I care too much about fictional characters and it's becoming a problem.
Let me confront the elephant in the room: I’ve been away for awhile. The Lord decided to throw some major curveballs my way in the last month, all of which were positive answers to prayer and marked major turning points for me as a creative person. However, it does mean that I’ve done pretty badly at maintaining my blog and the self-promotion aspects of Bone China Girls. Nevertheless, I’m back by popular demand. Like, literally. People asked me where I’ve been, which is pretty cool. At least I know I’m not shouting into the void.
I'll try to do better. I promise.
So one thing that’s been going on since I’ve been away is that The Americans is about to wrap up its final season. My dad and I frequently get way too into historical dramas, of which this is one, analyzing and dissecting the story the same way we’re notorious for doing with movies (see an earlier post for more discussion of this). This one has been no exception. Any time a TV show I really like ends, it creates a fair amount of anxiety for me, both a sense of fear of the unknown and a sense of dread about saying goodbye to a crew of characters I’ve really come to care about. Since the penultimate episode left pretty much everyone in a precarious position, the dread and anxiety are even more heightened with this particular work.
It’s an odd feeling, watching a story you’ve followed for a long time reach its final chapter, knowing that even though you can always start the series over, something is about to be revealed that will change the way you read it forever. If you think I’m being melodramatic, you’re probably right. Because here’s the deal: I get way, way too emotionally involved in the lives of fictional people. And sometimes, I think it would be better if I just didn’t care.
The first time a fiction character’s untimely fate screwed with my brain, I was seven. My mom and I read Charlotte’s Web together, and Charlotte’s death wrecked me. I know I’m not alone on this point. Poor Wilbur had to say goodbye to his bestie after the mountaintop experience of winning first prize at the fair and getting a pardon from his death sentence of getting made into bacon. Oh, and on top of that, he didn’t even get closure. He had to leave her body in the eaves of one of those pavilions where livestock stay at fairs. I mean, he did rescue her children, which is cool. I can definitely see the significance of that now that I’m older. But over twenty some years later, I still can’t forgive Charlotte for dying.
And then there was Titanic. I’m about to wreck all credibility with my readers, but I saw that movie about thirteen times when I was in seventh grade. Can you blame me? I was right in the film’s target audience, and also, Leonardo DiCaprio, and that Celine Dion song. I sat with multiple groups of girlfriends sobbing uncontrollably as Rose unhooked Jack’s frozen hands from that stupid door and he drifted downward into the abyss (James Cameron film reference semi-unintentional). I think I stayed in mourning for Jack for like three months. Now, as theories abound that both of them could have fit on that door, it really just brings back a lot of bad memories.
They both could have fit on that door. Sometimes I lie awake at night haunted by this fact.
Speaking of male character deaths, do I even need to mention Augustus Waters? There’s a reason why my dog is named after him, which is probably also a subconscious method of dealing with the aftermath of being personally victimized by the end of The Fault in Our Stars. What makes that book particular emotionally disorienting (and genius) is that the whole thing sets you up to think that Hazel is the one who is going to die. I actually interpreted the book’s opening paragraph to mean that she was already dead and that this was one of those Lovely Bones moves where the narrator speaks from the grave.
And then, John Green basically pulls the rug out from under you and you find out that’s not the case. It’s been Augustus the whole time. It’s always been him. Granted, I give John Green total credit for making me see the artistry in young adult fiction, and it really is one of my favorite books of all time. But still. I needed group therapy with other book buddies after I finished it.
The characters don’t even have to be human for me to get way too emotionally attached. Anyone remember the end of Star Trek: Nemesis? Data straight up dies. He sacrifices himself for Captain Picard and keeps the Enterprise from getting obliterated. It’s the most human thing he’s ever done and he dies. The fact that he’s an android makes the question of death a little murky, and of course, the ending heavily implies that this may not be the end of Data after all because he’s still in the cloud or something—like Alexa, maybe. At the end of the movie, while I ugly cried on the couch with snot all over my face, my husband tried to explain that to me, but it really didn’t help. The whole thing really messed me up. When you’ve got snot all over your face because of an android, you know things are desperate.
And then, there was This is Us. Yeah. I went there.
The genius of This is Us is that you know from the beginning of the series that Jack is dead. It’s only a matter of time before we know the how, when, and why. Because of Real Life Responsibilities, I was not able watch The Episode In Which Jack Actually Dies for about twenty four hours after it aired, and I don’t think I slept at all. I had my phone turned off the whole next day because I was afraid of having it ruined. Luckily, I come from a family where getting invested in fictional people is a way of life, and my mom waited to watch it with me. When I showed up at my parents’ house, this was on the front door. Obviously, I’m not the only one with Fictional Character Issues.
At this point, you either a) think I need serious help or b) think I need to get real. That’s what a lot of people have told me. But here’s the deal: I won’t apologize. Yes, being tied up in the lives of fictional characters causes me a lot of stress and I often lose a lot of sleep. Yes, there might be things that are more productive to think about. But the fact that there are artists out there who are capable of creating powerful characters out of literally nothing and making me empathize with them or even hate their guts is inspiring to me. Once I get past my perhaps extreme reactions to what these characters go through, I can see the artistry, and it helps me become a better fiction writer myself.
The sad truth is that life is hard. Good fiction should hurt. It doesn’t have to be about spies or the Titanic or self-sacrificial androids in space for it to sting.
I think one reason we read fiction is that we seek some kind of unique connection that for some reason can only be found in the realm of fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkein believed that the often-redemptive nature of stories, that beauty so often comes from desperate circumstances, was capable of bringing a sense of consolation to readers, one that, in effect, points to the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest eucatastrophy of all time. As I’ve said before, all art points to the themes of creation, fall, and redemption, whether writers are aware of it or not, and we’re better for it. Even if we have to lose sleep.