In previous entries about creating characters I’ve talked at length about the need for character quirks to not define the character. Someone who “has a limp” or “only opens doors with their left hand” as a primary characteristic doesn’t usually make for a compelling story, whether in literature, gaming, or other media.
Some years ago a friend and I had the opportunity to play one-shot (non-recurring) characters for a large live-action horror event in the area. Both being veterans of the genre, we were given the guideline of “be memorable” by the event-runners, with no additional stipulations or suggestions.
We absolutely accomplished that goal.
Too often I see actors, be they in the theatre, on YouTube, or in Haunted Houses, portray a character that’s “crazy” as the one defining trait. Social politics of that word aside, usually they present a one-dimensional caricature, hoping the “zaniness” or their off-the-wall behavior will carry their performance. This friend and I decided to show this large group of role-players how “crazy” could really look, and how truly terrifying a life perceived through madness could be.
For our characters, we wanted to make sure that we had both a clear idea of what their motivations were, and that all of our interactions with the outside world would be translated through a disturbing and emotionally-complicated lens. The goal was to appear as “normal” as everyone else, with only hints and suggestions of the true thunderstorm going on underneath, until someone put enough pieces together to realize that not only were we well and truly insane but also actively malevolent in ways they were not prepared for.
Without further introduction, I introduce you to two drifters who left social and political carnage in their wake.
Content Warning: this story involves insinuations and admissions of mental, emotional, and sexual abuse. There is brief and implied violence. Reader discretion is advised.
“Doctor Wiley Exall,” the man dressed as a nineteenth-century stage magician introduced himself to the new arrivals with extended hand. He seemed a serious figure, one severe in composition and mood, weighty thoughts furrowing his brow.
“I’m Johnathan,” came the reply with a firm handshake. “This lovely on my arm is Marabell, my daughter. How do you find yourself this evening?”
“I’m brooding a lot of late—local politics being what they are. A word to the wise, friend, avoid the officers of the court tonight; they all seem to be on edge.”
“Advice well-taken, friend,” the man calling himself Johnathan nodded, his steely eyes watching the man depart into the thickening early-evening crowd.
“Doctor Exhill?” the woman on his arm asked, the very picture of wide-eyed innocence, having not quite caught the man’s name.
“Doctor Exhale?” he shrugged dispassionately—in truth the man had vanished from his mind the moment he walked away.
“Doctor Breathe,” she nodded with surety. “What a strange thing to do—brooding.”
“And dangerous. We should tell someone,” he suggested. She always obeyed his suggestions.
Circling through the crowd, the pair were eventually met by a set of twins, dressed as mirror opposites. They seemed eager for news, and were quickly sated.
“I’m Bryant and this is my wife Angela,” Johnathan introduced. “Have you met Doctor Breathe?”
The twins shook their heads but leaned in with quirked eyebrows, shared interest piqued.
“He’s come up with a way to make vampires without a sire,” Marabell-Angela whispered conspiratorially. “He calls it ‘brooding.'”
With a simultaneous gasp at her remark, the twins looked to one another. Declaring “we must tell the Prince,” they took their leave of the strangers in their midst.
“It’s good that they’re looking into it,” Bryant said to his wife, “you did a very good thing.” She beamed. “As a reward, I want you to make a friend. Do you see anyone who looks like they’d be a good friend?”
Looking out over the assembled vampires, she spotted a slight woman in a straight red dress across the hall. “I like her eyes,” Angela whispered, almost in awe. “I could get lost in them.”
“Perfect, love, simply perfect,” Bryant smiled, leading her on a circuitous route through the crowd, where they several times introduced themselves and passed on their pressing news. They approached the woman from behind as she spoke in a small group with two older gentlemen—grandfatherly-looking individuals—one sporting along-out-of-fashion bushy mustache.
“I do so hate to intrude, but my daughter Patricia has simply fallen in love with your dress,” the stranger interrupted, introducing the woman on his arm. “I’m Jacob, and we recently found ourselves in your charming little town.”
The group of five exchanged pleasantries, though were briefly interrupted by a passer-by asking if any had seen someone by the name of “Dr. Breathe” pass by. None had, they remarked, but all would keep their eyes out for any such individual. All in all they seemed to be adequate conversationalists enjoying a festive evening, the banality of which quickly bored Bryant-Jacob.
“Hon?” he began, addressing his daughter. “I’m going to make the rounds, will you be okay for a few minutes?”
