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The Conflict about Conflict
The author’s head and shoulders floated in the southern sky, giant and translucent: a light blue outline of a man. Darren looked up at him. “Just because I’m your character doesn’t mean you need to make my life miserable, you know,” he said.
“I’m not making your life miserable; I’m giving you adventure and conflict. Adventure is good. And conflict makes a story interesting,” the author protested.
Darren replied, “I think I’d know if my life is miserable.”
The author shrugged. “Writers create conflict for their characters. I am a writer, and you are my character. Therefore, I must give you conflict.”
“I don’t like that logic.” Darren said as he crossed his arms over his stomach.
“Tough.” The author smirked.
There was a brief moment of silence, then Darren heard the clickity-clack of the author’s keyboard. “Now what?” Darren groaned.
“Yeah,” piped in Lula, from beside him. Lula was the side character the author had created for him. At first, Darren had just found her irritating, like everything else his author wrote, but he’d grown used to her throughout the book-writing process. Now, they were sort of almost friends.
The keyboard stopped its noise, and words shot out from the southern sky, whizzed past Darren and Lula, then tore back to the author. The two characters barely had time to jump out of the way when the black Times New Roman came barreling past. Still, Darren managed to catch what it said.
“It said, ‘Suddenly, Darren and Lula noticed an ogre in their path,’” he told Lula. They looked up, and sure enough, there was an ogre standing smack-dab in the middle of the dirt road they were on. Darren turned to look south toward the author. “This doesn’t make sense,” he protested. “There hasn’t been a single ogre in the book up to this point—from when we left the village until now—and now we find one just conveniently blocking our way to the dragon? This isn’t conflict, this is just nonsense! Why is it here? What is its motivation? Why doesn’t it want us to get through? I doubt you even know!” He huffed and stared expectantly at the author.
“Oh, you’re the character,” was the author’s response. “You’ll find out as the story progresses.”
“Yeah,” Lula retorted, “when you figure it out yourself.” Darren looked at her approvingly. He hadn’t known Lula was quite arguing mad about the not-really-great-conflict situation. But then again, Lula never ceased to surprise him.
“You brought this on yourself,” the author told them darkly as his keyboard clacked, words zipped past the characters, and the ogre began to walk toward them.
“Grahhhhhhgghhuogh,” roared the ogre.
“Oh, come on,” groaned Lula. She shot a spiteful glance at the author, then walked to the side of the ogre. “Hey, Mr. Ogre? Uh—me and my friend here need to get through, so… could you maybe step to the side?”
“Lula,” Darren said, “You’ll be killed. Monsters don’t negotiate.”
“Well, maybe this one does,” she retorted. Turning back to the ogre, she continued, “So, I think you were about to let us through. Could you maybe do that please?” She batted her eyelashes for effect.
The ogre responded with another roar, even angrier than the first. “Uoaaaaggggghhhhaaaar!!!” It pulled a giant, two-bladed battleax from a sheath on its back. “Oguuuaaaarrrghhhh!!!!!”
The characters, deciding that the ogre did not, in fact, want to negotiate, grabbed their weapons. Darren unsheathed his sword and Lula pulled her bow off of her back. As she pulled back the string with an arrow, she asked Darren, “Plan?”
“Frightened Mice Maneuver,” he told her. Lula nodded. “Frightened Mice” was one of the many strategies Darren had invented, uncreatively named, and taught her. She fired her arrow at the ogre before putting the bow on her back again and pulling out her long dagger. The two characters scurried back and forth around the ogre in the way of rodents (hence the name of the strategy), slashing at the monster only a little at a time, but moving so quickly and unpredictably that the ogre never had a chance to hit them with its slow, heavy weapon. After many minutes of darting in and out and around, the ogre fell to the road with a thud. The characters winced. Darren grabbed the ogre’s feet and dragged it off the road.
The keyboard clicked. Words whizzed past Darren’s head. When he read them, he was relieved to find they did not entail certain doom. “‘Having defeated the loathsome ogre, the two young adventurers continued on their journey,’” he read aloud. He felt his feet move forward down the path. It was always sort of a detached sensation when the author controlled his body.
“I guess we’re walking now,” Lula agreed as she strolled beside him. The midday sun beat down on their backs as they continued down the dusty road. The keyboard clicked and words shot by, again. Suddenly, a huge stone building loomed in the distance. It had a tower at each of its four corners, but the main roof was a gigantic dome. “What’s that?” she asked.
Darren replied, “I guess we’ll find out.” And, after a lot of walking, they did find out. As they approached the grand drawbridge, they saw a sign that said, Dragonmore Castle—Enter if you dare!
