistance, though he did not expect it to come in the form of criminal loyalty.
“Are you sure you can’t be persuaded?” Overman asked, drawing with his knife a long but superficial line down the blonde’s arm, drawing out from the crowd a faint-hearted gasp.
Only the manager furrowed his brow as he stared resolutely at Overman.
“You showed little mercy to your own man. Why should I have any assurance that any of us will make it out alive if we oblige the Den’s demands?”
Overman watched the herd shuffle uneasily at the manager’s astute argument. Overman held his breath, hoping to find one among the herd to be provoked at the thought of certain death, a candidate for heroism or monsterhood. And yet not a single soul stirred.
Overman sighed disappointedly.
“Baron. Nothing but rabbits here. Do your work.”
Baron strode up to the manager eagerly, dug his spindly hand into his pocket, brought his fist up to the manager’s face, and blew a breath of white powder into his face. The manager coughed irritably and stumbled back, blindly tripping over the herd. For a moment, he rubbed anxiously at his nose and eyes, frantically coughing as though to rid himself of Baron’s poison. Though within seconds, the manager calmed, his furrowed expression abnormally placid, his resolute glare docile and catatonic.
“You gonna cooperate now?” Baron asked.
The manager nodded obediently, his neck moving rigidly like a robot.
“How do we open your vault?”
“An 8-digit passcode and my key.”
“Da passcode is?”
The Devil’s Dust really does work, Overman thought to himself.
Baron took the key from the manager, motioned for two lackeys to follow him off to the vault, and shot Overman a devious smile.
“Don’t have too much fun wit’ out us. Remember, we need some of dem alive.”
The heels of Overman’s dress shoes echoed ominously through the lobby while the herd whimpered in his presence. Even the blonde that he dragged around in his arms stepped lightly, stifling her own sobs while her tears wet Overman’s arms. He searched the faces of the clerks and patrons, hungry for a look of opposition, a trace glint of angst or heroism. After a few rotations around the crowd, he stopped in front of the manager who continued to stare silently, in an unfocused manner, his mouth slightly agape.
“No heroes in this lot?” Overman asked, pulling from his suit jacket a pistol and dropping it at the manager’s feet. “Or perhaps a villain? I leave you all an option. Anyone can pick up the gun and shoot me now and free the world of one less menace. The other option is to shoot this unconscious buffoon and join us. After all, this man has none of your interests in mind. Either way, you fare better making a choice instead of cowering with your peers.”
Overman stepped back from the pistol and waited, and waited, tapping his foot impatiently on the marble floor.
“It’s not true what he said,” Overman attempted to reassure his audience, gesturing his knife at the manager. “I do not decide which of you live and which of you die. But if I may offer some unsolicited advice: a butcher always fares better than a calf.”
His eyes hovered around the crowd again. Few peered up at the gun with curiosity, though each set of eyes that dared to cast a glance at it immediately returned their gaze toward the floor once Overman’s own stare spotted them.
Overman repositioned the woman in his arms and forced their fingers to interlock together around the knife. The blonde hung her head toward the floor, allowing her hair to conceal her terror, her arms and body hanging weightlessly in his embrace. He cocked his head at her and began to sway, forcing her to move to a rhythm playing in his own head.
“It’s not so hard, becoming someone like me,” Overman said, beginning to waltz his hostage around the circle of captives. She complied weakly, sobbing as Overman hummed and continued, “It’s a lot like dancing. Clumsy at first, compelled to watch your partner’s feet to learn the moves. But all dance begins with a tune, a melody that moves mind, heart, and feet together. It’s only natural to resist swaying at first, afraid you might step out of beat, conscious that someone else might watch you acting like a fool.”
Overman gave the blonde a twirl, and she let out a shriek as she spun away and then back, her head resting helplessly against his chest, her neck even closer to the blade.
“It’s supposed to feel disorienting; it is only natural to feel wrong at first,” he hissed into her ear, “But once you learn to let loose, allow your heart to sync up to the song that your soul has forever been silencing, you will find your liberating ecstasy.”
Overman complied, holding the blonde rigidly in his arms as he dipped her, her face pale and her eyes fluttering weakly.
