Saturday, May 12, 2012

What writers owe their characters...

Now, it may sound like I've gone a bit nuts here, and maybe I have. But, hell, I'm a story-teller and writer, mostly of novels that have a 'fantastic' element in them. So sue me for considering notions that, on the surface at least, appear 'fantastic' or possibly just plain incredible. After all, it's what keeps me sane.

Robert Heinlein, in his 1980 novel The Number of the Beast—not one of his greatest works, but for the first 80% of it I remember not being able to put it down; though I became disconnected when the whole thing turned into a parody and satire—proposed that somewhere, in some universe of their own, every character and fictional event that's ever been written about does indeed exist (or has existed, whatever 'tense' we want to apply to this) and continues to exist; except that what happens after whatever story that created that universe and its denizens ends, is something we don't actually know, mainly because the story hasn't been written to cover it.

Andrew Greeley, in the 1986 novel God Game, proposed a similar notion, only here it was a universe created by a computer game. As of late, the movie The 13th Floor mapped the same notion onto virtual-reality 'worlds', whose simulated 'characters' were done so well that they were indistinguishable, at least at a psychological level, from real human beings. And then there's Jack Vance's 1945 short story The World Thinker, of course.

There are other examples, I'm sure, but these are my personal favourites. The notion shared in all this fiction—and I emphasize that it is fiction!—is that somehow a process of 'creative thought' can indeed 'create'—worlds in some cases. A bit like, in some physics models, every quantum event creates new universes. I know it's not the same thing, and physicists—and by (academic) training I am one of them; as well as a cognitive scientist—will possibly grimace with puckered faces like they're sucking lemons at the notion. Still, the parallels are, at the very least, suggestive and maybe shouldn't be glibly and off-handedly dismissed.

Back to me and my characters. As of right now, consulting my list of unfinished works, I come up with:
  1. Four novels that exist as partial first drafts.
  2. Four novels that need to be copy-edited, have covers created, and laid out, so that I can get them to lulu for public exposure.
All of them trouble me, though I'm not sure which bother me most. I'm trying to work according to the Modified Maxims of Robert A Heinlein, which loosely state that:
  1. You must finish your novels.
  2. You must ensure that your finished novels are available to the public.
The elements of item 1 have to pass through becoming elements of item 2 in order to complete the maxims' requirements. And I'm conflicted, people; like seriously f*ing conflicted, because it looks like I've clocked up implicit debts to the characters of 8 (finished and unfinished) novels here, and that's damn serious, especially since two of the finished-but-still-to-be-copyedited novels have been lying around for the best part of a decade. I take that back: one of them (Coralia) was actually serialized in the VIE's Cosmopolis Literary Supplement some years back, and so has had some 'public' exposure. Still, the guilt is slowly weighing me down...

OK, OK, I hear you say (think, whatever), what the f*'s he on about? What 'guilt'? These 'characters' are completely imaginary!

Psychoanalysts and the likes of Richard Dawkins would have a field day with this. The former would label me either as a prankster or someone with several serious cognitive disorders with long and pretentious names. The latter would call me a pathological liar; since he has stated, quite clearly, that he can't see the difference between 'fiction' and 'lies'. (Moron!)

Way I see it, it could just be all in my head. In fact it is in my head, because I am the god of these universes I create; sort of. The Creator, definitely. Metaphorically and in deed as well. And, assuming that my head is kind of essential in this, if I suddenly died without having given my imagined characters some kind of existential foundation, they'd just go POOF. Of course, the moment I write down their stories, I have effectively done so—even if incompletely in some cases; and in those, I'd be leaving them hanging in the middle of a shitload of unfinished business.

Not fair. Definitely not.

The very least I owe my characters is the denouement I had in mind for them in the stories I'd written them into. Whatever happens after that—well, life goes on and I have this idea that I can probably let them take it from where I decide to leave them at the end of my story. I mean, that's what storytellers do, and have done since time immemorial, right? It's what happens when, at the end of the fairytale it's "they lived happily ever after", whatever "happily" means—if there is a "happily": a moot point since everybody eventually dies, and that isn't exactly something qualifying as 'happiness'.

If all that sounds like I have a very intense and close relationship with my characters, it sounds like what it is. Truth is I never realized just how far this goes until I went and, not so long ago, converted all those unfinished and unpublished novels into eBooks (purely for my own use and using a very nifty program called 'Calibre') and spent some quality-time re-reading them on my iPhone during my idle hours traveling to and from work. As I mentioned before, some of this unpublished material is quite old (dates back to the early 21st century). I'd forgotten just how close I had gotten to these folk; especially since in some cases they're actually inhabiting the same universe as the Tethys series, only that they lived a some centuries earlier.

Sidebar: Fascinating isn't it, how one gets wrapped up in one's creations! I used to take the piss out of people who spoke that way about their gaming-universes, but here I am using the same kind of language, referring to things that are usually classified as entirely imaginary as if they were historical fact. A part of me at least tells me that I am getting a tad dysfunctional here! On the other hand, huge numbers of people treat Star Wars, Star Trek or Firefly 'verses just the same way, except that they didn't create them, but are just tuning in, so to speak.

Strange world we live in, is all I can say to this. Who is 'sane' here and who isn't? What's 'real' anyway—and what, to really throw the cat among the pigeons, does 'real' actually mean? What I'm asking about here is the 'grounding' of the term 'real'? Are we talking about physical reality; and if so, which part of it and how to we define 'physical'? Or are we talking about anything that exists at all, including non-quantifyable and non-localizable, but also definitely not epiphenomenal 'imaginary' objects?

Within my 'reality', I have come to the conclusion—actually it was more an epiphany, that hit me right between the eyes—that my characters qualify as 'real' enough to warrant respect and consideration; that I have obligations toward them. And once they've been given some kind of existence, I have assumed a responsibility to see them through the story I have concocted for them and thereby defined who and what they are. I allowed them to become entities of their own (think of them as fetuses) rather than remaining unborn (exisiting in 'potential' land only, like an egg never fertilized). Now I must see them through their gestation period (finish their stories, edit and re-edit them until they are as they were meant to be; or sometimes made themselves into), and allow them to become born into this world (make the story available to the world through the process of publication).

It's all not unlike the existential conundrums laid bare in The 13th Floor. The questions I asked myself—and which I have answered, at least to my own satisfaction—are fundamental to our very understanding of what it means to 'be' (or in Spanish: 'ser', as opposed to 'estar'). Of what it means to be a creature with an identity and capable of reflecting on that identity. Is a physical creature of that kind more 'real' than one in a computer simulation? A creature in a computer simulation more real than one in the mind of a storyteller, or in the minds of all those who receive the story, through whatever medium?

Is a character in a story any less real than a 'real' human character or person? Or, to rephrase the question in terms of 'value': is a character (for example) in a book of less existential value and significance than a real human being, just because he or she is just a character in a book?

I really don't know how to answer that.

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