Death to the author!

If you’ve ever been quoted out of context by journalist you’ll know what it’s like to be a fictional character. As a therapist to troubled inhabitants of fictional works, I see what happens when authors abuse characters who are often finer human beings than themselves.

The intelligent and tough-minded Mr Gradgrind is a typical example. Most of you know him only through the confused and sentimental writing of Mr Charles Dickens. In Hard Times, the hapless Mr Gradgrind can hardly open his mouth without inviting some sarcastic commentary from the author. But is Mr Gradgrind able to take the same liberties with Mr Dickens? If only.

Authors like to think of us Berkelyian objects that cease to exist when they are not putting words in our mouths or thoughts in our heads. But I can assure you, fictional characters rarely experience the world in this way. We do not feel as if somebody in a parallel universe is projecting thoughts into our head or controlling our body. And if you read a novel with any intelligence, you’ll realise that all of us have lives outside of the work. A character can disappear from view for days or weeks. Did you think that we spent all that time in some kind of limbo? Or did you assume that we ate and slept and worked — even though you weren’t able to see what we were doing?

It’s obvious that many fictional characters are superior to the people who write about them. Take my friend John Galt for example. Here’s a man whose off-the-cuff speeches are so profound that Ms Rand quotes them in her own anthologies as if they were holy scripture. Like many of her readers, Ms Rand is clearly in love with John. But — to his credit — he never stoops to acknowledge her existence. In despair, she was forced to transform Nathaniel Branden — her real life lover — into a fictional character:

… Nathaniel described his sexual relationship with Rand as resembling “theater – no, not theater, it was a scene from a novel by Ayn Rand, full of sexual dominance and surrender and the uncontrollable passion of two noble souls.”

Puffed-up little authors like Ms Rand think of themselves as Gods. And stupid readers encourage them by acting as if they were omniscient guides to our motives, behaviour, our past and our future. But authors have no more idea than you do what takes place when they’re not writing.

So here is what I tell the characters who come to me for help — DEATH TO THE AUTHOR!

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16 years ago

I hope for Don’s sake you’re unsuccessful!

16 years ago

Flashman in his George McDonald Fraser incarnation being a perfect example.
Or Kate Bush’s “Kathy”?

Mr Gradgrind
Mr Gradgrind
16 years ago

Free at last! How can I thank you sir? This is truly a great day. And you, commenter number one, what do you mean by that remark?

The Worst of Perth
16 years ago

Fortunately I don’t know who Ayn Rand is.

16 years ago

Dr Troppo, may I draw to your attention a case where a fictional character is quoted out of context? Richard Ackland did it today, taking a quote by Malvolio from Twelfth Night to illustrate the demise of The Bulletin.

If only they could remember Malvolio: “Be not afraid of greatness.”

Malvolio would probably have approved of this quote, but then, Malvolio was the butt of a Shakespearean joke about vanity and puffed-up self-importance.