The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Character sketch: Metafiction

Allie Barkley sprinted from the Student Center to her dorm, Alliance Hall, doing her best to run between the snowflakes which had begun to interfere with her weekend. She didn't have far to run, so she made it to the security booth with only a few blotches of snow adorning her hair and shoulders.

The security guard (actually another student rather than the infamous Rent-A-Cops which had begun to pop up around campus) recognized her and buzzed her through. Few people at Utrecht University failed to recognize Barkley. As the Student Government Rules Chair, she had only last spring uncovered a plot that, because she uncovered it, resulted in the SGA President's suspension from school.

As she waited for the elevator in the lobby, she reflected on this.

"How do you presume to tell the world what I'm thinking?"

Excuse me?

"I asked you to tell me where you got the gall to go telling the world what I'm thinking." Barkley was talking to no one in particular. "No, jerk, I'm talking to you, the one at the PC. Oh, stopped typing for a second. Thought you were, maybe, going schizo?"

Shut up. I'm trying to tell a story.

"A story about me, Allison Elizabeth Barkley. I think I have a right to give my input."

You have no input. You're a character in the story.

"But without me there would be no story."

That's absurd. You don't exist. You're a character that I'm making up here in my apartment.

"Of course I exist. If I didn't exist you wouldn't be writing about me, would you?"

That's reification.


Reification. It means believing that an intangible idea actually exists. You don't exist. Arguing that you do exist, when clearly you do not, is reification.

"I just told you that I do exist. And don't italicize while I'm speaking. It interrupts my train of thought."

Your train of thought? Your train of thought, Ms Barkley, is my train of thought. We get back to the original problem: you don't exist.

"Then why are you having this argument with me? And on whose authority did you just go back and change some of the things I said?"

I will edit my own words as I see fit. I'm editing you right now, as I sit here sipping a Cafe au Lait in the coffee shop next door to my apartment building. Further, I am having this argument with you because...because...because of the wonderful things he does, ya da da da da da dum.

"Original. You must be the Scarecrow, brainless. Let me explain it: you're having this argument with me precisely because I exist. Few things in this universe prove themselves, but I do. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Descartes, in saying that, meant that nothing is absolute except one's self. Once one arrives at the truth that she exists, which is the most fundamental truth at which anyone can arrive (and thank you for editing my grammar), one can go on to other things."

One can go on to having a metaphysical discussion with a character in his own story. Then one can go on to Ravenswood Hospital. You know, I've written a lot of stories in my day, but none of my characters has ever talked back to me.

"So am I just a device?"

I didn't mean that.

"Do you deny that these words are yours, when they disagree with something you believe?"

No, though I expect you would want me to deny them. Writers have always created characters with whom they disagreed, precisely so that they can make their points by proving the antitheses of the theses put forth by the characters. I created you so that I could explore a metaphysical question: do fictional characters exist? Arguing with a fictional character about her own existence seemed the most expedient way of hashing it out. I just didn't expect the character would have such an attitude.

"I disagree with you about my own existence, but not because you created me for the purpose. I disagree with you because I am a free-thinking individual who has a different way of looking at the world."

But you only have a different way of looking at the world because I have given you one.

"Not so. I exist as a free and independent entity."

You're neither free nor independent. I control you totally. Watch: you're now going over to the security booth and removing your clothes for the benefit of the guard.

"Like hell I am. I haven't moved from this lobby. You're lying."

No, you're down to your bra now, dearie, and Fred the guard, who is in your History of North America class, is looking at you like you're crazy. He isn't stopping you, though, because you have really big --

"I am not doing those things, no matter what you say."

Yes, you are. I am the writer, and I have just told my readers that you have begun disrobing for the security guard. This little argument notwithstanding, I have chosen to write this story in third-person omniscient voice. That means, acting as a narrator, I know all and see all that happens in this story. I also manipulate every character in it. Of course, nobody reading this has met any of the other characters because we're having this inane argument over your existence.

"We're not arguing over my existence. You've already admitted that I exist."

I did not.

"Did so. You once wrote an essay in which you argued that everything, real and imagined, exists. You said that because the universe is infinite, at some point in space-time everything exists. It was your perversion of the Infinite Monkeys theorem."

Oh, that. I wrote that in high school, when I was fifteen, before I had ever encountered the Infinite Monkeys theorem. Now, thanks to you, I have to explain the theorem, so that my readers don't get lost. The theorem says that if you have an infinite number of monkeys, an infinite number of typewriters, and an infinite supply of paper, at least one monkey will produce the complete works of Shakespeare by random tapping.

"Right. And if you accept the Infinite Monkeys Theorem, you implicitly accept my existence."

Bull. You're a character. You have no substance, no dimensions, no observable characteristics other than those I provide with words. You do not exist.

