The Love of Imaginary Things

More Dennett. Another thing he discusses is the curious phenomena of humans dedicating their lives to the intricate study and near-worship of things they know for a fact to be imaginary. So, not people who chase ghosts or Bigfoot or Nessie…I think they’re fake, but the people studying them believe they’re real. No , there are people whose entire lives are spent in the study of imaginary things (and to my fangirl friends, this should be familiar). His example is the Baker Street Irregulars, who pride themselves on esoteric knowledge of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, in this day of massive internet fandoms and sprawling popular culture, you could pick almost any example. Trekkies learn to speak a fake language in order to discuss a fake universe and have arguments about fake characters in their made-up dilemmas. Any Trekkie who admitted to believing that Spock and Picard are actually real people would be looked upon pityingly and quietly recommended to a psychiatrist. That doesn’t stop millions of fans from holding these characters in their hearts and thoughts and truly loving them the way you might an actual person. (Or really, which is Dennett’s point, an unseen God you also believe in).

When I read novels or watch television shows, I get very emotional. I cried for hours after reading The Silver Metal Lover. It made me really depressed. Yes, I know that Silver and Jane aren’t real. It never crossed my mind that they were. But, still, it seems that on some level they must be real to me, because they are so firmly implanted on my brain. I have read Sunshine by Robin McKinley at least five times, and each time I am more impressed with just how real Sunshine and Con are. If I were granted one novel to turn into a television series, it would be a toss up between that and The Lymond Chronicles. Why? Because those characters feel so real to me that I can hardly imagine a greater pleasure than getting to know them better.

As an author, I think it’s important to feel that strong a connection with your own characters (though I don’t hold with that strange borderline-schizophrenia fad of speaking about your characters as though they’re multiple personalities arguing in your head…I don’t believe that most authors actually experience this phenomena, and I wish they would stop speaking as though they do. It’s like a contest to see who is more of a wacky artiste. Spare me.) On the other hand, because you’re the one ultimately controlling their fate, the relationship is a little more distant. I remember that at one point in the novel I am currently writing, I had to take a break at the end of one scene, because I felt so bad for how shitty my main character’s life had become. I really like her! I didn’t want her to be so miserable, but I knew that it worked for the story. This made me feel really odd, but I guess it’s just an inevitable side effect of the ability that lets humans create such resonant, compelling, realistic stories about people they’ve never met, in situations they’ve never experienced. In a way, all the people in our minds, even the real ones, are an abstraction from the reality. A creation that we invent and interact with in order to make sense of our world. George W. Bush is a real person, but I’ve never met him, and I’m not sure that my conception of him is any more or less valid than my conception of Sheriff Lamb, who certainly isn’t real. I can’t get into his head and know what he’s really feeling. I can’t make him real to me the way that I’m real to me. For that matter, that’s true even of people you know and care about deeply. Looked at in this light, the characters that I create (the ones whose heads, therefore, I have full and god-like access to) are more real than the people I interact with every day. At least, their actions are never a mystery to me.

So, given that we’re by nature so closed-off from the experiences of even our closest friends and loved-ones, is it that surprising that developing a one-sided relationship with a character whom you know is fictional comes so easily? After all, they still speak and act and feel and emote in ways that seem very plausible and sympathetic. Why else would we love them? The actual status of a person/character as “real” vs. “not real” tends to code how much credence we give to our emotions about them, but I’d argue that the strength of the emotions isn’t actually much different at the moment we experience them. At least while I’m reading The Silver Metal Lover, I’m heartbroken. It doesn’t stay with me, because I can reassure my self that it’s not real and can read the novel again in a kind of perverse comfort. When something bad happens to you in real life, you can’t turn off the switch.

I’ve written a fanfic that has a tendency to make people cry. Some of the comments I’ve gotten on it fascinate me, because I actually see people struggling with this paradox of grief over events that are not real. In fact, one person wrote an interesting blog post where she said that my story made her realize that the characters were actually going to live out their lives and die and this made her very depressed. She knew, obviously, that they were made up people, and yet their lives and emotions still seemed to have a trajectory that existed independently of her. Their (fictional) mortality made her sad. I don’t think this is crazy or strange. I feel sad, too, when I realize that Lymond is going to die (though, of course, he was born in the sixteenth century and would already be centuries dead if he had lived…).

Love of fake people can be just as strong as love of real people. It’s just human.