‘I hope you don’t mind me asking?’
‘Well, I am a bit busy at the moment.’
‘I can see that, but-’
‘I couldn’t help noticing… are you the protagonist in this story?’
Bill stood a little straighter, turning to face the tall, dark stranger in the long black leather coat. ‘You can tell that, can you?’
‘Oh, yes.’ The stranger touched the brim of his black hat. ‘I was standing in the margins of the blank page over there,’ he pointed to his left, ‘and I saw him start to write you. So, I thought that you must be the protagonist.’
Bill dusted down the white hat he was holding. He didn’t see the point of the action himself, but he’d never really understood writers, despite all his years in the business. They were, as far as he could tell, basically a bunch of weirdos.
‘So, I was wondering…?’
Bill tried to see the face of the man in black, but it was hidden in the shadow of his hat. With the sun bright behind him, there were no discernible features. ‘Wondering what?’
‘I was wondering if you knew whether he had an antagonist lined up?’
Bill shrugged. Antagonists were much of a muchness to him. They came, thwarted him for a while, even had him at their mercy in a scene near the end. But in the end he always prevailed, and – mostly and more importantly to Bill – he got the girl, sometimes if only for a while. This time he just wished he had a better name than Bill, but he could get the writer to change that later. Readers seldom knew or understood the many ways that characters could control and influence their writers. He knew that, if he wanted to, he could get the writer to use this mysterious shadowy man in black as his rival in whatever the story turned out to be about.
‘Have you had much experience? Bill said to the man in black. ‘I can see you have the costume.’
‘This old thing?’ The man in black slapped the leather coat near his thigh, raising a cloud of dust. ‘I was in a Western.’
‘Oh. Have you had much experience as an antagonist?’
‘Oh, plenty. Where would you like me to start?’ The man touched the brim of his black hat again. ‘I’ve been ordinary villains, super villains. I’ve been business rivals and a love rival.’ He glanced around at the still more or less blank page. ‘I’ve done quite a few things that I wouldn’t like to talk about outside the bounds of that particular character arc.’ He sighed. ‘But it has kept me in regular work. At least until the climactic scene at the end where I die in whatever horrible way that has been foreshadowed earlier in the story.’
‘Well, I don’t know. I’m not really sure what kind of story he is thinking of writing. Knowing this writer, he probably doesn’t know either.’
‘He isn’t – y’know – one of those literary writers is he?’ The man in black spat into the suddenly dusty ground around his feet.
‘No, I don’t think so, why?’
‘Oh, it is just that I once spent two-thirds of a novel staring at a wall and contemplating my own meaningless existential futility.’
‘It was that that turned me into an antagonist.’