Imaginative Wacky Funfest: Featuring Diem

Imaginative Wacky Funfest chronicles my adventures in character and world-building. 

Diem is a strange character to open this series with. I've wanted to talk about Diem because there are some character elements that have remained the same for years, and other ones that have changed on a whim in the past two weeks.

In my experience, authors are hesitant to detail where their ideas come from. There are several good reasons for this. First, ideas sometimes whack you on the back of the head, and when you turn around, they're just there on the ground and you have no clue which neighbor chucked them at you. People use all sorts of phrases for this sort of thing: organic, muses...

I joke about my muse a lot. Mine is pretty absentee only choosing to show up for useless contributions. He lounges about smoking a cigar and making snide comments about my sub-par writing. Then he suggests that my divinist really should be named Lawrence, just for the movie quotations, and then he disappears for a few more months.

The whacking, muse sensation happens with a different frequency with different writers. These are the ah-ha moments. (Dreams are in this category.) I am not particularly dream-spun or intuitive, so... I don't have much to say here. Let's move onto the other gushing springs of creativity.

Okay, so if we're not wandering around being constantly struck by random genius ideas, where else do we get characters from?

Well, I don't know about other writers, but I build them.

There's something awkward about explain character-building, which is why I don't think authors do it. If we don't explain our character-building, then readers and critics will naturally assume that the character sprung from the wellsprings of our brilliant imaginations. And that's terribly flattering. It's much easier to just mysteriously smile at questions of inspiration than actually admit the truth sometimes.

Mysterious smiles suggest genius.

It suggests that, yes, I am so damn good that I made him from the vapors of my mind.

But if we admit that a character is a mix of people and explain that original mix before it simmered and became something new, there's a fear that someone's eyes will widen and they'll  go "Oh gosh, was that it?"  Then the magic will go out of their eyes and they'll see the connection. And God help us if the mix of characters doesn't come from a classic. It's really nothing at all to admit that your romantic interest was inspired by Darcy. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's all we'll ever admit it to because there's something embarrassing about saying that your anti-hero was inspired by a soap opera or anime.

But no longer. It is 3AM, and I have decided to be honest.

Character-building starts out as a collage. Usually I have a list of plot points and vague scenes, and I have to fill characters. But as I build the characters, I get their motivations and wants, and then I can flesh out the plot. In order to start my collage, I will take a combination of people, real and fictional, and I pick traits from them. But by the time everything has been dropped into this character gumbo and pressed into a mold resembling a person, I find myself with something relatively unique. And usually, something unexpected, even for me, because I am not capable of knowing how all the differing character variables will work themselves out.

Just introduce time into this character-building equation/recipe, and you'll get a real mess.

I know several writers who have carried around stories for years and years and their first novel is a treasured story that they've been nursing since adolescence. Mabel is not one of those stories. Mabel is quite old, but like a great city, only certain buildings are that ancient. Most of Mabel is pretty recent.

When I was a kid, I played this story out with myself. Armed with a wizard like staff—usually a long stick—I would summon animals. I think in the beginning they were just magical animals, a distant relative of Pokemon. I can only remember three of the animals distinctly: a boar made of wood, a monkey made of gold, and a black cat.

Sometime early on, I imagined an assistant who could communicate telepathically. This assistant was called Diem. This is kind of amusing because across the street lived a woman named Diem and her husband, along with their son. I thought Diem—pronounced Yim—was the coolest name ever. In terms of characteristics, Diem the neighbor and Diem the Gate have nothing in common. Both are Vietnamese, I guess. Diem is a Vietnamese name after all.

I'm not sure what the dates are on these prehistoric forays in what would become Mabel's universe. I would guess sometime between 1999 and 2003, because in 2004 I got caught up in writing my first novel and also because I stopped pretending.

(An entire blog entry—or several psychiatric sessions—could probably be dedicated to how writing is just me coping with not being able to pretend things anymore.)

