Thinking Fiction discussion

Jorge Luis Borges
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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
A philosophical problem that's been on my mind lately is one of a coherent definition of a fictional character. The Meinong school of thought holds that a fictional character, though differing from us writers and readers by its non-existence, can be defined by characteristics assigned to them in the works where they appear. For example, Humbert Humbert does not exist, but is defined in Lolita as a European academic who sexually abuses his stepdaughter during a cross-country odyssey and ends up murdering her other abuser.

All this seems simple enough, but it does run into a problem suggested by Borges's short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote". Menard, a contemporary French academic, seeks to recreate Cervantes's Don Quixote, word for word, chapter for chapter. He manages to reconstruct a few of Cervantes's chapters. The chapters are verbally identical, yet Menard's reader (the narrator) takes them to be two distinct works and two distinct Quixotes. He even interprets their themes differently!

What say you all? Can a fictional character be recreated? If so, is the recreation a new fictional character? Was Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution the same Holmes Doyle introduced us to in A Study In Scarlet? Was the Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho the same as the Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's shot for shot remake of Psycho? On what basis do you reach your conclusion?


message 2: by Stavros (last edited Aug 01, 2014 04:48AM) (new)

Stavros Halvatzis | 14 comments Jim, I think one can get lost in endless complexities, or one can take the common-sense view, (Aristotelian/Platonic), which is to say that a character like Norman in the two films in question is much like a performance of a piece of music, which aims to imitate a famous rendition of the piece—it draws from the same mould, but generates a separate facsimile...


message 3: by Sarah (last edited Aug 01, 2014 05:07AM) (new)

Sarah LaFleur (lafleurdeplume) | 2 comments So here's the thing...I've been a professional classical musician nearly all my life, which means I'm an expert at "recreating" dead people's music. When an audience hears something familiar they love it, but the musicians at the show go to hear something "new" they haven't heard before.

I think the same philosophy applies to converting a great character from book to screen. Why is Robert Downey Jr. so convincing as Iron Man? Because he portrays that character in a way that many of us experience him when reading the graphic novel. Conversely, why do they keep re-making the Spider-Man movies? Because they just don't feel like they've got the hero quite right.

Reading is a deeply personal experience. Put seven people in a room, ask them to read the same story, and you get seven different responses to the same prose. This is what makes writing an art form.


message 4: by Florence (new)

Florence Witkop | 2 comments I personally think that a fictional character is a part of a real person. This is after many, many years of writing and selling fiction. If I copy a fictional character straight from reality, the story is usually rejected but if I take that character and cut him/her apart into many pieces, those stories are usually accepted and, eventually, sold. Perhaps because reality is so complex that fiction can't take it all in at one time. The plus is that I then have a lot of characters ready and waiting to be used.


message 5: by Jim (last edited Aug 01, 2014 02:32PM) (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
Stavros wrote: "Jim, I think one can get lost in endless complexities, or one can take the common-sense view, (Aristotelian/Platonic), which is to say that a character like Norman in the two films in question is m..."

Your answer has an intuitive appeal. Certainly both Vince Vaughn and Anthony Perkins (and Gus Van Sant and Alfred Hitchcock) drew from the same source material, Joseph Stefano's screenplay, but does this mean their Normans are different facsimiles of the same character, or two distinct characters with the same name?

Consider:

Hitchcock's Norman's characteristics: late 20s, tall but physically slight, outwardly friendly but twitchy in sustained conversation. Signs of sexual dysfunction that hint at a great deal more we're not able to see.

Van Sant's Norman's characteristics: mid 20s, tall, beefy, physically imposing, outwardly more creepy than friendly and more explicitly sexually dysfunctional.

The differences in physicality alone change the character completely for me. Vaughn plays his Norman with a perpetual hunch. He looks like he could break Anne Heche, or you, or me, in half, and he's trying to hide it. That his attempt is so obvious makes him look like a creep right from the start. By contrast, Perkins's Norman seems naturally sanguine and unthreatening, which makes his tirade at the suggestion he put his mother in a madhouse all the more frightening. His pathologies need to be unearthed because they're buried under layers of unassuming good nature.

You can watch the differences for yourself in this video: http://youtu.be/Mzarpt8IiqY?t=3m7s

So, are these just two versions of the same character, or are they two different Normans who just happen to share the same backstory and say the same words?* Or, to return to music for a moment, is it still Vivaldi's Concerto For Two Mandolins if, instead of mandolins, we play the same notes with two ukeleles, or stratocasters, or saxophones?

For his part, Joeeph Stefano made his feelings clear. When talking about the differences between Janet Leigh's Marion Crane and Anne Heche's, he said: "Anne Heche comes in, plays an entirely different character, but says the same words."

*There is a third Norman, Robert Bloch's Norman Bates from the novel. That Norman Bates is balding, fat, and in his 40s.


message 6: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
Sarah wrote: "So here's the thing...I've been a professional classical musician nearly all my life, which means I'm an expert at "recreating" dead people's music. When an audience hears something familiar they l..."

I'm not sure that's the reason for the Spider Man reboot. Critics and Spidey fans alike seemed happy enough with the first two Sam Raimi pictures, after all. I haven't seen the reboot series, and I'm not all that close to it, but from what I've read Marvel has been more aggressive in imposing a house style on the movie properties in recent years, which probably has something to do with it.