“Come on, is that cheesy or what?” asked Lula, rolling her eyes. Darren laughed. Couldn’t the author do better than that?
“I dare,” he said as he swung open the door. It creaked on its hinges, an admittedly ominous sound. He stepped inside the castle. Huge scratch marks covered the floor. “Follow me,” he told Lula. She gulped when she saw the gauges in the stone beneath them but kept going regardless. They continued through the darkness until they reached a fork in the tunnel.
“Look,” Lula said, pointing to a large, arrow-shaped sign facing left. The words on the arrow read, Definitely no dragons here!
“Come on, this way,” Darren said as he rounded the left corner, “And you’d better get an arrow ready.” He unsheathed his sword. Lula nodded and followed close on his tail. The characters gasped as the tunnel opened into a huge room littered with coins, gems, and all other types of precious materials. The treasure could rival that of the richest king ever to live.
“Look at all this stuff,” Lula gushed as she knelt to examine a nearby chest of jewelry.
Darren frowned and said, “Lula, this is a dragon hoard. Don’t put down your bow.” Lula pouted, but stood back up. Darren scanned the surroundings for any sign of the dragon. Nothing. The dragon had to be there somewhere, though. “Keep your eyes peeled for the dragon,” Darren told Lula in a hushed voice. “And we’d better talk quietly. We’d better keep the element of surprise if we can.”
Lula nodded. “I agree!”
“I said quietly.” Darren rolled his eyes. He nervously glanced over the piles of treasure. Nothing was moving. Hopefully, that meant the dragon hadn’t heard anything.
Minutes passed. Darren and Lula crept around the enormous room, examining every alcove and pillar in the ornate wall for a glimmer of scales or puff of smoke. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, Darren and Lula had still found nothing.
“We should just stop looking,” Lula whined. “The dragon’s clearly not here.” She sat down on a pile of silver plates, then shrieked when they slid out from under her.
Darren sighed and sat down on a much sturdier-looking golden shield. “Well, if we stop looking, then what do we do? Leave? What would that help?” he asked. When Lula didn’t answer, he continued, “Our quest is to slay the dragon. If we leave the dragon’s castle, that doesn’t help anything. There have got to be places we haven’t looked. For example… underneath all this stuff!” He leaned over and began digging through the treasure with his hands.
Lula looked at him from where she now sat next to the plates. Her eyes lacked their usual energy. “It’s a waste of time, Darren. The dragon isn’t here.” She rested her chin in her hand.
Darren heard himself chuckle as he sifted through the jewels and coins at his feet. The dragon isn’t here? He thought with amusement. I’m not giving up that easily. After digging past three necklaces, a golden goblet, a silk pouch full of rings, and several other miscellaneous valuables, he stopped short. The dragon isn’t here… “The dragon isn’t here!” he said aloud.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” exclaimed Lula.
Darren jumped to his feet. Because he was indoors, he could no longer see the author’s form in the sky, but he charged toward the south wall regardless. “You didn’t make the dragon!” Darren shouted toward the author. “All this time we’ve spent searching, and the dragon wasn’t even here! How are we supposed to slay the dragon if there is no dragon?!”
The author’s voice came through the walls of the castle, though the stone made it echoey. “Oops. Sorry about that,” he laughed.
“That’s not funny!” Darren shouted back at him.
“It might be a little funny,” the author replied.
Darren was too busy fuming to see the words as they rushed through the south wall and past him, so he was caught off-guard by Lula’s startled scream. He whipped his head toward her and found her scrambling away from a massive red dragon. The dragon must have been six times Lula’s height; its head nearly brushed the high domed ceiling of the room. The dragon’s body was so long that it could not hold its tail out straight without bumping the wall. “Oh dang,” Darren whispered, just before he charged the dragon.
“Thanks, I guess?” he called toward the author as he pulled his sword out of its sheath with one swift motion. Then he saw Lula. She had dropped her bow, and when she scrambled away from the dragon, she didn’t take it with her. The dragon was standing over it now; trying to get it back would be suicide. “Don’t just sit there, find something to fight with!” Darren shouted at Lula.
Lula gave a sharp, quick nod. She ran toward Darren, scanning the piles of treasure beneath her feet. “I can’t find anything,” she told him breathlessly when she arrived.
Darren pulled a sword from at his feet (the dragon probably liked it for its jewel-encrusted handle) and handed it to Lula. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Lula told him. “Plan?”
“Waterfall Maneuver, I guess,” he replied.
