Cory Doctorow: Where Characters Come From

Fiction is weird. The people in fiction are, well, fictional. Made up. They have no lives, and nothing they do, and nothing that happens to them has any consequences in the real world. By definition: made up people don’t affect reality.

And yet, our bodies don’t seem to know this. Yesterday, I actually made a loud, horrified noise as I read an advance copy of Daniel Kraus’s forthcoming – and wonderfully horrifying – novel, Scowler. People on the bus stared at me. My heart raced. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My brain knows that none of the events depicted in Kraus’s novel are real, and yet my autonomic nervous system goes into full-on sympathetic reaction mode as I read the – once again, totally made up – accounts of the characters in the novel.

What’s more, this reaction isn’t limited to readers. As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters ‘‘catch,’’ they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.

In some ways, this is even weirder. For a writer to trick himself into feeling emotional rapport for the imaginary people he himself invented seems dangerous, akin to a dealer who starts dipping into the product. Where does this sense of reality – this physical, limbic reaction to inconsequential non-events – spring from?

I don’t know, but I have a theory.

I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.

The simulator is good at extrapolating from incomplete information. When you’re told that Ted in Accounting is a secret drunk who can’t be trusted with any serious deadline work, your simulator instantiates a crude stick figure with a bottle in one hand and a dopey expression on his face. As you learn more about Ted – what he looks like, what he does in your presence – the figure becomes more fleshed-out, better realized. Operating from incomplete information is part of the simulator’s function – you don’t want to have to learn that Ted can’t be trusted the hard way, if there’s an alternative. (Incidentally, I think that this operation from incomplete information is the root of much prejudice – it’s practically the definition of prejudice).

The simulator can tell you about the likely actions of people who aren’t physically present. You can use the simulator to try out arguments for convincing your spouse to choose the destination you want for Christmas break; you can audition apologies against the avatars in your simulator, trying to find a successful resolution to an upcoming confrontation; you can imagine your kids’ delight when you tell them a truly gross knock-knock joke you’ve just heard.

The simulator also contains dead people. When you imagine your departed grandfather’s pride at your graduation; your long-gone dad’s disappointment at your messy apartment; a dear, lost chum’s potential delight at a great meal, you’re interrogating the simulator about the reactions of people who no longer exist.

If the simulator can tell you about the reactions of people who no longer exist, it’s not all that surprising that it can also tell you about the motivations of people who never existed. The simulator picks up on any fragments it can find, pieces them together to build a model of a human. It extrapolates, guesses, and pattern-matches to fill in the details that it hasn’t directly experienced.

This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out. But the simulator isn’t just adding in the details you tell it about: it’s guessing about the details you haven’t yet supplied, so that when you go back to your imagination and ask it about Bob’s particulars, some of those answers come from the simulator – it’s a kind of prejudice that affects imaginary people, a magic trick where your conscious and subconscious minds vie to fool each other with compounded lies about fake people, each building on the last in a feedback loop that runs faster and faster as you go.

That’s why your characters eventually ‘‘come to life.’’ Eventually, your characters’ details contain so much data gleaned from things the simulator ‘‘knows’’ – because it has supplied them, after guessing about them – that they come to seem real to you, and to it (which is the same thing). Write about imaginary people long enough, and they will feel real, even to you, who should really know better. And even though their lives and decisions have no consequences, even though their death has less real-world tragedy than the untimely demise of the yogurt culture you digested this morning at breakfast, you feel for them, because the simulator is where our empathy lives.

And that’s how it works for readers, too. Readers meet your characters and sketch them out as you supply details, filling in the bits that you miss out, refining their sims with each scene. At a certain point, those people tip into sufficient resolution that we can feel empathy for them, and the next thing you know, you’re making horrified noises on the bus and getting weird looks from real people.

Here’s an interesting thought: if dead people can live on in our simulators, is it any wonder that imaginary people live on after the stories they come from are done? Why should closing the cover on a book cause your simulator to jettison one of its hard-won models – especially if attending a funeral for a real person won’t do the trick?

