The truest form of anonymity is achieved while writing fiction. As authors, we are given that ability, in the form of a fictional character, to say what we’re thinking, without judgement or criticism. We can act boldly and irreverent, demure and saintly or arrogant and unapologetic. After all, it’s not the author saying those things, it’s our character.
How often have we opened the back of a book or clicked on an author’s profile and come face-to-face with someone other than who we’ve imagined them to be? My first shocker of this kind came with Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. I still recall how incredulous I was to see a man peering out from the book’s jacket. Lamb so clearly embodied Dolores’ feminine voice, there seemed no way he could have breathed her to life from a male perspective. Yet there she was.
That startled feeling is a testament to the author’s ability to create a fictional fascade, stepping deftly into an alter-ego which bears little resemblance to its host. With a bit of literary schizophrenia, a skilled writer has a platform to give a voice to any variety of characters while maintaining their anonymity and, sometimes, gender.
In The Outsiders, young female author SE Hinton provides the voice of rebellion and disenfranchised youth for a group of male characters from the wrong side of town. She successfully communicates the angst of growing up in a town of ‘haves’ as a ‘have not’, showing us what it’s like to be a Greaser. Whether she’s channeling the jail hardened Dally, the sensitive Johnny or the youngest Curtis, Ponyboy, who hopes for a life on the inside, she does so with a grit and authenticity that forever changes the lives of teen readers. From the very first page, she embodies her characters and drags them inside a world where social injustice and prejudice permeate their lives. We know exactly who each character is, what they look like and what drives them. We cheer for them, cry with them and see some of ourselves in them.
Great writers use their anonymity to shine a light on characters that may have otherwise existed in the dark. They take the bones of an idea and add flesh to give that character depth and meaning, and make them matter to their reader. If the writer has done their job well, the character they’ve created is as real to their reader as anyone they’ve ever met. They recognize their flaws, forgive their weaknesses and root for their successes.
Who are your favorite literary characters and why does their story matter to you?