“Let her go!”
Overman turned his head, spotting at the far end of the lobby a security guard training his pistol upon him, stepping out from the safety and cover of the men’s restroom door. Overman’s two remaining lackeys poised their firearms in turn at him, and Overman felt their stares, awaiting his kill command.
“I don’t think her skull would fare well against the floor,” Overman quipped.
“You leave her alone!”
Overman repositioned the blonde against his chest again and moved both their hands around the knife, forcing the blade to rest near her throat.
“Finally, a hero,” Overman hissed.
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. You could have stayed in your stall. Instead, you decided to take a stand, and now you’re outgunned and in deep with the rest of us.”
“I’m warning you,” the security guard said, cocking the hammer of his gun back. “I’ll shoot you right now.”
“And risk maiming her beautiful face?”
“I heard what my boss said. You’re with the Den. So we’re all dead anyway. So you better give me a good reason not to do the world a favor right now and end you.”
“Your boss can pretend to know what the Den’s policy is, but neither you, nor your boss, nor my own men,” he said, tilting his head toward the lackey he killed, “know me.”
“So what will it take for them to make it out alive?”
“You assume I own their lives. What a depressing notion. I am not a broker of life.”
“Then take your knife away from her throat.”
“It’s not what it looks like. We were just dancing.”
“You’re a creep and a monster!”
“And you’re a beat security cop!” Overman jeered. “Tell me, did you drop out of police academy in fear of losing your soul to this city’s corrupt nature, or did you give up on your dreams of keeping the peace when we Masks showed you how futile the prospect of peace really is?”
The security guard hesitated to answer as though embarrassed to say. As Overman waited for an answer, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the strobe of red and blue lights just outside the tinted glass of the bank’s front door, accompanied by their blaring sirens.
“I failed police academy,” the guard admitted.
“I suppose that makes you brave for admitting so. But, are you sure your police department didn’t fail you?”
“A few bad apples don’t ruin the badge.”
“Perhaps you should consider what kind of tree is producing such fruit.”
“It’s not the precinct that fails the city!” The security guard shouted. “It’s losers, spineless roaches, who hide behind masks like you that do! And that’s the truth!”
“You want to speak about truth?” Overman began excitedly. “The truth is you regurgitate platitudes without giving them a second thought. The truth is you are outgunned, and of everyone in this room, it is you that is in the most amount of jeopardy because of some misplaced sense of onus. The truth is you are far too underpaid for the protection you are attempting to provide and so far out of your own league. But you want to know what the real truth is?”
Overman flung the blonde behind him and opened his arms as though welcoming the crosshairs to rest squarely upon his chest.
“The truth is, you may take your shot, and neither of us will see our own legacy. But I promise you, those unhindered by any sentiment for honor or justice will covet my face, take up my name, and act as a copycat in an attempt to outmatch my infamy, while your legacy will be a nuisance of a bloodstain for a janitor paid just as much as you to mop up!”
Overman’s eyes narrowed gleefully, noticing the security guard’s hold on his firearm begin to shake, as though he strained to keep his aim at Overman, as though he realized how burdensome his conviction was.
“I can make this easy for you,” Overman offered. “You can walk away from this alive, live to see another day, without anyone knowing of your turncoat. I can even pay you for your troubles and give you a cut of our profits.”
“At their cost, right?” The security guard asked, his voice shaking.
“I’ve already assured you that their lives are not mine to broker. I do not decide whether they live or die.”
“You think I’d believe that you’re going to leave them all unharmed? You think I’d join you and leave them at the cruelty of whatever you have planned?”
“I think you would’ve shot me by now if my offer weren’t so simple.”
The security guard stepped forward, outstretched his arm even further, as though bringing the gun a foot closer to Overman’s head were indicative of his intention to kill him. Overman chuckled at the hollow threat as the security guard stammered, his lips batting together wordlessly to try to put together a retort.
