A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tee-shirt that said something like “I Mourn the Deaths of Fictional Characters.” Even at the time I saw it, it made an impression. Now, a week and a bit after the death of David Bowie, after reading numerous thoughtful and emotionally charged pieces that included some variation of “I never met him but…,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact that fictional characters – whether in print, or on film, or even celebrities with whom we feel a genuine connection – can have on a person.
Maybe because I was really shy as a kid and because I didn’t have many “real” friends until high school, some of the people who made the biggest impact on me didn’t exist. My role models weren’t older kids or adults or teachers, but were fictional characters.
The first place I found these imaginary friends was in books. While I read some of the standards of my day – I quite liked Nancy Drew, for example – my favorites were a little on the fringe. It won’t surprise anyone who knows my work that both Mowgli and Tarzan were hugely appealing – not so much for themselves, as for the worlds in which they lived, where animals and humans lived side-by-side. Tarzan may have been the Lord of the Beasts, but it was Mowgli, whose title “Master of the Jungle” was often used ironically, who was my favorite.
I also loved many of the “classics,” The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Princess and the Goblins and The Princess and Curdie, the Mary Poppins books, some of the Walter Farley “horse” books – although I preferred Flame, the Island Stallion, to the Black.
I read both adult mysteries and westerns fairly young as well, and I factored characters like Louis L’Amour’s Sacketts and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (and to a less extent Poiroit), into the group of fictional people who became friends, mentors, and role models.
Oh… And, of course, I was reading SF/F as well, this built up from a foundation of mythology.
I could keep on listing titles, but I’ll stop here because a list of titles does little to say why these books meant so much to me.
So why did they? Well, especially for a kid without many friends, books showed me the “insides” of people: thoughts and dreams, ways of working through problems, values that both differed from the ones I encountered in my home and school, and that reinforced those values.
Going back to that tee-shirt, I think mourning for fictional characters is completely genuine, because you get to know them far more intimately than you do most of the people in your lives. The story lets you in, past the façade, past the defenses, past the fictional versions of themselves that are all most people let you know about them anyhow.
That’s a creepy thought, isn’t it? That most of our relationships are, in fact, with fictional characters? It’s just that some of these fictional characters think they’re “real.”
But going back to actual fictional characters, in my tweens and teens, I found some more new friends via television. (My parents didn’t forbid TV; we just didn’t watch a lot of it when I was small.) Movies didn’t play a big role in my imaginative life, because I saw very few during those years when I was hungry for company. However, especially once I was babysitting, late night re-runs introduced me to the Mission Impossible team, various cop shows, and, permitted me to fill in episodes of Star Trek. From there, it was a quick jump to some of the popular shows of the day, especially those with an SF vibe like The Six Million Dollar Man.
I think a lot of the appeal of media tie-in fiction is that, like print media in general, it can let you further inside a character. You’re not left guessing at what they think or what motivated an action. You know, because you’re inside their head and they’re telling you. Very early Star Trek tie-in fiction, including Alan Dean Foster’s adaptations of the animated episodes and James Blish’s adaptations of the main series episodes, fleshed out why the characters did what they did. The occasional bits of backstory were an added bonus.
Stories remain important to me, even though these days it’s more rare for me to find a new “friend” on the pages or the screen. Nonetheless, it happens. An added pleasure has been sharing some of my old friends with Jim, and meeting some of his.
So what fictional characters have become your friends, mentors, or exemplars? Who would you want to introduce to your “real” friends? Do you mourn the deaths of fictional characters?