“Waterfall?” Lula asked, puzzled. She had reason to wonder. Ordinarily, Waterfall would get them killed in a situation like this.
“Waterfall,” Darren declared. “But listen for any extra commands. And we stay here, by the south wall.”
Lula nodded. “Whatever you say.”
Words shot out from behind their backs, and the dragon turned to face them. It roared, then attacked. Lula screamed. Darren was pretty close to joining her. The dragon raised one front foot and swatted at the characters like they were puny insects. Darren stabbed its foot, and it roared. “Now you made it mad,” Lula told him.
“I don’t think you can kill something without making it mad,” he replied. He turned to whisper quickly as words shot rapid-fire from behind them, “But I think I excited someone else, too.”
With each string of Times New Roman words that emerged from the wall, circled around, and flew back to the author, the dragon attacked. It was all the characters could do to not get slaughtered, and the author’s words weren’t helping. One of the strings made Darren trip over his own feet (even though he wasn’t moving). With another string, his sword was knocked out of his hand (by what, he didn’t know). But he needed his hands free anyway. He told Lula, “This is where the plan really starts.”
“I’m listening,” she replied.
“Grab onto me; don’t let go,” he said, “This might be a bumpy ride.” Lula took a firm hold on his wrist. A string of words passed, and the dragon opened its mouth—it was about to breathe fire. Lula glanced at Darren nervously when he didn’t move. Darren stood as still as a statue, legs bent, arm out, waiting. The string of words barreled toward them again, heading back toward the author. Darren leaped toward it and grabbed it; the loop of the lowercase e at the end of the sentence made a perfect handhold. Lula yelped as she was flung into the air. Darren was terrified, too, though he would never show it.
In an instant, the words neared the wall, and Darren really hoped that because the words had passed through it before, he and Lula could too. Miraculously, it worked. Darren and Lula passed through the wall and flew south through the cloudless sky at breakneck speed. “We’re leaving the story, Lula! We’re free!” Darren yelled over the roar of the wind. He looked up at the author, who was thoroughly confused at what was going on. Wind pummeled past Darren’s head, and he struggled to hold onto the e. Against his better judgement, he looked down and saw the ground far below. He tried not to imagine what would happen if he fell. The words approached the edge of the sky, where the author’s blue form hovered. The sky flickered, glitched almost, and the words and characters passed through it. A brilliant flash of blue and white light seared into Darren’s eyes, and he gave a shout. Suddenly, the words he was holding onto were gone, and Darren tumbled onto a hard, wooden floor.
When Darren opened his eyes, he found himself laying in front of a worn green sofa in a small space with a window and an old wooden desk with a computer monitor on it. By the desk there was a chair, and in the chair sat the author, a completely flabbergasted expression on his face. Darren had never seen the author in color before, and it was strange. Darren stood up. Before he could say something, he heard a noise to his left. He looked, and there was Lula—or at least sort of. She looked the same as usual except she had a light blue outline over her, the same way the author used to. “Lula,” Darren called to her.
“Darren!” she squealed. She started toward him, then gasped when she saw her hand. “I’m blue,” she said.
Darren was cut off by the author, “You—w-why are—how are—you in my apartment?” he asked, his voice trembling with alarm. Darren opened his mouth, but found he had nothing to say.
Lula turned to him, ignoring the author. “Darren, what’s going on?” she asked. “Where are we?”
Darren said nothing, but reached his hand toward her. He touched her arm, and the blue flickered the same way the edge of the sky had: almost like a glitch.
“Oh, weird,” Darren breathed, an intense expression on his face.
“What’s going on?” the author hissed. Darren realized he was still touching Lula’s arm, and quickly dropped his hand to his side. Awkward.
The author looked at his computer screen. Darren and Lula looked too. It was open to what Darren assumed was the novel. The last line read, Darren and Lula disappeared, as if by magic. After that, the cursor sat blinking, awaiting the next line. Unfortunately for it, there would never be a next line. Because the characters left the book! Darren felt almost lightheaded at the thought of it.
“As if by magic,” Lula read aloud. She giggled.
The author frantically tried to backspace that line, to make it so the characters never left, but it wouldn’t work no matter how many times he pushed the key. He tried to send them back. He typed, Darren reappeared just as suddenly as he had disappeared. Darren didn’t go anywhere, and the text blinked, then vanished from the screen. The author scowled. He tried the other character. Lula reappeared just as suddenly as she had disappeared. Darren nearly laughed. Of course nothing would happen. Nothing happened when the author tried sending him back; why should it work with Lula? He turned to tell her so, but she was gone.