"Then how do you explain this argument?"

Oh, we're back to that again? We are arguing, Allie, because while in the shower a few minutes ago I hit on this idea. I asked myself, 'what would happen if a character in a story started arguing with the writer?'

"And look what happened. It got away from you."

I completely control this story. You see, Allie, you don't have a life except what I give you. As you are the protagonist in this story, and I control the story, you can never 'get away from me.'

"No life except what you give? Where will you be in a hundred years?"

With today's medical advances I might still be living in Chicago.

"Not likely. You will probably -- go ahead, answer the phone. Hum de do. So, you talked with a friend about me, didn't you?"


"Dream, baby. As I was saying, in a hundred years you'll most likely be dead. I won't. I'll still be right here where you left me, and I will be as alive for your great-grandchildren then as I am for you now."

But you're not alive in the first place. That's reification, I'm telling you. You don't exist.

"Still harping on that, are you? Listen, not only do I exist, but I will exist a lot longer than you will. Also, people can re-experience me in exactly the same way as often as they like."

That's not an asset, nor is it evidence of your existence. People can re-experience me anytime they like, also.

"Assuming they would even want to, they can't really see the same you every time they meet you. I remain constant, so that my charm never fades. My likability never wanes. I will always be "

It is precisely because you remain static that you don't exist. I am dynamic, constantly changing. Someone who meets me an hour from now will meet a slightly different person than did someone who met me yesterday. Life progresses, grows, changes. You don't.

"I never said I was alive. I said I exist. If you define life as a forward-moving existence, than you imply the reality of static existence as well, or even backward-moving existence. Clearly, in that scheme, I exist."

Fine, you exist. But you're not alive.

"Oh? By defining life as growth, you admit also that I am alive. Ask ten friends what I look like, and you will hear ten different answers. Your own perceptions of me will change over time. Sure, I will remain a stunning blonde, five four with blue eyes, and one of the smartest women any man could ever meet, for as long as the paper describing me survives. But my appearance? Honey, your imagination doesn't even come close."

My imagination doesn't come close? You existed first in my imagination. The only true representation of you resides in my head.

"That contradicts all your earlier pontificating, bonehead. You just got through saying-all right, implying-that no true representation of me can exist anywhere. Too bad, too, the way your love life is going."

Don't get personal. I might forget to save this copy to disk.

"Nah, you're so proud of this argument, even though you're losing, you'd saw off your, uh, arm before you'd erase me. And don't edit that last sentence."

Can we get back to the story?

"Agreed. Go ahead. But I never left the elevators."

Barkley buttoned her blouse back up

"Hey, wiseass, I said I never took it off."

Yes you did. You unbuttoned it in front of the security guard.

"No, you only said I did. That doesn't make it true."

Of course that makes it true.

"Who gave you the authority to say what is or is not true here?"

Nobody, nor was anyone required to invest me with such authority. I took it. I turned on my computer, entered my word processor, and voil…! Instant Allie. Now shut up and let me tell this story.

"It's not particularly interesting. I mean, who really cares about what happens in a college government?"

I suppose you're going to quote Kissinger on me.

"Since you asked, and only because you asked, I shall. Henry Kissinger once said that 'University politics are so vicious precisely because they are so insignificant.'"

Do you know why you quoted Kissinger?

"Yes, because you asked, and I found the request agreeable."

No, you quoted Kissinger because I wanted you to. I typed that line. It came from my brain, went through my fingers to this keyboard, down a wire, into a microprocessor, etc., and by the time someone reads this it will have been fused onto a piece of paper by a laser printer.

"Listen, I didn't have to recite that quote. I only did it to be nice."

Nice has nothing to do with it. I made you do it, whether you want to admit it or not.

"What an arrogant fuck you are."

It's not arrogance, it's simple truth. I control you completely.

"No, I have a life of my own. Ha! Disprove that!"

I don't have to disprove anything. You have the burden of proof.


See? You can't function except when I make you function. I don't even have to tell you what to do, you just do it. Like right now: you're taking your blouse off again and what's his name is ogling.

"I haven't left the lobby, and I most certainly have not removed any clothing. As to my inability to function, what if I did actually say something two paragraphs up and you deleted it?"

Now, who do you think the readers will believe? Me or you? I'm omniscient, omnipotent, and you're a figment of my imagination.

"I am also now a feature of their imaginations as well, am I not? I exist for them now, do I not? I wonder how many people will believe you."

This is insane. I'm putting you on the tenth floor by your room, where you will meet one of your floormates so I can create another character with whom you will conflict.

"Thank you for offering the lift, but I'll take the elevator."

You did take the elevator. You're on the tenth floor now, and John Tyler has just emerged from his room.

"No, I haven't moved from this lobby."

Look around you. There's your door, there's Tyler, and there's your room key in your hand about to go into the lock.