“Of course, daddy,” Angela-Patricia smiled sweetly, looking at the woman and two gentlemen. “I know they’ll protect me.”
“I’m sure they will, love,” he smiled, extending his hand to the trio. “Make sure you do—she’s my little angel.”
Jacob meandered through the thick crowd, giving deference to the few court officers he passed, particularly as they all seemed to be worriedly searching for something—or someone. Introducing himself to several individuals who seemed worth his time, before quickly dismissing the idea and moving on, he soon found himself out on the large veranda, admiring the gardens below with a man named Paul, a long-time resident who tried to give him the low-down on local politics. Jacob made polite noises.
As soon as her father/husband was out of sight, Patricia began sobbing, all pretense of humor and innocence dropping from her face. She fell to the floor with great, wracking wails that drew more than a little attention. Some stepped away with disapproving frowns—not wanting to be involved—while her three companions, with one or two others, immediately came to her aid.
“Please,” she coughed between breathless bouts of tears, “Please save me, please don’t let him take me again.”
Questioning eyes surrounded her until the conversational woman sat down on the plush carpet beside her new acquaintance. “Is it Jacob?” she asked, gingerly placing an arm around shaking shoulders. “Does he hurt you?”
Patricia’s wails drowned out the piano music that served as a neutral background for the evening as she buried her head in the woman’s shoulder, weeping openly as she nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
On the veranda, Paul asked Jacob when he had come into town. “Three or four nights ago,” he began with genuine disinterest, “It must have been Wednesday because me and —” He froze mid-sentence, his face twisting with rage and confusion. “What have you done with my wife?” he demanded, suddenly bearing down on the man with unbridled fury.
“Y-your wife?” Paul stammered, caught wholly unawares by the abrupt and severe turn in Jacob’s behavior.
Jacob snaked out a wiry hand and took tight purchase of the man’s necktie, drawing their faces uncomfortably close. “If you have touched one hair on her head, I will execute you here and now,” he growled, his voice almost more bestial than human, eyes burning with genuine hate and malice.
“Someone!” Paul called out to the passers-by who had been ignoring his plight—apparently Paul didn’t have many friends in attendance. “Someone! For the love of God, someone find this man’s wife—she might be in danger!” His arms flailed toward others sharing the night air, still off-balance by Jacob’s inconsistent yanking on his tie. Several party attendees, having remembered seeing Jacob enter with a young woman, began running to find her, to rescue her if necessary—obviously this man’s love was deep-seated, as was his fear that something may have happened to her.
Jacob paid no attention to the clearing balcony, his eyes burning into Paul’s, his unrelenting tirade continuing. His voice dropped to a low but distinct tone, where every syllable was over-enunciated in a way that somehow conveyed his blind rage even more palpably than his screaming.
“If you have let anything happen to her—or worse, done something to her yourself—I will split open your neck and drink you dry before this entire party as a warning. You will be the first, and far from the last. The few survivors will remember me, and remember why this wrath was called down upon them.” He continued talking over Paul’s attempts to plead his innocence—or ignorance—unwilling or unable to let the man try to weasel out of the situation. He pulled the man bodily toward the third-floor railing.
Inside, a small hunting party was forming, determined to protect the young innocent, who revealed that her terrible father turned her into a vampire against her will so she could be “his forever” and so that he could perform all number of unspeakable things to her at his will and pleasure. Much to the horror and distress of those around her, she began to go into exhaustive detail about the depraved acts he and his friends performed on, with, and to her. Several attendants grew even paler than normal and quickly took their leave.
At the same time, fearful party-goers from the balcony were running around the lush salon, trying to find the wild man’s wife. One, recognizing the girl in the midst of worried onlookers, rushed to her side. “Thank goodness,” he painted, relieved to have found her. “Are you okay? Are you safe?” The woman nodded, makeup running in dark streaks down her face. “We have to get you outside,” he urged, almost forcing her to her feet.
The woman and two bodyguards who first came to her aid nodded solemnly. “I agree, let’s get her as far away from here as possible,” she determined, taking Patricia’s other hand. “It’s okay, honey, we’ll take you somewhere safe—you’ll never be hurt again.”
As they neared the door, the woman brought Patricia to a sudden halt at the sound of commotion, while the other man strove to bring her outside. “Her father is out there,” she hissed, “we need to go out the front.” Jacob’s berating of the beleaguered Paul had not slowed or eased.
“Her husband needs her,” the scared man said, tugging on Patricia’s arm. “He’s on a rampage out there. The two helpers glared at one another, each believing the other to be complicit in some perverse plot to harm the child.
