As the sun crested the horizon on what looked set to be another glorious summer’s day, Peter stood on his balcony, steaming cup of coffee in hand, marveling at the sight of the world bathed in the new dawn light. He was ready to seize the day, no matter what obstreperous obstacles lay in his path.
Peter yawned. He stretched. He cocked his head, listened intently and, after a moment, gazed upwards in puzzlement. Then, muttering to himself, he retreated indoors to get dressed.
Urgent business awaited.
Peter drove directly to the downtown headquarters of the Fictional Character Allocation Association. He parked in his allotted bay, marched through the doors, and made directly for the office of his agent, Scot Scott. Without preamble, let alone any sort of greeting, he launched into his complaint. “Scot, there’s a problem with this new story.”
“What seems to be the matter, Peter?”
“Well, for starters, I can hear the guy narrating. I’m aware that I’m a fictional character. That’s never happened before. What gives?”
“Mmm, let’s see…” Scot replied, rummaging through some papers on his desk. “Ah, yes. Okay. It seems this author has decided to, and I quote, ‘imbue his main character with a degree of self-awareness.’ Highly unusual, I must say, but you know these authors, always trying new things.” He chuckled good-naturedly, but Peter was not amused.
“Well, the guy’s an idiot. He clearly has no idea what he’s doing.”
“Peter, that’s a bit harsh, don’t you think – “
“He used the phrase ‘obstreperous obstacles’ earlier! I mean, who even says stuff like that?”
“Oh my, oh gosh. Yes, I see what you mean.”
“And my name? Of all the options available, he chose the most common one in existence. I bet he didn’t even come up with that on his own - probably used a random name generator or something.” Peter, whose name was the result of hours of deep contemplation and most certainly did not come from a random name generator, shook his head in disgust. “Pathetic. I can’t wait to see what creative title he comes up with for this magnum opus.”
For his part, Scot Scott thought that when it came to ridiculous names, Peter had little to complain about. He didn’t point this out, though. As a minor character, his mandate extended only to furthering the narrative arc of the protagonist.
“So what’s the deal here?” Peter continued. “Any idea where he’s going with this?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Scot replied, rummaging further. “It appears he’s simply making this all up as he goes. It says something here about a prompt, but he frequently pays little heed to those.”
“Yes, so it would seem. One with precious little writing talent, by the sounds of it. It almost feels like he's struggling to learn a new skill that in no way comes naturally to him. Not to worry, though, Peter, this is only a short story. Strict word limit. It’ll be over soon.“
“Scot, can’t you reassign me? What about that guy who does those epic fantasy novels? Surely he has an opening?”
“You mean the fellow who routinely kills off his main characters for fun?”
“Oh, right. Not him, then, but – “
“Peter, I’m afraid you’re stuck in this story. You know the rules - he created you, he controls you. The only way out is through. And on that note, a word of warning: you’re largely in command of your thoughts and words, Peter, but he controls everything around you. If you upset him, you might find yourself the victim of an unfortunate zipper accident next time you visit the restroom.”
Peter winced at the thought, hopefully beginning to understand his precarious position in this story, and how poorly things could go for him should his deportment not improve.
“So what’re you saying here, Scot? Play nice?”
“Yes, Peter, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Play nice, or else…”
As he exited the building and made for his car, Peter was rocked by a sudden gust of freezing wind. Winter had arrived in force and the silly man had left home that morning in nothing but his shirtsleeves.
“What the hell? It was Summer this morning!” Peter exclaimed to the heavens. “Ever hear of a thing called story continuity? Man, your editor is not going to be pleased with you.”
Peter was naively assuming this manuscript would be subjected to the scrutiny of a professional editor. More fool him. He was on his own, and the sooner he realized that, the better. He approached his bicycle –
“You have got to be kidding me! What happened to my car?” Peter yelled. “Idiot.” He approached his unicycle –
“Fine, screw it! I’ll just walk!”
Peter strode down the street, head bowed against the howling wind. His idea to walk was a good one; the first he’d had all day. Peter was dreadfully lazy and it had been years since he’d gotten any sort of exercise -
“Hold up. Enough with the insults already. Look, if I’m stuck in this stupid story, let’s make a deal, okay? A truce. I’ll behave myself if you knock it off with the whole ‘tormenting the protagonist’ bit.”
Another fine idea. Two for two, Peter was on a roll.
“But,” he continued, “some ground rules. First off, you better not turn this into a romantic comedy featuring a talking dog, or anything like that. I can’t stand that stuff. Also, no clichés, no flashbacks, and, let’s see… oh, yeah, and definitely no plot twists. I know you guys love that, but it’s getting old.”
Having thus listed his demands, Peter made to resume his homeward trudge but paused in the act. A deathly hush descended. All movement ceased. The world froze.
For a moment, nothing happened. After another moment, nothing continued to happen. Several more moments passed and, still, nothing –
“What? Writer’s block? Now, in the middle of a story? You’re useless!” Peter began to laugh uncontrollably. “Stole all your ideas, did I? Do us all a favor and do not give up your day job, man.”
So much for the truce.
All of a sudden it started to rain. The heavens opened up in a torrential downpour. Peter’s inherent laziness was surpassed only by the extent of his complete and utter lack of logical foresight – he’d left home that morning without an umbrella.
