Where Characters Come From


This is a fascinating blog post by science fiction author Cory Doctorow, that goes beyond the title. He asks why we react to characters in a book the same way we might react to them in real life. People who never existed except in the author’s mind somehow enter the world and stay there, just as if they were real.

“When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters ‘‘catch,’’ they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.”

He attributes this to an also imaginary part of our writing mind that he calls the “simulator.” Out of the stuff of reality, we pick up bits and pieces that eventually, through the mysterious workings of the simulator, become full-blown characters.

“That’s why your characters eventually ‘‘come to life.’’ Eventually, your characters’ details contain so much data gleaned from things the simulator ‘‘knows’’ – because it has supplied them, after guessing about them – that they come to seem real to you, and to it (which is the same thing). Write about imaginary people long enough, and they will feel real, even to you, who should really know better. And even though their lives and decisions have no consequences, even though their death has less real-world tragedy than the untimely demise of the yogurt culture you digested this morning at breakfast, you feel for them, because the simulator is where our empathy lives.”



One thought on “Where Characters Come From

  1. I read Cory Doctorow’s *Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom* last year and thought it very good. The writing style in that novel (his first) is almost minimalist. I’m planning to read *Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town* when I can get to it. I like the title’s literary allusion to the old idea that there are really only two kinds of stories: “a stranger comes to town” or “someone makes a journey.”

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