Anyway, Diem has been around since the earliest days. The next development in Mabel came towards the end of the pretending phase. I imagined someone like Dawn as well, who was another Gate, and she was kind where Diem was harsh. Diem needed to be awake at night to absorb power from the moon because as the newest heir to the magic, I was not up to the task.

Rooms in the mind also developed sometime around this point. Any hardcore anime fan from the early 2000s should be able to figure out why. My kid self was deep in the Yu-Gi-Oh! craze, and "soul rooms" were a feature in the anime. In the anime, Yugi talks with his alter ego in their soul rooms. I thought the soul rooms were freaking awesome, so I incorporated them into my pretending and daydreams. Diem, Dawn, and I discussed how to take down evil wizards in my mind room.

Moving along the timeline, I distinctly remember after the release of the 4th Harry Potter book, daydreaming Diem soundly defeating a whole crowd of Death Eaters. Diem was and will always be the ancient source of terror. She has always been arrogant and proud, but also powerful.

She has also always turned into a fire-breathing turtle.

Okay. We good? We've talked about pre-history. Only five characters can claim to be prehistoric like Diem—Zip, Zipperina, Wood, and someone like Dawn.

Fast forward several years. I've stopped pretending, and I've spent four years writing. I've seen the Lord of the Rings films, and I've loved them, and I've spent years listening to their soundtrack and trying to craft my own epic. It's my senior year of high school, and there's one book left in my trilogy, but I'm losing steam writing it.

I've flopped back onto a bed, and suddenly I remember Diem. There might have been a full moon, or maybe I was just really bored. I closed my eyes and started to play with those old characters in my brain, shifting them around like worn puzzle pieces, and I tried to figure out how I could make a story with them.

The first thing that occurred to me was to have two protagonists trying to identify and capture the other, and then have a heroine who could identify them both, but chose not to. I liked the concept. It had a Death Note vibe, which I readily admitted to myself. I loved Death Note with a passion in high school. Still like it.

But I remember rolling over and discarding the idea and thinking about other things.

I wouldn't return to Mabel until the Fall of 2009, during my first semester at USC. At the time I was putting together my application for the USC Cinema School screenwriting program. I wanted to write a story about a girl's roommate who was a multi-body zombie. Imagine Mabel's City with no Charms. Duncan—called Vincent—tells Mabel at the end of the chapter that him and Iji are zombies. The chapter was a feature on the bizarreness of Iji and how you could get stuck with the worst roommate ever, the sort of girl that would go along with it.

I took me a while to get rolling with Mabel. I wrote that chapter and shoved it in a drawer and forgot about it. Then my junior year, I found it again and surprised myself. My beginnings are generally fifty shades of awful. But this one was surprisingly decent.

Inspiring even.

So, in a crude way I combined my childhood daydreams with my senior year idea about secrets and avoiding detection amongst fighting sides. Then I started to write.

From the very beginning, I knew that Diem would appear at the end to test Mabel. As a kid, I had constructed an elaborate daydream where I challenged Diem, using ever animal in my arsenal and winning with the last one. In December, a full year before I would write the actual chapter, I even sketched the fight scene on my iPhone.

A part of the original fight scene sketch. 
But Diem would stay dormant for several more months. During more than one inane teatime, I entertained ways I could introduce her earlier. Maybe Claudeen could secretly be Diem? Professor Herbert? Could she be a model for Claudeen so that Mabel and Diem briefly cross paths? In the end I abandoned all these ideas for a cold, big introduction at the end of Mabel's City. Sharp readers might notice that Diem appears at the end of Pin-pin's chapter, but more than one reader will probably miss the similar details. Not a required observation. That small cameo aside, Diem appears in her biggest, badass glory in her chapter.

The fight scene was built from that early sketch. That fight sketch scene was written to the following bombastic pieces of music:

Diem was not touched until Pin-pin's chapter. During the original run-through of Pin-pin's chapter, Diem was not even the vampire who turns her just outside New York City. In the original run-through, that was Wild Fukutomi. Then it was a famous gypsy vampire. 

