I woke up, rubbed my eyes and dragged myself out of a worn Murphy bed… Hang on. I know what you are thinking. This is what main characters always do in the opening paragraphs of bad novels. They wake up, or they dream, or the author starts describing the weather (overcast, yet pleasantly warm… sorry, but I might as well double down on opening paragraph stinkers).
You know you are in for a rough read when a character wakes up in the first sentence. Of course, you might at this very moment be remembering several great novels that open with the hero rising and shining. I won’t argue with you – they do exist. There are exceptions to every rule. My novels, however, were not among those exceptions.
My name is Richly Drawn. I am a fictional character. I live in the realm of written human imagination. Here’s an easy way to tell that I’m a character and not an actual human: no real life person would have a name like Richly Drawn, not unless his parents hated him. It is the kind of name given to a character by an oh-so-clever author, smugly cocksure that he has come up with a name no other author ever used. Naturally, there’s a reason for this. Richly Drawn is a stupid goddamn name.
But then again, my author is a stupid, goddamn author.
After I’m done waking up, my writer always has me walk about my apartment, describing it as – and I quote – “a sparsely furnished bachelor pad, never having seen a woman’s touch.” In all three books about me, he repeats this sentence. Not even a comma changes. After that, my writer typically has me look into the bathroom mirror, where my chiseled chin always points back at me, and my steely blue eyes give me a sharp look of approval.
That was all I got, description-wise – a chiseled chin, and steely blue eyes. My writer didn’t bother describing more of me, other than that I wear a cream-colored suit and duster, whip-smart yet seldom seen suspenders, and a matching fedora. Oh yes, there was one more description always given of me – that I’m a gumshoe.
Gumshoe. That’s an interesting word. It belongs to great characters like Sam Spade, or Philip Marlow, or any other superior hardboiled detective in fiction. When I was written, my creator modeled me after Spade, or at least, he thought he did. Not that he bothered to read Dashiell Hammett. As far as I know, he read the first two chapters of ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ got impatient, and immediately rented the 1941 film version. Yes, the movie is great – it is one of the best films ever made – but Sam Spade was born on the page, and all my creator stole from the book was a brief tidbit here, and a line there. The rest he copied from Bogie.
Okay, I know, this is all very meta-fictional and confusing. I guess ranting through pages of exposition will only make it worse. So I’ll just take you through my day – the day everything changed. I’ll get to the background information later… hopefully.
You see, there’s a chance I won’t live to finish my story, and perhaps I’ll just stop mid-sentence, leaving you with an unfinished tale. I hope it won’t come to that, and that I’ll have time to bring you along all the way to The End, but I can’t make any promises, because… my world is dying.
I know, I know. I should have opened with that. Wouldn’t that have been a great book opening? My world is dying. So dramatic, so powerful, so effective. Okay, maybe it isn’t highly literate à la Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, but it certainly works for a pulpy detective story like mine. At least, it sure is better than opening with me stumbling out of bed. Do you believe in second chances? I do, so let’s pretend my story starts… right… here:
CHAPTER 1 (AGAIN)
My world is dying.
It is fading away. Unread. Unloved. Ignored by human readers.
We fictional characters are immortal. Well, almost. We can get shot, blown-up, drowned, burned, or pancaked underfoot of a huge kaiju, but give us a few minutes, and we return to life. I speak from experience.
Why are we immortal? Simple, we live because our death scenes are only part of our stories, usually a small part at that. The rest of the time, the text, film or game-code has us alive. That makes us immortal. Only way to kill a fictional character is if nothing remains of his or her fiction. If a book or film or game exists in the world of humans, then we – the figments of human imagination – can’t die.
Little did I realize that the rules were about to change. Someone found a way to permanently kill us. I know, because as I’m telling you this story, I am fading away. Several copies of my books remain on Earth, yet that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I’m still fading.
