Characters Aren’t Real?

November 3, 2010

Every so often, a fact comes along that you know is true, but that nevertheless trips up your internal logic centre for a moment or two. Like waves: no water is actually moving towards the shore, energy is passing from particle to particle. Still, when you look out at the ocean, it does look more like water heaving itself forwards, rather than water molecules playing “Broken Telephone.”

I experience something similar with characters. The other day, while discussing a short story, someone said, “Ah, but of course, X isn’t a real person.” And for a minute, my brain thought, Um… what?

I know characters aren’t real people. I know that every character that has ever been written is a combination of the author’s imagination, and whatever the reader brings to their interpretation of the author’s expression of those imaginings. As writers, we get to know our characters deeply and intimately. We know their pasts, their fears, their hopes, their secrets. Yet for all of that, they remain an intangible collection of ideas; you will never run into one of your characters on the street.

Inevitably, at this point someone will say, “But my character is a real historical figure! And they’re still alive!”

All right. But the character is different from the actual person on whom they’ve been based. If I write about Napoleon, I have not reanimated him from the dead, and then crammed him through the page and into the story. No matter how faithfully “real” people are represented, they are still just that: representations.

Not the real Napoleon!

Having said all of that, I stumble over the concept that characters aren’t real. When people remind me of this (as noted above) very simple and incontrevertible fact, I have a moment of mental vertigo, and then a pang of sadness. The characters I have met -both those of my own creation, and those I’ve encountered in others’ works- certainly feel real to me. Not literally (i.e. not in a “someone-get-her-to-a-doctor kind of way), but my emotional investment and willingness to suspend disbelief is great enough that there’s a little heartache involved in acknowledging their fictionality.

I'm not real?

But I’ve come to realize something. Just because a character isn’t “real” doesn’t mean they’re not “true.” Think about it. A character is essentially a construction. However, that construction may nevertheless contain genuine choices and reactions. It’s that moment when you think, “Yes, that’s exactly what would happen.” A personality may not be bound in any flesh and blood form, but it can still be consistent, conscientiously realized, and pretty darn close to our perceptions of the way people interact with the world.

Of course, reading is a highly personal activity; everyone sees the same words through their own lens. And through our unique readings, we animate the truth in the construction according to our own histories and personalities.

Maybe that’s why characters feel so real. In reading and writing them, we become a part of them, and they a part of us.




  1. You’d have a hard time telling a good actor that a character isn’t real. Usually when multiple personalities inhabit a single person we call it mental illness. If that’s the case, all fiction writers and actors are mentally ill.

  2. Yes, Arvik, there is a Santa Claus. He lives in our hearts. 😉

  3. Yep, I think that sums it up- they’re real inside of us. 😀

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