"No, I haven't gotten into the elevator. You're imagining things."

That's the most sensible thing I've made you say yet.

"You didn't make me say it. You just typed it. I said it all by myself. Even your father admits that sometimes stories write themselves, and he has made a successful career out of writing."

He used a figure of speech. The first draft of this story did, in a figurative sense, write itself. But I imagined most of these arguments while I was soaping up in the shower, and imagined you as a character while I was rinsing the shampoo out of my hair. Now, I'm going to go back a few screens to see if I need you to make another point for me.

"Fine, go back. I'll wait."

I don't need to go back. I know what you were going to say now.

"Oh, you mean you were going to have me explain how, because of the way in which I exist, a reader can experience different aspects of me in any order because he (or she) has the power to flip back a few pages? That's an illogical transition, and I won't be a party to bad writing. You'll have to segue better than that."

Thank you, Allie. How's this transition: Do you know why you're called Allie Barkley, and why the guy who has approached you by your door is named John Tyler?

"Not much better, but passable.

"I am named Allison Elizabeth Barkley because my grandmother (on my father's side) was named Elizabeth, and my mother always liked the name Allison. My last name is strictly patronymic. I expect John has a similar explanation for his name."

No, you're both named after a United States Vice Presidents. Most of my characters are named after Veeps, or Supreme Court Justices, or combinations of both. Alben Barkley was VP under Eisenhower. John Tyler was VP under William Henry Harrison for the four weeks Harrison was in the White House. I have a degree in history, you see, so I choose my characters' names as sort of an in-joke.

"So, you deny the existence of my mother and father, and of my Grandma Bess? What about my sister, Kate, who will finish high school in June? You suppose Orrington University will just forget they accepted her when she attends in August?"

Those people and places exist only in my imagination, Allie. Orrington University is as much a fiction as Utrecht U. The former is named after a street which leads up to the administration building of a real university here in Illinois, and Utrecht is the name of a dorm at the college I attended. We writers use these tricks to maintain a semblance of fiction. It's called creativity: we create things.

"Like you claim to have created me."

I make no unsubstantiated claims. I did create you.

"How do you know I didn't create myself in your mind and direct you to give me a tangible existence?"


"Got you there, didn't I? Maybe this story is literally writing itself."

Look, writers create characters every day. So far I've created a half-dozen this evening. Hell, when I was in preschool I had a whole bunch of characters following me around everywhere.

"So when a four-year-old talks to himself, that's creativity in the same way as a twenty-two-year-old's tapping on a computer?"

Yes, I think so, but I thing such a discussion would be better handled by a psychologist. And I didn't talk to myself. I had a menagerie of characters, and I talked to them. I even remember one of them was named Peter. My teacher did not find this to be unusual at the time.

"But one morning you woke up and realized you were talking to yourself."

No, I simply stopped talking to the imaginary people. Kids do that. They talk to imaginary friends until a certain age, then they stop. If they don't talk to imaginary friends when they're little, we think something's wrong with them. If they continue past a certain age, we think something's wrong with them.

"And why is that? Surely the imaginary friends of these children-perhaps even your imaginary friends-continue to exist. You named your friend Peter. He exists, though you don't talk to him."

This is ridiculous. What if I just deleted this argument and got on with the story?

"You may choose to do that. But you've already discussed this premise with your fiend, and she'll want to read the whole thing. The only way you can explain to her the absence of a physical story is by telling it. I win either way. I will exist in her mind, and in yours, as long as you both live. And if she tells her fianc‚, then I exist in a third mind. I can't lose my existence until all of you do."

But you want immortality, and only my printer can give that to you.

"You want immortality, too. Perhaps I am a vehicle to that immortality? Your father would call me the 'USP:' the Unique Selling Point. I am what makes this story unique, what makes this story sellable. Admit it, you were dreaming of having this thing published while you toweled off, right?"

Isn't that a switch. You're trying to narrate my life as I narrate yours.

"Why not?"

Once again we get back to the fundamental character-author relationship. You know about me only because I know about me and I have put those speeches in quotes. You said yourself that I can use you to say things so that I can disagree with them. How do you know that I'm not doing it now?

"Because I still maintain that I have free will. I live in your mind, dude. I am, contrary to your assertion, very much alive, and I have asserted myself to get you to write down these thoughts."

You have it backwards.

"No, I'm controlling you, and you only think you're controlling me."

Try selling that to my readers. Look, it's late, I'm tired. If you want to go on believing that you control me, fine. I won't argue any more. And hey, to show what a generous guy I am, I'll let you have the last speech.

"I have nothing more to say."

Thank you.

"You said I could have the last speech!"

So speak. I'm through.

"You need to work on this ending. It's too abrupt and the readers won't like it."

Copyright ©1993 David Braverman

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