Living Fiction

Jaime Coyne

Recently, a friend reassured me that a character I hated, from a novel that was equally as heinous, was sure to be dead by now. I retorted that the woman would never die, she would continue to torture her story’s unwilling readers for all of eternity.

Upon saying that, it struck me how alive fictional characters can be, how much meaning and effect they can have in our lives. It is probably a fairly obvious realization, and it is one that is full of ideas I had already thought. But suddenly something with which I have long been familiar was revealing itself in a new, different way.

Moll Flanders, of the eponymous novel by Daniel Defoe, came alive when I read her story — literally. She and her thievery snuck into my dorm room and stole my sleep, my good disposition, and possibly a little of my sanity, as I tried to make sense of page-and-a-half long sentences. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, John pointed out to me the insanity of some of the things in the world around me that we commonly accept as the norm — progress even. Peter Griffin from the hit show Family Guy makes sure that my head is filled with immature thoughts at the most inopportune times. I still get a little creeped out watching digital snow on the TV screen, on some level fearing the girl from The Ring might crawl out. Whenever I’m feeling particularly teenage-angsty, Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is there, empathizing. If I clean something that could have been left until later, I know it was Friends‘ Monica Gellar pushing me to do it.

In ways we are generally unaware of, each character we read or watch has an active role to play in our lives. We debate their plots, personalities and decisions. We come to understandings of what makes them the way they are. Sometimes we sympathize with their situations; sometimes we feel they could be retelling our own stories. Sometimes, admittedly, we hate them. But isn’t the villian at times as memorable as the hero? Will we ever forget Captain Hook and his ticking clock or Hannibal Lector behind his prison bars? They are the characters we love to hate and live on as what we fear or aspire not to become.

We all know that the greatest novels and films impact our thoughts and the conceptions in society at large. But I think when you stop and consider, you’ll realize that the characters from books we couldn’t put down, movies that made us cry, gasp, or sit on the edge of our seats, and TV shows we watch religiously, stay with us. They are friends we share inside jokes with. They are comfort in a moment of sadness. They are the speakers of quotations that continue to rattle around in our heads. They epitomize what we aspire to be and what we hope we never become. Theirs are the anecdotes we cannot honestly tell as our own, but that resonate within our lives. They live on, these fictional characters who never breathed their first breath — even the ones we fervently wish would die — and I think, whether we realize it or not, we hand them immortality every time we turn that first page or press play.