On the reality of fictional characters

Utamaro2
Beauties Under an Umbrella by Utamaro Kitagawa.

Sometime last week, somewhere in the middle of My Adventures Post-Publishing, I read a blog post by Tracy Cembor that’s stuck with me ever since. In her post, Geek Week: How Real Is Fiction?, Tracy asks: Do fictional characters really exist?

In Tracy’s own words: “If readers know who characters are, what attributes and desires they have, and feel the emotions from their experiences, then how can we say in the way that our mind perceives things, that they aren’t just a little bit ‘real’?”

Tracy’s post stuck with me for two reasons: (1) my past experiences with literary characters (those created by other authors, as well as my own), and (2) it reminded me of something my Philosophy 101 professor said 16 years ago that would ultimately be the catalyst for my own creations.

Now, I’m going to paraphrase here, but my professor’s sentiment was something like this:

The question ‘Does God really exist?’ is misguided. The fact that people believe in something, live their lives in accordance with it, makes that *something* real. 

That sentiment stuck with me. It hovered in the back of my mind as I finished college and went on through my professional education. It gave birth to a premise that would ultimately become the foundation of my fictional writing. In Elena’s world, human belief alters the divine; what begins as abstract can have very physical manifestations.

I think the same can be said about characters. They may not be corporeal, may not exist in the physical sense, but their influence can be substantial. All I have to do is point to Atticus Finch to demonstrate just how powerful an influence a literary character can have. He is literally the epitome of a good lawyer. He is the standard to hold yourself to, and yet he does not physically exist. His influence is so strong that when I took the bar exam in 2004, you were not allowed to use his name as your chosen exam name (I’m presuming the reason was because that many people would choose it).

Tracy is spot on when she says: “The characters in our favorite stories are not two-dimensional paper cutouts; they are fully formed personas with hopes and dreams, wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses… When circumstances (and authors) conspire against them and the you-know-what hits the fan, readers worry for their safety. And when they experience the loss of friends and family, we are grieving right there beside them.”

I was working as a prosecutor when Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince was released. Several of my co-workers and I were reading it at the same time. One morning, everyone arrived at work with red swollen eyes and dressed in black. Without a word, we knew; we had all finished the book and were grieving for Harry’s loss. I have no problem admitting I was also grieving for my own loss.

So, do fictional characters really exist?

To me, 100%. I hold many of them in close esteem. Atticus Finch influenced my choice in career. Jane Eyre my view of passion and independence. Elizabeth Bennet my appreciation for integrity and wit. Simon from Lord of The Flies the importance of being comfortable in your own skin. Those characters might not exist in the physical sense, but their influence can be quantified and seen. They teach us lessons we might not otherwise learn, and inspire us the way historical figures might.

As for my own characters, the more I write about them the clearer they become. I know them as well as I know myself; can verbalize, in Tracy’s words, their “hopes and dreams, wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses”. A thought popped into my head last night while I was going to sleep. I saw the book sitting on my nightstand (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations), and wondered what books, if any, my characters would have on their own nightstands. The answers came so fast that all I could do was laugh about it:

One glance at any of my Pinterest boards and you’ll be able to get a clear image of their personalities; their likes and dislikes in ways I can’t expound on in my books. The more I explore those personalities, the more excited I get about sharing their stories with you.

I’ll be exploring those personalities further on July 14th, when I participate in a Meet My Character Blog Tour and answer questions as one of my characters. On June 30th, I’ll also be participating in a Blog Hop, which are chained posts where authors answer questions; this particular one is about our writing process. So please stay tuned!

Last but not least, this week’s image is “Beauties Under an Umbrella by Utamaro Kitagawa. Utamaro was an Edo period ukiyo-e artist, famous for his portraits of female beauties known as bijin-ga. I love the richness in color and detail of this particular piece.

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