Patricia began to cry and sob anew, her tears coming with such ferocity she couldn’t answer any questions put to her—she became practically non-verbal with unabashed terror. Her screams drew looks from all other party attendees inside the salon; nobody could feign to ignore the scene any longer.
The tug-of-war for Patricia continued, with clear battle lines being drawn between those that had heard her story and those who witnessed the depths of Jacob’s rage first-hand. The closest to neutrality came from a man shrugging at the spectacle. “Even if he has hurt her in the past, he’s out there about to kill Paul right now. We need to end this.”
“And end this we will,” the woman in red agreed with ice dripping from her words. She looked to those around her. “We’re not armed but neither is he. He’ll see her again alright; he’ll die in sight of her. The lynch mob roared their agreement—even if Paul weren’t particularly popular, no outsider would threaten a member of the city and get away with it.
With Patricia wailing and trying in vain to resist the crowd pulling her toward the door, someone at the front of the group threw wide the portal, revealing Jacob screaming without coherent words, about to throw Paul off the ledge. As the door slammed open, his raging eyes turned toward the distraction.
“Megan!” he cried, dropping Paul bodily onto the veranda without a second thought. His face beamed and tears of relief fell from his wide eyes.
“Donovan!” Patricia-Megan called with joy, all traces of her previous hysterics evaporating as quickly as had his rage.
Both the groups that were sent to find her and those set on protecting her were at a loss as she tore loose from their grip and jumped into his arms, embracing him with a kiss that was far too passionate for public display.
“I missed you so much,” he panted as he moved to kissing her neck, which she extended for him, her eyes rolling back in her head in pleasure.
“I was so worried,” she whispered, breath punctuated with little gasps at his touch. “I couldn’t find you.”
“Never leave me again,” he pleaded, turning and pushing her against the railing. His hands went to her flowing dress.
“Never, never, not ever,” she promised, spreading her legs for him.
Wide-eyed and lost for words, the onlookers began to back away, returning with uncomfortable silence to the location of their grand party. The couple paid them no mind, vigorously engaged in sex the passion of which would make newlyweds blush.
Around the corner of the balcony came the Prince and her bodyguards, trusted and martially-capable advisers on whom she could rely. The commotion inside and the disturbance outside had finally done enough to disrupt her gala that she was prepared to finally take actions into her own hands.
“What in God’s name is this?” she demanded, stopping several feet away and seeing neither the sobbing girl from earlier nor the raging man she came with, instead two overzealous vampires making a mockery of her social event of the year with their carnal acts.
“What, you never had a family?” the man mocked, holding the Prince’s gaze as he continued thrusting, his partners orgasmic cries echoing off the building.
“Simply disgusting,” the socialite Prince determined, sticking her nose up at the whole affair, secretly not having any idea how to deal with the situation they had caused.
“If you want to watch, you gotta pay up,” the man barked, putting his thumb into the woman’s waiting mouth. “Them too,” he indicated the guards.
“We are going inside. Now,” the Prince commanded, turning her back on the whole affair. She and her retinue retired from the balcony.
The lustful moans of genuine passion followed them until they shut the heavy doors behind them.
So, the questions—were the two social chameleons genuinely out to cause chaos, or was that just a side-effect of their conditions? Did they intentionally manipulate the party crowd, first with rumors of the insidious “Dr. Breathe” and then with their shared dependence on one another? Was he actually her father, or husband, or even her sire at all?
We wanted to show that game that true madness—all-encompassing, world-defining insanity—was not something that should be played up for laughs, or that could effectively be performed with half-measures and without a plan.
We didn’t write any of the above plot beforehand; we simply had a very firm idea of who these characters were, how they experienced the world, and then played off one another with eerie effectiveness. Everything presented above actually happened in the game, and it was all improvised.
Later I discovered that the players spent the rest of the night trying to root out “Dr. Breathe,” thinking it was the main plot the game-runners wanted to introduce for the special event. For me that shows that plot threads presented organically have a mind all their own and can quickly outpace any effort to introduce more objective or externally-generated storylines.
Two of my most memorable and standards-setting role-play events were with the player of the woman, and the above is absolutely one of those. I hope you enjoyed the story, are left with a few questions, and wonder how you would react to any of the happenings above.
Header image taken from promotional art for the video game Mafia II. Admittedly I have never played the game but I was drawn to the framing of the two presented characters and thought it perfect for this story.