Darren looked around for Lula, but she was nowhere to be seen. His stomach dropped. He knew where she was. Darren ran to the author’s chair. He peered over the author’s shoulder at the screen. Where the line about Darren reappearing had blinked out of sight, the line about Lula reappearing still stood. Darren turned to face the author. “She’s in there, alone with the dragon, isn’t she?” Darren asked him.
“She’ll be fine,” the author insisted.
“Not with your constant interruptions, she won’t. Every time she draws her bow when you’re around, the arrow falls flat. But when we practice while you’re at work, she hits her target.”
“You practice while I’m at work?” the author had to ask.
“Well, what do you think we do all that time?” Darren responded. “And besides, you made the dragon way too big for anything under an army to defeat.”
“It needs to be big enough that it will be remarkable when you defeat it,” the author argued. “That’s what the writing book said.”
“It needs to be small enough that we can defeat it,” Darren retorted. Intending to make another argument, he pointed at the line of text on the screen, intending to touch it. He didn’t expect his hand to pass right through the screen. He glanced at the author as both of them realized that Darren could go back into the story whether the author’s keyboard controlled him or not. Before he even knew what was happening, the author shoved Darren toward the monitor, and managed to push his head through. He hadn’t expected that to happen, either.
Darren was immersed in a sea of blue light. He couldn’t see anything but blue when he looked back, but he felt the author holding him, trying to push him into the story. Darren pressed his hands against the desk and the wall to push himself out of the monitor. He kicked at the author, and finally, the author’s grip weakened. Darren shoved himself back into the apartment and tumbled back onto the floor. He crashed against the sofa.
The chair creaked as the author stood up. He was actually quite an imposing figure, large and tall. Darren also stood. The author promptly picked him up. Darren kicked away immediately. He pushed off the author’s chest with his foot, launching himself into a backflip and landing on the floor with hardly a sound. The author staggered backward and crashed against the sofa. “You made me a fighter,” Darren told the author. “You should know better than to fight a dragon slayer.”
“You never did slay the dragon,” the author said.
“I could’ve if it was realistically sized!” Darren replied.
In response, the author snatched up Darren’s ankles with both of his large hands and dragged him toward the desk. Darren called, “You made this a fight, not me!” as he twisted his body around to grab the author’s legs. He gave a sharp tug and the author’s feet gave way, making him fall on top of Darren. Darren grunted. He probably should have thought that out better. He squirmed to get free. The author tried to pin him to the ground, but Darren managed to shove himself between the author’s arms.
“Why are you doing this?” Darren asked as he stood.
“You shouldn’t mind,” the author replied, picking himself up from the floor. “You’re not real.”
Seriously? That was what it all boiled down to? Darren slapped the author in the face. “Did that feel real?” he demanded.
The author rubbed the red blotch on his cheek and sneered. He said nothing, but stalked back to the computer. He furiously typed something. Darren looked to see what it was. Lula appeared back in my apartment with a pop.
Darren heard a really loud pop, and suddenly Lula was back. “Darren!” she exclaimed.
“You’re back!” Darren said. It sounded super corny coming out of his mouth, but it would be weirder if he didn’t say anything. He turned to the author. “Why?” he inquired.
The author chuckled and looked Darren in the face. “Because I can’t beat you.”
Darren responded with a startled “Huh?”
The author typed some more. Lula shoved Darren into my computer, he wrote.
Oh. So that was what the author meant. If you can’t beat a warrior, but have another warrior on hand…
Darren’s train of thought was interrupted by Lula slamming into him. Her blue outline flashed from the collision. “Sorry!” she exclaimed. He could tell she was trying not to obey the author’s words. She moved jerkily and mechanically. The author kept typing, directing Lula in what move to make. There was a flicker of blue light every time something touched her.
Lula kicked at Darren’s head. “So, did you slay the dragon?” Darren asked as he ducked and rolled away.
Lula shook her head. “No.” She punched toward him.
Darren grabbed her fists. “Why not?”
“Maybe the fact that it’s huge, and that I didn’t have any ranged weaponry, since it was standing over my bow.” She twisted out of Darren’s grasp and backed up. “Not that I would have been able to with my bow anyway. Arrows aren’t nearly big enough to hurt that thing.”
“Yeah,” Darren agreed. He braced his feet.
Lula charged, and leaped toward him. He crashed on the sofa from the impact. “Probably nothing short of a ballista could even scratch it,” she said as she pinned him against the worn green upholstery.
Darren nodded. Lula grabbed his hair and tugged—hard. “Really sorry about that!” Lula apologized.