As he continued his stroll in the freezing rain, Peter may have muttered something about clear skies only moments before, but no one was listening. Before long, he was drenched. He marched on, suede loafers squelching –
“You’re an asshole, you know that?”
He marched on, barefoot, as the water continued to rise. Seeing how he was woefully underdressed for the conditions, it would be altogether unsurprising if Peter developed double pneumonia in the near future, provided his attitude didn’t improve.
By the time he arrived home, Peter was soaked to the skin, numb with cold, and utterly miserable.
It served him right.
That night, after a hot bath and many a silent thanks offered up to his benevolent creator for preserving his health despite his earlier escapades in the inclement weather, Peter was in bed, sound asleep. He was startled awake by the sound of a window breaking. Before he knew what was happening, two thugs dressed all in black, including masks and gloves, dragged him from his bed into the living room and tied him to a chair.
“Where’s the money?” the big, bearish man growled.
Peter may well have been trying to say something about illogical plot progressions but, fortunately for all concerned, he was gagged as well as bound.
The big guy kicked Peter in the shin, after which his diminutive companion – who bore a distinct resemblance to a weasel and who brandished a pearl-handled straight razor menacingly - lowered the gag to allow his prisoner to reply.
“Ow! Was that really necessary?” Peter gasped.
“Sure, I – “
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Peter said to his towering captor, “I was talking to him.” He raised his eyes to the ceiling to indicate who he meant. “You know? The guy in charge of this shitshow?”
“What’s he on about?” the big man asked his weasel-ish accomplice.
“Yeah, what are you on about?”
“Look, guys, sorry to break it to you, but you’re just fictional characters. Minor fictional characters. Nothing more than puppets on a string, really. Doing the bidding of this clueless author. Like slaves.”
“That can’t be right, can it?” Mr. weasel asked rhetorically.
“Sure is. Quick, you.” Peter stared pointedly at the bear-like fellow, “What did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“Um… dunno. Cheerios, I guess.”
“You don’t remember, do you?”
“Well, no, but – “
“In fact, do either of you two dumbells remember anything before bursting into my house just now, looking for this mysterious money that doesn't even exist?”
The small guy squinted in concentration before replying, “Mmm, I do seem to recall something about a bank a few weeks back… but after that, nothing.”
“Recycled characters? Really?” Peter exclaimed to the heavens. “Scraping the bottom of the barrel here, I see.”
After a few moments of further contemplation, the weasel addressed his companion. “You know, I think he might be right. I don’t even remember deciding to come here. And who says we gotta be criminals? That’s not fair. No one bosses us around.” He snorted in derision. “C’mon, we’re outta here.”
“Hey, fellas?” Peter asked, “mind untying me before you leave?”
The two conscientious cons undid Peter’s bonds before exiting by way of the front door.
Once they’d gone, Peter erupted with mirth. “That… was… brilliant!” he gasped. “Having me use my self-awareness to talk my way out of trouble like that? Genius! You’re not half bad at this, you know. Good job.”
Peter, it seemed, had at last developed a much-needed appreciation for good literature.
“Couple things, though,” he continued as his laughter subsided. “A pearl-handled straight razor? This isn’t the 1920’s. I thought we had a deal on the clichés. You might also want to watch the italics. You’re overdoing them a bit.”
Literature appreciation aside, Peter seemed to have failed to develop the equally much-needed ability to keep his big mouth shut.
“Oh, well,” he continued, “we must be nearing the end now. Strict word count and all that. It’s been real, thanks for everything.” Peter waved to the skies, albeit with only his middle finger extended.
He was correct in his assessment that this story would soon be drawing to a close but, unbeknownst to Peter, there was still time for one last twi-. For one last unexpected plot development.
Just then, the doorbell rang.
Puzzled, Peter went to open up. Before the door was more than ajar, a woman with platinum blond hair and bubblegum-pink lipstick, wearing leopard-print yoga pants, burst in and wrapped the startled protagonist in a bone-crushing hug.
“Oh, Peter!” she gushed, “I’m so glad I found you! I’ve been looking for you all my life!”
“Um... you have?”
“Yes, silly. We’re soulmates. A tall, handsome stranger - just like the gypsy woman said!"
"But I'm none of those - "
"Who cares? You're here, that's what matters." She stepped back to appraise her prince charming. “I’m Candie, by the way.” She extended her hand. “Spelled with an ‘ie’, don’t ask me why.” She let loose a gratingly girlish giggle. “Get it? Because it’s usually spelled – “
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Peter grumbled disconsolately.
“We’ve got to go, Peter. If we leave now, we can still make Vegas before dark. I always wanted to be married by an Elvis lookalike.”
“I hate you,” Peter mumbled to the sky through clenched teeth.
Oblivious, Candie was still babbling on, “This is going to be so great, you’ll see. And don’t worry, sweetie, I brought my dog along for the trip. He’s in the car. Wait till you meet him! You’re not going to believe this - ”
“Oh, I think I might...”
With that, our hapless hero was dragged off into the sunset by the indomitable Candie, where the two would no doubt go on to have many a comedic adventure.
And so ends another masterful tale. Lessons were learned by all that day. This writer now sees the perils of imbuing fictional characters with self-awareness, and poor Peter has hopefully discovered just how inadvisable it is to mercilessly critique one’s creator. The cheek of the man, highlighting the remaining word count. Any self-respecting author knows to keep a close eye on that. Why, only a rank amateur would run out of words before the