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Why do people relate to fictional characters?

22 February 2015

From author Will Self via the BBC News Magazine:

When I began writing fiction in the late 1980s I already had a profound suspicion of the characters with which novels tend to be populated. These entities – for, as I hope to demonstrate, fictional characters are worthy of this attribution – may arouse in us many of the emotions provoked by their flesh-and-blood models, yet they are so easily spun into being out of lexical threads, we’d be wise to treat them with grave suspicion. If you’re in your home, and you now hear the front door being unlocked and opened in its characteristic way, followed by footsteps heading towards you, then should you really be surprised when the door of the room you sit in swings open, and a bent-backed old woman haltingly enters.

She’s leaning heavily on a stick with a rubber ferrule, wearing an old tweed overcoat worn shiny at cuff and elbow, and has a dirty-beige muffler wound around her scrawny neck. You receive an impression of cornflower-blue eyes set deep in wrinkly reticulation, her hair white and fine as feathers – a voice rasps: “My name’s Ethel Nairn, I’m sorry to intrude but I’ve come to speak to you about the residents’ association.” Now, if you’re capable in the ordinary way of suspending disbelief, you may have leant Ethel Nairn a degree of credibility – actually, even I believe Ethel Nairn exists, such that an entire range of hopes, desires, fears and impulses could readily be ascribed to her – and this despite the fact that I myself only conjured this figment into being minutes ago.

As it is with Ethel Nairn, so it goes with the entire community of characters we either create ourselves, or have summoned to exist on our behalf by writers, screenwriters, games designers and a host of other so-called creatives. Even the characters that people advertisements can take on many of the attributes we associate with living, breathing humans – escaping their confinement in these propagandising playlets to stalk the corridors of our mind. The more sophisticated fictional characters become, the more their similarity to us is plainly evident. By the time we encounter the Emma Bovaries and Leopold Blooms of this world, we’re altogether comfortable with the sympathy they arouse in us. Fiction offers many pleasures – we may enjoy its capacity to make the world anew for us through its descriptions, or to advance our understanding of science or philosophy through its application of ideas to examples of human behaviour, but although it does – on examination – seem so faint as to be numinous, nonetheless it’s our conviction that fictional characters’ hopes, fears and desires matter that allows fictions to become facts on the ground – a ground we sympathetically traverse alongside them as they’re subjected to the vicissitudes of plot, its sudden reversals and twists, its caprices and its terrible inexorability.

. . . .

But the people people need are not necessarily flesh and blood. People also need people who manifest all their own torturous confusions – about life, love and the pursuit of happiness – but whose own existence is quite immaterial. People need people who can show them just how difficult it is to maintain the illusion that one’s the author of one’s own life. People need people whose lives can be seen to follow a dramatic arc, so that no matter what trials they encounter, the people who survey them can be reassured that when the light begins to fade, these people – to whose frail psyches we’ve had privileged access – will at least feel it’s all meant something.

Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

Here’s a link to Will Self’s books

Characters

15 Comments to “Why do people relate to fictional characters?”

  1. Ethel strikes me as a very suspicious character. I’d watch out.

  2. Thank you for the link to this well written and thought provoking little essay! I would have enjoyed it if for no other reason than the absolutely perfect use of the word ‘numinous’ where no other word in English word would have served.

  3. Fiction offers many pleasures – we may enjoy its capacity to make the world anew for us through its descriptions, or to advance our understanding of science or philosophy through its application of ideas to examples of human behaviour, but although it does – on examination – seem so faint as to be numinous, nonetheless it’s our conviction that fictional characters’ hopes, fears and desires matter that allows fictions to become facts on the ground – a ground we sympathetically traverse alongside them as they’re subjected to the vicissitudes of plot, its sudden reversals and twists, its caprices and its terrible inexorability.

    What a grand example of wretched writing! Numinous vicissitudes sympathetically traversing along to terrible inexorability! I’m gonna nominate this for a Bulwer-Lytton award and see if Mister Scott Rice will make a new category for semi-fiction.

    When he had an idea, legions of words would issue forth from his pen and trample it to death.

    • At least he’s writing something that isn’t whining about how he’s going broke because nobody buys his books anymore.

    • That passage conjures up an image of a lecturer in a tweed jacket (with leather elbow patches, of course), pipe in hand, expounding to a classroom of note-taking students. And me, in the back, pretending to pay attention as I read a few extra pages of GRAY LENSMAN. (I used to do that, freshman year.) On my left, a dude struggling to stay awake; to my right, a glassy-eyed girl wondering if it is too late to drop the course and switch majors…

    • The only person I’ll ever give a pass for this sort of language is V from the “V For Vendetta” movie. I tend to prefer my written language to actually be conversational, but V’s introduction to Evi in that film has a poetry all it’s own.

    • Update: Mr Scott Rice declined to create a new category in the Bulwer-Lytton awards and refused to accept this quote because it is not fiction and is “a trifle wordy.”

  4. …a rubber ferrule, wearing an old tweed overcoat…enough said.

  5. I wanna know how he knows her neck is scrawny if it’s wrapped in a muffler. Did he undress her? The plot sickens…

  6. Maybe some part of the scrawny neck is visible above the muffler. Maybe the muffler is wound tight, tight enough to indicate the scrawniness of the neck it encloses.

    • Or maybe someone is composing by stringing pretty words together, and not bothering to pay much attention to their meanings. Furor scribendi, Tolkien called it: when the pen itself finds the words, instead of the head or the heart.

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