Where do Character Go When they Die?

*** Spoilers follow ***

Where do characters go when they die?

It’s a question that dogs me. I know where flesh-and-blood people go when they die: whatever funeral customs are observed, they get returned to the ecosystem that they came from, that’s nourished them their entire lives, and then the Sun swells up and we all become stardust again. Parts of them live on in memories, expressions, habits, all taken in and made part of other people, just the same way we take in food and air and liquid and make it part of ourselves. Flesh, action, and thought, we are all part of the same ecosystem, we are formed from it, remade by it every moment of our lives, and then return to it.

A man smokes a marijuana joint during a march in favor of the legalization of marijuana in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Saturday, June 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine)

We’re all, like, part of some great cosmic being, man…

But fictional characters, people who aren’t flesh and blood… Just because they’re not fleshy doesn’t mean they’re not ‘real’, and so don’t matter. In the end, we’re all going to be stardust. Nothing we do, think, feel, or make will last forever. So what matters is here, and now. What matters is what we’re thinking and feeling, if we’re happy or sad and why. All we have is our experiences of the world around us. And, when we connect with someone, they become an integral part of those experiences. They become a thread in the tapestry that is us. And there’s no reason why a fictional character can’t be just as important as any other thread. In fact, there are fictional characters that are far more important to me, far more integral parts of my tapestry, than a lot of flesh and blood people.

But these people don’t have fleshy bodies which break down and become part of the ecosystem again. And they’re even really dead–all I need to do is flick back to the beginning of the book and they’re alive and well. So where does that leave them? Trapped in an ever-repeating, never changing set of actions that I can flick through at my will, are they little more than animated gifs?

A .gif of a dancing banana

… not the touching tribute I was hoping for.

Well of course they’re not. Any work of fiction is a conversation between author and reader, the story hanging between them like the third body in a relationship. And although the words may not change, the reader will and so their side of the conversation will and, so, the third body will. So a character is not just one character. They are different every time someone new comes to their story, and different every time someone old returns to it.

Like a lot of humans, I find stories comforting. Here’s a story about fictional characters that makes me feel a bit better: a fictional character is like a river. As a reader or viewer or listener or whatever, we wade into the stream, dip in our cup and take a drink. Part of the river becomes part of ourself. But like any river, it is never the same when we return to it we can’t drink the same cup of water twice. But no matter how much we drink, how sweet or bitter or painful the drinking, the river will always flow.

I don’t know if that will comfort me next time I can’t read or watch because I’m crying. There’s still part of me that needs to know where Nighteyes and Hazel are. Much like there is a unique part of every person, some combination of parts to make whole that is lost when the parts are separated, there is a unique combination of parts which make a character. You can never visit the same river twice.

A photo of the American Falls, one of the Niagara Falls.

And the Niagara Falls are retreating at a foot a year in an attempt to sneak across the boarder to Canada without a TSA agent stealing their laptop and giving them an anal probe.

And so, I’m still left wondering: where do fictional characters go when they die? What happens to their soul? Perhaps if I had an answer to that, mourning them would be easier.

 

Smoker from here, and my apologies to him.  Weed’s never made me think like that, it’s just made my brain go mushy.  Dancing banana from here.  Niagara Falls photo from here, and there’s some pretty cool photos in there of the American Falls completely dry.

A Perfect Example

For those who were a bit confused about what I was babbling about when talking about ‘the unplayed beats of society‘, a perfect example turned up in last Saturday’s Doctor Who (The Curse of the Black Spot):

What happened to the boy’s mother?  How do you know?

The Trouble With Theories

The other night, as I was rolling another *cough* cigarette, I had a bit of realisation. Allow me to tell you about it in depth.

You see, there are so many holes in the way we interact with each other. Gestures are used instead of words, parts of sayings are used instead of whole sayings, words are mumbled or mis-pronounced, things are left unsaid because everyone knows what they mean due to the context, allusions films or music or history are made that are meaningless without the unspoken context. Our understanding of the way our society works fills in the gaps, and our habitual way of doing this makes full exposition redundant.

As a writer, it’s something I’m conscious of. When constructing scenes and dialogue, it needs to flow and feel natural and so those gaps need to be in the right places, like beats in bars of music that are left unplayed. Like in music, they are essential to the rhythm and feel of the scene.

This assumes a common cultural experience between the reader and the audience. (For what is, in my opinion, the ultimate exploration of ‘leaving gaps’, read James Joyces Dubliners. Either nothing happens in the stories, or things happen which change the world, depending on whether you can fill in the gaps.) One of the great joys of reading things from a different cultural experience is the different rhythms those unplayed notes bring to the piece, but there’s always the danger of being left in the dark.

