In Their Own Words: Why do we care about literary characters?
Listen to the essay, as read by Blakey Vermeule, the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature in the School of Humanities & Sciences.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve relied on fictional characters to help me steer through the social world. I never had an imaginary friend growing up, but I was always jealous of kids who did. I suspect a lot of those kids turned out to be fiction writers and poets.
Now after half a lifetime teaching literature, I walk around inside a vast pantheon of fictional people. I draw on their experiences – occasionally, a fictional character saves me from having to learn something the long, hard way. Big 19th-century novels are the best. To be a literary character – especially in a big 19th-century novel – is to be a sentient, suffering creature in a plight.
Novels are the ultimate experience machines. They help you learn a lot about your fellow creatures, what we go through, how highly sensitive we are, and what makes us tick. You really can’t put anything over on George Eliot, Flaubert, or Leo Tolstoy. They’ve seen it all and then some.
I am fascinated by why humans relate to fictional characters. We use fictional characters to extend our minds out into the world and to break the world down to a manageable size. The practice is ancient and universal. My guess is that fictional characters are a tool of cooperation, groupishness. When you and your friend share stories, fictional-character talk can save a lot of time.
For example, my buddy once described his colleague as “Gilderoy Lockhart” – and I knew exactly what he meant – vain, rhetorically gifted, empty, a show pony. Fictional characters can also be, dare I say it, a source of moral self-knowledge. When I was chair of my department, once in a while I started to feel as though I was turning into Dolores Umbridge. I like to think I was able to stop myself and correct the course. So thank you, Harry Potter.
We use fictional characters to extend our minds out into the world and to break the world down to a manageable size. The practice is ancient and universal.
Let me propose a definition. It is a bit quixotic but bear with me. A literary character is anybody beyond your circle of ken in whom you take a rooting interest. Living people count – I imagine we all have a rooting interest in Donald Trump. But so do fictional creations sprung wholly formed from the heads of their creators. We think about them in similar ways, using the same building blocks of storytelling.
Think about the extent to which you are rooting for or against Elon Musk, or Elizabeth Holmes, or Meghan Markle, or any of the many heroes and villains who populate Twitter. There’s of course a crucial difference between wholly fictional creations and real people – more on that below.
From heroes and villains, humans create archetypes, familiar characters who mediate our experience of the world around us. For most of our history, archetypes were collective and their authorship was anonymous. The internet has made it so again. The era of single, identifiable authorship may turn out to be a historical blip.
Archetypes sell. When George Lucas let the world in on his secret that Joseph Campbell’s ideas infused Star Wars, Hollywood discovered the hero’s journey. For decades, the hero’s journey has powered the money engine. Because it works.
You can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned hero’s journey, complete with helpers, magic tools, a trip to the underworld, and finally some measure of social acceptance. But why does it work? Why do humans think in archetypes? What features of human cognition are involved?
I’ve been puzzling over these questions since I was in high school. I went to a religious high school, and I rebelled by taking the religious questions more seriously than I was supposed to. I loved science, especially Darwin, and I reasoned myself into atheism. I just couldn’t understand why very smart people seemed to believe in such strange, violent, often disconnected stories. I started paying very close attention to what people do believe. I was especially fascinated by stories that some people believe to be true which others find obviously not true. I found a lifelong intellectual obsession.
My intellectual obsession has long since given way to wonder. I’ve come to see how story-besotted we are as one of the beautiful, mysterious – indeed mystical – things about us. “Believe” is the wrong word to describe what people are doing with stories – a better word might be “become motivated by.” We are creatures who, uniquely, become motivated by stories and thus powerfully extend our cognition. Many aspects of our minds are involved. In fact, our minds seem to thirst after fictional characters. But why? I wrote an entire book on the subject over a decade ago, and I’m still puzzled and fascinated by this question.
Especially fascinating are the cases of flesh and blood people who wander into archetypal space. Politicians morph into archetypes because they summon up vast historical, economic, and political forces.
Hillary Clinton is a good example. Hillary Clinton is the establishment face of second-wave feminism, both its beneficiary and its luminary. But she is also, after a decades-long campaign by Rupert Murdoch and other right-wing press barons, an evil queen who taxes the people to line her own coffers – a latter-day Eleanor of Provence, the original target of “Lock her up!” who collected revenue on London’s bridges from her seat in France.
Barack Obama took to making jokes about the archetypal energies swirling around his 2008 campaign: “Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.”
Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano became beloved cultural icons despite being ruthless killers, and they prepared the way for Donald Trump, who put his own spin on the eccentric mob boss who makes it big in Hollywood. Elon Musk is a strange tech wizard with beneficent or malign intentions, depending on which Twitter team you are on. To some people, Anthony Fauci channeled the wise grandfather whose counsel could heal us; to others, he came to represent the heavy hand of the state in a foppish velvet glove. And so on.
The internet makes it easy for humans to wander into archetypal space. Unfortunately, it also makes it easy for archetypal space to catch ordinary mortals in its net. It is getting harder and harder to be an ordinary person in an ordinary muddle; now we have to stand for something or represent something. Humans aren’t used to being able to take their feelings about fictional characters out on real people, but now we can easily.
All day long, we create and digest tiny narratives about one another through tweets, posts, fleeting stories. So perhaps my question has evolved from why we care about literary characters to something more ethically pointed: How do we live with quasi-fictional characters whose lives we know very little about but who are hard to escape and whose micro-myths increasingly shape our politics, culture, and our lives?
If you’re a Stanford faculty member (in any discipline or school) who is interested in writing an essay for this series, please reach out to Natalie Jabbar at njabbar[at]stanford.edu