black and white image of shadow of train passenger cast on window; tracks and degraded buildings visible in the distance

Creating Mike Sterling for the #GenLit Project

Written by and
Reviewed by Chris Friend and Robin Wharton
Ghost…” by Thomas Leuthard; CC BY 2.0

Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing is our experiment in longer-form work related to critical digital pedagogy. For the past year and a half, Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing has been providing editorial and technical support to the Generative Literature Project, which is producing a crowdsourced, gamified digital novel about a murder. Hybrid Pedagogy is publishing a series of weekly updates and reflections about the project, collaboratively authored by several of the student and instructor participants. In this installment, Matt Jacobi and Mia Zamora reflect on the process of creating a character profile for Mike Sterling to support the class’s collaborative mission of bringing to life the character of Dr. Rachel Behar.

Mike Sterling, by all accounts, is a mild-mannered small business owner who lives and works in Theopolis, Maryland, not far from the esteemed college of the same name. Mike runs a small bookstore, which he inherited from his late aunt, specializing in old and rare books. He has a golden retriever named Duck whom he tries to take on runs in the mornings, but he usually ends up sitting on a bench in the park and throwing things to the dog for half an hour before going to open up the shop. The thing about Mike, and Duck, and Theopolis, is that they’re all fictional. Mike, and a cast of other characters who are part of the Theopolis College community, are all products of student work in Mia Zamora’s Writing Electronic Literature course at Kean University, as part of the Generative Literature Project.

I created Mike to support our class’s mission of bringing to life the character of geneticist and celebrated Theopolis alumna Dr. Rachel Behar. In an effort to make Dr. Behar “real” online, each of the twenty-five-or-so students in Dr. Zamora’s class invented a person with whom, we imagined, Behar might have had some degree of contact. Some of us created family members, others made neighbors and friends, and some conceived of relationships far more intricate. Our goal was to add relationships with this character in order to give Dr. Behar depth, that she might be a more compelling suspect in the gamified murder-mystery that is the Generative Literature Project. Although all of our characters were born in service to the development of Dr. Rachel Behar (the main character of our class’s branch of the project), many if not all of us enriched our supporting cast with a great attention to detail, producing some truly dynamic characters. Invested as we were in our work, it should come to no surprise that some of us, namely me, had at least a bit of fun creating our characters for the project. The reasons for this are several, and subtle, and follow here.

Writing with the Right Tools

Matt Jacobi:  The Generative Literature Project offered the barest lattice, a framework from which students might grow intricate and powerful creations. That slight outline made an immeasurable difference, eliminating the difficult and time-consuming legwork of from-scratch content development, and instead making our fledgling creation less intimidating and more engageable throughout. The measure of creativity required by the project made it fun, but it wasn’t just that. In short our task was to imagine characters related to this fictional murder mystery, and bring them to life using tools found on the internet. Because our characters were diverse in myriad ways, as were the manners in which their student-creators chose to represent them, different tools worked better or worse for different jobs. For example Mozilla’s Webmaker tools, specifically X-Ray Goggles, made it easy to alter an existing web page. Users could go into the code of a page and switch out every image and line of text for one of their own, making a new page in the format of the old one, or they could make subtle adjustments to appear to be leaving clandestine clues about their characters relationships to Dr. Behar. Whether the task was too sophisticated for this suite of tools, or my personal skill level is too low, in this approach I found setbacks. Because I had fairly specific visions in mind for my projects, I wanted to control every detail, which made working from someone else’s template actually kind of tedious and difficult. Much better suited to my tasks were the tools I eventually came to use, and ThingLink. With Wix, I was still creating a webpage from a template, but I didn’t have to work with code at all. It felt a little bit like cheating, but it allowed me to create the page I had conceived of almost perfectly. ThingLink was slightly more limited, but as the name implies allowed total freedom in linking different things (images, webpages, text) to each other, which is especially useful as the class was very literally tasked with stringing the audience along on our murder mystery.

I created the character of Mike Sterling with love. I wrote about minor details of his life that I thought would be compelling in the context of the murder mystery, conceived of ways in which his life might overlap with that of Dr. Rachel Behar, and developed small ways in which his life events might impact the larger narrative. Without taking too much of a central role in the story of Dr. Behar, I loosely concluded that she and Mike met when she walked into his shop seeking an alternative to the campus bookstore. From there, I tried to make it possible that they either enjoyed a casual friendship or maintained an icy disdain for one another. Since my purpose for creating Mike Sterling was to invent a character that could be both compelling to an audience and useful as narrative tool, I deliberately left their relationship somewhat ambiguous, hoping that artifacts from other students would give context and eventually drive Dr. Behar into one of the two roles I had left open with my character. In my artifacts, I tried to leave traces of a relationship that could go either way as the story unfolded. For example in Mike’s record of sales for rare and used books, Rachel Behar is seen to have purchased a very expensive item.

