Having to constantly create new characters is a drag – isn’t it? With every new book or story – you have to mould a whole new quirky cast of characters and map out how these characters will interact with one another. Usually, what I do is I carry over some traits – but twist them into a different personality. But, even then, you have to think of a significant background and all that kind of thing.
This is bad especially if you’re less of a ‘Fox’ writer and more of a ‘Hedgehog’ writer – where your character will revolve around certain traits and you can’t really invent new ones at the drop of a hat. Ultimately – you have a lot of characters with different names and backgrounds but they meld into the same kind of personality. I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky and his penchant for having the intellectual & troubled type or the holy type as a constantly recurring archetype in all his books.
Then, it hit me – why don’t I just drag the character that I crafted out from my old story scraps or whatever else and just throw that person in the new setting – and don’t care about giving that person a new backstory? That is, just assume that this character walked from a high school novel into an SF setting – or this character walked from a Gothic novel into a high school one? Basically – what Muv Luv did with the cast of Kimi Ga Nozomu Eien (in this case they weren’t the main characters though).
Extending this to a greater more ‘metaphysical’ idea – why must I assume that the end of a story is its end? The very placement of the ‘completed text’ within human consciousness does not affirm its death – but makes the characters even more infinite in reach than if they had been human. This is why you can have a Japanese Mangaka create a new Raskolnikov but set him up as a hikikomori in contemporary Japan. Is it ‘Raskolnikov’? Is it something else? Why don’t I just grab Kusanagi Naoya and throw him into my story – talking and saying Kusanagi Naoya things like he would in Sakura no Uta?
Yea – that’s called Fan Fiction.
Now, this isn’t a particularly new insight – and in fact even Willy Shakes had his share of stock characters, and Osamu Tezuka created his own pool of ‘actors’ that would star in different roles in his various mangas – like Rock. And, of course, we have countless ‘Po-Mo’ writers who do things like extend ideas from the past & build up on all these old stories. We also have the grand old characters like Sherlock Holmes being turned contemporary etc…
But – when you read works that do that, there seems to be something off about it. As though that idea has not been taken to its furthest extent. That is, some authors will do too much of the posturing and irony – and make the ‘Oh look I’m permutating this old idea hahaha’ stick out like a sore thumb.
The strange thing about Fan Fiction is how it doesn’t care about that at all. Fan Fiction is written by people who do not want to ‘comment on the character’ or ‘show the irony of the archetype’ or bullshit like that. What a writer of Fan Fiction wants to achieve is pure unfettered immortality of the story – they want to write that character – and extend his/her lifespan through more stories. Most of the time they fail, because they do not understand the character enough to ensure this absolute continuity (or they just want to live out sexy fantasies between character and other characters).
I’ve always felt that there was something missing from people’s vision of how characters should be done. Like they know – by right – that everything is fluid and there are no real rules to the game other than consistency – but they never ever try to reach beyond the boundaries of what is possible. I, myself, could not conceive of what was possible until I thought of that question – what reusing characters truly means.
And – also after I came in contact with A Norwegian in the Family
Dan does not give a fuck.
There is a scene in A Norwegian in the Family where a man named Harry Selden (with a suspiciously similar name to the protagonist of Asimov’s Foundation Series), enters into a restaurant where a mob boss called Pauly Marrivelli (Dan’s own fictional character) is celebrating the opening of this new joint. Harry Selden is a part of a massive criminal organization called The Foundation – run by a shadowy figure called The Mule – and this organization is trying to cause trouble within the Mafia families of 1960s New York. Selden is scouting out Marrivelli, while he’s making a speech to his guests. Among his guests includes Dorothy Kilgallen – the famous American Journalist who died in 1965 – and Tony Randall – who played Felix Unger in the American sitcom the Odd Couple. Marrivelli introduces a jazz band to play at his restaurant’s opening – and he introduces one of the players as Moody Alvin. The jazz player goes up to Marrivelli and corrects his name as Woody Allen.