Like I assume a lot of other people, when I was a child I had no idea what cultural experience I should be using to plug in the gaps. I had no idea what a particular meaningful look meant, no idea what the expected unsaid reply to a cryptic question was, no idea what those mumbled words were or what they could mean. So I made up my own narratives. I took ownership of everything and constructed my own world of understanding around the dilapidated pieces of the world I had found.

In the same way time passes slower for children because of the amount of new experiences they have compared to an adult, I had a theory that this constant construction of narratives to explain the half-articulated adult world made childhood more creative, more full of wonder. As we grew up and leaned to fill in those gaps, the world seems less magical because it’s more understandable. It’s like seeing a magician when you’re a child, and seeing how the trick is done when you’re an adult.

The theory has an internal logic and explains a common phenomena (childhood being filled with wonder, adulthood being filled with banality) with a pleasing mix of pseudo-science and pop-psycho-babble. I went to bed feeling quite pleased with myself.

At half-seven the next morning, I thought about it again. The crux of the idea was ‘lack of understanding of social norms and expectations ==> an existence more full of wonder’. Children, as we all know, are not the only ones unable to read those unplayed notes of society. My cute little theory had a hole and was taking on water.

According to my theory, the life of–for example–an Asperger’s sufferer would be full of wonder. Asperger’s syndrome would be a magic tunnel, piping the wonder of childhood into adult life in an unending torrent. And there *glug glug glug* goes my theory, sinking deep down to the seabed, never to be seen again.

There is a tiny hope, though. One wild, hair-brained and entirely impractical plan to raise the ship. Speaking from my own experience of social ignorance, it can be a very isolating life. A lot of the time, it’s like living in a country where you don’t speak the language. For me, the frustration and loneliness that came with that were crushing. But people communicate differently with children. They make allowances for their social ignorance and take the time to help them understand (or they use it for their own amusement, if they’re that type of aunt/uncle), so they wouldn’t feel the same isolation an adult does.

Any attempt to explore this idea is pretty much impossible because it supposes two things: Firstly, that an adult who experiences social ignorance can detach all the negative feelings associated with it; and secondly that their experience of childhood is comparable to those who wax lyrical about the innocence of youth. That’s pretty much enough to throw any plans of raising the ship in the bin.

If you’re still clinging onto a tiny ray of hope, another simple extraction will be enough to smother it: According to the theory, people suffering from social ignorance are naturally more creative. It’s like a blind person who develops really good hearing to compensate! Or a mute developing telepathy! There’s a word, a phrase I’m thinking of… hmmm… Oh, yeah: Disability Superpowers! And that sound there is an undersea volcano erupting and burying my little ship forever.

It just goes to show: Theories are great little things until you start thinking about them.

Someone Burnt My Nest

I lost my job on Friday. I’m getting a significant amount of money to keep my mouth shut as to why I lost it and I have another job starting soon (it may not last beyond March, but you’ve got to gamble some times), so don’t feel bad for me on those points.

I didn’t realise until Friday how much this job had meant to me. Okay, that’s a lie. I didn’t realise how much the people I worked with meant to me.

When I started work there, I was a very different person. I was still struggling with my depression, fighting it and losing badly. Over the last four years, I’ve changed and awful lot. I’m not cured, not fixed, but I’m better. I have good days now as well as the bad ones. I have coping mechanisms that are constructive instead of destructive.

One of the reasons I had the luxury of putting so much time into myself was the people I worked with. I could go into work every single day, and be myself. I could get my geek on, I could curse out the bosses, I could say what was on my mind. I never had to fear any kind of judgement or reprisals. A lot of the time, people would agree with me. The people I worked with supported me, helped me and were my friends. They gave me stability and reliability in my life at a time when I needed it.

No one more so than my immediate boss. Every time my back was against the wall, I knew he was between the wall and me without even turning around. When I went through a period of saying, ‘I’ve got to leave early today’, he never asked why. If he had, I’m not sure I could have faced telling him and so I probably would never have gone to the therapy sessions I was leaving early for.

And they’re my friends. I’ve never really had friends before, not before I started working there.

I’d made a nest in that department. I’d trampled down the straw and feathers and made myself somewhere warm and safe.

And now some fucker has come along and set fire to it. Smoked us all out and burnt it to cinders.

A photograph of an office, where all the desks are empty. The trays, the desks all clear. The chairs are emtpy apart from one man sitting and staring at something in his hand, and two women in the background leaning over one of the computers. There's full rucksack sitting on one of the desks, and slightly wilting red roses are stuck in a number of the trays.

The corpse of a once beautiful department

I know, new opportunities, moving on. But it hurts. Oh, it hurts. It’s taken me so long to write this because it’s a wound that I don’t want to go poking yet.

