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