“If you took my offer,” Overman began, raising his palms to the guard, “you’d put on my mask and see the world through my eyes. Yes, you’d fight with your own conscience a little knowing that this herd of cattle would be left in some kind of danger. That would sting you for some time, but eventually, you’ll find it gets easier, even liberating, knowing that there is no other life to save but your own, realizing that your job of protecting the money of dishonest men is not worth its pay. In short, if you take my offer, you’ll come out of this wealthier, freer, alive, and, most importantly, you’ll come out of this a new man … a powerful man you’ll have wished you met a long time ago.”
Overman savored every second of the security guard’s hesitation. His heart warmed with hope, seeing behind his mad stare the cogs of reason wheeling, an invisible abacus weighing each side of the dilemma. It assured him that even if the offer was denied, that deep down, there was another Overman buried inside another human being clawing at the dirt of conventional boundaries and archaic principles, fighting to unearth itself.
Overman turned and sighed at the interruption. The blonde stood aiming at him the empty pistol Overman had left on the floor. She stared at the gun in horror, bewildered that the weapon did not strike down its target.
“What awful timing,” Overman grumbled at her. “Can you not see that we’re in the middle of …”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Overman spun on his heel and began twitching in a barely contained fury seeing Baron emerge from the hall of the vault, holding a smoking revolver in hand. At the other end of the lobby, the security guard staggered on his feet before falling backward, his body shaking on the floor as a puddle of blood pooled around his torso.
“You’re welcome,” Baron cackled.
Overman resisted the urge to chuck his knife into Baron’s throat and instead flicked his wrist and sent it into the manager’s. As the manager fell like dead weight, Baron shot Overman a betrayed glare.
“Hey! We needed him! You cost me a dose of my good stuff!”
“And you cost me a monster,” Overman hissed, marching down the lobby toward the fallen guard. “Prepare your thralls, Baron, use your Devil’s Dust on the blonde, and set the trap.”
The guard craned his head up and shakily raised his gun at Overman as he approached him, and Overman stepped on the pistol and gently pried it from his cold fingers without resistance.
“No,” Overman said, claiming the weapon and sheathing into his jacket, “you had your chance. You had your chance to be the hero, to be a lot of things, and you hesitated.”
The guard looked up at Overman, the muscles in his face straining to convey something. Overman cocked his head, wondering what the guard struggled to communicate, wondering what words he would offer were it not for Baron’s bullets lodged into his chest. Overman moved behind the guard and hefted him across the hard floor to prop him up against the wall. As the guard sputtered to produce some kind of remark or curse, Overman knelt to his level and met his gaze.
“Entropy,” Overman began. “Absolute futility. You stepped out of the restroom just to be gunned down without changing anyone’s circumstances. You made your life’s work protecting others people’s money, only to make a fraction of what they piss away. And here I am, wasting my breath, lecturing a dead man.” Overman tapped his knife to his own mask, “That’s the reason why I put this thing on. It’s all rather meaningless. Still, we all have to make something of it. Not that it matters if anyone remembers or pretends to be the Overman. But, what else is a man to do with his short time on this decaying rock?”
Overman looked back at the herd as the screams of patrons and clerks devolved from lucid cattle into Baron’s mindless thralls, while each one of them wore a replica of his birch mask. Though Overman looked forward to his plan all coming together, it pained him to see each of the individuals stripped of their agency and reason while donning his mask. The longer he stared at the little Overmen thralls, the more empty he felt seeing a cruel allegory to the image: as long as the masses had their opiate, they would never truly know what it meant to be Overman.
“Maybe they’re all happier than the two of us?” Overman sighed in defeat, rising to his feet and turning away from the security guard.
As he made his way for the side door with the rest of his men, he could not help but stare at the train wreck that began to unfold before him, of the blonde taking orders from Baron to open the bank doors, obediently barking at the drug-induced clerks and patrons.
Overman watched giddily as the herd trampled over the blonde and barreled down the steps toward an onslaught of gunshots from the police brigade.
“Cattle don’t quite understand when something is taken from them.”
Let me set one thing straight: I didn’t write Masks during or in response to Covid.
This book’s inspiration is owed to a Halloween spent at Salem, MA many years ago, wherein a rather ordinary city–albiet, marred with a tumultuous past–came to life in festivity, in anonymity, in freedom.
