Every so often, my friend D. expresses something that she does that she questions the ... well, sanity, of. She gets into stories, she invests in fictional characters, to the point of feeling so much she wonders if it's healthy. I remember her questioning this. I remember her wondering if it's a good thing, although I'm fairly certain she knows it's a great thing.
She invests and is affected because she lets them be real. That's an amazing display of humanity, if there ever was one. She believes in humanity so much that she will believe in those constructed in someone's mind. In a sense, though, a character is no less real than you or I. In a sense, characters are only as strong as we let them be. This could be contradictory statements if it wasn't for the fact that the people we know in our everyday lives are only ever as human, as layered, as real and complex as we allow them to be. We have to open our minds, not to mention our hearts, in order to let those we know be whole people to us.
It is all too easy to make someone the bad guy. Sometimes it is easier to be angry than it is to understand what motivates them, especially when it's different from what motivates us. It's equally easy to deify someone we love, to put an individual on a pedestal. It's even easier to do this to the dead. The dead can never prove us wrong. The dead cannot disprove our conclusions. The dead cannot give fresh evidence of their imperfect humanity. They simply are, as we choose to remember them. It is not fair. They refuse to answer our questions, and they continue to leave us hanging until we make our own peace with who they were, with every part of who they were, whether we knew it or not.
No one is easy, not even the characters in fictions. Perhaps that is what makes them so real. There is something so real about blatant imperfection, about obvious flaws, about the exaggerated emotions dramatic storytelling provides us. They do the things we are afraid to try, they are more cruel and more kind than we have the guts to be. Characters are the natural extension of our own desires, of our curiosities about human nature. We must be drawn to characters who display qualities that baffle us.
Joss Whedon is quoted as having said something to the effect of "you have to really want to write about superheroes to do so" and he is right. To write about heroism, you have to see the world in a strange way: you have to see the horror of human beings, but you also have to be able to see the sheer potential of humanity to live up to its brilliance. We can be incredible, but we can be incredibly horrible too. To see heroism, you have to look past the horror to the cracks where the good stuff is shining through. The horror will always be there. People will always be mean, selfish, greedy and paranoid, but they will also always be brave, honourable, faithful and stubbornly passionate about the truth they believe in. You can't make people 'good' or 'peaceful' and maybe that's a good thing. We need to be constantly questioning ourselves, as individuals and a species. It is what improves us, it is how we evolve.
Sometimes it's easier to analyze the world by telling a story. We create alternate realities to examine ourselves, our prejudices, our weaknesses, our dreams. We create imaginary people who are worse than we dare be, or more courageous. Those people aren't 'real' but I know I wish some of them were. Those fictional creations make me want to be more like them, they make me strive to be more courageous, to be stronger, to be more forgiving of people I once thought I'd never be capable of forgiving. It is often fictional characters who make me want to improve myself, who show me how I might be better.
I admire real people who inspire these qualities, but often it is harder to find real-life examples of people to look up to. They are, like estranged loved ones and abandoned friendships, harder to see clearly because we are too close to them. Characters are not part of our lives, they do not offend us personally, they cannot wrong us or hold a grudge against us. It is easier to forgive their weaknesses, their displays of pain, their inconsistencies. If only it was so easy to see ourselves and our loved ones as objectively as we see our favourite characters...
Sometimes it is easier for me to tell myself stories about my life as though they were someone else's life. I hand over the psychological analysis to the experts, but it is easier to see the themes of your own life when they are written down as though they belong to someone else. It is easier to see your weaknesses, to see your strengths, to see how far you have come.
I love fictional characters because they give us a way to dream, to wish ourselves into other worlds, but I love them most when they help to show how complicated life can be, how imperfect people you love can end up being, how fallible even the strongest among us are when our core is threatened. We are, after all, only human, even those of us who were created in the minds of another and live only on a page or a silver screen.
Tonight, I was listening to the song "Bring on the Wonder" by Susan Enan, which plays over the last few minutes of a second-season episode of Bones. The song always hits me somewhere inside, because it's all about beauty, wonder, but also about repression and redemption. At least, it is to me. Everything is always going to affect each of us differently, but I think we are all looking for a little wonder, be it in the news, on the pages of a novel, or for an hour each week on our favourite television show. We all want something to wonder at, to make us feel deeply. We are all looking for an excuse to dream, a reason to believe that we are capable of heroism.