the afterlife of fictional characters

prague_spread_crumb_with-no-text

I’ve been interviewing writers recently for a literary magazine which should be launching in the winter, catastrophes permitting. One aspect of writing that has come up in conversation is what happens to fictional characters after the writer has finished with them; not simply the question of whether novelists are ever tempted to return to the cast of previous books but the fictional afterlife that forms in a reader’s mind. Every ending to a book, after all, continues an insinuation of futures. And all stories are excerpts.

Take Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s fair to say that the main characters of each short story are locked in orbits. Their paralysis, as Joyce put it, will continue long after the words on the page come to a stop. Any epiphanies have been the reader’s or characters conspiring against them. All except Gabriel Conroy in the final story ‘The Dead’ who has come to a hard but liberating understanding of the true nature of things. His pride may be shattered but his view has been transformed accordingly from the pinhole to the panoramic. His future will be troubled, less certain than it was, but it will be open. There is a unconventional hope in the midst of the melancholy of that ending, with the snow falling and shades moving through the night. He still has time and now, crucially, he knows it. The end, as with all ends in literature, is really another beginning. Kafka understood this paradox, which is perhaps why his novels have no endings, finishing abruptly mid-sentence. Kafka knew that a true end in fiction was an impossibility and an affectation.

If an ending seems complete, it’s perhaps just an indication of a failure of imagination on the reader’s part. You could take a book with as clear-cut (if you excuse the pun) a finale as Camus’ L’Étranger and wonder what stories might reverberate from it. Who was the Arab on the beach? The participants in the trial? What of the place, that sun, that sea? What of the people in the crowd who came to watch Meursault’s execution? Perhaps Camus’ father was among them; an event, in some Borgesian Möbius strip only possible in the imagination, perhaps recounted in Camus’ real-life essay Reflections on the Guillotine.

Consider every story you have ever loved. Where did the ripples from the story go? What happened further in that world constructed by the author (like Kafka’s incarnation of Prague as sketched above by Robert Crumb)? Where are the characters now? And if the lead roles have departed (a book like Jim Crace’s Being Dead suggests even this is not a finality) then what of the minor characters, the witnesses, the descendants? What became of Macbeth’s porter, Irene Adler, Edwin Drood? What happened in the unwritten pages after the final one? We learn at an early age that ‘happy ever after’ is a necessary deception (originally it was the more bitterly-realistic ‘they lived happily until their deaths’ or, as in One Thousand and One Nights, “they lived happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness”). Yet we know, even as children, that the happy ending, or any absolute ending, is not possible nor even desirable. The ripples simply multiply.

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11 Responses to the afterlife of fictional characters

  1. Jnana Hodson says:

    Just as fascinating are those characters who are drawn to some extent on real people, and then seeing decades later, long after drafting the story, just how their lives have unfolded.

    • it’s funny you should say that Jnana, I kept a diary of my time in Cambodia, an excerpt of which 3:AM Press will be publishing later on the year but I’ve decided to keep the full-length book as a time capsule for a few years to see what happens to all the people involved, including myself. and then return to it with a changed perspective. it seems a much more interesting project. perhaps time can be a character in itself.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Having just recently finished “Anna Karenina”, I do know what you mean. Although there was a long coda to the novel after the train scene, I still find myself pondering on the later lives of the many characters involved. Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence (which I’m halfway through) is having the same effect on me, as the narrative is littered with characters who ebb in and out of the story and there is so much of their lives which isn’t revealed, or is only revealed in passing at a later date.

    • it does seem a rarely-acknowledged skill for a writer to be able to suggest these imaginary futures. and often it’s closer to reality. life is full of loose-ends and epilogues. there are rarely any clean conclusions, people come and go and change. great literature should reflect this. defeating the full stop seems a microcosm of one of the original purposes of all art, which is to somehow try to defeat death.

  3. beinicho says:

    Reblogged this on huluneger and commented:
    I’ve been interviewing writers recently for a literary magazine which should be launching in the winter, catastrophes permitting. One aspect of writing that has come up in conversation is what happens to fictional characters after the writer has finished with them; not simply the question of whether novelists are ever tempted to return to the cast of previous books but the fictional afterlife that forms in a reader’s mind

  4. Dina Ross says:

    The joy is in the wondering. What I loathe are attempts at sequels, such as follow-ups of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Winnie the Pooh.”

    • you’re right Dina, the imagination is infinite and most actual sequels are doomed to disappoint by comparison. I do like the idea however, even if just in the imagination, of taking a side-character and reimagining a story from their perspective as Jean Rhys did in Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard did with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. this seems to me to add to the enjoyment and depth of the original whereas a sequel is almost always doomed to diminish what came before (unless it’s The Godfather Part 2). new perspectives rather than new answers.

  5. Bryce says:

    The ambiguous ending of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood has created much speculation among readers about the afterlives of Toru and Midori. Toru has phoned Midori and she asks him where he is. “Where was I now? … I had no idea.” The last sentence in the novel is: “Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.” Some have imagined this “calling out” presages a happy future, with Midori rescuing Toru. But at the beginning of the book, when 17 years have passed since that ending, a wistful Toru is “thinking of all I had lost in the course of my life: times gone for ever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.” I feel that any happiness Toru might experience will be edged around with confusing memories of Naoko.

    • that’s now on my reading list. I think that’s why melancholy is the most interesting human emotion. it seems located on the part of the spectrum where sadness meets joy. and the older you get and the more experiences you have the more your good memories will be tinged with what you’ve lost. there’s no escaping it other than the cop-out of solitude, which I’ve seen people unwisely succumb to.

  6. Pingback: 5 characters whose lives were ruined by the so-called “happy endings”~by PrayingGleam | The Write Stuff

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