On the realisation of fictional characters

I think we don’t think enough about the fact that if we’re going to imagine how we would react to fictional characters in real life, “if they were real” is a very complicated phrase with a lot of different meanings, and every single one has different implications for our perceptions of and reactions to them.

You’ve never thought about that, have you?

How our expectations of reality inform what we wish were real? And how if we had what we wished for, we might be wishing for different things?

I was just thinking about this because if you know a certain game called Undertale that came out a couple months ago, there’s a fabulous weird robot who has this… um… variety show, I guess you’d call it. And I was just thinking to myself, if I could watch the Mettaton show, would I actually watch it?

I thought that was a pretty superficial question to ask myself. But it turned out to be a little harder than I expected.

Honestly, if I flipped the TV on and messed with it a bit, and all of a sudden found my eyes assaulted with shimmering pink leg…

My first question would probably not be “is this good programming”.

My question would probably be more like “What the ever-loving fuck is this“.
I would probably not be able to shut up about it for a year, unable to forget the day when I spent minutes and minutes just transfixed in front of shiny robot leg, and it was literally the weirdest thing I’d ever seen, and did anybody else see that, because if only two people know about this, how. It would be like any number of weird little surreal sites and videos and such you find on the internet that you just wonder why they exist and what they mean and who made them and why the hell they did it, yet you never ever find out the answer to any of those questions. But even more so.

Of course, this is just one scenario. And that’s how a seemingly trivial question can get pretty tough to answer.

If we’re to accept the scenario a fictional entity is real, what does it really mean?

Does it only mean this one character somehow inexplicably has the ability to exist, or does it mean we’re subject to the minimum amount of differences in our world’s physics one needs to allow this character’s existence? Does it mean everyone’s aware of these differences, and the very science of our world is different? Does it mean that whatever the character is—skeleton, furry, magic user, voidbeast, performing ghost-bot…—is necessarily considered perfectly normal and expected?

If I flipped on the TV and found myself face to face with…

'* Mettaton.'
I was trying to think of another clever description of Mettaton but honestly, nothing could top “* Mettaton.”.

Would the thing I’d really be saying to myself be “Goddammit, what is it these days with self-aware robots and immediately deciding they need their own TV shows?

It’s one possibility, anyway.

Whenever I’ve heard anyone say about fictional characters, “but I wish they were real”, I’ve always thought to myself this:

As I’ve seen in everyday experience, one of the first rules of something being real is usually that it wasn’t first fictional. Sci-fi is a slight exception: sometimes we do make strange science fiction technology real after it was first imagined. There’s also the fact that for basically anything there’s a dedicated fan with enough time to make a replica of something, possibly a very nice one that might be fairly functional depending on what the thing is supposed to be able to do. Or even that we sometimes name vaguely-similar real animals we discover after fictional creatures (though those are just independently-existing things reinterpreted in light of our culture).

If fictional characters were real, we probably wouldn’t know their story, much less know them from it. Like the millions and billions of other people that go about their lives outside of our notice each day, they might entirely pass us by, and we might never even know they existed.

They’d have an entire life that you’d at best only get pieces of, if they happened to have some kind of social networking feed, or happened to actually be one of your friends. (Or both.) Think of the feeling of not being able to know what emotional state your internet friend has actually been in for the past couple of weeks, or how temporary that last negative status update was. That could be a thing. You might have the ability to reach out to them in ways you never could to somebody that didn’t exist… only to be left wishing you had actually done it, and not been so busy or such a socially-inept ‘coward’.

There is a certain intimacy, I guess you could say, that you get with fictional characters that you don’t get with real people. You don’t feel weird knowing everything about them and following them around all the time. You feel a strange sense that it’s not weird to think you could just go hang out with them. That you don’t need to ask yourself whether they would think you were cool, or prepare a careful introduction. That there’s no possible way you could screw things up. Because honestly, there isn’t. If you went out of your way, maybe you could piss off the creators, but that’s about as close as you can get to actually getting yourself banned from a fictional character’s “space”.

Real people, on the other hand, have something called boundaries. You have to be careful with real people. No matter how friendly and inviting they might present themselves, there is always a limit to what you can say to and do with them. And it’s rarely clear what that limit even actually is. Sometimes people don’t even know what their own boundaries are until someone breaches them. It’s very possible to hurt, annoy, alienate, creep out, and disappoint real people, as much as it is to have a positive effect on them. That doesn’t mean it isn’t easy not to, but it does mean that if fictional characters were real, the stakes on being their friend would be somewhat higher.

You could find out years later that somebody you thought was just another person being unreasonable on the internet who deserved a spiteful reaction was secretly cool and magical and just didn’t understand the rules of human interaction, and while other people listened to them, you missed out on a really awesome person because you assumed they were an unyielding idiot, or a troll.

If fictional characters were real, would we notice them?

I think we might, but not more than we do existing people.

Now, it’s not all that hard to notice something that’s interesting and unusual, even if your life is immersed in the weird. But let’s just take a moment aside to consider zoology.

On this planet, there are an estimated eight million species of animals. As much as a million of those are insects. We’ve discovered and scientifically described about one seventh of all species.

That’s science as a whole. Now consider what the average person knows.

It’s a common occurrence to hear “I forgot that animal even existed”, isn’t it? Show the average person, say, a long-nosed whip snake, and you would probably hear “snakes aren’t supposed to look like that!”.

And yet they do! Some snakes are very pointy. Some lizards have weird body profiles. Have you ever seen a hoatzin? It has claws on its wings like a non-avian theropod. What about the blobfish? The giant isopod?

I honestly think that if we had something like… I don’t know, griffins, people would treat them the same way. A few people would be like “damn that’s a cool animal” and a lot of others would forget they existed, utter a brief “huh.” on seeing a picture of one, and promptly forget about them again.

People also forget about human ethnic groups sometimes. Ever heard of the Hmong? Do you know all the main Polynesian groups off the top of your head? One could probably find any number of much better examples.

What I’m saying is, you might be completely unsurprised the household a few blocks away was actually lizard people. Oh yeah, you might realise, that was a thing in history once, the whole Lizardistan thing. Right. …What was the deal with them and those other three countries again? Man, I don’t think that was ever clear to me.

A month later, you might cite your neighbourhood as completely human to a colleague, only to remember that oops, there are lizard people here too. Silly me.

I put a lot of negatives in this post compared to positives, but really just because I couldn’t finish the MASSIVE post I wanted to write and that’s what I finished.

I personally love thinking about how “realism” would change and stay the same if fictional things were real, instead of the fake overly literal notion most people have of realism that can only coerce fictional characters and worlds to suit the exact world we already have.

I wonder a lot about what our opinions and experiences of fictional things would really be, if they were really honest-to-god real. Would the things that impress us still impress us? Would all the incidental other stuff about our universe that happened to be true but wasn’t covered in the fictional work in question for various reasons—differences in how physics worked, new abilities, etc.—end up being way more fascinating than the one or two characters we asked for? Would some of us have abilities we don’t currently in a world that could accommodate our favourite fictional characters, and have our own weird side adventures? That can’t really be ruled out.

It’s a question with so many nuances to it and at the end of the day, if you really want to answer it, you start to see why we write stories in the first place.

But you also start to fundamentally see the first steps to writing better stories than probably over 60% of stories that exist. Even better fan fiction! When you have this whole new perspective creating fan fiction sure seems a lot more meaningful, doesn’t it? Perhaps even necessary if your idea is good enough.

If we can’t realise fictional characters and concepts, we can sure as hell realise vastly better stories, and that’s not doing too bad on things that are real.