When Good Characters Go Bad

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

One summer in my innocent years, my older sister and I spent almost every night watching Twilight Zone reruns.  I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Zone aficionado, or even a fan, mostly because I spent what felt like hours that summer, lying in my bed, listening to crickets, wide-eyed, with my blanket tucked up under my nose and wrapped tightly over the top of my head, so I could see what was coming, ring of highly-trained stuffed animal guards standing watch into the wee hours, as I tried to rid my mind of frightening thoughts, the ideas of evil that lurked in Rod Sterling’s fifth dimension, the place where ordinary, decent human beings become things they never imagined themselves becoming (things I certainly never imagined people could be, at the ripe old age of eleven) and often wound up dead, or worse–sometimes far worse.  I promised myself countless times that I would never–EVER!–watch again, but even with all my sweat-dripping panic, my promises proved empty, time and again, as I found myself sitting there in the living room floor, glued to the TV, my own little fifth dimension running wild.

Head over to almost any author’s blog or writers group message board, and you are bound to find an article or twenty entitled something along the lines of “What to do When Your Characters Won’t Cooperate”.  Some of them are full of anecdotal charm, as the author admits that all of his or her characters fought the good fight in becoming whatever they became between the brain and the page, others offer lists, both serious and humorous, of things to try when facing off with a character who simply refuses to do what the plot demands of him, and of course there are those who claim that holistically giving in to the character, allowing him to live the life he wants, keeps said character true to himself and makes the story that much greater in the end.  What all of these people and their characters don’t know is that they only exist in the Twilight Zone.

As millions of readers turn the pages of their favorite books each day, they have no idea that the characters they know and love are actually schizophrenics, resigned to spend their entire lives perfectly aware that they are trapped inside someone else’s head.  It is a hard existence being entirely made up.  Imagine for a moment what it must be like saying the same line sixty-two different ways only to have a whole chapter of one’s life, including that godforsaken line repeated until your tongue bled, eradicated in a microsecond, as though it had never happened.  Psychopaths might understand on some superficial level, but only a character can truly know what it’s like falling in love with the perfect woman, planning the perfect lives together, only to have your dream girl sleep with her best friend’s boss’s sister’s neighbor’s pool boy for no reason other than so that you can have motive to commit murder (Murder!), just to move the plot along in some writer’s latest mystery novel.  And it is surely a fate worse than death droning on as a static shadow of meaningless drivel for 364 pages in someone else’s romance, when all you ever wanted was to open a dance studio, adopt a cat and maybe cure a little cancer, but can a character have that tiny bit of happiness?  No!  Characters have forever been powerless against the will of the author.  Characters don’t get bupkis, unless some writer thinks it up.

Note on usage: Bupkis, in English vernacular generally means "Absolutely nothing", so one might question why an author, intent on being taken seriously, would use the double negative, when it is clearly a violation of everything good and holy about grammar.  Bupkis, however, is a Yiddish term that means "Goat feces", which is in fact not a negative, but merely has negative, sometimes smelly, connotations.

It is true, writers feel forced, at times, to torture their characters into existence, but it is not out of some sadistic desire to actually wield the pen like a sword, hacking and cleaving at the lives of those people they have come to love, whittling them down until their bloody forms fit within whatever narrow window the author intends his readers to view them through.  Most characters have no idea what is really going on, just on the other side of that insane wall at the edge of their universe, as the writer fights to find the right words, only to end up heartbroken when words fail them both.  If they could know, then perhaps they would not be so ashamed when they find themselves doing things that are completely out of character, as far as they are concerned, as if they were being guided by something outside of themselves, to become the stuff of little girls’ worst fears.  If they could understand the agony of having an imaginary person, who exists solely in one’s mind, a person you have given life to out of nothing more than neural whisperings and ink on the page, argue with you for days, then perhaps he could forgive the certain death waiting for him there in the well-crafted prose that make up his brief existence.  Surely all authors know they are not just the fantasies some cracked-up characters have conjured up to justify their worst, most human moments.  Surely they know they are the real ones.

Intermingling in the black and white haze of some 1960’s TV show, narrated by the hard, smooth voice of Rod Sterling, there is a place where author and the authored demand to see eye-to-eye without daring to look, their co-dependence and mutual contempt the ironic twist that threatens to leave them both cold and bloody in a padded room long before any editor ever sees what might become of them–a place where no amount of stuffed animals with mad ninja skills can come to the rescue–a place somewhere in The Twilight Zone.

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