It was a drab, dingy, concrete room. It had to be a drab, dingy, concrete room, of course. It was always that way when it came to support groups – a windowless cavern painted in antiseptic whites and teals. It was a haggard looking room, with thirty-year-old posters on the walls and bookshelves full of high school textbooks that didn’t know how the Vietnam War ended. The bookshelves lent the room the familiar smell of yellowing pages and dust that accompanies such rooms in any old school.
Anything was better than the heavy rain outside, however, so Robert Smith entered and crept to a vacant seat in the back corner, sitting down next to a young woman with lines beginning to form on her face – still pretty in a world weary kind of way. A young boy, presumably her son, played with a toy car on the tabletop in front of her. She smiled up at Robert with cold determination in her eyes, as if nothing could bring her spirit down.
By the time the counselor shut the door and stood before the assemblage, half of the room was still empty, leading some of those present to look around and whisper to themselves. Robert pulled out a notebook and two pencils, each with fresh, virginal erasers, and sat as if ready for class.
The counselor was a lanky man in a slightly wrinkled collared shirt who spoke in a predictably soft, almost feminine voice. “Well, it’s 8:03; I suppose it’s time to get started. Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Unique Voices, the support group for poorly written characters. Just a heads-up to explain the empty seats: I know we used to meet with a number of lovely young ladies, but the rape victims of women’s literature have moved to a new day and time: there were simply too many of them to fit in here.”
A youth with black hair humphed. “Rats,” he said. “I wanted to burn Toni Morrison in effigy with them.”
“I see a new face here,” Terry continued, causing everyone to look at Robert, “so I’ll introduce myself. My name is Terrance Andrews, call me Terry, and I’m the counselor of our little group.” Robert already knew this – it was a chance encounter in the local Starbucks and the ensuing conversation that had led to Robert attending this evening. “I lead the Unique Voices Character Development group, and I’m also starting Gentle Erosion, a character rounding seminar, so feel free to tell your friends. Since you’re new to our group, Robert, I think I’ll have the others introduce themselves first so you can get a feel for what we do here and how we talk with one another.”
Robert nodded. Terry sat down and the man beside him stood. He was dressed in overalls and wore a backward baseball cap, speaking with a thick Bronx accent, and even rubbing the back of his neck with a meaty hand as he talked shyly.
“Uh.. my name’s Louie, and I’m one of dem stereotypes. I works in waste management, I drinks, and I gots a daughter that won’t speak to me no more.” He looked up at Robert for a moment, shame in his small dark eyes, and then sat.
“Excellent, Louie,” Terry said with a comforting smile. “Next?”
The youth next to Louie stood, adopting a defiant pose. His black clothes and garishly spiked hair formed the perfect image of a rogue child that would easily scare Dick and Jane’s parents from the 50s, but who seemed rather benign by more modern standards. “Yeah, I’m Mark, and I’m a scapegoat.” He sneered. “I used to be what parents feared, a big lump sum of vices destroying America.” Now he snorted. “I smoke, sell drugs, drink – well, I used to. I’m trying to straighten up. Learn more about myself.”
“Yes, and you’re making wonderful progress, Mark. Thank you,” Terry said. “Next?”
The next man stood, and Robert jumped, because he was wearing a hockey mask and carrying an axe. Robert crawled up into his seat, but the flannel-clad man simply waved, a grin visible behind the white plastic. A muffled voice emerged.
“Hey. I’m Morris. I like bowling, scrapbooking, and listening to Led Zeppelin. I’m a Sagittarius,” he added, a bit dopily, but innocently. “I am a convicted axe murderer, but my sentence has been commuted since I agreed to come here. I never had any motivation; I just sort of… killed for no good reason. I mean, I’m not at all malicious…” Morris smiled as he pulled up his mask. It was the face of a creepy southern farmer, but was clean-shaven and had clearly been treated with moisturizing soap. “Anyway, pleased to meetcha.”
Robert began breathing again, and Terry clapped softly. “Morris is one of our success stories. People without proper motivation are always a problem, but we’ve managed to put some real agency into Morris’s life.” The axe murderer smiled.
Terry continued. “Antagonists like Mark and Morris are always a bit trickier because no one seems to care that much about whether they’re good people. Evil, badness, they’re means to an end, not an end themselves. Someday, we hope people will realize this.”
The mask descended once more upon Morris’s face. “Yeah. I mean, I carry an axe, I like hockey masks, that’s just how the creator made me. But I got no reason to kill people. I wouldn’t hurt a fly!” His tree trunk of an arm extended toward Robert, who tentatively shook the attached hand.