That being said, the imaginary city of Nymphis, “a city of Masks,” has unfortunately become a reality in our society today. We are expected to cover half our faces in public, and there’s sometimes even subtle judgement when one does not don their mask. But the wide-spread “mask wearing” perhaps could be extended far before Covid as the internet has provided each one of us a means to cover up our true identities, whether it be through avatars or usernames, through avatars or social media sniping.
We’ve been wearing our masks for some time now. We’ve been crusading about our own virtues and values. Each of us is about something, much like the mask of a superhero or supervillain says something about that individual.
There’s a Smile Behind This Mask
It’s become a trite slogan that makes my bile rise to my throat. It’s an expression mostly used in introductions, as a limp means of breaking the ice.
I’ve started using the flip of the statement: there’s a Mask under this smile.
In Masks: The Unmercenaries, there are characters who wear masks only for the festivities, donning them to fit in with the crowd or protect their reputation while they go about shameless revelry. Along that same vein, there are those who put on a mask to protect themselves from themselves, to disassociate from shame, to allow their mask to conjure up a shamanistic trance and become someone/something else. And then there are those who put them on in order to embody something nobler than their mortal, mundane selves, using them to remind themselves of who they are and who they could be, to hold themselves accountable and testify a truth to the city.
As mentioned before, we do this in our own subtle ways. We put on a mask online, or we do so through our bumper stickers, t-shirts, tattoos, etc. “The veil reveals something,” and what I hope this post and my book reveals are our own personal beliefs, convictions, and pitfalls.
The novel hopefully reveals which of the masks we have put on. Are we wearing something to blend against the crowd? Are we wearing something for the sake of revelry? What things do we put on to conjure up something else in an attempt to run or hide from the parts of ourselves we aren’t so comfortable with? What do we put on that serves to witness to some truth or paradigm, or to constrain our behavior towards a particular goal or mold?
Which of the characters are we? Which of the masks do we find ourselves wearing? Who are you in this city of Masks?
But you can also become part of Nymphis yourselves. I’m putting together a “city of Masks” wherein I’d love to feature readers of this blog and of my books. If you have an appropriate photo of yourself wearing a mask (not a covid mask), I’ll put you into the city, make you into a “Mask”, and you’ll be added to the culture of this growing universe.
Either direct message me on Twitter with your mask photo or leave a link to your mask photo in the comments below.
On November 1, on the Feast of the Unmercenaries, the first novel of the Masks series will be available to the public!
Masks, the Unmercenaries, is an action-packed novel that explores the possibility of what might happen if Halloween carried on a little too long…
The story is set in Nymphis, a metropolis of sin and hermitage of All Hallow’s Eve. The story begins during “the Harrowing,” a once innocuous albeit shameful celebration of anonymous revelry that evolves into a night of violence, that changes this once festive city into a city of Masks.
Thieves & thugs hide their faces for their own gain, while vigilantes and watchdogs take up the mantle to combat the billowing threat of crime.
One such Mask, Father, takes to the streets with his band of Unmercenaries, in the pursuit to find his daughter and win back the city. But as they put away Nymphis’ tyrannical crime lords and nefarious traffickers, they encounter a threat never before seen by the likes of any vigilante: the Den.
Will the Unmercenaries’ non-lethal measures be enough to stop the murderous Masks of the Den? Will the Den succeed in their plot of undermining the entire city of its law and conventional crime syndicates? Will the Unmercenaries’ retain their own souls in the process as they battle this force of evil?
Find out, and order your copy of this crimefighting, suspense story that you won’t be able to put down!
Looking back on my years of writing, I’ve probably undertook half a dozen larger novels, have seen only three unto completion, and made a point to have one published.
So what seperates that one from the rest?
While some stories we write just don’t hold together so well because we’ve written them at a time of inexperience or immaturity, I would also venture a guess that sometimes we are more in love with the world we imagine or the idea (whether it be a character, plot, concept) than the utility of the story.
For years I fell into this trap of dreaming elaborate worlds that were honestly no more interesting than anyone else’s imagination. Though I naturally felt my characters, my world, my plot had an innate merit in it, I began considering how many of my novels never saw it to fruition because they lacked something deeper than imagination.