I think that explains part of the drive to write fanfic, and some of the response to it from writers. If a writer has done his job, the reader should finish the book with ‘‘living’’ characters running in her simulator – if they’re not there, then the book will have had no emotional impact on the reader. It’s only natural that some readers would want to write the adventures that the people in their heads continue to have in their minds. It’s also only natural that writers would feel affronted when they read accounts of the people running as simulations in their heads doing things that their own sims would never do.

But writers need to get over this. If fanfic is a sign that your characters were successfully transplanted from your head to someone else’s, you’d be nuts to want to undo that. It’s like getting upset with someone for feeling full after eating a delicious meal you spent hours getting just right and laying out for them. If you don’t want your people to live in other peoples’ heads, you shouldn’t set out to put them there.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the January 2013 issue of Locus Magazine

33 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: Where Characters Come From

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  • January 3, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    That sounds almost exactly like what happens to players playing role-playing games like D&D. The characters start out as numbers on a sheet of paper with the player’s name and the character’s name on top. It only takes a few interactions with the other players characters and the world of the game before they start to feel ‘real’ enough to make an emotional bond with them. When (if) they face danger, or are injured or die, there’s a real emotional response.

  • January 3, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    “Je me désole d’un conte que je me fais”, Diderot is meant to have replied to someone who had found him weeping. The tale was “The Nun” (“La religieuse”), and it was part of a collective hoax concocted by Diderot and some friends. So probably, he would have rejoiced at the fanfic it spawned – including Jacques Rivette’s movie…

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  • January 3, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    This is wonderful! Thanks.

    My comment is going to seem like a nit-pick from your point of view, but it’s important if you’re interested in cognitive science. Your theory (at least as presented here) isn’t a neurological theory.

    There might be a neurological version of your theory, and maybe that would be nice. But it also might be wrong. Anyway, for better or for worse, the theory on this page doesn’t commit itself to any neurological details.

    What this actually is is a theory about how people’s minds work. Presumably minds have something to do with neurons … but then they also have something to do with electrons, and that doesn’t make you call it an electronic theory.


  • January 3, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I agree completely with your simulation theory. It’s based on the Theory of Mind (, but I think the way we understand it goes beyond the scientific definition. Your description of simulating dead people is exactly the realization I came to when my grandmother died. Some of us were in her kitchen before the funeral, and my aunt brought out some paper plates for lunch. My uncle remarked that their mother would never had allowed them to be used for indoor dining. This idea that you could accurately predict what a loved one would think really comforts me in grief. As an atheist, I just can’t believe in a concept so impossible as heaven, but I can understand the appeal. But instead of a magical afterlife, I believe in a real one: everyone you know has a place in your simulation, and they live on in there, every time you think, “oh, dad would have loved this”, or “grandma would not approve!”. And in the same way, you live on inside everyone who has known you, and more so the closer you are.

  • January 3, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Psychologist Mary Watkins addresses the “realness” of characters in her book Invisible Guests: The Development of Imaginal Dialogues (Analytic Press, 1986). Her chapter, “‘The Characters Speak Because They Want to Speak’: The Autonomy of the Imaginal Other” explores the role of imaginal others in writing. (Other chapters address imaginal others in shamanism, therapy, and more.) Watkins includes terrific quotes from (among others) writers Enid Blyton, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Henry James, and poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

  • January 3, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    You could take this one step further and consider that we must each also have a simulated version of ourselves — the simulator helps us see our mishmash of urges and hormones and emotions as a cohesive personality. And our simulator does the same work on animals, natural forces, and even inanimate objects; hence any number of superstitions. I believe Timothy Ferris touches on something like this in The Mind’s Sky.

  • January 4, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Psychoanalysts of various schools have been talking about this for over a hundred years; their term for the little people inside our heads is “introjects.” Cory’s right; it’s a useful way of thinking about how fiction gets composed–and an even more useful way of looking at how it’s experienced.

  • January 4, 2013 at 6:43 am

    The character as archetype is also an important factor.

    These archetypes resonate within the reader and certain ones speak to him of who he is, who he’d rather be, or what trials he faces.

    That’s an important reason why some characters live so strongly within the story, sometimes in spite of the author’s lack of skill, for certain readers.

