Art Project

You are Not A Character

You are Not A Character


You are Not A Character by Shumon Basar

"Inventing literary characters and imbuing them with words and thoughts and life and 'roundness' isn't a self-evident thing, and yet, it's so easy to understand. This short text ruminates on the interdependence between an author and a character that he/she makes. The demands made of the latter upon the former. I suggest that there are a number of psychic vectors invested in this act of creation - one of which is the way in which every character invented reinvents the author. After becomes before. It becomes me."

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You are a Character. Because I say so.

“Today is the next day of the rest of my life. I’m a walking cliché. I need to fall in love. I need to read more. Just be real, confident. I’ll still be ugly though.” You hear these words, spoken by Nicolas Cage at the start of the film Adaptation, and they make you feel real, confident.

So. You want to be a character? What’s that, you already are a character? Sorry. I misheard you. You said you’re an individual. But—you’re not happy. You think there’s more. More to life, right? What did you say? You’re bored—bored of being you?

You’re telling me that you’d like to be a specific kind of character. A literary character. Just like that. Out of thin air. What would possess you?

You read about a girl who was dating a young writer and she confessed to him early on in their relationship that, “I feel like I’m a character in a novel.”

Her boyfriend thought this was strange and cool and used it as a basis for his first, difficult but critically celebrated novel. Now you think this is cool too.

You have listened to many songs, watched countless plays, seen a film for every day you have been alive. You have read the history of history. Cleopatra, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Elvis Presley. After all this you contend there is no more noble state of being than being a character in a novel.

You want me to help? Sure. I can try. I mean, we can try. No, there’s no fee needed. The pleasure of work is gratification enough. If a man can enjoy his work that is a rich man indeed.

But I’d like to make a little deal.

No—it doesn’t involve sex and it doesn’t involve your mother and it doesn’t involve the two coming together. Do I look like DSK? If I’m going to reinvent you as a character, I want to outsource some of my consciousness to you.

Not too much. There’s just been this tiny, sticky part. It’s not especially immoral. It’s not “dark matter”—if you’re worried about that. Call it a hypothesis. One that can’t be tested in my body. In the statehood of my head. Yes, yes, really—there’s no risk involved. I do it all the time. Other characters can testify. Look, I’ll give you their addresses.

Actually—maybe it helps if you see it like this: You are invented when I outsource part of me to you.

In turn you reinvent me. Capische? That should make you feel better. We reject the patriarcho-tyranny of one-way power relations! Don’t we? I’m glad you’re nodding. You are nodding, aren’t you?

Oh. That thing I’d like to outsource to you. It’s a modest piece of ideology. Do you like ideology? Or do you prefer action? No, I’m not coming on to you! You’re not so not my type.

Anyway—having sex with you would be like having sex with the secretions of my brain. Gross out.

There is no casting couch here. We aren’t in Hollywood. Though you may one day end up in Hollywood. Feted and celebrated. You may end up being violently embodied by Tom Cruise and you may have simulated intercourse with Meg Ryan. But that’s further down the road. Deals will have to be made. Compromises achieved. I wouldn’t fret about that now.

You have to focus on what it means to be you, right now.

On the bright side. You’ll exist forever. Or until the book you’re in goes out of print. Even then you still exist. In fact, you will find that existence feels like being alive and dead at the same time. Am I putting you off? Have you done some research? Am I the first person you have approached? Can we be friends? Let’s hang out. What music do you listen to? Oh yeah—whatever I like. Do you brush your teeth before or after you pee in the morning? What is the last thing you regret? Are human rights universal? Do you want to be like me?

You took advice from actors. All used different words for “empathy”. I agree with you. That word’s over-rated. One of the actors suggested that acting isn’t about becoming someone else but simply not pretending that you are someone individual. Do you know what that means? No. Good. Neither do I. Shared ignorance is better than selective knowledge.

Hey! Can you guess what narrative is capable of? Guess, go on. It can and often does give a vivid sense of a character without giving a vivid sense of an individual.

You will be one or many of these: 1) a proper noun 2) a proper name 3) a complex system of ideas 4) a controlling perception 5) an instrument of verbal organization 6) a pretended mode of referring 7) a source of urban energy. You will not be an object of perception — and nothing whatever that is appropriate to person will be correctly said of you.

You will keep me from sleeping peacefully for many nights.

I will worry about your flatness.

I will construct elaborate histories of your back-story (most of which will never be let loose on the world.)

I will struggle to make you talk in a way that is neither how real people talk nor how non-real people talk. In the business, we call it “Voice.”

I may, at some point, become guilty of endowing you with an improbable, illogical, precocious intelligence that is not befitting of your age, social status, family background and locus in time. I figure, if it worked on Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it can work here.

If you are a very famous person I will consider you for a cameo role. I don’t think that cameos are real characters. They’re amusing irruptions of the Real.

If you’re going to be remembered you will need a name. There are some novels that don’t give their heroes names. There are some authors that say a character doesn’t really exist until he or she has been given a name. (By the way, my name is made up.)

I will describe some of your physical attributes in fetishistic detail, whilst there will be huge areas of your body left completely blank. If Tom Cruise plays your character later on, these blanks will be filled in with his body—or that of a body double.

By the way, I’m working on a novel where every character is a body double for a famous actor. My idea is that when it’s turned into a film, they will be played by the actual actors they double for, because I will insist the doubles have doubles.

I will strive to make your character “rounded” (another favourite adjective), even though I know that it is, ultimately, impossible. Fiction is everything that is not rounded.

I will determine whether or not you have to die; the nature of your death; and whether the death stands for itself—the way that time stands for itself—or if your death is a neat narrative device moving things along. This way, I will ascribe you your symbolic special-effect.

32 I secretly hope that something you say sometime in the future will make at least one person cry.

You and I don’t count.

You and I.





Here’s a thought. Feel free to disagree with me. After all, if I give you free will, you may as well use it. Right? So — have you seen that film, Synechdoche New York? You know, the one with Philip Seymour Hoffmann as the hypochondriac theatre director trying to make a “work” that really counts, something that really means something? He builds a 1:1 version of Manhattan, and populates it with actors who play characters from his own life: his wife, her lover, their daughter, his mistress, and so on. And then, he has actors who play the other actors, simultaneously, because that’s the thing about representation: it is always delayed, too late, at a forever diminishing tangent to time, unable ever to catch up to the original. Don’t fret. You can be original—but you’re also never going to be. It’s not your fault. It’s not even mine.

So, at the end of this film, the protagonist, Caden, has gotten really old. Decades have passed. All his actors have died on set trying to get the perfect performance. Even funerals are re-enacted. It’s a desolate scene. And you hear Samantha Morton’s voice. She’s directing Caden’s sluggish movements, sounding like a crackly voice-message recorded on an old mini-cassette. She sounds like a playback.

Is Caden actually the only character? Was he ever alive? Do characters keep living if they’ve not died or been killed off?

Is the fundamental effect of loneliness to keep on speaking: to others, to yourself? Or to keep on listening: to others, to yourself?

Will you ever get lonely, without my permission?

Will you ever speak, without my permission? Does it work the other way around?

Are you still listening?

What shape are your ears?


Do you think the future lasts forever or just a long time?

I’m getting sleepy. You can stay up all night.

Come back tomorrow morning. On your way pick up a cappuccino, a pain au chocolat and a dagger. We have much work to do.

by: Shumon Basar