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A Point of View: Why do people relate to fictional characters?

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Despite having their lives determined by authors, fictional characters are often portrayed as free agents - masters of their own destinies. Maybe that's why readers like them so much, says the novelist Will Self.

When I began writing fiction in the late 1980s I already had a profound suspicion of the characters with which novels tend to be populated. These entities - for, as I hope to demonstrate, fictional characters are worthy of this attribution - may arouse in us many of the emotions provoked by their flesh-and-blood models, yet they are so easily spun into being out of lexical threads, we'd be wise to treat them with grave suspicion. If you're in your home, and you now hear the front door being unlocked and opened in its characteristic way, followed by footsteps heading towards you, then should you really be surprised when the door of the room you sit in swings open, and a bent-backed old woman haltingly enters.

She's leaning heavily on a stick with a rubber ferrule, wearing an old tweed overcoat worn shiny at cuff and elbow, and has a dirty-beige muffler wound around her scrawny neck. You receive an impression of cornflower-blue eyes set deep in wrinkly reticulation, her hair white and fine as feathers - a voice rasps: "My name's Ethel Nairn, I'm sorry to intrude but I've come to speak to you about the residents' association." Now, if you're capable in the ordinary way of suspending disbelief, you may have leant Ethel Nairn a degree of credibility - actually, even I believe Ethel Nairn exists, such that an entire range of hopes, desires, fears and impulses could readily be ascribed to her - and this despite the fact that I myself only conjured this figment into being minutes ago.

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Image caption A statue of Emma Bovary, heroine of Flaubert's Madame Bovary

As it is with Ethel Nairn, so it goes with the entire community of characters we either create ourselves, or have summoned to exist on our behalf by writers, screenwriters, games designers and a host of other so-called creatives. Even the characters that people advertisements can take on many of the attributes we associate with living, breathing humans - escaping their confinement in these propagandising playlets to stalk the corridors of our mind. The more sophisticated fictional characters become, the more their similarity to us is plainly evident. By the time we encounter the Emma Bovaries and Leopold Blooms of this world, we're altogether comfortable with the sympathy they arouse in us. Fiction offers many pleasures - we may enjoy its capacity to make the world anew for us through its descriptions, or to advance our understanding of science or philosophy through its application of ideas to examples of human behaviour, but although it does - on examination - seem so faint as to be numinous, nonetheless it's our conviction that fictional characters' hopes, fears and desires matter that allows fictions to become facts on the ground - a ground we sympathetically traverse alongside them as they're subjected to the vicissitudes of plot, its sudden reversals and twists, its caprices and its terrible inexorability.

As I say, when I was a young writer I mistrusted these entities, with their slippery claim to have reality - and so I rendered the characters in my own fictions in ways that drew attention to their preposterousness. I made them caricatures, stereotypes or hieratic figures - I denied them the oxygen of believable dialogue, and the nourishment of a credible inner life. I'd tell anyone who evinced an interest my suspicions about these so-called characters, and even give them the Ethel Nairn shtick, so demonstrating the airiness of their own suspended disbelief. My fiction - I'd lecture them - is about the exhilaration of ideas, rather than the enervation provoked by these initially seductive - but ultimately nonsensical - simulacra of people. Then, with middle age encroaching, my views radically changed, swerving in the direction of sentiments I associated with slogans in third-rate greetings cards. People who need people - I began to suspect - are the luckiest people in the world.

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Image caption A statue of James Joyce - the creator of Leopold Bloom - stands in Dublin

But the people people need are not necessarily flesh and blood. People also need people who manifest all their own torturous confusions - about life, love and the pursuit of happiness - but whose own existence is quite immaterial. People need people who can show them just how difficult it is to maintain the illusion that one's the author of one's own life. People need people whose lives can be seen to follow a dramatic arc, so that no matter what trials they encounter, the people who survey them can be reassured that when the light begins to fade, these people - to whose frail psyches we've had privileged access - will at least feel it's all meant something.

To regard an invented scenario as a believable human life is, when you stop to consider it, an astonishing feat. Not simply a suspension of disbelief, but a hefting of it into the heavens. The lives - or plots - of fictional characters are fraught with unbelievable coincidences, or blessed by implausible serendipity. Fictional characters, even at their most confused and distraught, still have a sort of clarity of thought and self-presentation, for of necessity their incomprehensible situation must be rendered comprehensible for it to exist at all. Fictional characters - unlike the messy organisms from which they derive - float free from the sordid contingencies of the body, because, no matter how convincingly they're portrayed as being embodied, the medium within which they operate is, self-evidently, a mental one.

Of course, the dramatis personae of a play have a material existence as marks on a page or actors on a stage - the same is true of the characters in films, although often in our queered reality, the humans that give them embodiment take primacy. So it is that we say we've seen Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt in a film, whereas, in truth, the only film we could possibly have seen them in is life itself. As for my own art form, the novel, the characters that wander Austenian landscape gardens, or gather in Proustian salons, or stroll Joycean streets, are at once the realest and the most insubstantial, being in truth nothing but combinations of signs, easily capable of denomination and then digitisation into long sequences of zeroes and ones.

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Image caption Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele in an 1811 scene from Sense And Sensibility

Yet there is one aspect of these entities' predicament that I believe explains precisely why it is we find them so affecting, and believe in their self-consciousnesses so whole-heartedly. It would be absurd to suggest that we think of Anna Karenina as real in the same way we think of people as real, nevertheless we certainly do believe that Anna Karenina believes herself to be a free agent, responsible for making decisions that will alter the course of her life. She could begin the relationship with Vronsky, or she could not. Even when we have thoroughly explored the world she inhabits, and are reading Anna Karenina for the third or fourth time, we can still entertain the notion that it need not all end under the wheels of a passing train.

Which is strange, because we've only to turn to the end of the book to reacquaint ourselves with the facts, which are that Anna Karenina's fate - like those of all fictional characters - was, is, and will always be utterly determined. It matters not one jot what she does or says or agonises about, her fate is one that we view from outside the timeframe of the novel. In philosophic terms, the vantage we as readers share with the third-person narrators of fictions is sub specie aeternitatis - from the perspective of eternity. We might like to comfort ourselves with the notion that it's this godlike overview which kindles in us such intense sympathy for the destinies of these man- and womannikins, however, I suspect the truth is rather more disturbing.

It occurs to me that it's precisely in fictional characters' conviction - despite all evidence to the contrary - that they are the authors of their own lives, that they resemble us most. We really intuit that in between the alternative scenarios of chaotic contingency and universal necessity, there can't possibly be any real wiggle-room within which the human will can operate, yet we persist - and cannot help persisting - in the delusion that we too are the authors of our own lives. That we are unable to turn to the last page of the book of our lives then read the fate inscribed there does nothing to counter our suspicion it has already been written - after all, the same is the case for Ethel Nairn and millions of other fictional characters, and as I believe I've already demonstrated, it's precisely this shared predicament which makes them so very worthy of our compassion.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT or listen on BBC iPlayer

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