Long before I ever made friends in school I read books. I’m not sure if that’s why I attach to fictional characters so closely or whether that’s just a part of my personality. But I’ve felt at times that I’m closer to some of the characters in books than I am to the people in my own life. That might also be because of the window narration gives a reader into the minds of the protagonist especially – providing deeply intimate and personal knowledge about a character, the likes of which only a best friend would know (and which sometimes even the character’s best friend doesn’t know).
But regardless of the reason, which I may never know, the fact remains. When a character is well-developed, three-dimensional, and with enough understanding between us for me to buy into their worldview and struggle, I will become deeply attached. I feel this is part of why I will read until 4am once I reach the climax of a novel to get to the end or why I will watch episode after episode of a drama – I can’t bear to leave a character in trouble. I will watch or read them through to the end of whatever immediate crisis they are facing because I will not leave them to face that pain, fear, loneliness, and indecision without me.
Believe me, I realize how that sounds. I know that I am talking about fictional characters and I realize that they have no way of knowing if I am watching or reading and that in some ways my participation makes no effect on the outcome because it is already written and decided and set in stone (unless you’re reading one of those books that says “now turn to page 86 if…”).
But the part of my brain that knows these things about fiction can’t touch the part of my heart that truly feels for these characters, fictional or no. And that’s the thing about good stories and good storytelling – they make you feel something. In fact, they were designed to make you feel something. Aristotle gave that feeling a name: catharsis. Even in ancient Greece, people knew why we loved stories and why we needed them. Stories help us understand who we are and where we’re going. They help us make sense of this confusing and difficult and painful experience we call life.
I won’t watch a series or a movie or read a book with characters I cannot connect to or empathize in some way. And it’s because that’s what stories do – they teach us who we are, and who we can be. That is the gift of great storytelling – when it touches some deeper truth of the human experience and it ceases to matter whether or when or by whom the events at hand might have been made up. When a story is good, whether or not it is REAL becomes immaterial; it is TRUE, and that is enough.
There’s another difference between books and television, however. A book is written through to the end before it’s published, while a television series can be cancelled at any point. And that’s the problem I ran into today. I was in the midst of watching an excellent show when we got to the final episode of Season 1. As often happens at the end of seasons, the episode was a cliffhanger. But the series was also cancelled, so the drama in this particular case remains unresolved.
The final scene of the episode featured a song playing overtop of a series of silent montages, showing each of the main characters in situations of physical and emotional pain, loneliness, struggle, confusion, and loss. And none of those situations will now ever be resolved because the show was cancelled. I had to go shut myself in the bathroom for five minutes because I couldn’t stop crying. And again, I realize how that sounds.
But you see, the thing is, catharsis is the feeling you get when characters are put in situations of peril and then get through them. Catharsis is the release provided by an ending, which I was denied. And the ending doesn’t have to be a happy one. Death in particular as an ending comes to mind. I’m not asking for a happy ending, but I am asking for an ending. I need one. Otherwise I am left with this tightness in my chest and this almost unbearable concern for these characters crafted by some very gifted writers. I want to care about them. I’m glad to feel connected to them. Almost nothing makes me happier than the heights of good storytelling. But not without an ending.
Without an ending, the story cannot serve its purpose. And yes, some stories are built to end suddenly without a resolution – but it’s a different feeling, then. This is more like picking up a book where the last hundred pages were ripped out or left blank. I know there’s more story to tell – I can feel it, as surely as I feel the worry and pain in my chest for those characters. Even if things don’t go well for them, I need to know they’re okay, or going to be someday. Stopping a story at the climax is just plain cruel, and shows a lack of understanding for the ways stories shape our lives. As someone who’s dedicated her life to the importance of storytelling and performance, this is almost unforgivable. There are enough stories in our own lives we don’t know the endings to – give me this one. Give me the hope that if they turn out okay, maybe I can, too.