Jessi Belle McGraven: Dissonant Belle of the South
When you hear the phrase “Southern Belle,” the first things that come to mind are ruffled bustling skirts and fancy dresses, decadent home-cooked sweets, unrivaled hospitality, and an accent that could swoon the pants off of the Grinch himself… if he wore any to begin with. Hey, it’s not a perfect analogy! Green-furred villain wardrobe details aside, southern belles are what shape and move much of the south in the mid-late 1800′s and have a very specific and rigid image to maintain. So when the image of Jessi Belle McGraven, my newest gaming character, began to form in my mind from bits and pieces of belle imagery coalescing like smoke from a forgotten cigar I couldn’t help but pull ideas from modern media as well. The most obvious choice that stuck out like the scheming card shark that she is was Annabelle Bransford, queen of the tables in the 1994 motion picture Maverick. She holds the perfect southern belle balance of refined etiquette, innocent yet maddening flirtations, and classic beauty… and then uses it all as a front to hide her scheming, thieving, and greedy ulterior motives to amass wealth wherever possible. She was perfect. Now that I had a solid and devilish idea of how I wanted to shape my newly brewed character, I had to think of how to insert her into the harrowed and twisted world of the Weird West that is the host to Deadlands: Savage Worlds.
Without going into too much back story or details, Deadlands is a RPG system that I have only recently begun playing and becoming accustomed to, and over the past year or so I have come to realize that it is the bastard threesome love-child of horror, alternate history, and steampunk. Despite having its parents around for neither childhood nor adolescence, it managed to grow up with only the best attributes of each. You come to the realization of this happy balance when your GM can describe a raven haired, sallow looking green-eyed temptress dressed for a night out on a river boat with a peculiar cog-necklace that emits a faint steam with the slight nasal whine of screaming souls… and all you can do is tense up with both instinctual terror and excited anticipation of what will happen next with (or to) you and your party. The unique and infectious setting of the Weird West is a fantastic place that allows for anything and everything to happen… even things that you didn’t think existed in your worst nightmares, that is until you turn to that page in the players handbook.
So how does sweet but scheming little Jessi Belle McGraven fit into this wondrous yet horrific world? Wasn’t Annabelle Bransford a sweet romantic at heart even though she was a conniving little temptress? The answers are 1) with careful dips down dark avenues, and 2) yes, but every character has developments when exposed to different events. Haven’t you seen Star Trek: Nemesis? Sure it’s generally agreed upon as one of the lesser of the Trek movies, but it has the same basic principal of taking the two identical versions of a character and making them develop in radically different worlds. Each character starts off indistinguishable of the other but is violently shaped by their different surroundings so that the final results may or may not be similar to one another in the end.
Playing a good hand of poker both gracefully and flirtatiously is probably the last thing that Jessi Belle McGraven and Annabelle Bransford share before having their lives take drastically different turns. While Annabelle Bransford goes on to have romantic tensions with Bret Maverick before then going on to play in a million dollar riverboat poker tournament, Jessi Belle’s life is exposed to the harsh reality that the broken U.S. imposes on all its denizens.
Her father is drafted into the US Civil War and mysteriously goes missing in action down in the Mississippi bayou along with the rest of his platoon. Her mother starts speaking to voices that aren’t there and shuffles poker hands over and over until she’s found dead over the breakfast room table with the cards strewn across the kitchen as if the rectangular pieces of crisp stock paper had animated themselves and she had somehow been in a fight with them. Cards aren’t dangerous, right? Wrong, in the Weird West everything can be dangerous. And in that defining moment the development of the two initially identical women have split into two distinct characters: one a lighthearted thief,and the other a jaded young woman forced to grow up quickly in a twisted and unforgiving world.
That being said, this should not come across as an unfortunate turn of events for our young heroine. Just because she has shed the initial skin of Anabelle Bransford doesn’t mean that she’s any less of a character. On the contrary, she has now grown out of the rigid and constricting concept of our motion picture star and emerged as a strong and powerful force all on her own. The only thing that still ties the two together is the surprisingly unchanging image of the instantly recognizable Southern Belle. Despite the jaded views, inability to trust anyone throughout the Weird West, and constant fear of what unwelcome surprise could meet your character at any bend in the road, not to mention the unspeakable horrors that are unveiled through various travels… the haughty, well-dressed Southern Belle will continue to shine through. The setting just brings more darkness into play that the belle has to push aside to keep her image as pristine as a snowy white pearl necklace.
It’s good to know that despite all of the horrors that are thrust into the world during the 1800’s, the beloved image of the Southern Belle can persevere and keep on infecting men with their innocent charms, distracting formal dress-wear, and showers of etiquette. Let’s just hope that that southern hospitality and ever-present smile doesn’t devolve into the same character flaws that Jessica Lange has fallen victim to in ABC’s American Horror story… but I digress.
Born from motion picture, brought up with the education and grace that can be expected of every good southern girl, and then thrust into the callous world of the Weird West, I give you southern lady, gambler, and huckster: Jessi Belle McGraven, Dissonant Belle of the West! She looks back upon Annabelle Bransford as one would their past after learning the tricks and secrets of life itself, and shows you how powerful a game setting can actually be when it comes to character development within a predefined world.