My Hero
you’ll only—’
    â€˜You could start by buying a copy of the book.’
    â€˜Wait there. I’ll be right back.’
    Jane had hoped that the diversion would have given her time to disappear into the stockroom and hide behind the piles of Stephen Donaldsons until he’d gone away; but in the event he was quicker than she’d expected at the cash desk, and the strap of her handbag had got hooked round the leg of her chair. As he waved the book and till receipt under her nose, all she could do was sit down again and smile weakly.
    â€˜Now,’ said Hamlet. ‘It’s like this.’
    â€˜I’m listening.’
    â€˜I could a tale unfold,’ said Hamlet, ‘whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part, and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’
    â€˜You could?’
    â€˜Yeah. No sweat. Listen.’

    In the beginning . . .
    Was the Word? Not quite. To be strictly accurate, in the beginning was the Screen; and the screen was with God and the screen was God. And, admittedly, the Word moved upon the face of the screen, was put into pitch ten, italics, bold, right margin justify, macro/WORD and all the rest of it, but that came later.
    Nowadays, the screen just thinks it’s God, particularly when you want to print out. In the intervening time, creation has become a routine, a simple task that anybody can perform, given (as a bare minimum) a sheet of paper and a pencil.
    One small but energetic sect somewhere in Nevada believes that when people die, they are reincarnated as characters in books. Good people become heroes, bad people become villains, and people who have led wasted, pointless lives come back as the characters in unpublishable first novels written by accountants on the office WP. The members of the sect, convinced that they are God’s elect, firmly believe that they will be reborn as characters in the works of Jackie Collins. Admission to their prayer meetings is by ticket only, and there is a substantial waiting list.
    They exaggerate, slightly. It is very nearly impossible for a human being to become a character, or vice versa; and on the rare occasions when it happens, it represents a serious fuck-up somewhere in the system, leading to quite forthright inter-office memos and the occasional departmental enquiry.
    The vast majority of characters are, in fact, small slices of the life-force, ranking in the hierarchy some way below men and angels, but several notches above ghosts, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night. Although they have the potential for eternal life, their chances of immortality depend entirely on the skill of their creators
and the commercial acumen of their creators’ publishers. They are nominally subject to the ordinary laws of physics and rules of causality, but if the copy editor and the reader don’t notice, they’re perfectly capable of wearing a green shirt on one page and a red jumper on the next page without even having to step into a telephone box to change.
    Where they come from is largely a mystery. Some experts hold that they are parthenogenetically conceived in the mind of the author. Others maintain that every human being carries around with him millions of unfertilised character eggs, simply waiting for a stray experience or turn of phrase to float in through the eyes or the ears and set the whole process in motion.
    A third body of opinion believes (correctly, as it happens) that the stork brings them.
    Regalian had been Regalian for so long that he could barely remember being himself.
    This is an occupational hazard of heroes of fantasy fiction, a genre which tends to come in eighteen-hundred-page trilogies, and the syndrome is usually referred to in the profession as ‘good steady work’. Nevertheless, it has its

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