  • January 4, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Cory’s take on fictional characters is that they are similar to a computer simulation created from memories of other people living and dead. This, in my opinion, is an inaccurate representation. Everything in the universe is created and functions according to the principle that the ancient people of India called “inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference” (e.g. energy = matter, energy is never created or destroyed, quantum forms Newton). Therefore what happens in the creation of fictional characters should be seen as a form of evolution and the manifestation of life not as an imitation or “fiction.”

    In fact, the words “fiction” and “information” both derive from the idea of molding, forming and shaping something. One word offers a sense of form as in the way the body is formed and shaped throughout life while the other offers the idea of assisting in the formation as with dough that is kneaded into bread.
    In the evolution of life, we observe its growth through “emergence” – the principle that when things combine to create something new that new thing possesses qualities not found in the individual pieces. A simple example of how “the sum is greater that than the whole of its parts” (or 1+1=3) is when the gases oxygen and hydrogen combine to form liquid water. The same is true of people. When people join together voluntarily to solve a problem, the ideas and actions generated by all the inputs will find their way to a solution (i.e. a new form of “thought life”) that might not have been birthed by any one person acting alone for a long time to come. The comments to Cory’s article are an example of this as among the many readers and commentators some will use what is expressed here to create their own works while others will simply digest the information. This digested information may then go no further than the reader or the reader may pass something from here to another person who takes that and either gives it life in a new form or holds it.
    In this way we can understand that knowledge, ideas and characters of the mind are all living things at the start and display the same behavioral characteristics as all other living things, and the larger of these “living thoughts” are often called memes. But even the smaller, individual ones are also born. They seek food in order to grow (as in Cory’s sequencing of the steps of life in character birth), and then they begin to take on “a life of their own” as every writer knows.
    In older languages such as Latin (and some contemporary ones) a sentence translated into English as “I have the book,” fails to transmit the full meaning. In English, the idea conveyed is one of ownership of something and there is no “personal” relationship. Yet, in the original languages, the sentence means “the book is sharing its knowledge with me.” The reasoning behind this phrasing is the foundation of what was called “natural philosophy” – the science that existed before the word “science” was born about 200 years ago.
    Natural philosophy was “rooted” in the idea that nature/creation – the source of all knowledge and experience – is alive and thus nature can and will reveal its knowledge to those who offer nature an open heart and mind in their observations and interactions. That’s how the people of ancient Greece and before them ancient India could describe atoms and accurately measure distances to planets and stars without modern tools. Put another way, in the past all knowledge was seen as free, accessible to all, and something to be shared because in sharing knowledge wisdom will grow.
    Therefore, from the perspective that thoughts are living things born from their living host, the creation of fully-formed mental characters is not simply a mechanical and mathematical function. Rather, thoughts are comparable with seeds which, given the proper environment, care and nutrition (time + new ideas), embryonic “stem cell characters” will use the energy of the creator’s brain to build their own “fictional flesh.”
    When science took over from natural philosophy, science reversed the old notions of everything as alive to everything is dead unless it is given some official designation as living and thinking. Of course, what constitutes living and thinking has been rapidly expanding to the point where it is now admitted there is no scientifically accepted definition of life because seen in different ways hurricanes and rocks are alive. (As one science writer noted, “The question is not “Why doesn’t a rock talk?” The question is, “Why doesn’t a rock talk to you?””)
    As a result of this silent change in modern scientific reasoning, the discussion of creating life in the laboratory has largely disappeared. In its place, we discuss artificial intelligence. Yet, AI creations, like characters of the mind, are able to learn, adapt and evolve on their own. This should not be surprising as everything is alive and “not alive” in a similar but different way and everything can be shown to demonstrate independent, complex mental abilities even when the brain is not large or even visible.
    Psychologists have shown that people can transfer their “mental identity” very easily. Cory mentions his absorption in the characters of the book, but experiments show that people can transfer their “mental identity” to anything. In one experiment, people began to identify with a table top so much that when the tester hit the table with a hammer, the test subjects reacted exactly as if their bodies were struck.
    What this all means is that our singular identity is different from our temporary and changeable “mental identity,” i.e. the body we identify with at any point in time. This is similar to the idea of reincarnation after death – some singular identity remains and is transferred to another container much like energy transforms from state to state but is never destroyed. So what we see in character creation is the process of birthing. Some attempts at giving birth – most of them – will be more or less stillborn and only a few will be fully born and flourish, e.g. 300-500 million sperm are ejaculated while only one achieves fertilization. Yet, even though most of those countless notions that enter and leave our conscious minds seem to die and vanish, in fact they remain alive in the primal soup of our brain and through the conscious and unconscious processes of emergence they will add their life to the full blown characters that come later.
    In short, fiction is not an algorithm – a word derived from algebra that means the joining of broken parts. Rather fiction is biology – the study and product of life.

