S.A. Hunt: The Fine Art Of Building People

And now, a guest post by a fella named S.A. Hunt, who is a cracking author you probably aren’t reading. His newest is Malus Domestica — I just opened this book up the other day thinking I’d just take a peek, and next thing I knew, I was like, 30 pages in. Amazing prose. Reminds me of some of the most classic horror writers. Hunt has a storyteller’s ear, as you’ll see below.

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Some people collect action figures.

I collect people.

I don’t know how you feel about that first point. Action figures. Some of you will probably think it’s childish, or a waste of money, or both of those.

Some of you might throw down a dollar for that janky old Optimus Prime or loose-hipped Skeletor that you used to have twenty-five years ago, lurking in a thrift shop’s toy aisle. Some of you will drop a paycheck on a superdeluxe polyresin Batman from Korea with a cloth cape and thirty-six articulation points and four interchangeable faces so realistic you’d swear the figure contained an actual miniaturized human soul.

I still live where I grew up, a stone’s throw from the real river featured in Deliverance, but I wasn’t that quintessential uphill-both-ways kid that had to play with sticks and bugs, although I did own an impressive armory of gnarled branches. One of them was a three-foot stick as straight as a pool cue with a top end that hooked like a dragon’s talon. I hung a soapstone pendant inside the crescent, burned sigils into the shaft with a magnifying glass, and called it my wizard staff.

No, I had a whole entourage of action figures. He-Man and M.A.S.K. and Dino-Riders; Thundercats, Silverhawks, Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; X-Men, Ronin Warriors, and Batman, and finally, the ultimate bauble, LEGO. I loved them all, usually to the exclusion of the world around me. Whenever I had a tiny plastic Leonardo (the original Playmates line, of course, bow-legged and wielding brown swords) or Wolverine (yellow and blue spandex, with retractable claws) in my hands, that was the only thing that existed for me.

(Speaking of Leonardo’s swords, in middle school my Harley-riding father, who could pass for a Sons of Anarchy extra and whose only hobbies were turning rattlesnakes into belts and keeping Anheuser-Busch in business, would buy me an honest-to-God samurai sword at a swap meet. As schoolboys are wont to do, I accidentally stuck it in my thigh in eighth grade—the first of many self-inflicted war wounds—and ruined a pair of pants. But that’s another story for another day.)

Some of the best parts of getting a new action figure was reading the story on the back. You might say it was their BACKSTORY, hahaaaaa.

  • This blue guy is the team’s mechanic, trained in the art of Ninjitsu from the age of four
  • This girl was raised by howler monkeys and was taught how to melt steel with nothing but her voice
  • This one can fly and talk to birds because he is the son of the bird god
  • This dude with permanent goggles rides Tyrannosaurs in his spare time and his favorite food is eggplant casserole
  • This man is made of snakes because fuck you

And then I’d ogle the pictures of the other toys in that crowd of heroes and villains and wonder what their backstories were. Sometimes I would make them up. Moss Man spent too much time swimming in the moat and now he’s covered in moss. Slithe is six years divorced. The only thing that can beat this giant glow-eyed skeleton demon full of naked viscera is a quick wit. Lion-O prefers to bathe himself.

You’re probably wondering, “Who is this spoiled little bastard, over here drowning in toys like one of those Golden Ticket kids that got their sleeves caught in Willy Wonka’s death-candy clockwork and dragged screaming into diabetic sweatshop oblivion?”

Well, I don’t know if you could call it fortunate, but I guess I lucked out when it came to being a little boy, at least from a little boy’s perspective. My parents split when I was barely out of diapers, which left me with a mother that worked constantly (and still does), an alcoholic father that had to be cajoled every Friday into weekend custody, and grandparents who lived in Alaska, which might as well have been the other side of the world.

(“You didn’t have to get me this,” I would murmur, head bent, quietly building a sleek spaceship under the patient guidance of its manual. This became a common refrain when talking to my father’s mother Edith.

