BY AMANDA HARMAN
The way I found out that I am merely a creation of word is actually quite funny, but then, I do share the author’s sense of humor. I was walking along and had the sudden urge to start running. I didn’t see any reason to do that, so I fought back the desire. Against my will, I began racing down the sidewalk. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop. Then, I heard a voice: Running was a pleasure, an escape. I cast my eyes around me, searching for a source. Realizing I was alone, I decided the voice was either in my head, or else it was emanating from the ground and sky all at once. I gulped down my fear and confusion (a hard task if one is also gasping for air), and I looked up. There, where the sky should have been, where the proverbial fourth wall should have completed the world, I saw the focused face of an intellectual. She was typing and clearly enjoying it. Instantly, I understood; she was the author. I was merely a character in a story that somehow involved me running. I hate running; it was not a pleasure or an escape. If anything, it was a form of cruel and unusual torture. Why would the author describe me so wrong? Another realization smacked me so hard that I thought my uncontrollable feet had propelled me into a wall: I am whatever she wants me to be. In some stories, I’m a pirate, bloodthirsty and on the prowl for treasure. Other times, she turns me into a princess brandishing a mighty sword against a dragon. No matter what it is, it’s always me, and it’s never me. I am the author’s pawn, a forever morphing slave to her crazy whims. Seriously, I have no free will, no ability to sit out of a plot that’s too intense or scary, and, trust me, there have been quite a few. The running incident, what I came to refer to as waking up, was years ago, and I’ve been in countless stories almost every day since.
I can’t help but imagine what it would be like if just one time, the author let me be myself in a story. Or better yet, to not have to be in a story at all.
“Where do you think you are going?” Mary asked Peter when she stopped him in the dim hallway of the hospital.
He rolled his eyes, “I told you, out.”
She chose not to acknowledge the eye-roll. “And I told you that you need to spend time here with your grandfather.”
“I don’t want to,” Peter whined.
“Well, he wants you to be here, so you’re staying.”
“What’s the point? He’s going to be gone soon anyway.”
Mary hung her head. “That’s the point, Peter. You’ll never get this opportunity back. I know it hurts, and I know it’s scary, but don’t run away.”
All Peter could manage was a weak shrug before he began to cry. “I don’t want to see him like this!”
“I know, honey, but he wants you here.” So, together, they went to see Grandpa.
At that point, the author turned off her laptop for the night, and the lights all around our small scene dimmed. I closed my eyes and came back to myself, letting the imposed grief roll off my shoulders. I turned to the one the author named Peter, who was still sobbing.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
He looked at me with his pain-filled eyes and replied, “You know how I am doing. My grandpa is dying!”
I shook my head. This problem often happens with new characters. “Do you even know your grandfather? What’s he like? How old is he?”
“Umm, he is… my grandpa, and he is…”
“You don’t know, do you?”
The pain in his eyes disappeared behind a lens of fear, “No. Why is it impossible for me to remember anything about him? What’s wrong with me, Mary?”
“I’m not Mary, and the reason you don’t know him is because he doesn’t exist. The author hasn’t actually created the grandpa character yet.”
The fear lens was quickly displaced by one of confusion. He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. I waited, relieved that his tears had finally stopped. We stood like that for almost a minute before he finally managed to force out, “But, you are Mary?”
“Not really, just in this story. Sorry.” And I really was sorry. I knew how awful waking up feels. This guy the author called Peter was about to have the biggest identity crisis. “My name is Prota.”
“Yeah, like Protagonist. It’s the name I gave myself when I figured out that none of this is real.” I’ve learned that it’s better to be blunt with new characters; my words had the intended effect. He started slightly as if a static charge had just poked him with its electric fingers.
He released a shaky breath, “This is all imaginary? None of it is real?”
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.” Knowing may be awful, but it’s better than living in a lie.
“No, that actually makes sense. I would never leave my grandpa alone if he was really dying.” He looked at me like he wanted me to tell him that he was talking nonsense.
Instead, I nodded, “Uh-huh. That’s just the character the author wrote for you.”
A light flashed behind his eyes as a new idea flew into his head. “So then, my name is not Peter, is it?”
“Nope. That’s the character.”
“What is my name then?”