Not that I’m bitter, because I had this one final adventure, one far greater than anything I had experienced in the plots of my seldom-read books. In these last moments of my existence, I will tell you this story. And even if you aren’t there to listen, even if I’m telling this story to no one in particular, I will still relive my tale – because it was worth my unhappy ending.
Like so many stories told by a man, it starts with a beautiful woman. You’ll meet her in this first chapter, albeit only briefly. I’m sure you’ll know it when you see her. She’s not someone created by my author. For that to have happened, he would have had to do some serious heavy lifting, and you know, quality writing.
I never had a femme fatale worth my while. The women in my books usually just had to be rescued and then fell into bed with me. Not one of those dames had wit, and they could scarcely maintain a conversation. They weren’t written to be interesting.
Again, I suppose I’m lucky. As the lead character in my three novels, I’m the best-written one. My author gave me a well-developed sense of curiosity, and a moral compass worthy of an angel, but I’m still lacking. I try to speak dialogue like my idol, Sam Spade, but it comes out as the worst kind of pulp fiction nonsense. What can I do? I’m a character created by an author with little or no talent.
At this point, you’re probably a bit confused. My writer has a tendency to do that. He never really explains things clearly, and it is often up to me to sum up the plots of my novels in an overly lengthy monologue at the end. My secretary, Dora – who naturally is totally taken with me, her Moneypenny to my James Bond – she smiles and nods as I bloviate my way through an undercooked plot with a deus ex machina ending.
If I try to explain it all to you now, at the beginning of the story, I’ll just bungle it. So instead, let’s just get on with it. Save your questions for later. I promise I’ll have an exhibition of exposition. The story starts here, right now. But before I go, I guess it is time to switch tense. I often like present tense, even when talking about the past, but my writer seems to insist that everything has already happened. He is a past-tense fanatic, so I have little choice in the matter. It is the only way I know how to tell a story. And my story did already happen, so I guess it is only fair that I tell it that way. I hope I’ll have enough time to reach the bitter end.
“Okay,” I sighed, turning away from my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I stepped into the kitchen, needing coffee badly. My coffee tin was empty. I reached into the overflowing trashcan and picked out yesterday’s coffee filter, complete with most of its soaked grinds. My writer saw a Paul Newman movie once where Newman’s character did this, and he stole it. Now I do this every single morning.
I drank the weak coffee, trying my best to savor it. My routine was to hang around in my realm for long enough to check in at the office, and then go traveling to other stories. Most characters tend to stay in their own plots, reenacting them. That’s our purpose – the sole reason we exist. From leading character to background extra, we were made to fill our worlds, the worlds humans read about. Our stories are set, and our fates are sealed. The text is forever, unchangeable, defining who we are, and what we’re like.
I get tired of my world, and my plots. They are dull, and poorly written. Of course, I can’t see the writing. I have to live it, at least, I have to live it whenever I reenact my plot. Hardly any of my supporting characters bother doing that anymore. I can’t say I blame them. Sure, if you’re Indiana Jones, reenacting one of your plots is fun. Same goes for his supporting characters – villain, hero and background character alike.
But then again, they are well written.
We here, in my world, we’re not. My supporting characters are happy simply living their daily lives. If they’re a cop, they’ll walk their beat. If they’re a crook, they’ll find someone to rob (and in my world, they’ll speak like James Cagney while doing it). If their job is to pour drinks, they pour drinks.
For me, that gets too depressing. As the lead character, I’m desperately in need of something to do, and when my plot is too dull and too poorly written to keep my interest, then I have no choice. I immerse myself in other stories. I can go to the movies, or I’ll hang out at the library, or – best of all – I’ll become a tourist. As a character, I can travel to other stories, seeing them with my own two eyes.
Wondering what world to visit, I considered several options. I’d come back from the space station Sevastopol only yesterday, watching Amanda Ripley being chased relentlessly by her mother’s arch-enemy – the scary as hell alien Xenomorph. I took great care to give the creature a wide berth. Make no mistake, even though the Alien is fictional, that thing can rip you apart in a split second given the chance. Of course, with my author-bestowed knack for tailing things, I was able to observe the action unhurt. If the Alien had gotten me, it would have been a painful death for sure. Being immortal is all well and good, but dying still hurts like hell, both as it happens, and when you wake up afterwards.