But you’ve got to clean a wound before it can heal properly, right?

But What About Where There Are Only One Set of Footprints?

When I was in primary school (ages nine to 13), the walk home took me about half-an-hour.  Most of it was on pavement along main roads, but there was some nice scenery.  I frequently walked home alone.

I had a rough time when I was at school.  Right from the day I started at age 5 to the day I left at age eighteen.  On my walks home, I’d tell myself stories–or maybe daydream, depending on how you want to define things.  A frequently recurring daydream I would have was that I’d be walking home, and an adult would call me over to sit down next to them on a wall surrounding a garden.  They’d call me over using my secret name, the name I used to talk to myself that no one else knew.  That would be how I knew I could trust them.

I’d sit down and they’d say, “hey [name], I just wanted to tell you–it’s going to be okay.  Trust me, it’s going to be okay.”

Then they’d give me a brand new school jumper, and disappear off somewhere.

I still tell myself stories and daydream, of course.  Last night, I was falling asleep and I made this daydream where I could go back in time to when I was in primary school and wait for an eleven-year-old version of myself on a garden wall.  I would have gone down the school earlier in the day to purchase a new school jumper (I worked out I would have to pay for it in pound coins because they wouldn’t accept our bank notes in 1991, and they certainly wouldn’t accept my chip-and-pin debit card).  I’d call my younger self over with his secret name, and tell him, “you know, it’s going to be okay.  Trust me, it’s all going to work out okay.”  Then I’d hand him the jumper, and disappear.

I didn’t remember about the daydreams I used to have until after I’d thought all of that.  I hadn’t thought about our secret name or that particular daydream for well over a decade.  It was only when it was all set in my mind last night that it connected with the memory.

Suddenly I was back in 1991, looking at the whole thing through a pane of glass.

A few years ago, all that hurt and heartache would have twisted me up inside and driven me on a weeks-long down spiral.  Last night, though, it just made me sad.  Very very sad that I felt so alone and desperate all those years ago.  And today, I’m still on my feet, doing what I do.

It’s easy to say, ‘what I went through made me who I am today’.  But if I had a time machine, I’d go back.  I’m walking down the path of my life with a whole host of past-me’s and future me’s, so I’ve never really been alone.  I don’t think it would destroy the timeline to let myself know that when I needed it the most.

We had to walk up hill both ways, too

I remember, back when I was in class 7N (for those disinclined to maths, that would make me 12/13).  As part of an exercise in… something, we had a grid of dots which he had to join up.  The dots we used, and the order we joined them up in, were uncovered by means of some maths.  The end result was supposed to be a polar bear.   Half-an-hour into the class, everyone was joining up the dots and making their bears.  I wasn’t.  I’d been fighting and fighting and fighting and I just couldn’t get it.  I had a round hole, and I was clutching a square peg in my hand.  I put my head on the desk, and started to cry.  It wasn’t the only time I’d cried in class 7N, just one of the first occasions that springs to mind.

The Daily Fail had an article about a new set of psychological conditions under consideration for inclusion in the ‘psychiatric bible’.  I was initially sceptical of these new conditions because–as far as I understand the medical system in America–there’s a very cosy relationship between those who decide if something is a disease or not, and those who make drugs to treat the disease.  Maybe that’s just hearsay, I’m really not in a position to judge.

Then I started thinking about Autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, and some of the things mentioned in the article like Intermittent Explosive Disorder.  None of these terms were in the public consciousness when I was at school.  You were a slow learner, or you were badly behaved.  Either way, you were expected to take responsibility for your actions.  Why this sudden rush to label all these things and throw drugs and treatments at them?

And what long-term good is sticking labels on these kids going to do, anyway…?  What if people had been as aware of these sorts of things back when I was a kid as they are now?  Would I have been diagnosed with something?

Might I, possibly, have been given the help and support I needed to function in society?  Would someone have sat me down, talked through these things with me, convinced me I wasn’t irreplaceably broken and given the tools for me to make a decent life for myself?  Would someone had done all that for me when I was 12, instead of when I was 27 and there was an awful lot more damage to undo?

So maybe the doctors aren’t just stickling medical labels on bad parenting or excusing naughty children by giving them disorders.  Maybe if a bit more of this sort of thing had been going on when I was a kid…

There’s no sense in wishing to change the past, of course.  I don’t think these conditions are necessarily labels or pigeon holes.  They’re just a way of saying, ‘ah, so that’s how your brain is working… that’s fine, this is the set of tools you need to deal with the world’.  Call it ADHD, hyperactivity or possession by witches, it don’t matter.  What matters is that someone sits down with you, tells you you’re not broken, gives you the tools you need and the support you need to learn how to use them.