“I guess that’s up to you.”
He nodded; a strand of blonde hair fell out of place and hung over his forehead. “I think that I am Foil, then.”
That wasn’t the answer I expected. Most of the new characters the author dreamed up chose something like Joe or Sally, and they only hung around for a story or two, while I was in all her pieces. Oddly enough, the name did seem right for him, and I had a feeling deep in my gut that he would be around for longer than a couple plots. “Nice to meet you, Foil.”
We shook hands. I asked him if he had any other questions, but he was already fairly at-ease with the whole situation. That was a good thing; one poor girl, who ended up calling herself Betsy, couldn’t function for an entire week after she woke up. She played her role in the author’s plot, then went and stood by herself in the corner for the rest of the time, shivering and staring at the screen in abject terror.
Because it was getting late, I decided to show Foil where the characters usually went to sleep, or rest, or whatever the heck we did as fictional beings. It was a humble little shack over in the corner of what, to us, was the entire world — a 100-yard square area that the author changed into any setting she could ever desire. The shack was wooden with a corrugated tin roof. It was low to the ground and smelled distinctly of pine no matter what I did to change things up; it’s not like there are many candle stores inside the laptop. The inside was humbly furnished with simple cots and couches, but it was cozy, illuminated by several small lamps that cast yellow light over the whole space. Taking up the entire back wall was a bookcase with shelves bowing and bending under the weight of their burden. I explained to Foil that the books were all the stories the author had saved onto her laptop, whether novels, websites, or her own creations. Again, he accepted this insane information like it was common sense. It had taken me months, and a brief period where I somehow convinced myself I was in Moby Dick, to figure that out, but I did finally turn in my harpoon. We turned in for the night, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like the lone survivor on a desert island.
The next day, bright and early and right on schedule, the laptop opened. Foil and I waited on the edge of the patch of light, waiting for the setting to fill in. He was nearly bouncing with excitement.
“What’s up with you?” I asked.
His eyebrows arched, “What do you mean? We get to be in a story!”
“That happens every day.”
“But it is a surprise every day. What will the author write? It’s so exciting, living with the unexpected.”
Finding myself unable to respond, I stared at him. His attitude made no sense. I hated not knowing what would happen; I hated not being in control.
The bricks crumbled when Peter approached, as if on cue. He winced at the cacophony that was unleashed as the clatter echoed off the blank walls. Empty windows eyed him suspiciously, like they knew he should not be there. A light drizzle had started, casting a gloom over the already dreary atmosphere.
Foil stepped into the scene when the author typed his character’s name. I was more than happy to be a spectator as I puzzled over his misplaced excitement. I could see how eagerly he maneuvered around the crumbling ruins the author had conjured into our world. I glanced back at her for a moment. I may not have always enjoyed what she put me through, like Foil seemed to, but she had been my only constant in the years since I woke up.
As I was looking out at her, a man, with disturbingly familiar blonde hair, crept up behind her and abruptly grabbed her shoulders. She jumped slightly and whacked his arm without turning around. He laughed, kissing her head. I gaped in wonder as she continued furiously tapping the keyboard. The sentences formed slowly in my brain. Foil had a real-life counterpart. That man —whoever he was — was the inspiration for Foil, or Peter, I guess. I’d never known any of the other characters to be from the author’s life. Maybe that was why Foil seemed so concrete and permanent; he was not entirely imaginary.
For the next few days, I struggled with this concept. If Foil wasn’t entirely imaginary, then maybe, perhaps, I wasn’t either. That would explain so much: the reason I had been around for so long, why I woke up by myself without anyone explaining it to me. All of this made perfect sense to me, and yet I knew that I was making massive assumptions. It seemed too good to be true that I was, in any way, real. It would mean that I did have an identity that the author didn’t choose. That somewhere out there, a version of me was living her life, making her own choices, starring in her own story instead of someone else’s.
I didn’t mention any of this to Foil. He hadn’t seen his counterpart, and I didn’t want to release the Kraken of my worry upon his unsuspecting mind. I continued to carefully watch the author, hoping against all sense to find a clue to who I was to her. I kept telling myself to let it go; I was a creation of her imagination and nothing more.