List of dates, customer names, book titles, and sale prices

A peek behind the scenes of the goings-on at Mike’s book store, and a link to Dr. Behar.

If Rachel and Mike are friends, perhaps Mike used his position to procure the text she wanted. If they’re enemies, the fact that Dr. Behar would buy something from Mike, and at such a relatively high cost, suggests that whatever is in that book is very important to her, and that Mike might be able to tell investigators what that is.  His story I could tell, no problem. But no matter how effective my language was, I was hitting a wall in terms of conveying my message via the tools that I was using.

As a lifelong student of writing and literature, the words came easily, but the technical side was a new and daunting obstacle. Coding was literally a foreign language. I experienced a fair amount of disappointment when I found that all of these ideas that I thought were so clever could not possibly come to fruition with my level of skill. If I were writing a paper, I would reposition the words and restructure the arguments again and again until my work looked exactly how I wanted it to. But with my barely rudimentary knowledge of these new web tools, my options became only to compromise or fail outright. The only product my hardest work could yield in our time frame was a reduction in how much I was forced to compromise, and it was in that moment that tinkering with these tools and talking to my classmates became extremely valuable. My vision for one artifact, the website, was a fully-functioning online storefront, complete with a full catalogue of items for sale and a password-protected admin portal. In the end, while I was able to produce a functioning website, I had to accept that I didn’t have the technical expertise, or the time to gain that expertise, that I would need order to fully realize my concept for the project by the deadline. In short, my admin portal is not a portal as much as it is another page on the site, and it isn’t password protected. But the important thing, which I came to realize just in time, is that it is there at all, and that I was able to adapt to the situation and accept a variation on my original idea. That Dr. Zamora anticipated this experience of frustration and compromise, as she will shortly explain, took many of us too long to learn, as we panicked about the quality of our work and our eventual grades. When I found the right tool, so much that I wanted to convey about this character I had imagined suddenly became accessible to me. I now had the ability to express subtlety where before I could only be heavy-handed. And most importantly to me at the time, I could communicate to my audience precisely the Mike Sterling I wanted them to see, rather than the clumsy stick figure I had been able to assemble before. He still wasn’t perfect in terms of my original design, but he existed, and he was distinct. On the website, through design and text, I was able to give him a public persona and exhibit some of his tastes and his approach to business. And in text via ThingLink I showed some of his private concerns, which I hoped would be of benefit to the ongoing narrative. Not having the right tools, or the right training, to convey meaning through digital artifacts is like trying to write a sonnet using only a child’s alphabet book. Refinement is difficult. But with the tools that I needed, I could really make this guy real. And that was really rewarding to me.

Screenshot of login page for fictional book shop

A page on the site for Mike Sterling’s bookstore, Thoth Spot, enabling the curious user to access privileged records.

Mia Zamora:  Creating a multimodal digital artifact that somehow represents or breathes  life into a fictional character is no easy task.  The nexus of a student’s conception of what they might create digitally versus the actual ability to produce/compose that artifact was in itself an instructive roadblock for everyone.  Many students came up with complex and nuanced designs for what they would like to make, but struggled when it came to execution.  They received no ready-made kit for how to make their digital artifact, no easy step-by-step instructions that could guide them to where they wanted to go.  In short, when they attempted to execute their design concepts, they realized both the scope of their ambitions as well as the limits of their own digital literacies.  

I offered them a list of user-friendly applications and tools that they might consider in getting started.  I stated that the list was in no way comprehensive and that they were welcome to use any digital tools that they found would help them in producing their character’s artifact.  I encouraged them to expand our digital tools list.  By necessity, my students had to tinker with a variety of new tools and apps until they found some way to embark on their own vision.  But rather than letting the frustration of limited coding knowledge shut them down, I insisted they “push through”, even if that meant scaling down their original sense of what they wanted to create.  In the end, they had to devise their own composing road map.  I devoted a good deal of our time together to open workshop.  This often entailed collaborative discussion of what was working and what was not, troubleshooting particular challenges, brainstorming, and feedback.  This open workshop time was when the power of co-learning became quite tangible.  Discrete knowledges emerged and students shared what they figured out with each other.  What was crucial was that they did not give up.  They helped each other along.  As Matt attested to, oftentimes it was a matter of matching a design concept with the most accessible tool.  Everybody weighed in on different tools as they collectively tinkered and discovered.  In the end, each student produced three digital artifacts, but each artifact was in some sense an iterative attempt at the same goal — to give their own minor character some trace of life in our networked space.  Each of these three recursive iterations of making reflected evolving stages in the development of their digital confidence and capability.