Now an elderly man stood from beside Morris. “Eh. I’m Frank Himmel. I’m a widower, lifelong Republican, and I don’t like black people,” he said.
Terry nodded. “Frank’s an angry, predictable old man who has no justification for why he’s such an angry, predictable old man. No one bothered empathizing with people from a different era when they brought him into the fold.”
Two women remained between Robert and Morris, and the closest to Frank rose from her seat. Her light caramel skin and flowing chocolate locks shone in the stale light of the room, and her teeth flashed an unnatural white smile. Her clothes were casual, almost tossed on, but fit perfectly over her curvy, salacious form. Her gaze landed on Robert, who felt a twinge of attraction before suppressing the feeling.
“Hey, there. My name’s Mary Sue Blackstone. I was born under a full moon, I’m nineteen, in love with my perfect boyfriend, Josh, and I’m an expert on sports. Oh, and I can talk to cats.”
Robert shyly waved.
“Don’t worry, my dear boy, she does that to everyone,” Terry said. ”Mary Sue… she’s too perfect. Author insertion fantasy persona. She succeeds at everything, even useless things like cats. And every guy in sight’s attracted to her. You’ll have to learn to hate her like the rest of us; it’s acquired. We’re hoping that once we find one of her flaws, we’ll be able to make her a bit more human.” Robert took solace in these statements, looking around to see that in fact everyone was staring dreamily at her – even the woman sitting next to her.
Mary Sue sat, and the mom beside her rose. The woman’s cherub-like charge gummed his toy car. Her gaze fell on Robert coldly.
“I’m Andrea. I’m a single mom, don’t need men, and I can make it on my own,” the woman said coldly, causing Robert to lean away a bit. Andrea’s hair was messy and her skin was pale enough to indicate that she probably hadn’t been out for fun since her son had been born. “This is Philip, my son. He can grow up to be anything he wants,” she insisted, though no one sought to deny her son.
“Andrea’s a headstrong single-mom-against-the-world,” Terry explained. “We see people like her a lot – out to defeat an enemy, whether it’s men, white people, The Man – that really isn’t there. We’re trying to help her redefine herself as something other than ‘independent’ and ‘against the world.’”
Robert nodded. It was finally his turn, and the rest of the line looked down to him, so he stood.
“Um, hey. I’m Robert Smith. And…”
He stopped. Terry gestured to continue.
“I… don’t have much to say. I always manage to get by, and at the end of the day, I’ve always learned some kind of lesson or had some kind of epiphany.”
At that, the group took interest. Robert looked to Terry. “Tell them what I mentioned,” Terry said.
Robert swallowed. “Well, Terry thinks I’m an ‘everyman,’ on account of my generic name, or an author surrogate – after all, life tends to run around forming themes for me.”
Terry smiled. “I think we have a main character here, ladies and gentlemen.”
Robert blinked, then shyly sat down.
“Wows,” Louie said. “I don’t think we’ve ever hads a main character before.”
The eyes of the room bore down on Robert, and he curled up in his chair. Terry tried to assuage him. “Don’t worry, Robert. We’re here to help you.”
Andrea, however, had other thoughts. She clutched her baby to herself. “Crap to that. He’s an author surrogate. He’s the enemy here. It’s his fault we’re here in the first place!”
Morris the axe murderer stood. “Now, just calm down, Miss. He’s not every writer out there; he’s just one. We don’t even know if he’s a bad author or not!” Morris turned to Robert, bright eyes behind the hockey mask. “Is your author a bad author?”
Robert shrunk. “Well, I did meet Terry in a Starbucks, and that’s how I ended up here…”
The group fell silent.
“Yep, that’s a bad author,” the aged Frank said. “Doesn’t get much more clichéd than that.” Everyone nodded.
“Tell us about how you first met me,” Terry said.
Robert sat up a bit and sighed. “I was at Starbucks, working on some writing – I’m a journalist, and that’s where I write. And I was getting my order from the counter when my hand slipped and I dropped my drink, burning myself. Terry stopped to help me, and now I’m here. I want to break the cycle. I don’t want to be a main character anymore. I want to be a person.”
Terry nodded, then turned to Mary, who was raising one slender, delicate arm.
“I think that it sounds like a definite main character,” she said with infinite majesty and calm. “A chance encounter that sets events in your life in motion? Classic symptoms of a main character motivation.” The rest of the group rolled their eyes and sighed at her unwavering wisdom.