Anyway, audience response is a crucial area to explore. How much of a fictional character's existence is fueled by readers' reactions and expectations? Certainly it's at issue in the Borges story. Is the narrator's reaction to Menard's text prompted by something in the text itself, or does his knowledge of Menard change his reaction when he reads Menard's copy of the original Cervantes? Is it the writer who gives the character existence, or is it the reader?


message 7: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
Florence wrote: "I personally think that a fictional character is a part of a real person. This is after many, many years of writing and selling fiction. If I copy a fictional character straight from reality, the s..."

What you're talking about reminds me of the idea of uncanny valley, which asserts that a simulacrum that's too realistic will repulse people instead of eliciting their sympathy.

I know it was a tricky thing for me when, in one of my books, I had to recreate Hitler for a scene. I had to reconcile what reader expectations would be for a character named Hitler with what I knew of the way Hitler behaved in private. (He was a very different guy at home from his image on screen) while maintaining his role in the story. It was a hard problem to solve.


message 8: by Stavros (new)

Stavros Halvatzis | 14 comments Look, I'd say, if not facsimiles, then slight variations on the theme...or somewhat reconstituted versions. I think the notion of version, variation, and the like, (always keeping the original in mind, either for contrast or similarity) satisfies me, but that's just me!


message 9: by Gregory (new)

Gregory Boulware (gregoryvboulware) | 6 comments /*
Creation / innovation in writing sometimes can re-create an item, idea, and/or thought... With that being said, I can relate to not liking stories, or music make-overs as I do agree that these can become a part of a person.

I have found that re-creation of characters, music, and stories can be a good thing. Sometimes the story or character is not portrayed quite right or told incompletely - something's missing. Not to mention the other side of the coin and the third party view. I've had some fun re-creating stories and possibly characters when or where appropriate.

My name is Greg. and I thank you for inviting me to join this group.

The topics here are very enlightening.

Peace and Love,

Greg.
*/


message 10: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
Gregory wrote: "/*
Creation / innovation in writing sometimes can re-create an item, idea, and/or thought... With that being said, I can relate to not liking stories, or music make-overs as I do agree that these c..."


Hello, Greg.

Could you tell us a bit more about the characters and stories you have recreated? What were your experiences like? Did you consider your recreations to be continuations of the originals, or did you think of them as re-imaginings, reinterpretations, or entirely separate creatures?


message 11: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
Related question for the group: can fiction recreate a historical figure? Obviously, a fictional rendering of a historical character will always lack one crucial feature, in that the fictional rendering doesn't exist in the real world. But leaving that one feature aside, is fictional duplication of a historical personage possible? What problems arise from trying to duplicate a person from history?


message 12: by Gregory (new)

Gregory Boulware (gregoryvboulware) | 6 comments /*
Hi Jim:

Yeah, sure... Take a look at my version of 'The Pit and the Pendulum.' It's been re-done as "The Pendulum of Hades" - http://thependulumofhades.blogspot.com/ - 'Underfoot,' 'Howl of An Angel,' 'Bowery of The Crimson Frock and Flesh,' and 'The Foxy Grandpa, Billy the Poet.' Edgar Allan Poe had been my favorite spinner of the macabre and sinister realms of darkness. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. had caught my eye with a few of his creations as well.
You can view most of my work on The Blogger Platform:
https://www.blogger.com/profile/10910...

In my opinion, historical duplication is possible. Biblical stories hold a rich environment for that possibility like any other... It's been done in the movie world for almost forever:
"The Colour of the Old West"
http://colouroftheoldwest.blogspot.com/

Peace and Love,

Greg.
*/


message 13: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimsnowden) | 35 comments Mod
Gregory wrote: "/*
In my opinion, historical duplication is possible. Biblical stories hold a rich environment for that possibility like any other...
"


Biblical texts are (to say the least) problematic as historical sources, but even with historical texts that aim to tell the story, like Thucydides's The History of the Peloponnesian War leave a great deal out. We know from it who Pericles was, what he said in his speeches (More or less. Thucydides reproduced them from memory), and why he was important in Athenian politics. (Thucydides is hardly the last word on these subjects, of course. Later historians have reinterpreted Pericles much as they, like Hollywood, have revised their impressions of the Old West.) But Thucydides's work doesn't give us much of a sense of what it was like to be in a room with Pericles, or what his relationships were with his close advisers, family, and friends.

In one sense, this leaves an author free to create and speculate on Pericles's character, but it also leads to problems in saying we're capable of duplicating him. Too much of the real Pericles is lost to time. What we're left with is a combination of legitimate, though not authoritative history, and myth.

Much the same is true of more modern historical figures, like Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches or Lyndon Johnson in All The Way.. An interesting quote on the latter show comes from Robert A. Caro. Bryan Cranston apparently wanted to meet Caro, but Caro refused to meet him or see the show, saying:

I have tried for a long time to get fixed in my mind, so that I could describe him accurately, an image of Lyndon Johnson that was as close to reality as possible. I didn’t want to see someone playing Lyndon Johnson or talk to the actor playing him because I was afraid that image would become blurred for me. The better the actor the more danger there would be that that would happen.


So can fiction recreate a historical personage, or does the fictional variant threaten to overshadow the real, leaving the genuine article lost in the past?


message 14: by Gregory (new)

Gregory Boulware (gregoryvboulware) | 6 comments /*
I hear ya loud and clear, Jim! Wisely put indeed. Very well stated...makes plenty good sense to me.

I do think that fiction can recreate the historical personage. Many times the fictional variation does overshadow the factual character with added flamboyant escapades and/or deeds. I do on many occasions wish that it wouldn't happen.

But, "that's entertainment," hyperbole,and exploitation.

Peace...
*/


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