“I know; I do it because I love you,” was always Grandma’s answer, and then she would pack up and fly back to Anchorage for another couple of years.)

So I was surrounded by shadows that demonstrated their love in absent material ways, and I sat in my room alone and acquainted myself with fictional people. I lived in a trailer and wore hand-me-down clothes, but I never lacked for imaginary friends that rode cyborg alligators and carried their battleaxes to Shoney’s.

To this day, the people in my mind have seemed more real to me than most of the people around me. The fortresses where they lived were infinitely more vibrant than this remote meth-infested banjo jungle people call “Georgia,” that’s for sure.

If you know me, you probably think this all explains a lot. But there’s also the fact that until my mother remarried and I discovered dog-eared copies of The Jungle Book, The Wizard of Oz, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and Alice in Wonderland in the basement of my new stepfather’s house, the only book I had access to at home was a medical encyclopedia and back issues of Country magazine. I know where all your vital organs and arteries can be found, and I know all about your motherfucking gazebos.

***

When I was that little boy sitting in the kitchen with a box of plastic bricks, Earth ceased to exist.

Suddenly the kitchen table was a spaceport, and this little guy with his yellow jughead and cocked eyebrow was Rocko Starcrasher, ace pilot and genius ship builder. Or it was a lonely English moor, prime real estate for the skull-headed Dark Lord Necromungus to build a towering castle festooned with stiff plastic ivy.

Some of the reviews on my books claim that I’m a “mashup artist”, that I can bang together genres and make them play together seamlessly and effortlessly. The Outlaw King is a science fiction epic, wrapped up in a wilderness survival tale, buckled up in medieval trappings, disguised as a gunslinger western, posing as a cheesy 80s-style portal fantasy. Malus Domestica is a superheroine’s origin hiding in a magical-realism story masquerading as King-style horror.

Using one sole genre to tell a story feels confined to me… like driving a car in first gear or wearing nothing but shades of green. Incorporating a dozen disparate flavors in a suicide-soda of words comes naturally to me.

That probably comes from the action figure thing—at any given time I probably had one figure from a half-dozen intellectual properties. He-Man fought Panthro fought Egon Spengler fought Anubis. And then, of course, there was Lego, where you were as apt to find a raygun as a pirate cutlass, and just devise your own spacefaring robot skeleton knights, like you do.

***

Then there was the Video Game Renaissance, when my newly remarried mother could suddenly afford an NES.

Video games are also an integral part of my storytelling DNA. Zoot suit cats with grappling hooks. Flying skulls and walking mushrooms. Barbarians trudging through the magma vents of a volcano in specialized iron suits. Long afternoons in the back of the family car guiding Link through the bowels of Koholint Island.

When I finished a video game, I often restarted it and put the characters through my own stories, or obstacles of my own design. This was never more true than when I discovered debug modes and the Game Genie.

After I beat Sonic the Hedgehog 2, I would use the debug mode to put down new traps or structures, or even craft furniture out of props. I would type nonsense sequences into the Game Genie to delve into hidden back alleys of garbled code in Super Mario Bros 2 or Super Mario World that nobody was ever meant to see. Scrambled, glitched-out panoramas of ripped faces and broken ghosts, impossible structures cobbled together out of the familiar. A tower made of crypto-garbage hiding the secrets of a secret universe, turtles all the way up to where the sky ends in a jagged stratosphere made of fourteens and flowers.

Parting binary curtains and journeying into the beating heart of a video game is probably how the characters in my novels end up looking into the abyss for the unknowable. Everything I write seems to veer through time and tide, ultimately, toward unearthing some Grand Cosmic Truth.

(And speaking of video games, like, ohmygah, Chrono Trigger? That was a huge influence on my storytelling. Y’all know what I’m talking about. Medieval fantasy, post-apocalyptic wandering, prehistoric romps, handsome hard-hearted magicians, Lovecraftian star-beasts? It’s left fingerprints all over me.)

