I don’t know what Time is, exactly; but I do know that it’s what keeps everything from happening all at once.
I don’t remember who said that originally. It might’ve been Einstein, who understood Time better than anyone else ever did, relatively speaking. Still, even Einstein didn’t completely understand this substance or force called Time, if it is a substance or force; why it does the things it does; why it moves in only one direction; or how to stop it. What no one knows about Time can fill a library and take forever to read. It’s as impenetrable as those other great mysteries: gravity, the origin of matter, or where the socks go when you put them in the dryer.
Not only do I not know what Time is, I don’t even understand Time in the way you understand it; but I do understand it in a way you don’t. You see, for us fictional characters, Time behaves differently and is considerably more malleable.
You know the way cartoon characters seem to be immune to physical forces? They can run off a cliff, pause before they fall, get flattened when they hit the ground, inflate themselves up again, and walk on as if nothing happened. That’s how Time is for us fictional characters. It’s optional.
There’s a lot of things that are optional for me, as a fictional character. I don’t need to eat like you do, unless it advances the plot or means something. Placed in a coffee house for a setting, I have to drink a lot of coffee, scarf down pastries from time to time, and lunch on nothing but panini; but that’s only to establish the setting. I have no more need for sustenance than the plate on which the panini is served. Sleep is unnecessary, unless it’s to dream. So is brushing my teeth everyday, taking a shower, and clipping my toenails, for you generously assume I have good hygiene unless you’re told otherwise. I’m exempt from all the drudgeies of life. I go from one interesting, meaningful, or dramatic moment to the next.
Here’s another way in which fictional characters are different from you. You’re at the center of the world. Everything relates to you and goes through you. That’s the way it is for everyone who’s real. That’s the way it is for me, too, but only because I’m the narrator of this story. If I was a more peripheral character, spoken of in the third person, I would not know that I existed and you would know me only by what you could observe.
You, too, might have a sense of how Time can be subjective. The days before Christmas pass more slowly than the days before the start of school. Weekends are far shorter than any two days of the week. The first bite of a chocolate chip cookie can transport you to eternity. You’ll understand, then, how, in fiction, time can stand still as the author narrates every subconscious motive and delves into a dozen flashbacks, all in the time it takes for a character to open a door. You’ll also understand how days, weeks, years, and even decades can pass without the documentation of even a single line in text.
Because you understand the malleability of Time in fiction, I trust you’re not getting too impatient with me as I pause the romantic plot of the Geeky Guy and the Lisping Barista, suspended right after boy meets girl, boy looses girl, and before girl walks back into the Epiphany Cafe to pick up her paycheck. If you prefer ghost stories and thrillers to rom coms, you might even prefer hearing about The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. You might get a little antsy during long philosophical digressions like these, kind of like having the suspense interrupted by a lecture, but you’ll need to know how to read my book, if you’re going to read it.
What I don’t expect you to understand is the single most radical aspect of the relationship between Time and many fictional characters. It’s something that’ll blow your mind. I’m told that you experience things as one damn thing after another, moving from cause to effect. The choices you make will lead to the outcome and you have little idea of the consequences beforehand. It’s like you’re walking through a dark room and might take a tumble down the stairs or bark your shins on a coffee table before you find the light switch.
For us fictional characters, Time is in reverse. Effects come before causes, the end determines the beginning.
It might be hard for you to understand what it’s like to live backwards this way, to be thoroughly predestined. It’s a little like a detective story. A body is found. Someone is dead. The rest of the tale will uncover how he got that way. It’s a little like a standard Rom Com, too. You know the couple will fall in love and live happily ever after, despite the fact that they seem to be on the outs now. The pleasure is in seeing how its done.
You can only experience the pleasures of predestination in stories, through fictional characters. Stories can end with everything resolved, all neatly tried up in a bow, or they can end in the middle, with many questions unanswered, but every story must end.
Real life, I am told, is not that way. There is no ending. Oh, I know, you’ll die someday, but, if you knew how and when, you’d do all you could to avoid it, and you’d be successful and live forever, if you wanted to. When you’re given a puzzle, you don’t know if you’ll solve it. When you meet someone, you don’t know if you’ll fall in love. When life ends for you, it’s continuing for everyone else. Your end is no end at all.
In fiction, when the book ends, all of us characters go together, at once. There’s no afterlife. Even if there are sequels, they end, too. Real life has no endings, except fictional endings. You’ve read so many stories you might think endings are real.
So, you won’t understand what Time is like for me; unless you think about your own fictions, especially that great, unconscious fiction: your Self. You’ve read so many stories, you might think that, too, was real. Your Self is not real. It’s as much of a fiction as I am. But, behind all the fictions you create, there’s something else that’s real, which I don’t have. It’s about time you knew it.