Jude and I have been writing and running LARPs together under the banner of Shadow Factories for many years. We’d had a lot of success, but LARP is incredibly time intensive and quite expensive, and relies on the goodwill of a lot of friends and family to accomplish. Given we’ve both got young children, this seemed like perhaps something we could do in the evenings with less disruption to the daily schedule. (Hah! Probably a blog post about how the grass always seems greener in there somewhere!)
Now along the roadside to the LARPs that we have run there lies a rich seam of materials that we considered and ultimately discarded. One of these was a Victoriana setting in which the players would take on the roles of members of the fictional Aletheian Society – a secret order dedicated to fighting the ghastly eldritch powers that lurked in the shadows. We’d snuck a little bit of it into the backdrop to our Ragnarok LARPs, which were set during WW2, but it had never had a chance to live and breathe in its own heyday. Perhaps now was that time?
I wrote a single scene as a rough proof of concept (and boy was it rough – by the time we got to the end of the writing process that scene had been gutted and rebuilt completely, and I still think it’s weak.) But it was enough for the kernel of possibility to show through. We met up, hashed out the characters and plot for series one, did a bunch of research and then got writing. Now for those that don’t know Jude that well, it’s worth pointing out that she’s a human dynamo – as well as writing her half of the scripts in about a third of the time that I took, she also directs and splits out the dialogue for scenes. When she gets on board with a project, it’s going to get done. Thankfully Stoo was happy to get involved, so we had sound and editing, and our friends were kind enough to volunteer their services for voices.
For character for this ur-scene, I turned to an old tabletop RPG character that I’d created for a Cthulhu-by-gaslight game - Dr Hieronymus Cadwallader, trigger-happy botanist at large. While the original character was too ridiculous for the tone we wanted, he served as a framework on which to stretch a new skin. His character draws quite heavily from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman (although slightly more intelligent and brave, but considerably less handsome and charming.) I also very much enjoyed Kim Newman’s take on “Basher” Moran in Hound of the D’Urbervilles, and I’m sure he was a strong influence on Cadwallader. Lastly he is a caricature of British Victorian imperialism – almost everything he likes is awful to modern sensibilities and vice versa.
So Cadwallader took shape, Frankenstein’s monster on the slab, a creation of many parts. I wanted him to be deeply flawed, verging on outright villainy at times. But the closer you look at him, the easier it becomes to at least understand how he ended up this way. While he lives a life of immense (and largely unearned) privilege, he’s spent it trapped by the expectations of others. Now at the tail end of his existence he’s steeped in cynicism and world-weariness, and doesn’t give much of a damn about the upset he causes while drowning his regrets.
Of course, it’s disingenuous to pretend that you write a character as a terrible person purely for plot reasons when it’s you that’s going to voice them. Actors love to play villains; villains get to do and say outrageous things. A hero is nothing without a good villain to oppose them. In a sense, opposing Dr Cadwallader is a large part of what keeps the rest of the Chapter going as a comedic situation. Jessie and Sophie strive to outdo him, Gillespie despises him and Cressida tries to control him. Only Arthur looks up to him (partly because Arthur’s not the sharpest tool in the box, but partly also because Cadwallader conforms more to the archetype of the imperialist ideal of masculinity.)
And of course, you can’t have a good villain without a few redeeming features. He has some physical bravery and is fairly competent in military matters. He shows a certain amount of insight into the lot of the downtrodden of the world (not enough to actually help them, but enough to empathise with them occasionally.) Although he clearly has an inflated opinion of his physical and mental capabilities, he tends to have a pretty clear view of his own moral weaknesses (and by extension those of Victorian Britain in general.) While clearly not keen on the Scots, Cadwallader shows little sign of xenophobia towards other cultures (could there be a reason for that, dear reader?) So there are hints that he could have been a better person under different circumstances.
But if from all this you’re now expecting an arc where Cadwallader suddenly “learns his lesson” and turns good then you’re in for a sore disappointment. Momentary flashes of good intent are the best he can hope to muster by this stage, take them for what they are and expect no more. The younger characters still have time to make decisions about who and what they are, but the good Doctor’s arc doesn’t allow that latitude.