Thoughts and illustrations on living with Asperger's Syndrome.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Stoking the Fire

Are cartoon characters alive? Do they die? Do they know we exist?

When you’re on the spectrum, it’s not unusual to bond more easily with a fictional character than with real people. It’s neither right nor wrong; it’s simply a fact of life. So, philosophical questions like these take on legitimate importance. Because if you've found, as I have, that obsession over fictional works is a state of bliss, it follows that you want that obsession to last. But how?

Discussions on the topic abound on Wrong Planet: "Do you wish fictional characters were real?" “Yes, I do. Sometimes desperately enough to make myself feel sick. *shrug*,” says BelindatheNobody. "Sure would bring color and smiles to this grey and unhappy world... Sigh... :(" adds Celtic Frost.

"Does anyone think of a favorite character as your alter-ego?" another topic asks. "I go so far as to have 'conversations' with some of them," says a user named conundrum. "On occasion, this actually helps me figure stuff out. :)" "I pretend… they are my imaginary friends who support me and encourage me," writes IdahoRose. "Oftentimes [they] possess characteristics that are present in my own personality, so I guess you could say they bring out the best in me." CMD explains that she identifies with characters who are fellow outsiders. "Whenever I become upset over how different I am from others, I try to figure out how they coped."

Latching onto a fantasy can be incredibly uplifting, and practical, however illogical it might seem. Fortunately, there are many ways for us to feed our daydream.

Fandom today goes far beyond watching a TV show or reading a book. It’s creating fan art, writing fanfic, partaking in cosplay, joining online communities, and more. In this way, I think fictional characters can be said to be alive. They live inside us when we draw them, or write stories about them, or debate what they would do. Fantasy universes are our modern-day legends, like folklore of old, handed down through past generations.

At the same time, our obsessions can also be deeply personal. I watch a cartoon by myself, but in a community, I encounter other fans, each with their own personal interpretation. Maybe another fan’s vision supports my own, or maybe it clashes. Personally, I won’t read fanfic when it comes to my most beloved characters. Shipping? I find it juvenile and offensive. As for fan art, when it's respectful and faithful to the original, it can be awe-inspiring.

Can you imagine if our real-life relationships worked this way? If you had to draw a caricature of your best friend instead of talking with them? If you included a quote from your pilates partner at the bottom of your signature? If you put your sister and your former roommate into a romance, and then wrote scenarios for them? 

And yet, we go to these great lengths and more, to stoke our obsession with an imaginary character. Maybe that’s because even the most basic social interaction is prohibitive. Like talking to them. Like being able to shake their hand, Aw, heck, we'd like to give ‘em a big sloppy hug! It’s only a natural desire when you meet a real-life person you like; so why not fantasy characters, who are the most awesome people we know? Whoever develops the technology for personalized interaction with fictional characters, will make themselves a lot of money. I say, if we have Siri on our phones, why not Harry Potter? Pikachu? Sheldon Cooper? Insert your own preference.

So if fictional characters do possess a sort of "life," can they also die? We hate to see our favorite shows or books end. It can be like losing a friend. I found one take on this topic in a most unexpected place.


Angry Beavers was a late-90’s Nickelodeon cartoon. A show worth watching, if not worthy of obsessing over. Recently, I happened across the unaired final episode, "Bye Bye Beavers," on YouTube. What I found was far more edgy and profound than anything ever scripted in the show. In a fascinating 10 minutes of dialogue, heavy on ad-libs, the beavers learn they are animated characters in a cartoon, that is now ending, and they will cease to exist.
Norb: We’re over! How could they do this to us? There is no dog! My doofy brother, we’re goin’ buh-bye!

Dag: Bye-bye? Why-why?

Norb: Because we are over! As in done, through, finished, ended, terminated, extinguished, down for the count, adios …. We aren’t real! We’re animated characters in a cartoon. Real beavers don’t have appliances, they don’t use bathrooms, and they don’t talk!
The characters then proceed through the Stages-Of-Cartoon-Being-Over, from denial, to bargaining, to acceptance. They offer a few choice words for the network honchos who pulled the plug. Best of all, they interact with their own voice actors, and name-drop other characters they played in other cartoons. Basically, they confront the concept of "cartoon death" by obliterating their "cartoon reality."

"Bye Bye Beavers" is the kind of awesomeness you'd only expect from a hardcore fan. How cool is it, seeing it done by the people who made the cartoons? They acknowledge that the characters are something bigger than the show. They get it. They know what matters to fans like us.The characters cannot die. How can they, when we're here discussing them, ten years later?

A Beavers fan named dpstq expands on this point in a video commentary called "Bye bye beavers and its overall impact." "There’s more to this than just two characters breaking the fourth wall," he explains. The show’s creators, in making this final episode, "wanted us to see this not as a show, but as an experience."

