The most outrageous claim in the world of literature is that the stories we authors write are nothing but fiction; that they’re only tales derived from figments of our imaginations. I’ve lost clarity in assignments I’ve written for my degree in English Literature because I’ve dared to look upon the characters I am reading about as real people. In one particular assignment I mentioned an occurrence that revealed the ‘truth’ about a character. I received criticism for using that word, truth, because after all, as my tutor said something to the effect of “you shouldn’t be thinking of them as real people, because they’re not real; they’re fictional.”
Really? In every literature course I have studied, one particular point has been reiterated, and that is that the thoughts and experiences of the author are projected into their writing. In literature courses students are expected to analyse the set novels or short stories in order to answer the assignment questions, and it has always been my understanding that fiction isn’t doing its job if the reader does not become immersed in the world or universe they are reading about. We are always tasked with making sense of what the author is trying to say in their writing; what emotions are they trying to convey? What truths are they trying to represent? It doesn’t matter what genre an author writes in, there is always a need to connect with the world to express what otherwise cannot be expressed, and it doesn’t just affect novelists, it also affects all kinds of scriptwriters and songwriters, and even visual artists as well. We all have some kind of message we want the world to know, and Henry James even made the statement that fiction is an author’s “personal impression of life” (in reference to his critical essay on The Art of Fiction).
Alright, so the biggest gripe about this is the belief that it’s only fiction because it “isn’t real”, supposedly. Existence is a funny thing to talk about because everyone has a different idea on what’s real and what isn’t. Does God exist or not? Is magic real or fake? Was the universe as we know it really created by gigantic cosmic explosion? Do you really exist? Do I really exist? Do aliens exist? Maybe we’re all living in some kind of virtual reality world like the Matrix and just don’t know it. Is reality only about what we can literally see, hear, smell, feel and taste? If you look up videos and articles about Earth in comparison to the rest of the universe, you might just be amazed. Maybe fiction is no more than words in a book, or maybe it’s something else entirely. How many literary memes are there on social media that express the feeling that books are effectively portals to other worlds which give us the chance to experience life outside of one’s own ordinary existence? So what if the words I’ve written on my laptop happen to be words on a page!
What is the point in fiction of any kind if we feel nothing for the characters and stories we’re engaging with? What is the point if we don’t actually think of them as real? What is the point in studying literature; analysing not just authorial techniques but character motivations and ambitions, if you’re just going to sit back and criticise it all by saying “it’s just words on a page; none of these people are real”? Whether they are actually standing right in front of us in the flesh or not doesn’t matter. Look up any title with a significant following and you’ll find fans constantly talking about what the characters are doing, what has happened to them, what will or might happen to them, and you’ll even find some people pairing characters up as potential lovers. And then there are the very real killjoys who say “it’s not real, it’s only fiction”.
It’s hypocritical to study and teach literature if your true feelings are that none of it is real in any shape or form. The author is real; and their characters may be facets of their own personalities or they may be based on people they know. All characters, whether human or fantastical in some way, have their own agendas and emotional conflicts that stem from our own real experiences. So irrespective of how you view fiction, reality as we know it always plays a significant part in its construction and the effect it has on readers; because readers identify with the experiences of those they are reading about – and that is a fact.