These aren’t pop culture ‘references’. Dan writes them as though they were real people situated among his fictional characters – or, on the flipside – as though his fictional characters had invaded into the real world – and not just his own characters, but the characters of other books.
In another extremely memorable scene, the New York Rat Pack group including Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis Jr. are chatting at some club. They talk about the schism between Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Dan’s own fictional characters – an advertising agent named Roger Silver & a cohort of women – come and join the Rat Pack at their table. What occurs is a long discussion that seems to cover everything from the minutiae of the 1960s entertainment biz to the very concept of artistic immortality itself – but phrased in such a way that you feel as though the real life people could have had some kind of discussion like that. Halfway through, Jerry Lewis comes in and pisses off Joey Bishop – with the two almost coming to blows against each other.
Even though I only really knew Sinatra & Jerry Lewis previously and had no idea who the hell all these people were – by the end of that scene I felt as though I had an idea of how these people might have lived, shat, breathed, and fucked around with one another.
Then, there’s also an LSD fever trip taken by a midget pornographer named Bit Von Rheingold (fictional) that occurs in Dennis Hopper’s apartment. This LSD trip gives Dan an excuse to create a cosmic vision of all Literature – and you have Bit literally hopping around into the works of various public domain characters, screwing around with them, taking them all around the place, and letting general insanity ensue. When he takes Tom Sawyer & Anne of the Green Gables into Treasure Island – Jim Hawkins falls in love with Anne (who also happened to have caught Tom’s eye) and this begins a love triangle deal between 3 literary characters. Whole large excerpts from the original novel are taken out and rewritten with these new ‘intrusions’ into the story – like the ending of Anne of the Green Gables being all fucked up by Dennis Hopper coming in and drunkenly pissing on her flowerbed. This is not only hilarious – but it also has extremely amazing connotations as to what ‘literary immortality’ really means – that you’ll have the bad Fan Fiction writers destroying the literary universe these characters are situated in – as will you have people like Dan who can extend their lifespan and deepen their characters through his pure skill.
Not just that – but the characters in A Norwegian in the Family appear in his other books as well. Even after they ‘die’ – they don’t die in another book because it may have been set at a different timing before the event of their death.
A Norwegian in the Family (& several other works of course – LN & VN) totally broke apart my concept of Literature. Why couldn’t I – for example – use the character voices of the translation I’d been doing and just throw them in? Why couldn’t I steal 1000 twitter quotes from different people and craft characters from them? Why couldn’t I use Youtube comments? Why couldn’t I write poetry about everything from Dinosaurs to my thoughts on Mareni? Why couldn’t I use people real, dead, unreal, from my experiences, from anecdotes by others, from light novels, from video games, from PR campaigns, from memes, from greentext stories, from biography, from academia, from cereal box behinds… anything at all? Why couldn’t I take poems from John Keats and use them as random pop songs for fake pop bands that the characters can sing – to add a deeper vision to the scene? Why did I have to write in paragraphs? Why couldn’t I write in poetic lines? Why couldn’t I have a character read a book within a book and have that character commentate on the book while he was reading the book – and use a real public domain work for the book? Why couldn’t I write mystery novels where people use demonic rituals/psychic attacks to murder people – so you don’t solve the mystery by finding material ‘clues’ – but purely through motive? Why couldn’t I tell instead of show? Why couldn’t I steal real contemporary historical events and create a fake fantasy city setting mirroring those events? Why did I have to describe a setting in the first place? Why couldn’t I just provide impressionistic details and hints and tropes without clearly defining anything? Why couldn’t I provide 50 pages of martial arts like Nakahara in my battles? Why couldn’t I mix genres & moods like a schizo?
The only limits are the limits of Copyright & the law. But – other than that – there are no limits. What ultimately matters are how perfected the themes you communicate are. How much your stories rule over a certain person’s cognition. How much they can become their own World.
It feels as though Literature is far from dead. In fact – it’s a bit egoistical to say something like that. Rather – the myths of Literature are dead – and the real work can truly begin – only now.
All excerpts from above come from Dan Schneider’s A Norwegian in the Family. If you want to read the novel – either email him or get him published.