They lacked a statement.
I confess that the beginning of Masks was undeveloped during that early stage of writing my first “pilot” chapters of random characters. The world I was spinning had more to do with interesting character concepts instead of character depth or even thematic elements. It was going to be a flashy “what if Halloween never ended / what if ordinary people became vigilantes” sort of story.
Fortunately, early in the writing process, I made a distinct choice to go a different way with this story idea, to instead of write for the sake of exploring this imaginative rabbit hole of mine, that I’d make this story “say something” in order to give the writing process purpose. I wanted a story that wasn’t merely an escape from reality, but something that could fictionally parallel to my real life and to my real world around me.
This had a huge impact on my writing energy, fueling me to finish a project rather than to see how far the dream could self-perpetuate until it became dull. My story was no longer being written for the sake of being a cool idea, but rather the cool idea was the garment that the “say something” needed to wear, to “reveal” a message by putting on a colorful robe of imagination (if that makes any sense).
So, I made my writing say something.
What Does Your Story Say?
The image featured in this blog is the illustration from Part 3 of Masks, wherein we see Sheepshead–a former drug addict–attacking a drug dealer, Baron.
These two characters themselves put on new identities in order to say something of themselves. Sheepshead puts on the dead skull of a ram to remind himself of the “little goat” he still has inside of him from his past, to remind him of the stubborn impulse he fights against that could lead him to death. Baron puts on the façade of the Haitian Loa of death and debauchery as a commentary to the lifeless addictions of those whom he does business with, but in a way that celebrates the human weakness that he sees and exploits.
Masks could perhaps be broken down into two different messages…
The first theme is that of fatherhood. While every human being has a father, the roots and absence/involvement of fathers in each character’s life greatly impacts the direction that each character takes. More than that, the series hangs on the image of a father who will go to any means to find his lost child. This image was evoked to me in the music video “Everything” by Lifehouse, and the image today for me as a father has remained a particularly emotional one.
The second, and perhaps the more prominent message of the series, is that of deification. In this story, each primary character is moved towards putting on a mask in order to become something greater than their ordinary selves. This applies to both the heroes and villains of the story, and for good reason. While one typically sees deification as the process of becoming a saint, it is also true that the opposite direction of this path is an anti-deification, becoming an idol, a monster, a demon. The story speaks to how few steps it takes for one to cross the threshold between saint and monster, that sinner can become saint, and that hero can transform into the monster it fights. More importantly, it communicates how this battle between the two deified forces occurs invisibly in the midst of ordinary and mundane individuals, who either abhor, adore, or are indifferent to this conflict.
One such character, Overman, finds the maskless mass abhorrent for their inactivity, and although Overman is a menace and a monster in his motives, he is true to pick out the unmotivated mass as not participating or at least acknowledging something greater taking place.
In one sense, the masks in this book are the vehicle of this divine agency, the veil that reveals humanity’s nature and potentiality. The story is a book about sainthood in the sense of a transfigurement of the human, while also being a thriller of a creature feature where the mundane becomes a monster at night. This book hopefully challenges the reader to not remain idle and without identity, but to “put something on” and allow that idea and future self contest against other great Masks.
What I challenge each of you is to wonder if your book has a universal call to action, a message it needs to say that can compel a noble initiative.
And if your story is perhaps all dream, all illustrious, and without this core message, I challenge you: make it say something!
When I started “Masks” I had somewhere around a dozen character ideas brewing in my first drafts. I began the book not by writing a book at all. I wrote a lot of short stories of normal human beings who decided to put on a mask and take to the streets, fighting crime through their own talents and new identity.
The problem I commonly face is that I have a ton of great character concepts floating around, and either there’s no room for them or there’s no clear way of how to use them effectively. The other issue that sometimes ends up happening is that the characters change on me half way through any version of my drafts–as if they have a mind of their own!
I’d like to offer some insight on character creation and development by taking from two characters from my upcoming book Masks: The Unmercenaries. Through this not only will you get a taste of what you’ll see in this book, but you may glean some useful insight in your own character creation.
In this post, I’m featuring two characters: Marionette & Red.
