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.
Reason, Dreams, and Conclusion
Hemingway, Carver, and other post-Enlightenment authors championed realism in its most literal sense. If art is the representation of real-life then art must be as close to real-life as possible. Angels don’t exist in real life. Tigers don’t associate with six-year old boys. A deer carcass doesn’t orchestrate an existential crisis. These claims are fallacies. If not for imagination, then we’d have no fictions. In his “First Manifesto on Surrealism,” Andre Breton argues that we mistakenly dismiss the significance of dreams. Like the imaginary character, Breton believes dreams are a clearer representation of what we desire, and as a result, the dreamer is a more content man,
“The spirit of the man who dreams is quite content with what happens to him. The agonising question of possibility is no longer posed. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you die, are you not certain of waking among the dead? Let yourself be led, events will not allow you to defer them. You have no name. The easiness of it all is inestimable,” (Breton 10).
If in dreams we are content, and in life we struggle, then aren’t dreams the more pure representation of who we are and what we want? That appears to be the implication here in Breton’s message. This small argument is part of bigger overarching commentary on the nature of realism. The modern man is obsessed with the rational, but the rational is a limited sort of thinking. Without imagination, we wouldn’t have curiosity, and without curiosity, we wouldn’t have science. Science, the token God of the rational man, is the product of the fantastical, the enemy of the rational man. Yin and Ying. Everything is relative. Etcetera. This dichotomy is a perfect representation of the importance of the imaginary character in fiction. If the writer binds themselves by the rational instead of embracing the imaginary character, then he or she will be trapped by a necessity for reason rather than allowing their character to be led. The imaginary character as a representation of the subconscious, is a functionally interesting leader.
The imaginary character in literature is more often than not a companion, a friend. They are usually a manifestation of the protagonist or narrator, meaning they are essentially just a version of the protagonist. While this may be true, the reader should resist viewing the imaginary character as such, and the writer should avoid portraying them this way. It is perfectly okay for the imaginary character to represent the subconscious, or the even operate as the character’s conscience, but to disregard their existence outside of the character would be an injustice to the narrative process. The imaginary character is the most useful craft decision, if only because they recognize and represent a character’s self-awareness, or lack thereof. In Calvin and Hobbes, Hobbes leads Calvin to certain stages of enlightenment, if only because he allows Calvin to muse out loud. There’s an unspoken necessity in this decision because who’s interested in a protagonist that is only talking to themselves? A story can never be too interesting, the saying goes, and what the imaginary character provides is an opportunity for the protagonist to be functionally interesting. In The Third Policeman, Joe is aware that the narrator is dead, but prevents the narrator from fully realizing this until the very end. This withholding of information allows the writer to establish a singular authority within the story without giving away the climactic realization too early. Birdman brings to life the thoughts that Riggan wants to drown, pushing him to that final scene on stage. The noise and the chatter of the outside world becomes internalized, and that manifestation of the human condition, that quest for relevancy in a world in which you don’t exist, finds an extra dimension in the words and actions of Birdman. In “A Better Angel”, the guardian angel doesn’t allow Carl to hide from his flaws, and in “Still Life”, the dead deer carcass informs Everett of what he already suspects, his death won’t deliver the message he wishes it to. This is what the imaginary character allows the writer to do; establish theme without explicitly expressing it through the actions of the protagonist.
What the imaginary character really represents, if anything, is our weird relationship with the nature of existing in the first place. Andre Breton wrote, “Dear imagination, what I love most about you, is your unforgiving nature,” (Breton 3). The “human condition” gets tossed around, so much that we probably don’t think much of it, but it warrants significance in this case. If fiction is about exploring the truth of matters, about getting at the heart of what it means to be human, then the imaginary character might be the writer’s greatest weapon. While all characters in fiction are already some shade of “imaginary,” the character that doesn’t exist in a world that already doesn’t exist, illuminates our anxiety about our purpose in the world. An anxiety, a protagonist may not be capable of tackling alone. Despite what pop culture may lead us to believe, reading someone’s diary isn’t all that interesting. Getting a protagonist’s dark and shameful thoughts through the voice of another, less vulnerable character, then have that character push the protagonist towards real action and decision making? Now that’s a lot more interesting.
Breton, Andre. “The First Manifesto on Surrealism”.
1924 (translated 2010). PDF File.