Pic of the author, dressed as Princess Leia, with a thought bubble full of an image composited from the covers of 'Howl's Moving Castle' and 'So You Want to Be a Wizard,' and screenshots of Michael and Janet from 'The Good Place' and Kerry and Cary from 'Legion.'

Fictional Character Overload! A Geek Problem

Books Entertainment TV and Movies
Pic of the author, dressed as Princess Leia, with a thought bubble full of an image composited from the covers of 'Howl's Moving Castle' and 'So You Want to Be a Wizard,' and screenshots of Michael and Janet from 'The Good Place' and Kerry and Cary from 'Legion.'
Me last week. Image composited from images from, left to right: Frank Sarris Public Library, HarperCollins, Harcourt, Universal Television, and FX.

Geekiness is all about passion, and a certain branch of geekiness—fandom—directs that passion toward entirely imaginary things. Your brain gets caught up in stories, running the components of said stories over and around and inside out. I’ve always been prone to this sort of geekiness. I was a little embarrassed by it as a child—what would people think if they could see how much I’m still thinking about this cartoon all day? By now I’ve accepted that this is just how my brain works: I love things passionately, and I love stories especially so, and if I can’t stop thinking about stories, well, that just goes to show how important stories are, right?

But let me tell you about my brain this past week. I think this proves why I never could understand how people could handle reading more than one novel at a time.

The kids and I, in our evening read-aloud, are now reading Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, that “if Madeleine L’Engle wrote Harry Potter” confection of perfection that, when I put it that way, already shows I’m in mash-up territory: two stories that I love coming together to make a new, third story.* So my brain had been musing over good vs. evil mythological tie-ins in modern urban settings in the evenings, but the actual reading happened only an hour a night, leaving lots of time for further media input on my own time. I mean, pre-kids I was much more inclined to binge my stories, leaving not much time for other stories to slip in during the off-moments.

So I was flipping through Tumblr when I came upon a call for participants in a fanfic exchange. As much as I obsess over fictional characters, I’m not really into fanfic as a community thing—I’ve written my own bits and pieces here and there, and certainly make up lots of it in my head, but I don’t do the sharing-it-on-the-internet-and-reading-other-people’s-stuff thing. But I’m also a seriously blocked fiction writer, and the exchange was for one of my favorite TV shows, FX’s Legion, and I thought, I can probably do this. It would be a good exercise to get the fiction writing muscles working again. As I filled out the application survey and started thinking about what I wanted and could probably write in the way of Legion fanfic, I decided I was most curious about the childhood of the Loudermilk twins, two very different people who share one body most of the time, and before I knew it a story was pouring out of my head. Suddenly I knew exactly what had happened to Cary and Kerry Loudermilk at the age of twelve, and I scrambled to write it down in any spare moment I could wrangle.

I kind of laughed at myself at the turn the story was taking—only I could take a TV-MA-rated show and write a TV-Y7 story for it—but what can I say? My heart belongs to middle-grade speculative fiction, and that was, after all, what I was reading right now. I’d made the Loudermilks the same age as Nita and Kit in So You Want to Be a Wizard, two more specially-powered kids facing down bullies and coming of age. And my Young Kerry seemed to be channeling a bit of Nita’s little sister Dairine. Um, maybe I’d somehow written a Young Wizards story with mutants instead of wizards? I’m still not entirely sure.

But the fanfic exchange wasn’t the only thing on Tumblr that caught my attention. YA author Maggie Stiefvater had started a read-along discussion of Howl’s Moving Castle, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Naturally I had to pop over and see how discussion was going, and the more comments I read, the more I had to pitch in my own thoughts, and the deeper I got into it, the more I needed to reread the book myself right now. So now I was technically rereading two of my favorite upper-middle-grade fantasy novels at once, both about wizards, but with completely different settings and magic systems. Coincidentally, the magic in Howl’s is more similar visually (and I’m just talking the book version; the movie, though perhaps blasphemous from a character standpoint, is even MORE similar visually) to the magic in Legion: amorphous psychedelia, mind games, massive shapeshifting sky-battles between godlike magic-users.

The biggest issue with having three stories in my head at once, though, is deciding which to devote my bits and pieces of spare time to. I’d finished the chores of the day and could finally wrest my computer away from the kids… but what do I want to do with it? Open the file of the Loudermilks’ story or the Slack page of the Howl’s discussion? We finish our read-aloud chapters and the kids go to bed but I keep reading ahead, only for another bit of my brain to butt in, stop wasting time! You’ll get to read this tomorrow! Use this moment to read Howl’s! Or maybe work on your story! Or maybe…!

Then suddenly it’s Friday morning and, oh dip, it’s time to watch The Good Place,** my current favorite TV show. For a second the three other stories in my head protest, why are you ignoring us for this totally-not-about-us story? Because I love these characters passionately too, other stories, and I have no trouble getting sucked back into their story, too, different as it may be from the others. Well, maybe not too different. The Good Place and Howl’s Moving Castle both have doors between universes and characters named Michael, and now the two Michaels are getting mixed up in my head, even though the characters have absolutely nothing else in common. Oh, but Good Place Michael does have some distracting similarities in common with Cary Loudermilk (in the show, anyway, not in my flashback-based story), being that they both appear to be slender bespectacled white men of roughly the same age, who also both happen to have close, powerful sidekicks who look like dark-haired women half their age but the truth is much more complicated than that, so now I’m thinking about all of them at once. There doesn’t seem to be anything too confusing tying The Good Place to the Young Wizards, though. Moral dilemmas and demons and the potential for warping reality. But I just made that connection now, not in the midst of last week.

They are all having a party in my head, and I’m trying to figure out which ones I want to hang out with first, when it finally occurs to me that there may even be real life matters I should be attending to. There are Halloween costumes I need to have finished by a real party the next day, for example.

You know, a party full of people dressed like fictional characters.

And I go through my own stock of costumes-that-fit-ME right before the party, pull out Princess Leia’s white robes. Oh, haven’t worn this one in awhile, and my hair’s long enough to bun up properly again.

But this is just a step too much for my story-swamped brain. At the party I’m confronted by a kid dressed as Darth Vader, and to my complete frustration, I have forgotten every possibly appropriate line Leia might say to him.*** Not enough RAM, my brain bleeps at me, “Star-Wars.exe” cannot be opened until other files are closed.

By now things are getting a little less crowded in there. I’ve finished my Legion fanfic, and this week’s Good Place is not as dying-to-be-rewatched as the week’s before, so those files can be closed for the time being. But I still keep forgetting what I’m actually reading to my kids. I still keep getting magic systems mixed up and wanting to refer to characters or myths that aren’t actually part of the Young Wizards at all.

I love my imagination. I love the way it soaks in stories. It just needs to remember not to drown in them.

*Not actually how it happened, being that So You Want to Be a Wizard came out 15 years before Harry Potter, but my brain translates it as a mash-up.

**What, who actually has kids and watches TV shows in prime time? Don’t we all watch everything the morning after?

***Unfortunately I DID remember her berating General Tarkin for his stench, but the kid dressed as Vader was also, uh, actually kind of stinky? so that would have been even MORE inappropriate. I also briefly considered calling a man dressed as Han a “scruffy looking nerf-herder,” but because I was technically in a professional position, I didn’t want to be misinterpreted as flirting. But otherwise, I was having a HARD time channeling Leia that day.

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