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  • January 4, 2013 at 9:37 am

    The next person to make a character half as successful as the Jesus simulator embedded in billions of our brains, now that’d be something…. (I mean, he inspires so many different actions — giving to charity, starting wars, you name it.)

  • January 4, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Oddly enough I have had mental images of my characters sitting around bored not doing a damn thing, waiting for me to complete their story. I had characters in one book who were fighting a forest fire that was out of control, and that’s where I left them. I’m sure they were exhausted fighting the same fire that, by god, would not extinguish, as I left them there for months. When I got back tot the tale it was like a collective sigh of relief. (their’s and mine)

    to your point of readers empathising, it could account for the “that’s not how I pictured them” factor when we watch a movie after reading a book. How many times have you been disappointed with actor choice, just because it didn’t match your preconception.

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  • January 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    The book “I Am a Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter is all about how we simulate other people in our minds, and how we simulate our own consciousness in this same way. He even makes the same point about dead people in a very memorable, heartbreaking way. I highly recommend it!

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  • January 5, 2013 at 5:38 am

    @ Cory & @ Jesse Jensen
    The theory also works backwards: what is in our minds is already the ‘afterlife’ of those who influenced us, including those still alive.
    Every mind can then be seen as a node in an unimaginably complex directed graph where digested experiences flow — from mind to mind, from generation to generation, from work of art to work of art.
    I’d love to see the business models of the creative industry reflect this. If such a business system can ever can be constructed/evolved…

  • January 5, 2013 at 6:20 am

    “I think that explains part of the drive to write fanfic, and some of the response to it from writers.”

    Fascinating insight. One of the thrills of fanfic writing for me was having characters that needed no input from me to “come alive”—this means they were already alive in my mind.

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  • January 6, 2013 at 1:12 am

    Continuing somewhat on what Jason says above, there is a neurological process at work in empathy, concerning the much-discussed mirror neurons that have been such the rage in recent years. My overall reaction to the article was an immediate “this is completely backwards!”, which is of course not to say at all that Cory is wrong — it just interests me more in how other authors approach characterization.

    My experience is that character is certainly influenced by this simulation of others (which probably also does have a neurological basis that we just haven’t pinned down yet; Malcolm Gladwell has written about how people in tightly knit groups actually outsource certain cognitive functions to each other, which is surely neurological and related also), but mainly my characters come from within, not from without. They’re pieces of myself, alternate world selves, which sounds limiting, but really isn’t, considering the chemistry of that empathic process and maybe a psyche already inclined to experimenting with many selves.

    This wraps around to the fanfic point insofar as, while I completely agree that it’s futile to war against the existence of fanfiction (and it is at the end of the day a kind of compliment and certainly an occupational hazard), I think the invasion felt by some authors comes from being this kind of internal writer whose characters are fragments of one’s self. Another person can’t possibly get them right (I’m speaking sort of rhetorically here and don’t myself have this same objection) because they can’t know the character in the same way. So the fanfiction is the externalized simulation of that author’s self fragment, which is never something a person wants to encounter. We despise evidence of how little we are known to our fellow humans. 🙂

  • January 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    ” As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. ”

    Fascinating take. I know of at least one successful writer who claims that his stories don’t come to life for him, and that he doesn’t enjoy writing. I guess that implies he’s maybe using a different sort of mental process to some extent. I guess he always feels like he’s controlling a puppet…

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