Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fictional Characters: A Minor Musing

Mark White has the professional life I want.  He teaches ethics classes and blogs about comics.  Yesterday, White posted about the duties authors have toward fictional characters.  White's conclusion might make the STEMy folks squirm a bit,
. . . a lot of people (including myself) have imputed rights and dignity to fictional characters, so it was interesting to think about. It is a credit to comics creators (and, more generally, all fiction creators) that they inject so much life and depth into their characters, so much so that we come to care about them to that extent.
This conclusion, however, explains why English classes or mythology classes or comics are more important than their detractors will admit.  As White points out, these characters exist on an ontological level
. . . .let's dispense with a more general question: do fictional characters "exist"? This is properly a metaphysical question--an ontological question, to be precise, as it deals with what exists or doesn't exist--and metaphysical aguments really don't excite me like ethical questions do. Let's just assume that fictional characters do exist in some way, similar to how abstract concepts like justice and the number 3 exist. Simply the fact that characters like Babs [Barbara Gordan aka Oracle/Batgirl] mean so very much to so many people suggests that they must exist in some form that makes them relevant for discussion.
To his credit, White does not take the point too far.  He admits that fictional characters are not imbued with dignity inherent in humanity.
. . . .if we have duties towards real people, even obvious duties like basic respect and concern, it is because they are real people, persons capable of autonomous thought, and brilliance, and wisdom, and intuition, and creativity, and humor. They can do great things and they can also screw up--but they can feel remorse and regret, and learn from their mistakes. They can make the world a better place, they can be heroes--all of their own volition.

But fictional characters cannot do any of that on their own--they are but puppets on the strings of their creators. In story, they can be brilliant, strong, heroic, tragic, or funny, but when we look behind the curtain, we see that it is their creators--comics writers and artists, actors and directors, animators and voice actors, whoever--that give them their characters. They are the only "will" that fictional characters have, and whatever dignity creators give them is only in the story, not inherent in the character herself or himself.
I wish that White had taken a part of his analysis a step further without giving fictional characters some form of human rights.  Fictional characters whether they be Oedipus, Hamlet, or Huck Finn from the classic tradition or Daredevil, Ben Grimm, or White's example Barbara Gordon matter  not because they exist ontologically or because they may or may not have inherent dignity.

These characters matter because they produce a catharsis "through pity and fear."  As this overview illustrates catharsis may be a contentious issue inside the academy.
Catharsis is most often defined as the "purging" of the emotions of pity and fear that occurs when we watch a tragedy. What is actually involved in this purging is not clear. It is not as simple as getting an object lesson in how to behave; the tragic event does not "teach us a lesson" as do certain public-information campaigns on drunk driving or drug abuse. Hans-Georg Gadamer's attempt to describe catharsis in his study Truth and Method can serve both as a working definition and an introduction into the problem of establishing any determinate definition of this elusive concept:
What is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something truly common. The spectator recognizes himself [or herself] and his [or her] finiteness in the face of the power of fate. What happens to the great ones of the earth has exemplary significance. . . .To see that "this is how it is" is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions in which he [or she], like everyone else, lives. (132)
Comics and fiction should not be sermons or a public service announcements.  Fiction and comics, however, allow people to recognize a bit of themselves in "great ones" created by talented writers.  This Ta-Nehisi Coates column and these responses illustrate that X-Men: First Class produced some new insight and a cathartic effect.  If one gets back the tights and capes, one can "emerge with new insight."

Readers and viewers care about these characters because the characters help produce that insight and purging.  I'm unsure whether producing catharsis implies an inherent dignity but I believe it adds weight to White's argument that these characters matter.


Mark D. White said...

Fantastic comment! Fictional characters do matter to us for many reasons, including the one you so insightfully point out--thanks!

Mark D. White said...

Fantastic comment! Fictional characters do matter to us for many reasons, including the one you so insightfully point out--thanks!

caheidelberger said...

You know, we could start a private academy, a charter school for philosophy and rhetoric, where that could be your job.

On author's duty toward characters, see also Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, the conclusion of which motivated me to do something I've never done on any other occasion: hurl the book across the room in disgust. I seem to recall my reaction having something to do with the author's abandoning his characters, and the characters' realizing it.