Paper People – How Writers (and Readers) Create Characters


Characters in books are not the same as characters in the real world, yet when we read, we have the powerful impression that fictional people are speaking to us and inhabiting the world in our heads. How do writers create this illusion? Writers Inner Voices explores…

Writers' Inner Voices

paper dolls

The students I teach, although very able literary critics, sometimes need reminding that the characters in the books that they are interpreting are not, in fact, real people. It’s very easily done. Even the most sophisticated reader, when faced with the vivid and oversized inhabitants of fictional worlds, can easily become, as William H. Gass puts it a little bluntly  in his essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction” (1971), a ‘gullible and superstitious clot’.

We are all apt to forget at times that the startling likeness between fictional characters and human beings is only analogous – that these are paper people, not real ones. ‘Fiction’s fruit survives its handling and continues growing off the tree’, writes Gass. Where the text is silent we nonetheless attempt to infer characters’ histories, speculate upon their motivations, diagnose precisely what it is that ails them. In the margins of my students’ essays I…

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