These days I can build worlds on a grand scale in Minecraft—and I have constructed marvelous and complicated things, for me at least: sprawling Viking towns, hovering airships, glass-domed underwater villages, monolithic castles, mechanical gates that shutter open and closed like the eye of a camera.

But it’s not the same. The kitchen table is there and on it is the box of bricks, but Rocko and the Dark Lord aren’t there to sit in their cockpits and thrones. It’s a lonely Eden.

That’s the missing element: the characters. The figures.

This is the root of my creative vibe and process, I believe. I never stopped playing with action figures and building my spires, and imagining how they would overcome hardships and navigate treacherous terrain. The characters in my novels all have metaphorical kung-fu grips, holographic decals, glow-in-the-dark splatters of barium paint, interchangeable faces.

And they do come straight from the factory pre-packaged with a human soul—mine.

***

I think this is how I’m able to craft such livable, authentic characters, and why they’re always searching for cosmic secrets. These people are real to me. They are me. They are all fragments of my soul, and I’m constantly searching under the carpets and behind the baseboards of life, hoping to find what makes reality tick.

When I’m not writing, I’m building these action figures in my head, exploring their springloaded tricks and gimmicks, filling out the backs of their boxes. And when I sit down to write, I’m shutting myself up in a room with these people in my headspace, and playing with these mental action figures, playing with them for myself, for my own enjoyment.

And to me, that’s part of succeeding at creating enjoyable characters, really—you have to enjoy them yourself if you want your reader to enjoy them. You can explore emotional themes through them, but a character that’s all angst and inner turmoil can grate on your reader’s nerves. As an indie, I’ve gotten myself roped into reading many stories with sour, depressing characters in drab, depressing plots, and I can’t help but wonderwhy? Why do this to yourself? Okay, many people go for lit-fic to get that, but in genre fiction? You’re just shooting yourself in the foot. I think genre readers appreciate those action-figure characters: expressive personality, capable, dynamic, easy to empathize with, easy to identify with.

The best of these initially simple characters are deep and dark once you scratch through the surface, but nobody wants a mopey, defeatist, nobody-understands-me emo protagonist starring in their own My Chemical Romance version of A Christmas Carol. Now, I’m not talking about “grimdark” – a lot of that is ultimately, when you get down to it, either the power of the human spirit to prevail even in the face of despair, or it’s just the author burning ants with a magnifying glass. What I’m talking about are weepy, self-pitying emo-teenager protagonists starting at the bottom and just going lower, forced to wallow in every miserable tragedy of their short lives in inner-monologue vignettes. The characters never grow, the narrative never evolves, the situations never improve. Harry Potter lives under the stairs for the rest of his life and never gets to go to Hogwarts. There are a lot of indies that do this, and it’s all cookie and no chip.

Why? Why would readers want to subject themselves to that?

Okay, that might have been a bit of a rant. And a tangent.

The point is, to me, a compelling genre character is one that makes you want to read the back of the figure’s box. If you were sharing toys with another kid, this character is the one you’d slip off to the side and keep for yourself. Its plastic leer gleams from the shelves of the toy aisle, with a half-dozen strange accessories and a colorful backboard. You can’t wait to get home with it and get this tiny plastic hero into—and back out of—trouble. You see something in this character that you identify with.

I always identified with the offbeat supporting character, myself. The Panthro. The Knuckles. The Bluegrass. The Man-at-Arms. The Rocket Raccoon. The Catwoman. That bunch is who I saved for myself.

I like to be the Geppetto that giggles deviously as he’s carving that little wooden knight, knowing that this captivating character is soon going to be fighting wolves and leaping ravines in a reader’s hands. Be the toymaker, that’s what I do when I write. And I try to make all of my toys the ones you hide under your pillow when your cousin comes to visit.

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S. A. Hunt is a U.S. veteran and the author of the award-winning Outlaw King fantasy-gunslinger series and dark-fantasy Malus Domestica. He lives in Lyerly, GA where he tempts fate by kayaking on the river from Deliverance with his friends.