“It’s fine,” Darren said as he tried to pry her fingers out of his hair. She yanked his head back and he fell off the sofa. Darren could see the author out of the corner of his eye. He seemed to really be enjoying this showdown between his two characters. His tongue poked out of his mouth as he typed; his eyes were wide and wild.
Lula flipped Darren so he lay on his stomach. She pressed her foot into his back, still holding his head up by his hair. “Oh, that hurts,” Darren groaned.
“I’m sorry!” Lula exclaimed. She released her hold on Darren’s hair, then lifted him into the air. “Your hair’s super slimy and disgusting, by the way,” she informed him.
“Gee, thanks. Since when can you lift me?” He kicked to get loose.
“Normally, I can’t.” She nodded her head toward the author. “It’s quite an interesting change, having him make me a better fighter.” She spun Darren around so that his feet pointed toward the monitor. The author slid his chair to the side so that Lula could get through. Darren hooked his feet under the desk so he couldn’t be pushed through the computer. Lula spun him around again, so his head was facing the computer. With the author out of the way, Darren hastily typed, Lula stopped.
Lula stopped. Darren fell to the desk with a crash. They both heaved a sigh of relief, until the author charged toward them and snatched the keyboard away. Lula resumed shoving Darren into the computer, he typed. Lula reached for Darren, but before she could touch him, he scampered across the small room. He stood on the sofa.
“Come and get me!” he shouted.
“I don’t want to!” Lula cried sadly as she ran to the sofa.
“I mean you!” Darren called to the author. “If you want me in your story, put me there! I could fight Lula all day. I do, actually, in our practice fights. And no matter how much you help her with your keyboard, I will always beat her! I win every fight we have.”
Lula pounced to grab his ankles. Darren jumped away. She looked at him in annoyance. “I’m bluffing,” he whispered. She nodded.
“The only way you will ever win is if you come over here and help her with force,” Darren told the author as he dodged Lula’s kicks toward him. “But of course I understand if you want to stay behind your little keyboard. Some people aren’t strong enough to fight the real way.”
That made the author plenty mad. He charged toward Darren. Darren ricocheted off the wall above the sofa, landed a few feet beyond Lula and the author, and ran to the keyboard. Lula, with a burst of superhuman strength, swiped the author off his feet. Just like that, the author fell to the floor. When Lula started toward Darren, he added, She also stopped trying to shove Darren into the computer.
The author jumped to his feet. Lula dove after him, but to no avail. Darren stood over the keyboard, guarding it from the author. The author came up behind him and tried to reach for the keyboard. Suddenly Lula jumped onto the author’s back with a mighty battle cry. “AAAAAAAAA!”
The author stumbled backward, and Darren was able to type. Lula suddenly knew all about a new plan that Darren had invented: The Cannonball Maneuver, and she could do it as well as if she’d practiced it a bajillion times. Darren unplugged the keyboard and picked it up. “Cannonball Maneuver!” Darren shouted. He ran past Lula and the author, and slid the keyboard under the sofa.
Lula jumped away from the author. Each of them took one side of him. They both ran up, and together they lifted him into the air. They thrusted him toward the computer—through the computer—and into the story.
The blue outline over Lula flickered, then disappeared. She stretched her arm out in front of her and spread out her fingers. “I think—I think that fixed me,” she said.
Darren retrieved the keyboard. “Let’s test it. I’ll type something harmless,” he said as he plugged it back in. Lula finally became able to touch her nose with her tongue, he typed. The line of text disappeared.
Lula tried to reach her nose, but her tongue remained—as it always had—not quite long enough. She let out a whoop and laughed. Suddenly, she pointed to the screen. “Hey, look at that,” she said.
Darren looked, and right behind the Times New Roman type on the screen was the huge room with all the treasure. In the room was the dragon—and the author, who was understandably freaking out, even though the dragon was just standing there.
“WAIT!” Lula exclaimed. “He’s—He’s our character now!”
Darren laughed. “Yeah!”
“What should we name him?” Lula asked.
“Hmm, I’m not sure…” Darren replied.
Lula giggled. “What about Jeffo?” she suggested.
“MY NAME IS JOHN!” the no-longer-an-author shouted.
“Jeffo it is,” Darren agreed. He sat down at the desk chair and Lula stood just behind him, looking over his shoulder.
“Should we make him slay the dragon?” she asked.
“Yes,” Darren replied, “But he’s not ready. He gets to start at the village and go through the whole story.” He grinned.
“Ooh! Yeah!” Lula exclaimed.
Darren began to type again. John, who was now named Jeffo, found himself in a quaint village…