Yes, most definitely, cartoons are an experience! True fans have known this for years. When you hear the Wrong Planet members talk about how much their favorite characters mean to them, can you doubt we’re no longer talking about just a TV show? Sometimes it’s a coping mechanism, or an imaginary friend, or a splash of color in an otherwise hopeless world. We live this stuff. It's something sacred.

The Beavers commentary goes on, “Imagine the kind of ending that last show would have had, if the creators, still making the characters aware of what they were, also made them aware of what they meant. It would have been a melancholy, bittersweet, but perfect ending. Even though Daggett and Norbert may vanish away forever, they knew that they were made for a reason.”

This is the key. What if fictional characters could speak to their devoted, emotionally invested fans, which describes the majority of us? Animaniacs spoke with tongue in cheek to its crazy, nit-picky fans in 1995’s "Please Please Pleese Get a Life Foundation." But I doubt the sincere approach has ever been done. What if our favorite characters knew we love them, and they loved us back?

That may be beyond the realm of the possible, so we depend on our imagination to make our fantasy last. "Don't stop imagining. The day that you do is the day that you die." goes the refrain of a song called "Seventeen" by Youth Lagoon. Indeed, fantasy is vital long past our youth. It keeps us hopeful, helps us deal with everyday problems, and enables us to learn about ourselves. As long as we keep imagining, we keep our inner fantasy worlds alive, and thereby, our own selves as well. Stoking the very fire of life energy within us.

I admit I have the most amazing conversations with my favorite fictional characters. They tend to be one-sided conversations, but, eh, what can you do? Not with my own characters though. That would be weird. Or maybe just redundant. But maybe some of you have talked with Fuzzy?

I haven’t stopped imagining. Have you?

19 comments:

  1. Well said. There are certain TV shows and books that I still mourn their ending. Battlestar Galactica, I miss you and your characters so much.

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  2. my first real crush was on speed racer. :>

    i recently worked with a young man on the spectrum who was experiencing severe anxiety regarding 'fictional porn.' when i finally understood his concern, it was that he'd seen some sexualized anime online and felt he might need to be punished because the female characters might have been underage. for him, this was equal to breaking child porn laws and he wanted to know how the legal system viewed such a violation. it made sense when i explained it, but your post today helps me see his point of view even better.

    thanks for the blog, and thanks to squishes for my shout-out! :>

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    1. Wow, that's an unusual situation, but understandable logic coming from an Aspie. Hope you were able to help him reinterpret.

      You're most welcome!

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  3. Beautiful explanation. You should be an Aspie interpreter! No, wait...you are.

    This seems, to my decrepit old mind, an indicator of a right brain preference, the creative, rather than the nit-picky language based left side.

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    1. Thanks! Well, interestingly enough, when I've taken those quizzes I've come out more left brained than right. I have a very strong sense of logic... but hey, who knows?

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  4. When I was younger, I was crazy about Sherlock Holmes stories (and was a teenager when Jeremy Brett was the preferred Holmes du jour). I would often self-insert myself into those mysteries as myself, imaging going mystery solving with Holmes and Watson, mostly because I had a need for praise that I wasn't getting at home. There were also a few other fantasy stories that I really liked, but I found I didn't self-insert so much and just preferred to get lost in those worlds and imagine what they would be like. Fourth wall stuff always makes me feel a little weird sometimes, though sometimes it can be downright hilarious and awesome (Futurama, I'm looking at you).

    I don't so much have conversations with my fictional favorites as much as I enjoy exploring their worlds, but I can certainly see why having conversations with those favorites would be comforting! It makes a lot of sense.

    Also, I would love to imagine a space walk with Baffle! :D He's my favorite character of yours (plus having a support group buddy like Baffle would be so, so great). I like his serene "it's gonna be all right" look, the one in the second to last frame in the "Needs a Name" comic. Though I guess my second favorite would be the pseudo-puddle. :)

    - Hanne

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    1. Ooh, "Spacewalk with Baffle," sounds like a fanfic to me.... very cool to know he has a fanbase.

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    2. If only space walks involved finding supersonic silencing ray guns that managed to drown out my co-worker's daily late afternoon veggie snacking. :( I call it "crunch time," not because deadlines are involved but because I have to find some way to escape the insane CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH that seems to go on for hours! aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...

      - Hanne

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  5. Wow... Fuzzy really shouting out to me?

    :D

    I love the characters, all of them, but cause Fuzzy was the first one I came across that helped me identify... he has a special place in my heart that no one else could ever take... ever.

    Oh my... I just can't quit smiling now... I feel so silly!

    And it's come at a time when I am needing one most. Somehow you are great at that! If I could hug you through your computer I would.

