Fun with Fan Mail: I can tell you about my characters because they live in my brain

Usually, when I get fan mail for my work in print magazines, it’s from other writers. Occasionally, fans will stop me in the street. However, no fan mail for my serial in Binah BeTween had been printed in the magazine until last week.

At some point last Shabbos, my kids ran over to me to show me that I’d received a letter about Glixman in a Fix in last week’s edition. And then yesterday morning — lo and behold! — I got a letter from two more young fans forwarded to me by my editor so that I could reply before they go to print.

What was funny about the second piece of fan mail was the question. “Did Aunt Rina try to run over Mendel’s grandmother…?” they asked.

I promised them that this was not the case. And I could tell them that with confidence, because, after all, Aunt Rina lives in my brain.

I supposed I could have told them that I’d never tried to suggest that Aunt Rina had tried to bump off her own mother. In fact, I’d dropped some pretty strong hints that threw suspicion on other suspects…which the letter writers alluded to later in their note. But my gut instinct was to just tell them I know Rina, and Rina wouldn’t do that.

I recently read a writing book that pooh-poohed the whole notion of characters living in writers’ heads, chatting with each other, and telling their story. The author implied that this is just plain nonsense. I’m assuming she said this with confidence because it’s never happened to her.

Then why do so many writers report experiencing this? In fact, it’s not only writers — as readers become familiar with particular characters, they suddenly feel like they know the characters. So much so, that if an author isn’t careful, their readers will suddenly complain, “That character would never have done that!” In fact, a philosopher once hypothesized that fictional characters obtain a measure of quasi-reality because of this phenomenon. 

Anyway, that piece of fan mail that I had to answer yesterday morning got me thinking. And what I’m going to guess is this:

You know how children learn languages? They collect data about the sounds produced by the verbal humans in their environment, and then their brains slowly sort, classify, and categorize those sounds into logical systems. Gradually, they have a complete system, and the rules they intuited from the raw data they experienced throughout their early life serve to guide them forever afterward.

I think that our brains — at least some people’s brains — do the same thing with people. We watch people’s behavior, how they talk, the way they dress, their habits and social skills (or lack thereof), and we begin to string them together into logical systems. We have rules about humans in general, rules about particular groups, and then rules that belong just to each individual person. Each is a kind of language.

In a psychologically believable piece of fiction, the characters’ behaviors, dialogue, and so on contain the same kind of logic we see in people in real life. We anticipate future encounters with them will go a certain way based on previous encounters with those characters. And if their behavior falls too wide of our predictions, the characters lack believability.

When I talk to friends and family members, some of them care about convincing characterization more than other people do as readers. And some authors are better at convincing characterization than others. I’m wondering if some people’s brains organize human behavior like this and analyze it more intuitively than others. Perhaps the writers who have characters bouncing around their heads experience this because their minds read behavior in this logical-linguistic-systemic fashion? And the writers who don’t believe in this phenomenon just don’t, just like some people find math more challenging, or find learning languages more challenging, and so on.

What do you think of this theory? Have you — as a reader or as a writer — ever experienced characters talking in your head? Please share your comments!

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