How do you relax at the end of a long day? Chances are you do something so commonplace to many of us that we seldom pause to think how strange it is. You may do this thing by kicking back in bed and reaching for a remote control; or you may use an older technology, one you can hold in your hands as you sink back into your sofa or reading chair. But whether you pick up that novel where you left off the last time you had a moment to catch your breath, download that film you’ve been dying to see, or tune into the next episode of your favorite nighttime drama on cable, you are engaging in the same activity: fiction.
But what is fiction? Is it something specific to the book or film you are experiencing, or does it come from how you relate to that medium? And in either case, what distinguishes a fictional experience from a non-fictional one? Is it simply a matter of the reader’s belief regarding the truthfulness of the author, as the literary critic Northrop Frye suggested when he wrote that, “an autobiography coming into a library would be classified as non-fiction if the librarian believed the author, and as fiction if she thought he was lying”?
The presumption that fiction is both relatively simple—untrue stories known to be untrue—and universally deployed in different cultures and different times, is widespread among even those who have dissected fiction most thoroughly. As Joshua Landy stipulates in one of the most convincing recent major inquiries into fiction, “by fiction I mean a verbal performance in which the events depicted never happened, and which everyone knows they didn’t.”
To be perfectly clear: this is an absolutely solid definition of fiction, and there is no reason that Landy shouldn’t stipulate it. But when we engage in fictions today, there is an additional, vital element at work that is not contained in or required by that definition. Frye also recognized that element, but made the mistake of attributing it to a genre, the novel, as opposed to understanding it as potentially an aspect of a great number of genres and even media. As he wrote, “the essential difference between novel and romance lies in the conception of characterization. The romancer does not attempt to create “real people” so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes…. The novelist deals with personality, with characters wearing their personae or social masks.”
Frye was not the only one to associate characterization with one literary form. The Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, for instance, wrote that in the novel, “man becomes the author of his own life and at the same time the observer of that life as a created work of art.” For the Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, novels allow for an identification with characters that was not possible with prior genres: “We can experience these adventures, identify with these heroes; such novels almost become a substitute for our own lives. Nothing of the sort is possible in the epic and other distanced genres.”
The influential literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith understood that fiction, which she identifies simply with “the representation of speech,” may be present in any number of genres, including “lyrics, epics, tales, and novels.” But representing speech on its own is neither necessary nor sufficient to experience characters as “real people” even when we know they are not. Characters can come alive on the page without speaking a word, and allegorical figures can spout truisms all day long without for a minute convincing us that they have the “personality” Frye ascribes to true characters. Something else is required in order for such figures to be experienced as characters.
In a memorable scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway’s mind drifts out of the apartment where he is entangled in a debaucherous party and imagines how “high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” What is needed for descriptions of other human beings to become characters—and hence for acknowledged untrue discourse to become fiction—is for the fictional medium to turn back on itself and force its viewer or reader to experience its content from both within and without. Like Nick, when we engage with fiction we are both within and without the story we are reading or watching; and like Nick we can, in the pages of our book or the screen before our eyes, be simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
This ability of the fictional perspective to be simultaneously within and without is what permits an author to create characters in the sense we understand the word today. For modern readers, fictional characters need to seem “real” even when we know they are not. We admire authors who create characters that are “three-dimensional,” or who seem to “step off the page,” just as we are critical or indifferent to “flat” or “one-dimensional” characters. And while they are clichés, these metaphors say a lot about what we expect in a character and how the author achieves it. A character comes alive in this way when the point of view of the narrative is able to shift from describing the character externally to portraying how he or she perceives and emotionally inhabits the world, as if the reader were stepping into a molded hollow in the book’s world and looking out through its eyeholes.
That point of view, of course, is defined as much by what the characters cannot see as by what they do see, as much by their misperceptions as by their knowledge. Characters begin to stand out by virtue of the contrasts between how they experience the world and how their fellow characters do. Furthermore, characters that are drawn this way ignite our emotions and invite us to empathize with them, because they seem similar to us even if they come from worlds that are impossibly far away. Their very blindness convinces us of their existence, even while we fully grasp they are constructs on a page.
This was not always the case. Western literature from the tragedies of the Greeks through to the epic romances of the sixteenth century is packed with extraordinary verse, powerful imagery, and riveting plots. What are not so prevalent are characters in the sense I have been describing here. Indeed, in the lectures we know as the Poetics Aristotle emphasizes that tragedy should not be concerned with the particularities of specific characters, their perspectives, the depths of their unique emotions, the interiority of their states of mind—precisely those aspects we value most in fiction today. While Aristotle does speak of a kind of emotional connection with what’s going on in the tragedy, the famous purgation or catharsis of fear and pity that the spectator experiences, it would be wrong to think that Aristotle envisions this as taking place through what we would call identification with a character. Rather, the most important aspect of tragedy is, as he writes, “the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life.” Character, in contrast, is “subsidiary to the actions.”
What makes a stylized figure into a character is that he or she is wearing what Frye referred to as a persona; there is a distance established by the fiction between that persona and the bundle of intentions, feelings, or knowledge about the world behind it. And it is the character, his or her fellows in the fictional world, and the readers or audience members who are ultimately called upon to make a judgment about that relationship. This is what accounts for the ability of fictional narratives to move the reader’s point of view and emotional identification among an almost unlimited array of characters. It is also this ability that bestows on fiction that quality that we recognize as a kind of literary empathy, the sense of stepping into other peoples’ shoes or experience the world through their eyes.
In the modern world the techniques of fiction have become essential tools for even such nonfictional work as journalism. As the reporter Matthieu Aikins put it in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross after he won the Medill School of Journalism’s James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, “What motivates me is to try to render non-Western lives into, you know, a narrative, so that they come alive as human characters that we care about.” To be able to render the lives of those who are different from us in a way that makes us care for them, a journalist such as Aikins first has to be in those places, side by side with the people about whom he is reporting. But to make his readers feel for them, to make their lives and their suffering—using a term he borrows from the philosopher Judith Butler—“grievable,” Aikins needs to make them “come alive as characters we care about.” And as it turns out, studies have repeatedly confirmed that reading fiction primes readers to feel empathy for other people.
Oscar Wilde once noted that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” As the critic Lionel Trilling glossed, in making his claim regarding the congruity of bad poetry and genuine feeling, Wilde “does not mean that most genuine feeling is dull feeling, or even that genuine feeling needs the mediation of artifice if it is to be made into good poetry. He means that the direct conscious confrontation of experience and the direct expression of it do not necessarily yield the truth and indeed that they are likely to pervert it.” To quote another of Wilde’s dictums, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
This idea of what truth is and how man can best come to know it bears witness to a world that has been thoroughly schooled in the art of fiction. The characters that populate our fictions are the masks we put on to tell ourselves the truth. Such truths are not facts about the physical world or the accurate reconstructions of history; but they are truths nonetheless: the truths of who we are, which we can discover only once we imagine ourselves otherwise.