The Character Who Is Never There

In Sherlock's Season 3 first episode, writer Mark Gatiss
explores the Holmes phenomenon--why people responded
as they did to Conan Doyle's "murder" of his own character.
One of the most fascinating aspects of human behavior/psychology is our ability to believe thoroughly in things that are not directly in front of our eyes--to not just believe but to become invested.

Yuval Noah Harari believes that this ability to imagine, specifically to imagine the future, is what sets humans apart from animals. Pierre Bayard believes that this ability to imagine and invest accounts for people mourning the "death" of Sherlock Holmes (when Conan Doyle--tired of his creation--tried desperately to kill off Holmes in 1893).

What I find even more astonishing than believing in the future of an imaginary character is the human capacity to believe in an imaginary character who has only ever been referenced.

Maris is so real that when Niles shows up with his
whippet, everybody, including the audience, knows
it's a substitution for his estranged wife.
Frasier accomplishes this with Maris, whom the audience never meets. And yet we get to know her very well through how others reference her--and through the effects of her behavior--to the point where the writers can insert jokes about her and evoke a response. She might as well have appeared on the screen.

Along the same lines, a character can be so real and present and important that the readers or viewers will become invested to the point of believing the character is more omnipresent than he or she actually is. I often have to remind myself that actors and actresses see their jobs in terms of lines or time on the screen. In his initial seasons, Castiel on Supernatural is so omnipresent in concept, I have to remind myself that Misha Collins was only getting paid by appearance, not by how often people thought about him.

Likewise, I have elsewhere praised the Stargate writers for referencing Daniel so often in Season 6 (the season he was technically absent, guest-starring in three or four episodes), he might as well have been "there," simply hanging out in the infirmary or guest-lecturing on Atlantis.

This is the point where some people get cynical about human beings' gullibility, yadda yadda yadda. I think it is rather sweet: humans have this impressive ability to care absolutely totally unrelentingly passionately about the real and about the imagined.

5 comments:

  1. It can work the other way too. Some of the most memorable villains in literature are basically unseen. Sauron does not appear much in the Lord of the Rings (Probably because he's a big floating eye. That can ruin ones social life.) Dracula, despite being the character the novel is named after, is off stage for long periods of the novel. Professor Moriarty appeared in one short story and is only mention in another, yet he is considered one of the great villains in literature. Lovecraft made a career out of this.

    There are exceptions. Judge Holden has a lot of pages devoted to him in Blood Meridian. (Not that there are really any heroes in Blood Meridian.) Imagine that it is easier to make a villain seem more ominous if you keep him offstage.

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  2. Dracula is a great example! The book isn't really about him at all. It's about Jonathan Harker and then about the scooby-gang.

    Dracula became THE GUY when Stoker et. al. created the play, and the ominous off-stage character moved center-stage (literally and figuratively :)

    Ah, Bela Lugosi . . .

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  3. Well, I do think it is about Dracula. If you remove him the book couldn't have been written. It would have been maybe a romance where Lucy Westerna had to choose between marriage proposals. Very different :)

    That said he's a character who is central to the plot, but isn't really dealt with in depth.

    That said Dracula's presence in popular cultural was certainly enhanced by the plays and movies with Legosi and Lee. Neither of them who look anything like how Dracula is described.

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  4. True--though I sometimes wonder how much Stoker understood about his own cultural phenomenon. The book spends so much time discussing telegraphs and blood transfusions and time tables, one (meaning me) begins to wonder if the villain could be *any* evil thug who plans to "steal our women!"

    And yet . . . almost by accident, it seems, Stoker developed something bigger than anybody and anything else in his text. And more fantastic. Sort of like Conan Doyle who set out to create a detective-as-narrative-device and got Sherlock Holmes instead.

    Thank goodness about Dracula! Because, yeah, otherwise, the book title would be something like The Many Marriage Proposals of Lucy Westerna (and Her Associated Angst).

    On a slight tangent, I've always wished a movie maker would make a version of Dracula with Harker as hero (the guy climbs down the side of a cliff!)--rather than as Harker/Renfield. I think the opening 1/3 of the book (Harker's letters) is the scariest and most compelling.

    Regarding Dracula's perspective, I highly recommend The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen. It is Stoker's Dracula told from Dracula's point of view. It keeps to the original events/plot (in fact, Dracula occasionally quotes Stoker's text directly) but with Dracula's own special twist. He is less apologetic and more "So I like a sip of blood? What of it?!"

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  5. Speaking of adapting the movie, there's The Character Who Is in the Book but Not any of the Adaptions: Quincy Morris, the Texas Rancher. I don't know of any adaption that has him in it. Though he's turned up in other literary works.

    The first third with Harker in the castle probably is the best. It may actually be more compelling for modern readers than the original ones. We know going in who and what Dracula is so it becomes more suspenseful for us. A Victorian era reader may think Dracula is just some old guy who live in a castle and not a vampire.

    I haven't read Dracula Tapes. I have read Anno Dracula which is set in a world where the Count succeeds in taking over Britain.

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