    Chris

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    1. Hi Chris, how could I not do a shout-out to some of my favorite readers in a post about cartoon characters knowing we exist? I'm glad it gave you a smile! *Hug*

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  6. Hey, how about we reply to them? That'd be cool, at least to me! Here's how mine would go.

    Dear Fuzzy,

    So many words have helped me find who I am, and yet it was only when I found you (and subsequently your friends) that I really felt I found where I belong. You guys have a knack for making me smile when I really need it. Sounds like real friendship to me, even if you are "just" a cartoon character. Thanks for being there. It helps me a lot that I know right where I can find you when I need you.

    Sincerely,
    Chris

    P.S. I think you'd look cute as a chibi!

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  7. You bring to mind a flood of almost-forgotten sagas in my life. A lot of strange twists and turns in my obsession-chain and emotional development have been triggered by the love of a character, yet it's been a long time since that happened, so I almost did not recall that it had been the case. (How could it have been so long? I'm supposed to be hobbyist writer myself!) But the first thing this post made me realize was that I often put real people on the same level as fictional characters. This has always translated to a deep distrust of all things related to fanfiction, but it also has stranger repercussions...
    One of my more bitter memories is of reading over 10,000 pages of a very long-lived forum thread, watching the "characters" (a random selection of teens, tweens, and young adults brought together by their tendency to occasionally roleplay as characters in my then-favorite show) show up, assimilate into the culture, bond, grow, and face life together. Finally, even though I had "only" read the first 10k pages and was still a year or two behind on the "plot", I took the leap and "inserted myself" into the discussion right amongst the "established cast". Of course I screwed it up miserably: It was me in a social situation. Complicating things was the fact that in the time between the last part I'd read and the part I'd jumped into, many people had come and gone and many critical events had occurred; that is, I was completely lost. I also hadn't anticipated the ways every single statement and action I typed could be wildly misinterpreted. Thus I learned a valuable lesson about fanfic'ing myself into a real situation with people real enough to react outside my control...
    But later I did try to join a roleplay group based in Second Life. I could handle most of the face-to-face encounters because they consisted primarily of mindless dancing and odd little discussions about the storyline or people's personal lives, and I could fade into the background. I did love to just stay out of view and listen to the characters and players interact in their own beautiful worlds, but randomly eavesdropping on/recording people's conversations isn't quite appropriate behavior for Second Life. When I didn't have enough "spoons" to keep coming back week after week, I tried to make up for it by interacting on the community's news web sites, but as I continued watching and waiting for the perfect opportunity to weave my own character into the collective narrative, I came to realize...I just didn't have it in me to interfere with what was going on between all the others. Maybe I could have, should have talked it over personally with the major players, but I'm not so good at talking things over personally with people. (If they ever somehow find me and ask point blank why I vanished, I think I'll tell them my character went insane and got locked up. ^_^; )
    Maybe for the sake of fulfilling my social quota, I ought to start watching and reading more fiction in order to perseverate on some truly fictional characters again...but my methods of character creation have sadly messed that up a bit, too. Now when I really like something about another character, my first impulse is to incorporate that trait into one of my own characters...who I can't really interact with due to...er...their not being made to be able to smoothly interact with me. (Behold: http://fc07.deviantart.net/fs44/f/2009/139/f/6/1802_strip_1_by_KittyEaredFreak.png )
    In conclusion, I don't remember where I was going with this ._.;

    ~Violet Black

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    1. ...However, I guess I've been half-consciously hypothesizing that the characters-as-real-people-in-another-dimension approach improves my writing a bit. I'm less likely than average to treat a major character as a device or stereotype because they might object to some of the requirements. Their wants and needs are, after all, important in their respective universes.
      (Though after my supervillain decided it's alright to interrupt the story to sing about his evilness Disney-style for his own amusement, and the adorable little princess turned herself into a monster in order to conquer the microverse and punish it for forcing her to grow out of her self-imposed eternal childhood, I started to question whether this really /was/ an improvement...)

      ~Violet Black

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    2. Thanks for sharing, Violet. Distrust - I think that's my reaction to fanfic too. I've never attempted roleplay myself, but it does sound socially demanding, even more so than just trying to be yourself. Cool doodles!

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  8. As a storyteller, I found a lot of meaning and encouragement in this article. It is true that works of fiction go beyond being just stories - a good work of fiction delivers a strong message, gives characters to relate to in some way or another, and essentially acts as a platform for the audience to invest themselves in, in order to get something in return. I keep these aspects in mind for every project I make, in the hopes that I can give something to everyone who comes across those projects.

    I'll admit I'm more of the type to converse with my own characters, so it was fascinating to read the point of view of those who interact with other people's.

    I've shared this article on my Tumblr account, to hopefully inspire others.

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    1. Thanks Gemma! It's a big responsibility, isn't it, when we sit down to create?

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