The Challenge of Building a Fictional Network

Matt Jacobi:  A big thing that I think gets forgotten about a lot, at least by people looking at the work of individuals on this project, is that all of these many dozens of people are painting on the same canvas. In the #GenLit project, we’re world-building. We’re creating this little parallel universe that looks almost exactly like Maryland in 2015, but is not quite it. The temptation in all of this creating was for each individual student to focus only on their own character, authoring a life that fully satisfied their desire to imagine.

Handwritten note: “Cadence— best of luck in this endeavor —S.R."

An inscription found in a special volume in Mike Sterling’s rare books collection.

As can be seen here, this scribbled note is supposed to be hidden in a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. (It’s actually on a sheet of paper, I would never ruin a book that way.) Whether it is a real inscription from the controversy-enmeshed author to the soon-to-be-murdered President of Theopolis college about some private matter, or a coded message, or a red herring is actually immaterial, so long they’re all compelling options for the reader. Its purpose, and the purpose of the other features of that artifact are to sustain and drive the mystery central to this broad narrative in whatever way is ultimately useful. More than once, I thought to craft the piece de resistance, the smoking gun that would either damn Rachel Behar or prove her innocence, and bury it somewhere in Mike Sterling’s Gmail account.

Screenshot of email between characters

Mike Sterling responds to an inquiry in a mysterious email from another #GenLit character.

To resist that urge was to resist the temptation of primary authorship and value instead contributing to the larger network. This was a clearly-identifiable challenge for our class: to allow the many pieces to make the whole. The positive side, for me, was making sure the things I was building fit into the broader Theopolis world or community.  Keeping up with other students in the class as to how they were developing their characters and the roles those characters would play, for me, added nuance to my work. It guided me to fill narrative gaps, or leave them conspicuously open, and avoid territory that was already well-tread. Some students created explicit interactions between their characters, while others were less engaged. As a #GenLit author, my job was not simply to create Mike Sterling, but to be conscious of how the world he would inhabit was developing.

Mia Zamora:  Matt makes a really important point here.  Each student produced digital artifacts, and in turn, each student subsequently brought their own minor characters to life in social media spaces as these artifacts were shared online. When each character started to make their debut on social media, the question of community and networks also started to surface.  Who was related to whom in this loose network we were devising?  Who knew whom? Which characters communicated with which other characters?  Who was more marginalized or isolated?  The realization of the consequent development of a representative network was a challenging aspect of the overall collaboration.  Some students were keen on building clear connections between their fictional characters while other students were more keen to keep their characters independent.  These individual authorship choices certainly effected the generative possibilities for the collaborative narrative.  Ultimately, these random traces of interactive communication among our concocted network were not really negotiated or planned. Rather, they unfolded in a haphazard and arbitrary fashion.  Since the entire enterprise of the #GenLit project is counter-intuitive to a notion of singular authorship, the randomness and openness was central.  I think much of the generative nature of the work can be located here, in the unexpected — the unanticipated and varying networks that emerged for #GenLit characters on social media.  

The Attempt at Verisimilitude

Matt Jacobi:  On both the conceptual level and in technical execution, one of the most enjoyable parts of this whole thing for me was making it seem real. When I was tasked with creating Twitter and Gmail accounts for Mike Sterling, and thus grounding the character in our digital reality, I felt it was of value to make every stroke as subtle as possible. The Generative Literature Project itself has a running website for the fictional Theopolis College and has several social media handles for various elements of the project, none of which immediately draw attention to the fact that they represent fictional entities. As such, the challenge I put to myself was to see how well I could disguise my work to make it seem genuine. I wanted Mike Sterling to be in every possible way a cool but very regular guy. I wanted him to assimilate. Really, to go unnoticed. I felt that this would be the greatest measure of success. If Mike Sterling suddenly started posting dramatic or aggressive or otherwise unusual tweets, full of ellipses and exclamation points, to me he would become suspect. If the casual Twitter follower became too interested in him for any reason, to me that would be a failure. By the same token, I take Mike’s lack of an audience on Twitter, despite his own activity, to be a positive- evidence of his participation in the world without drawing attention to himself. To achieve this, I tried to make every detail that I could in the life of Mike Sterling as true-to-(fake)-life as possible.  (Dr. Zamora calls this verisimilitude. She says it a lot and I like the sound of it, and that we can use one word instead of saying “it seems real” all the time.) The best example of this is when I was writing about Mike’s book store, which I gave a very silly name before I knew I was going to be involved in publishing about it. As a brick-and-mortar shop in quaint, verdant Theopolis, MD, it needed a street address, and since Theopolis does not actually exist, I had to make part of it up. In order to do so convincingly, I read a little bit about the colonial history of Maryland on Wikipedia, and from that pulled the name of a historical figure, and made it the name of the street.