Marionette has a role of featuring the ugly face of human trafficking while also embodying a spirit of vanity and dishonesty. She is a literal “Mask” in terms of putting on a façade and fooling others through the superficial appearance she dons.
That being said, this character wasn’t made overnight, and actually wasn’t even in the first draft. Her character stemmed from quite a few concepts, borrowing from a gothic “wraith” and another character that possessed an alias impossible to track down due to their obsession with plastic surgery.
As an aside, in middle school, I found myself both haunted and fascinated with the “gothic” image. It was a bit of a taboo for me in my traditional upbringing, but nonetheless it was a stark image that stood prominently against the rest of the student body. Even gothic and metal rock music had a similar foreign/taboo appeal to me because it was on the fringes of what not just myself but many friends considered “normal”. I mention this not to comment on the “gothic” phenomena, but I think the impact and feeling I had of this morbid fascination provided me some good material as I was constructing a haunting seductress.
Before Marionette, I had tinkered with quite a few “pimp” characters to suit the needs of human trafficking for the criminal syndicate “the Den.” One of those concepts got archived when they just didn’t fit with the tone of the role, and the other limped along as a place holder who just didn’t possess a rich identity or image.
It took a long time for Marionette to enter the scene for the first book because of a reservation, almost a reverence for a few character ideas, as though I was too afraid to use them now that I’d be without them in the next story. What I think we ought to remind ourselves in these situations is that our preference and reservations can’t hold up the creative process. Invariably, the book will tell us who to write and when to write them in. It took some time to listen to my intuition as to the “mismatched” nature of Marionette’s predecessors, but we shall find that when we give into our writer’s gut and use those great ideas first that we will have fewer hang ups in writer’s block, and the story will essentially write itself.
Her character also blossomed when I thought a little more on the “role” that this slot played in the story. Marionette stood well ahead of her predecessors because she broke a mold of casting the “human trafficker” as a male. Employing some gothic elements also happened to match the tile set of the book’s “season” (Halloween), and the “puppeteer” worked nicely with the role she was to play as a manipulator.
If there’s three pieces of advice I can pass on from building up her character, it would be:
Draw from memories & impacts of your formation/development. There’s something rich about our emotions and impressions from childhood even up to and past our puberty. Those feelings are buried ore that can be tapped not just for great literature but for better understanding of ourselves.
Don’t “save” all your best ideas just because you don’t want to use them up before your next book
Strongly consider the “role” each of your characters serves. When a character’s features can echo their narrative purpose, that character will naturally blossom and even become more memorable to your reader
Red also took a bit of time to develop as a character.
The very earliest drafts of Red were far from her current appearance. Back when I had been writing character featurettes or short stories of vigilantes inhabiting this “city of sin,” I had wrote a featurette on a former sex worker who took up the mantle of crime fighting. While the original concept had intrigued me, the image and feel of the character came across as campy and shallow. This is a case where a character concept has been archived for better use in a future book, but the original short story helped me form Red’s backstory.
Without giving too much away, the short story featured a limo ride and a recruitment offer from a wealthy gentleman’s club owner. This piece was borrowed for Red as an inciting incident for her to take on a mask (to fight men like this).
But the ethos of Red’s personality of being sweet yet spunky came from my imaginings of some prominent figures from church history. There’s incredible stories of sharp, strong-willed, and even cheeky saints such as St. Katherine & St. Marina (even Joan of Arc). The icons and images of these saints are always sweet and beautiful, and yet the church describes them in a militant way, highlighting their courage and spunk. Red emerged from these very old stories of saints in her personality, something that for centuries has inspired millions which I believe could use reinvigoration today.
The image of Red’s mask, however, took a bit of time to entirely settle on. Her hoodie and gasmask was first adopted as a kind of simple yet iconic urban image of a scoundrel, kind of like a rioter or graffiti artist. The components of her mask were meant to be not at all flashy or expensive, but simple while also being stark. The gasmask has always been a kind of mask that I see as aggressive, even “predatorial” with its large goggle eyes and snout like nose. Choosing the color “red” for the hoodie felt like a natural choice which I could spend pages on expounding about its symbolism. That being said, the components of all this came nicely together with this ironic and fairy-tale-esque image: Red Riding Hood & the wolf.