I tried to keep my internal turmoil hidden from Foil. One night, we were sitting in our shack reading selections from the bookshelf. Foil was leaned against its base with his nose almost touching the pages of the book clutched in his whitening knuckles.
I paused in my third or fourth reading of an article about literary inspiration. It had no real answers for my own situation, but the author had clearly used it for Foil. “It’s getting good?” I asked with a chuckle.
He looked up at me, reluctantly leaving the world of the novel. “Yes, this is amazing!”
I rolled my eyes slightly and nodded.
“What? You disagree?”
“It’s no different than any other book I’ve read.”
“Really? I think it is uniquely thrilling.”
“Nope, it falls into one of the seven plots, just like every single story ever written.”
He set his book on the ground and pulled himself to his feet. He walked across the room to stand in front of the couch I had sunk into. Leaning forward so his face was just a couple inches from mine, he said, “What seven plots?”
I lightly pushed his shoulder to remind him to back up some. I’d quickly learned that this dude had an odd concept of personal space, which was new for me. I was used to being alone, since that was how I spent most of my time since waking up. “There are only seven different plots in all of literature: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy, and tragedy.”
“Hmm, so where would you say my Sherlock Holmes mystery fits in that list?”
“That’s easy, overcoming the monster. The killer is the monster, and Sherlock and Watson have to overcome by stopping him. See? If you know which plot it is, you can predict the ending. It takes the suspense out completely.”
He slowly nodded. “Even if the plot thing is true, and I am not so sure it is, that does not stop me from enjoying the thrill of a well-written novel.”
Once again, I was silenced by his strange opinion. Knowing the ending kind of, by definition, ends the suspense. That was why I hadn’t read any of the books for years, just the research articles saved to the author’s computer.
We had many conversations like that over the course of several months. He was always way too naïve about the struggle of this existence. I initially chalked it up to inexperience, but I grew to suspect that it was just his genuine outlook. He thought the author was generous for letting him try out the many, many characters, which was absolutely insane. He didn’t seem to understand that we lost all identity in the rush of personalities that constantly buffeted us from the author’s mind.
One night, things got more intense than usual. Foil got so close to me, I felt his breath on my face. “Why are you so jaded?” he asked me in an intense whisper.
I looked deeply into his eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t try to be; it just comes with experience.”
“It does not have to.” He leaned in even closer.
I shook my head. “I can’t help it.”
“Let me help you,” he said, right before he closed the remaining gap between us and pressed his lips to mine. It was the first time we had done anything like that without the author writing it. I pictured the author and the boy I had seen with her. I hadn’t ever considered that he was a romantic character. It was unsettling for such a soft person to enter my world; I’d prided myself on being hard as nails (forgive the cliché, I never said the author was amazing).
The next day, I got up for the laptop opening like every morning since I had woken up, and Foil was gone. I searched every inch of the shack, but he was nowhere. It was like he had been erased.
“Foil! This isn’t funny!” I screamed to the corners of my entire world. No answer.
Abruptly, the laptop was yanked open. I peered out and saw the tear-streaked face of the author. That was new; the author had never cried while she was writing before.
Without warning, and just when things seemed to be perfect, Peter left. Mary was alone in a new world of utter blackness and sorrow. She didn’t know what to do or how she was even supposed to breathe through the piercing pain in her heart, like a ragged hole had been ripped through her chest. She collapsed in a pool of self-pity and let the sobs wrack her body.
Just as quickly, the laptop slammed shut. I glanced around, and Foil was still gone, but I was used to the blankness. I dried the obligatory tears from my face as the truth revealed itself to me slowly, like that cheesy sunrise the author wrote the other day. Foil was a projection of the author’s friend, who the Peter character, among others, was based on. I had been the Mary character; the one Peter had hurt. If the author was crying at the same time as Mary, that meant — the thought struggled to organize itself in my head— I was based on the author herself. Every story I was part of was the author imagining herself having an adventure. I was her way into new worlds, making it possible for her to escape her own. I was the author’s avatar, the character most like her.
What I didn’t understand was why the author was so crushed by her version of Peter. I mean, I missed Foil, but not enough to sob. She’d put me through much worse pain in many of her tales, crafting countless broken legs and hearts for me over the years. And, anyway, a new story would come along soon; they always do.