I adjusted my suspenders, grabbing my cream-colored fedora and matching trench coat. That was my look in each of the books – kind of like Dick Tracy, in case you need help picturing it. I’ve never worn anything else.
I stepped out the door and rushed down the stairs, taking the steps two at the time. There were so many worlds I wanted to see, and I wondered if perhaps this was the day to brave the society gatherings of real-life author Jane Austen. I always felt like an unmannered lout when in the company of her characters. Elizabeth Bennett would say something cleverly prideful or prejudiced, and I’d chuckle stupidly. Even the zombies recently added to that world don’t stick out as much as I do. Of course, the major characters will ignore me when I’m there. I’m just a tourist – a spectator. Of course, they would make an exception if a truly famous character came to visit, say like Sam Spade, but insignificant characters like me, we try to give the stars some space.
No, I decided, I wasn’t going to Austenland today. I’d feel too awkward, and my mind that day was elsewhere, too conscious of my lack of human readers.
Perhaps I’d come up with a suitable destination on my walk into the office. I tried ignoring the blaring car horns, and skipped down the street. Ambience characters shuffled around me, filling the streets with anonymous faces. A few of them braved a glance at me, quietly acknowledging that I was hot stuff in my homeworld. This didn’t make me feel any better, though if they acknowledged me I always gave them a nod in reply. No need to be a prima donna about my (local) star status. I’d just make those less fortunate feel bad about themselves. That simply wasn’t cool.
I nodded at a smartly dressed woman pushing a stroller, winked at a pretty ingénue (making her blush, of course), and tipped my hat at a cop walking his beat. They all loved the attention.
Yet I felt like a fraud. They deserved a better lead character than me.
The cars kept honking, causing a flock of birds to scatter. One swept by my face, making me turn sideways to avoid getting hit.
That was when I saw her.
The woman stared back at me, hiding in a dark corner away from the crowds – away from all other characters. She was stunning, stoic, and not of this world. Literally. She wasn’t one of my author’s characters, which usually amounted to a blond sex-kitten desperately needing my help. No, this lady was something special. In her, I sensed a dark desperation – something terribly sad.
The woman looked straight at me, unafraid. I returned the gaze, and her expression slowly changed. The hardness of her exotic features softened, and her mouth opened just a little, as if puzzled.
The lady had dramatic Mesopotamian features, yet she was exceptionally gray looking. Being gray wasn’t unusual for the denizens of my world – we were all low on readers, and thus, on life force. But this lady, with her tight, home-woven dress, armored ancient-looking leather pants, and her elbow-length hide gloves – she was grayer than anyone I’d ever laid eyes on.
My god, I thought, she’s a tourist.
That was rare. Nobody came to visit my story, especially not a character as faded and close to oblivion as this dame. Most of them would want to visit a richer, more vivid world. They’d go watch Scooby and the Gang solve mysteries, or Chiron search for love and identity under the moonlight, or Babe the Pig herd sheep.
Whatever she was doing here, in my insignificant tale, I was going to thank her for checking it out. I gave her a confident nod and winning smile.
“Thanks aplenty,” I said.
The gray woman took a surprised step back, her body pressed against the wall. Her large gray eyes moistened, soaking in the sight of me as I passed her by. Turning my head, I was unable to peel my eyes off her. And she kept looking back at me. Feeling sheepish, I gave her a small wave. She quickly darted down the street, taking care to avoid ambient characters.
“That’s strange,” I said to no one in particular.
As anyone remotely familiar with storytelling would have already guessed, this event wasn’t merely an odd encounter, but rather something profound. I’d be seeing her again.
