A contrapuntal essay
A character in a work of fiction is not real. That character is words on a page, existing only in the imagination of the author and the imagination of the reader.
Of course! And more importantly: so what? Does being imaginary make the character any less "real," and if so, why does that matter?
I'm not entirely sure in my mind there's a major distinction between real characters and imagined characters. When I was in college, there was a history teacher I (and many of my fellow students) adored. We discussed everything he said, speculated about his life away from college, tried to understand him and make meaning of him. He was a real human being, but for us, he was largely imagined. He did and said things for us to make sense of (but then so does a fictional character). But it's not just a mythic hero professor I imagine. My wife and I know each other deeply, but I also recognize that what we know is the character we've each imagined and invented in each other. The distinction between real and imaginary, within an individual's mind, is pretty hazy: even our politics are partly fueled by imaginary people. I oppose war in part because of the human suffering caused by war. While war does lead to real suffering for real human beings, for me these human beings are largely imagined. I don't know their names or details. But I can imagine them, and I wish to oppose what leads to their suffering. But this would move us away from a discussion of imaginary characters to a discussion of imaginary abstractions...so let's not stray too far.
And then there's drama. An actor's job is to look at those words on a page and "create" a character from those words, to perform a character, to bring a character to life aesthetically. And that means actors interpret characters, make choices about characters, try to understand what a character is feeling, how a character is motivated. The character is still imaginary, of course, but for the actor the character can't just be "words on a page." The actor sees the character as something else. Not quite fixed, for when the actor performs he or she is inventing a character just as the author invents a character. Well, not "just as." But Jack Nicholson created a Randle Patrick McMurphy--it wasn't just Ken Kesey. But developing a character for the stage requires some recognition that the imagined character is...something anyway. If not real, a complex, developed entity.
And why would we want to trash imagination anyway? Perhaps I'm too formed by the Romantic poets I've encountered: imagination as conceived by Wordsworth, by Shelley, by Keats, by Goethe, this is not imagination to be dismissed. Imagination has power; at the level of the imagined, great things happen. There is learning and growth. There is spiritual renewal. There is hard-earned truth.
History again challenges a clear distinction between the real and imagined. I've read three different biographies of Martin Luther, by Bainton, Erikson, and Oberman. Martin Luther was a historical individual, who did actual things, said actual things, believed actual things. But Bainton, Erikson, and Oberman each "invented" a Martin Luther. They interpreted Luther's words, Luther's actions, and other historians' writings on Luther, and they imagined their own Luther, then did their best to convey that imagined Luther (or, if you prefer, did their best to show their imagined Luther was the historical Luther). My conception of Luther, the character of Luther looming about in my mind, may not be fundamentally different in nature than my conception of fictional characters like Prince Myshkin, Ivan Karamozov, Sarah Woodruff, Nicholas Urfe. These are characters I try to understand with the available evidence before me. That evidence may be history, or it may be fictional "text," but there it is and my mind creates the character. Napoleon. Thomas Jefferson. OK... Don Quixote. The Wife of Bath. Hamlet. These characters belong to each of us in our imaginations. Whether real or fictional, these characters are "imaginary," and mean something, stand for something.
The fact that we sometimes compare fictional characters to real life characters shows there is something tenuous in the distinction. Today I thought about how at the end of Hamlet, Fortinbras can only talk in the language of war, can only conceive of honor and merit in war, and I thought, "That's like John McCain." And King Lear is like my grandfather. And on and on.
Why do we read as children? What happens to us as we read when we're children? And do our imagined worlds of childhood really abandon us? When we're little children we read and hear stories. Stories. Our imaginations are set afire, and we fall in love with stories, for the characters, for the events, for the plots. At some point, we become adults, and we start to call our stories fiction, and we might forget that they are stories. But what of the pleasure we got from stories? Can't we keep that pleasure? Do we need to abandon that?
And for that matter, what were earlier humans doing when they listened to The Iliad, The Odyssey? When they heard those stories, were they examining art? Or did they allow their imaginations to envision Odysseus, Achilles, Athena? I don't think those early listeners of perhaps the greatest literature of Western Civilization dismissed those characters as constructs, as aesthetic choices. I think they considered those characters characters. Maybe real, maybe not. But I picture enraptured Greeks sitting around a fire hearing the exploits of Odysseus, loving the poetry, loving the story, but really picturing a character they knew named Odysseus.
Do you envision characters? I do. In my reading experience, they are more than words I decipher. My imagination turns them into beings with form. The physical form isn't always distinct, but they still have form. Perhaps even simply moral form.
I've come a long way here, asking more questions than I've answered. And I can only speak for myself as a reader, what my mind does while reading. I do encounter these made up characters. They don't exist, yet an author and I work together to construct them. They become "real" in my mind. I know they are not, but that doesn't matter to me. For some of those characters stay in my imagination, lingering. Their presence makes me aware of myself. They judge me, they prod me, they inspire me. I go about my life, and they are there, always ready to remind me of something I ought not forget, always willing to teach me something. They are nothing, they have no existence--yet I cannot escape them. That's imagination.