Recently for my Masters course I wrote a comparative essay on the characters of Othello and Oroonoko, focusing on internal and external responses to racial ‘otherness.’ Amongst other points, I tested my ‘heroes’ for a stress-induced vulnerability to mental illness, arising from the prejudice and discrimination they receive from the majority-white population surrounding them. Though my essay did well, both of my tutors concurred on one point which detracted from its overall score: that I had written about the characters as real people instead of literary constructions, and that this was wrong.
Admittedly, I was stumped. First because I hadn’t honestly realized this was what I was doing, and second because well … isn’t that the whole point of literature, to make your characters seem real? As a fiction writer, I work off the maxim that character is key, and one skilfully or ill devised can make or break a piece. As a general reader and franchise follower, it is character again which draws me in, which gets me invested in the story. And if fictional characters weren’t at the very least realistic. then why would we honestly bother tuning into their sitcom lives every week, or pursuing a series that’s going to take a year out of our lives to read? We wouldn’t, there would be no point. Writers work hard to invest their characters with life, and how involved emotionally we become with them is testament to the fact that they are not just literary constructions, even if they don’t really exist.
In 1998 when Coronation Street’s Deirdre Barlow was jailed for a crime she didn’t commit, it caused national outrage, and engendered a campaign to free her that even then-Prime-Minister Tony Blair weighed in on. This was a fictional character in a fictional situation, but its injustice struck a very real chord that resonated with people in every walk of life. Since then – if we could even say it before – I don’t think it’s possible to consider character as a mere literary construction.
Maybe academia is different, probably it is, and maybe, if I’d thought about it, I should have approached the texts from a more reserved, seventeenth-century standpoint. But I’m not a seventeenth-century woman, I’m a twenty-first, and whether it’s a fault in me or not, I view characters as real, I discuss them as real (evidenced by numerous posts on this blog) and I’m not really sorry for that. It also doesn’t seem something I’m likely to change; it’s too unconscious by this point, comes too naturally, and I don’t consider it a bad thing, even if my tutors dislike it.
I never honestly thought there was a disconnect between being a reader and being a writer until I started my Masters, yet I’ve heard numerous of my tutors admit that, while perfectly comfortable with writing critical essays, they could never write a work of fiction. I write both, I always have done, and I’ve never considered them mutually exclusive. Maybe this is why I’m stuck in the character-as-real cycle, and why it is also something they are unfamiliar with confronting.
I don’t know. All I do know is that when I sit down to write, I mean really write, when the world fades away and I achieve that transcendent, productive zone, it’s not me putting words into the character’s mouths, it’s not even me who is in charge of where the story goes. I’m a conduit through which the words flow, but I couldn’t tell you where they’re coming from. That to me makes character real enough, and makes me believe that you can write about fictional characters as if they are real.
People have been doing it for centuries, even including from seventeenth-century texts. How many critical essays exist that examine Hamlet’s mental state, that try to answer the question: is he mad or just pretending? Are these essays invalid because Hamlet is merely a literary construction? These critics, it seems, fall into the same trap as me, and since it had been done before, I assumed I could do it. Maybe I just don’t have enough literary weight to defend my point.
What do you think? Are characters literary constructions fit for point and purpose? Or does what they represent run deeper than that? Can they own a shade of being real?