The  Importance


What is the importance of characters, real or fictional? 

It's their effect on the world, on our actions and attitudes, not the number of people who buy Harry Potter books or Star Wars DVDs. 

First comes recognition — do we know them?  Do we remember the face, the action?  What's-his-name?  Then we think, "What about Mr. Whipple?"  Did we start squeezing toilet paper just because of him?   Did we learn to squeeze other things — melons, pears, onions — and because of him we avoided the lumpy spinach that poisoned Aunt Mildred?

            Then comes popularity.  Think of the lines around the movie house for the first Star Wars movie. "How much money did that make?"  How many kids fighting with plastic lightsabers?   That isn't influence.  "May the Force be with you" — That's influence.  "You're our only hope."  "Trust your feelings."   Those sayings stay with us.  In New Zealand it's become a new religion. These expressions become part of our cultural vocabulary.

            Then comes persistence, the way an image or a tune stays in the mind, inspiring us to invent even softer toilet tissue.  What of Star Trek, now celebrating its 40th anniversary?  Should we credit the series'  Romulan cloaking device with the development of Stealth technology?  Or do we only think of it that way, when the two really had nothing to do with each other?  After all, there was the cloak of invisibility in The Thief of Baghdad, 1924.  Even Harry Potter has a cloak.           

            There are other kinds of recognition: we classify the people around us.  So-and-so is a Grinch, a Don Juan, a Lolita, Ugly Betty, Scrooge.  The boss is nearly always Scrooge. The name of a fictional character serves to define a personality type.  Or even two personalities in one -- "Jekyll and Hyde" has become a metaphor for a person who shows two radically different personalities.

            The class dummy is greeted, "How's it going, Sherlock?"  The reference to Sherlock Holmes is beyond him, but he knows he's being insulted.  Sherlock is someone smart, someone who has the answers.

            Finally, some fiction reaches out into the world.  Uncle Tom's Cabin — Abe Lincoln called that book the cause of the Civil War.  That's influence.  Half a million dead in the military alone.  The war that ended slavery.  That's influence.

            But who affected your life?  Only you can answer.  The wife says, "I thought I married Prince Charming, but he turned into Homer Simpson."   Or, “When I proposed, she was Helen of Troy, for the next year she was Bridezilla, and Lilith showed up for the wedding night.”

             There are seventeen dimensions of influence.  Or maybe thirteen.   We have ranked our characters using a single column of numbers, a single dimension.  No wonder there's disagreement.  What are your reasons?  



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