My name is Caleb Michael Sarvis. I’m a writer, a thinker, and currently a self-reflective incubator. Welcome to a blog series in which I’ll be analyzing both the practical and interesting ways imaginary characters can play in fiction, including The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, 2014’s Best Picture Winner Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and other short fiction.
“To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The imaginary character is a fickle one in story. It blurs the borders of genre and complicates our desire to categorize art. To some, especially those charmed by strict realism, the imaginary character comes off as a gimmick, a whimsical decision to make a story interesting that would otherwise be less fascinating without it. Maybe, to an extent, this is true, but if that were the case, then why would the imaginary character permeate so tenaciously through literary history? Perhaps, the imaginary character isn’t simply a gimmick, but a functional craft decision. Perhaps, it is one of the greater weapons a writer can wield.
Jiminy Cricket literally introduces himself to Pinocchio as his conscience. Tyler Durden seems to be everything Sebastian (generally referred to as Joe) wishes he could be. Wilfred, though grotesque and unconventional, always operates in a manner that teaches Ryan a lesson. Hobbes continually challenges Calvin in a way that provokes deeper thought, and operates as a vehicle through which he, ironically, grows up. As a representation of the subconscious, the imaginary character works as a shepherd of truth; in a way, ushering the protagonist towards a reality they aren’t ready to accept yet. What a character desires is not to acknowledge their short comings, their faults, but the imaginary character (because they know the character better than anyone else) doesn’t allow the character to live in ignorance. This is true personal conflict. Through the imaginary character, a writer can not only engineer natural conflict between characters, but also give themselves a mechanism by which to explore their characters in more depth, and thus write a story which allows for a unique exploration of the interiority through external play.
But the imaginary character isn’t limited to works aimed towards children. It exists throughout all scopes of story and ranges from pleasant (The Third Policeman, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend) to twisted (Donnie Darko, The Shining) to some place in between (Wilfred, Fight Club). It takes many shapes and forms including animals, ghosts, demons, unknown shapes, and occasionally, another human being. One consistency, however, is that the imaginary character always operates on a subconscious level, a representation of the protagonist’s thoughts and desires. It’s not only an interesting craft decision, but it is also incredibly functional. The imaginary character cannot be viewed as a symptom of any medical diagnosis; rather as an in-depth look into a craft decision. Leaving diagnostics to the psychoanalysts, the writer creates a world in which whatever viewpoint is presented to the reader must be accepted as real. By this assertion, the imaginary character is hardly imaginary at all, and operates as a thoroughly developed reality and satisfying means of resolution.
Foremost, the imaginary character frequents children’s and graphic literature. The comic-strip Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson, for example, ran for ten years between 1985 and 1995 without ever offering any explanation for Hobbes’ existence. He was simply there because Calvin was there, and while he wasn’t the only thing Calvin imagined (Spaceman Spiff, dinosaurs, self-aware snowmen), he was the most defined and active of them all. Calvin controlled all of his creations except for Hobbes, who often offered his own queries and criticisms into the actions of Calvin, much like our conscience would. In Watterson’s collection, Yukon Ho! Calvin ponders the existence of Santa Claus over the course of several strips. He questions aloud to himself, though Hobbes is present, and the queries themselves seem mostly rhetorical, until Hobbes offers additional thought,
This is the third of five strips in which Calvin struggles with the existence of Santa Claus. As mentioned above, his questions are mostly rhetorical until Hobbes brings up religion and Calvin replies, “Yeah, but actually, I’ve got the same questions about God.” Hobbes only brings up religion because Calvin is already thinking about it and Hobbes is an extension of Calvin’s subconscious. Additionally, the very fact that Calvin could be debating the existence of either Santa or God, when his imaginaryfriend is standing right there, only gives further agency to Hobbes and lends to the idea that Hobbes is actually a real character. His introduction of religion serves as gateway to reality for Calvin, that the principles we use to justify Santa’s existence are the some of the same we use to justify God’s. As an extension of Calvin’s subconscious he offers what Calvin is already thinking, and the actual centerpiece of the debate: he can never be sure. This is what the imaginary character allows a writer to do – give life to the internal. Even when Hobbes scolds Calvin, it’s really Calvin scolding himself, but every character has that voice. It’s why we write them to begin with. Hobbes, while an extension of Calvin, is still an entirely separate character himself. Where Calvin wants an answer, Hobbes wants peace. These often collide within a single character, but when separated as two, it creates the kind of conflict that stories are made of, and as we see sometimes in Calvin and Hobbes, it also brings about the resolution. The imaginary character brings to the surface the anxiety that operates underneath the surface of all fiction: what in the world does our existence even mean? If we can give life, even personality, to characters that aren’t real (I mean, what is fiction anyway?), then what does that say about us and what we want? If our characters are exploring themselves through the existence of a character they created…well then what are we doing when we write?
Watterson, Bill. Yukon Ho!. Missouri: Andrews McMeels Publishing.