Then, as often happens with character-building, all those things got smashed together and we ended up with Diem. The end of the Pin-pin chapter answers a small question: what has Diem been doing since she's not serving Zipperina or terrorizing cities as a giant, fire-breathing turtle? She's been the restless wanderer, seeking to throw people's lives out of balance. 

The only snag came when I realized—"Duh," said Muse sarcastically — that Diem had turned Pin-pin into a vampire. Uh. What?

"Well, that means Diem is a vampire," pointed out my muse. Stupid. 

And in that moment, Diem shifted and became a sort of vampire. She can't be a real vampire like Montiere because she doesn't need blood to survive. Like the Charms, she lives forever because she is bound to Zipperina. Or her new master. Winky face. 

Diem's full history won't show up in this blog until it's incorporated into the book, but this vampire line of thought introduced a lot of fascinating elements into Zipperina's and Diem's histories. 

Okay, now we're fast forwarding from Summer 2012 to December 2012. I am home for Winter Break. All free Charms have been captured, and Diem has appeared and her magical energy alone has set every magician's teeth on edge. I open my computer at the dining room table and plug in my headphones. Then I took a deep breath and started to write. 

Working from my sketch, I have to make a few changes. In the original sketch, Mabel defeats Diem by freezing water with the "Chill Charm" and crashing Diem into a building. Diem was also a terrapin, a turtle type native to the mid-Atlantic and the mascot of the University of Maryland. I wasn't sure if most people would know what a terrapin was, so I changed it to turtle. Then I went into Google images to launch the description of Diem's monster form.

Alligator Tortoise. (Combined with a craggy volcano and dinosaur—if you're going to imagine destruction, dream big).

Photos aren't mine. I found them on Google images.

Diem has always been a tortoise wrenched from the pits of hell.

The fights scenes of Chapter Eighteen were written to:

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Protectors of the Earth

But the entirety of Diem's fight scene was written to this on loop for several hours:


Diem's tortoise crown was a last minute addition inspired by The Lord of the Rings films. Right before the end of the break, some friends and I went to Universal City to watch all three extended editions of the films on the big screen. It was amazing. Just imagine a breathless sigh here. Anyway, I love the look for the Witch King of Angmar, so I found myself imaging a spiky crown for Diem's human form.

Okay, so I'll never make a character this awesome, but I can dream, right? 
Also in terms of changes, the fight ended with Diem forcing her way into Mabel's mind palace, which sort'a leaves poor Sal... in a plot hole. So, I ditched that idea and had Mabel try and flee into her mind palace. Diem and Mabel are whisked inside, and we spend time with Diem's human form.

This image of the Sandman by Roger Cruz was a huge source of inspiration for me during my video game screenwriting class final project, and some of that inspiration bled into Diem before I sat down to write. I also plowed Google images in the days leading up to writing The Diem Fight Scene —like a ritual or something — and came across this face. This is a Vietnamese actress named Ngo Thanh Van. I know nothing else about her. But I like her face. Or maybe I just like this photo. There's a firmness in her eyes, a touch of darkness.

Diem is not just a servant. She is the servant. But she has also been a shaman queen, a force of nature, and "wrathfully loyal" might not make it to the final draft if an editor doesn't like it, but it's the most perfect phrase for Diem. Whereas Dawn betrayed Zipperina for love, Diem would sooner rip her own heart out and eat it. This element, I confess, has no ready origin. Diem's meanness and loyalty are old, and they're mine. Diem is me enraged, with the rage I am often too timid to voice, and she has a much cooler outfit.

When Diem folds at the end of the book, it's a cautious fold. She warns Mabel that their relationship is not like the one she had with Zipperina.

It's almost like befriending a hurricane.

To me, Diem and Mabel's relationship is one of the most interesting in this series. I've been excited to write it for a very long time, and it's been surreal just sitting down and mapping out this history of character-building.

No other character is quite like Diem.