I brushed the fleeting moment aside, and returned my focus on what world to explore. Perhaps I could go visit ‘Some Like It Hot’ – I was in the mood for a good laugh. But that story took place during prohibition.
Best get a drink first, I thought.
Duke’s Bar was on a corner two blocks down from my apartment. It was a typical 1940’s Los Angeles drinking establishment, the kind that only seemed to serve alcoholics and private detectives. A parade of cars honked as they passed – cars always did that in my world. It added to the atmosphere, though my writer had – of course – gone over the top in describing them, which meant that the drivers blew their horns about fifteen times a minute. With over a hundred cars currently driving by, that meant some blowhard was always honking. I put my hands over my ears and quickly rounded the corner, hurrying through the green front door.
Bartender and owner Duke Lorraine spat into a glass, applied a worn rag, and mechanically went about cleaning it. The dusty place overflowed with atmosphere. That was it. That was how it was written: overflowing with atmosphere. No details, or any further useful description for a potential reader. What my nincompoop author meant was that the place looked moody. It was dark, sodden and not very inviting. At least the front door was green in honor of Duke’s Irish heritage – I guess that was all the detail I could ask for.
Duke greeted me with a distracted nod. He was one of my pals. Duke Lorraine had been named after Duke, the seldom seen bartender and buddy of Martin Crane in the television sitcom ‘Frasier.’ Duke, my Duke that is, could always be counted on to have a not-so-clever remark about the state of the city. He never left the bar, always present and ready to lend an ear when I had trouble with a case. I’d pour my heart out about the difficulty identifying the murderer in my novels, though I’m sure my readers were way ahead of me, and Duke would listen, nodding solemnly. He’d do the same when I brainstormed new worlds to visit. Duke never had any suggestions of his own, except asking what the wine was like in a given world, so it was up to me to figure out where to go. Duke always had a hangdog, dullest-tool-in-the-drawer kind of look about him. He never smiled, nor did he frown. Duke was the least emotional character I had ever met.
And yet, today, he was ashen.
“Whisky,” I said.
Duke poured me a glass. His hand trembled. Beads of sweat cascaded down his bald, oxen-sized head, dripping onto the counter.
“Thanks aplenty,” I said.
Duke just stood there, his face drawn into a horrified grimace.
“What’s the matter, old chum?” I said.
“It’s Dorothy Gale,” Duke answered, as if that would explain everything.
Dorothy Gale? Like in those great stories about the magical Land of Oz? What was Duke going on about?
“What about her?” I asked.
Well that didn’t make sense. How could Dorothy Gale be dead? She was one of the greatest literary heroines of all time, with equally fantastic cinematic and video game works created about her. There was no chance they’d vanished all at once. Thus, she was immortal and absolutely not dead.
“What do you mean, dead?” I spat.
“I dunno,” Duke answered. “I just heard. They say she’s dead.”
“What about Oz? What about her world?”
“I dunno,” Duke repeated.
“Did somebody write a story where she dies, or something?”
That had to be it. Dorothy Gale didn’t die in most tales about her, or any, for all I knew. She was a hero, and she was supposed to survive.
“No, not like killed dead,” Duke stuttered. “She’s gone. She’s… faded.”
He wasn’t pulling my leg – Duke really believed what he was telling me. Dorothy Gale – the savior of Oz, scourge of Wicked Witches, and one of the greatest characters of all time – had been ripped from the fictional world, erased and shuffled off to the void. Yet the works featuring her still remained. They had to remain… right?
For the first time in my existence, I felt pure panic. Characters like me could easily vanish. After all, there were only a few copies of my books left. I was doomed to vanish sometime over the next couple of decades. But not someone like Dorothy! It wasn’t possible. She could not fade, not as long as a copy of her books or films survived in the human world. She was beloved. And she was adapted. As long as the planet Earth remained, Dorothy Gale was indestructible and never-ending.
While I didn’t understand it at that moment, I would soon learn that the rules of the fictional world had changed.
Famous characters were no longer immortal.