Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

Geek Week: How Real Is Fiction?

Most readers* can agree that Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen aren’t “real” in the walking around and paying taxes like other citizens sense of the word, but we all know who they are. We know what these characters are like. We can probably make a good argument for what kinds of movies they would enjoy and how they would order their hamburgers.

*I had to say most readers because there are a few who have a different way of looking at the world. Who am I to judge? I spoke Ewok for a year when I was a kid. I’ll let you pick your side in the Fictional Realists vs. Anti-Realists kerfuffle.

We know who Harry and Katniss are pretty well, if not better than how well we know our coworkers. The characters in our favorite stories are not two-dimensional paper cutouts; they are fully formed personas with hopes and dreams, wants and desires, strengths and weaknesses. They have friends and family, make relationships, and experience achievements that can redefine who they are.

When Harry and Katniss have a win, we cheer them on. When circumstances (and authors) conspire against them and the you-know-what hits the fan, readers worry for their safety. And when they experience the loss of friends and family, we are grieving right there beside them.

If readers know who characters are, what attributes and desires they have, and feel the emotions from their experiences, then how can we say in the way that our mind perceives things, that they aren’t just a little bit “real”?

If we can agree that other things such as love or math are real, then how can we not also say that Harry and Katniss aren’t also real in the same way. They are fictional objects, sure, but they have their own properties and attributes, so I would argue that they qualify for their own existence. Maybe not the taxes-paying kind of existence, but they are at least a little bit real.

What do you think? Do fictional characters really exist, and if so, how?

8 comments on “Geek Week: How Real Is Fiction?

  1. ericjbaker
    June 21, 2014

    Interesting philosophical question. Think of a homeless man with no living family or friends and severe mental disorder to the degree that he does not remember who he is. In a practical sense, that person does not exist beyond his limited ability to affect his immediate environment (likely by causing pedestrians to cross to the other side of the street). meanwhile, Harry Potter’s “existence” has a big impact on people.

    • tracycembor
      June 24, 2014

      Exactly. I think that our perception is our reality, so the more or less that we perceive something, the more or less real it is to us. Unfortunately, our perception marginalizes people who barely impact our lives so we can debate more important issues such as how close “setting blasters to stun” is to reality.

      I really want to give that homeless man a turkey sandwich right now.

  2. vlsperry
    June 22, 2014

    A good story often feels more real, and certainly more attractive, than many parts of our lives — particularly those parts that intersect bureaucracy. For example, “The Lord of the Rings” feels far more real than any IRS publication I’ve waded through or any driver’s license renewal office I’ve been in. (I suspect the latter are dimensional offshoots of limbo or purgatory.)

    • tracycembor
      June 24, 2014

      Hehe, I like this theory. This line at the checkout counter bores me; therefore, I am going to actively deny your existence and read my Kindle instead. This has not happened since Thursday. xD

  3. hannahgivens
    June 23, 2014

    I vote “real!” I think we can make a distinction between material items and concepts, certainly. But the chair I’m sitting on and the abstract concept of hope for the future are both things that are real. I’d make the argument that fictional characters are actually somewhere in between — not made of matter as such, but also not totally abstract.

    • tracycembor
      June 24, 2014

      I misread your post the first time (totally my fault), and read “hope for the furniture” instead of “future.” I was considering the reality of the chair I was sitting in versus the hope of having this chair… then I realized I had gone off on a tangent. >_< Oops!!

      Yes, I agree with you about the future (and furniture). ;)

      • hannahgivens
        June 24, 2014

        Heh, that sounds like great fodder for a short story! “The Hope of the Chair” would be an excellent title. :D

        Honestly, the analogy might even work better that way! I’d argue that part of Harry Potter’s reality is that so many people wish he were real, after all. :)

  4. Pingback: On the reality of fictional characters | Eva Vanrell

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2014 by in Geek Week and tagged , , , , .

Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

Weekends are reserved for my Music Playlist.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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