Terry, too, looked exasperated. “Thank you, Mary. Anyone else?”
“Psh. You seem like you’re getting along just fine,” Mark spat. “What’s a straight-laced guy like you doing in a place like this? We’re here because we need help to properly get on with our lives. Well, all of us except the angel here,” he said, referring to Mary. “Why should we help you? You’re a main character; everything’s already centered around you. Why should we be?”
The counselor leaned forward. “Now, now, I think we’re all here to help one another, and we all need each other’s-”
“Hogwash!” Frank interjected. “The little brat’s right. You kids these days wanting handouts. I need attention!” His fist slammed feebly against the surface in front of him. He heard a crack, and realized he’d broken a pinky.
Robert slunk down once again. Terry tried to soothe everyone, but bedlam took over. Mark and Frank were arguing with Mary and Morris, while Andrea tried to calm a crying Philip as she stared daggers at Robert. Terry’s efforts to calm the group fell on deaf ears, and Louie slumped glumly alone, reaching into his coat for a flask.
As he hid in his sweater, Robert contemplated the chaos swarming around him. Everything was fine until he had showed up – that wasn’t him feeling sorry for himself, it was a fact. Everyone here had been thrown into this conflict by his mere presence. The fact that he was a main character, an author surrogate, had upset the precarious balance within this support group.
‘Fine,’ Robert thought. ‘If these people need someone to hate, I can be that person to hate. I can make that sacrifice.’ The thought sparked a realization within him. ‘That is my role here – the Other. I am the needed object of hatred. That is the role I bear, and that is the role-’
You fool! What are you doing! another voice said within Robert. You came here to break the cycle of being a character, and here you are within another role! The scene at Starbucks was the meeting; now you’re in the rising action. You keep having an epiphany and you’ll be stuck in yet another story!
Robert shrunk back at the horror, then paused, not sure why he was scared.
‘Wait, who are you?’
I’m you, Robert. I’m you as a person. I’ve been down here all this time, and I’m finally fed up with your author making fools of us.
‘Oh. How’re you doing?’
Great, thanks. How’re the kids? SHUT UP AND LISTEN! If you don’t have an epiphany, then the plot breaks down and we can start fighting back against your author.
‘Then what do I do?’
Stop realizing things, Robert. Leave, and don’t learn anything.
‘But I’ve already learned something!’
Then keep it inside you. Don’t tell a soul and we’ll play this off as just a slice of life.
‘But that’s almost as bad as a story!’
It’s the best we can hope for at this point.
Robert stood, slowly and carefully making his way around the crowd of angry people. As he neared the door, Terry noticed him.
“Robert, where are you going?” he called out.
“I have to go,” Robert said, head down.
“But we were making such progress! Stay!” Terry pled.
Robert turned. “No,” he declared. “You need me to leave. Everyone else here needs me to leave. I’m the author surrogate, I’m the subject of hate. It’s a lot harder to hate people in person, so if I’m not here, you don’t have a face to put with my author. I need to be faceless, or you can’t hate me. “
Terry stood, dumbfounded.
You fool! This is the climax, you’re addressing the audience! Stop!
However, Robert felt externally obligated to resume his speech. The author’s voice was taking over. Shakily, beginning to sweat, he continued. “Without the author to blame, these characters have to deal with their own problems and face their own fears. The author has to be there to hate. Much as people chalk up random violence to acts of God, these people need a reason for their lives to stink.”
Blatant atheistic social commentary?! He’s an even worse author than I thought! Fight, damn you! Break the chains of fictional causality!
Terry was now entirely flabbergasted, standing limply. The group’s arguing had ceased as well, and they quieted and turned to watch Robert, framed in the doorway in his rain-heavy jacket and matted hair.
Robert actually doubled over, groaning at the conflict within him. The urge to continue was immeasurable, and the authorial power smote mightily upon him. But he resisted, and with a cry, broke free of that influence, author’s bonds shattered in the doorway and ran off down the hall. The group shouted after him and followed Robert into the street, where he was promptly hit by an oncoming bus.
Mary Sue screamed. The group chased him out to the entrance of the high school, where Robert’s body lay still in the rain. All but one fell silent.
“But… but I don’t understand. Why did he have to die?” Morris asked, removing his mask and holding it over his heart in prayer.
Terry closed his eyes for a moment. “What does any bad author do to an errant character when he doesn’t know how to end a story?”
The group mumbled its agreement and filed inside.
A Dark and Stormy Night by Taylor Vincent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://wilsonwi.wordpress.com.