Map to fictional Thoth Spot Book Shop

A (slightly falsified) Google map of a Washington, D.C. suburb, altered to depict the Theopolis, MD address of Thoth Spot Booksellers.

I did this thinking that I wanted a real-sounding street name, not Theopolis Ave, or Readers’ Row, or Hybrid Ped Highway, and that although the vast majority of readers might not know the difference, somebody from Maryland might see the street name and think, “Oh yeah, that guy,” and thus would I have lent verisimilitude to the work. I was pleased with myself for that bit of cleverness, and even if no one else ever noticed it, I enjoyed knowing it was there.

Mia Zamora:  The value of verisimilitude was another collective challenge for us.  The class did not necessarily share similar views on the level of realism required to execute this literary undertaking.  Some student authors embraced a more dramatic approach in the design of their character’s lives, concocting over-the-top red herrings that were playful and fun but also to some extent melodramatic.  Perhaps the gleam of the fictive spirit (the revelation of fictional worlds) would be more easily detected online in this context?  Meanwhile, other students like Matt attempted to make it all seem believable/realistic so that the fictional enterprise might blend seamlessly with real life communications.  The possibility of blurring the boundary between the fictional and the real was a desired outcome.  No matter if the approach was melodramatic or realistic, in the end it was the prospect of real people (from outside our fictional experiment) engaging with our fictional characters on social media in earnest that fueled the creative energy of the project.  As the #GenLit project continues to unfold, this potential collision between the fictional and the real is where the uncertainty of our artistic experiment really pushes at the envelope of convention, where the “rubber hit the road” in terms of literary emergence.  


Matt Jacobi: As Dr. Zamora suggests, the manifold paths we all took to produce artifacts for the Generative Literature Project were all heading toward the same intended goal: to create great characters and to represent and network them digitally as best we could. As I’ve already described, I did my best to bring Mike Sterling quietly to life, but some of my classmates went in a different direction. I mention them now because in my view, the whole point of the #GenLit project is that it is collaborative in the extreme, and there are a multitude of perspectives in play at any given time. While I was enjoying how much I could make Mike Sterling fly under the radar, some of my classmates were writing larger-than-life characters. These characters’ lives were full of turmoil, their relationships were fraught with conflict, and they were inexorably involved in torrid affairs and scandals. My friends and collaborators who went this route enjoyed themselves as much as I did, despite taking an approach completely opposite to mine. They seemed to revel in just how fantastic they could make their creations, while still fitting them within the parameters of the project. While my first reaction might have been that they were “doing it wrong,” the reality is that there are thousands, maybe millions of unique and eccentric personae on Twitter, sharing too-personal details of their lives, getting into fights, and posting inappropriate photos, so that no one the internet would likely bat and eye at even the most flamboyant and outlandish character my class created, even if they were implicated in a murder.

In both concept and execution students diverged significantly, to varying degrees of effectiveness. One more lesson we learned from the #GenLit project was that there was no predetermined path for us to follow for success, if indeed there was any way to measure whether we were successful at all. This was a really transcendent classroom experience, wherein we learned not only to forego sole authorship and creative control, but also to have patience in collecting and assessing what emerged from all of our disparate works, and playing to our strengths in the moment. Of all of the various ways in which working on the #GenLit project changed our notions of learning that semester, this value of flexibility and recursive adjustment was at least for me the most meaningful, and most likely to impact my work in the future.

Mia Zamora:  Students did take different kinds of approaches, and yet, as Matt pointed out, each strategy was equally valid.  Their paths towards the development of their characters was indeed divergent, perhaps mirroring the vast standpoints that seem to exist in the overall representation of lives online in this cultural moment.  Nevertheless, this divergent quality of pluralistic narrative making stands as the foundation for the eventual arrival of the #GenLit murder mystery. The lack of an overarching narrative structure or specific “rules of form” is an indispensable element of our #GenLit project as it yields a new aesthetics of the unexpected.  I believe that the open nature of the #Genlit project may be viewed as a talisman of our cultural moment.  We live in a time where our open digitized networks bear evidence of a cooperation of things of unlike kinds.  

Mirroring the Internet itself, the #GenLit project begets a narrative theory of emergence.  In such a theory of storytelling, each component or contribution is incommensurable.  Fragments are unleashed in a dynamic burst of disparate textuality.  Generative literature beckons us to embrace radical novelty and dynamic evolution, while also inviting us to reach for coherence or correlation.  Perhaps this is possible to apprehend from a distance (just like visualizations might help us understand complex data). In this new kind of unsystematic networked storytelling, the parts cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference, but traces emerge of potential wholeness that are ostensibly of our own collective making.

This article is the fifth in a series of reports on the Generative Literature Project, sponsored by Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing.

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