If there’s three things I learned from constructing Red’s character, it would be these to pass along:
Write “character featurettes” or short stories before you spin your main plot. Not only is this great for world-building, but you’ll have lots of content to use for backstories and future character concepts
Allow characters to change cosmetically and deeply in all your drafts. They’ll grow and develop and show you who they were supposed to become
Borrow from stories of old. History is full of rich figures, and the ones that we have celebrated in children’s stories and in the lives of saints are worthy of being brought into our modern stories.
Wishing you all the best in your venture of making rich and effective characters!
I am overjoyed to finally share this exhilarating project I’ve been working on for just about 10 years!
The first novel in the “Masks” series is underway for publishment: Masks, The Unmercenaries
Welcome to Nymphis…
A city of sin under seige from a faceless threat. Rampant crime has given rise to a pantheon of gods and monsters, heroes and villains, all who don masks to shape the face of the city. Driven to find his missing daughter, one such hero, Charles Hail, assumes the mantle as a vigilante to crackdown on the city’s unpunished criminals.With his band of Unmercenaries, these vigilantes set out to save their city from being undermined by Nymphis’ festering cabal: the Den. Outgunned and outnumbered, the Unmercenaries lean on nothing more than their tenacity and principles in order to not only halt the looming threat of the Den, but to quell their own personal demons along the way.
What began as a “what if your average joe put on the mantle of vigilante’ has evolved into a dark and gritty story of saints and monsters fighting for the fate of a broken city. In Masks, we are thrown into a city that celebrates Halloween a little longer than most places. Its citizens don’t take off their masks after the feast of All Hallows Eve, but rather continue to don them for different reasons.
The masks in this book have little to do of the masks we see being worn around the world. Rather, the masks relate to the masks you and I have been wearing long before that. Some of the masks are the veils of anonymity to cover our shame or weaknesses, others the mouthpieces of persona to embolden our voice or identity. They are also the helmets and visors we have worn to mold our inner weaknesses into the person each of strives to become.
‘The Unmercenaries’ refer to a category of wonderworking saints that accepted no pay for their services of healing. Our heroes, the Unmercenaries, embody this title by giving freely of themselves to aide their ailing city, without thanks or profit. As the “saints” of their city, these heroes observe vigilance true to their role of vigilante, and hold to a narrow code while subjecting themselves to Harrowing and unseen warfare.
While I enjoy seeing the “superhero” genre continue to thrive in media, I’ve longed to see the Christian culture recapture this genre of storytelling. Superheroes belong to the Gospels with their self-sacrificial and miraculous qualities that mimic the supernatural and awesome feats of the early Church’s saints and martyrs. While this particular novel doesn’t necessarily feature the “supernatural” component of “superheroes”, the story does feature run-of-the-mill characters who are relatable enough that spurs the audience towards personal spiritual rigor, introspection, and responsibility.
This book is unapologetically “gritty” but perhaps no more gruesome than the harrowing stories we read in Scripture, let alone than what we read in the Lives of the Saints. That being said, the book is also not over the top without purpose. This book hopefully sparks the creative endeavor to infuse the deepest truths of faith that don’t come across as campy or naive. Modern media is successfully selling flash, gorey stories that captivate the masses attention…now I wonder if we can offer something that actually possesses meaning beyond superficial motifs such as “punch the bad guy”.
This is a book about masks. So long as we are all fine putting on a mask in front of others, let’s just make sure it’s a good one, something that doesn’t merely protect and project, but compels us to act with distinction and nobility, not something that will blend us against a crowd, but will catch the eyes of others to convey a hard but noble walk that we commit ourselves to.
Stay tuned through subscribing to this blog for updates on the book. In the coming weeks, you can check out my weekly blog to get an inside scoop on the process of writing this book as well as some backstory content so as to begin dipping your toes into this harrowing city of Masks!
Lastly, I want to give a big thank you to Lexie Takis Art for the illustrations you see! I will be featuring more illustrations as we approach the publishment date.