I’m delighted to welcome Helene to the blog today with a very interesting question – what is a mind and how can it create fictional characters? Over to you, Helene….
The answer to the first part of the question may seem obvious to some, a tricky and complicated puzzle for others or a question best solved by a belief in a soul which somehow separates the mind from the body.
What all may agree on though is the idea that the mind is what enables us to be conscious of the world we live in and to experience it through feelings and emotions, thoughts which lead us to develop a story of our lives. We think about ourselves within a context, certain personality traits and as a person with a past, present and a future.
When we wake up anew every single morning, we have a strong sense that we are still the same person. This is despite an average of eight hours lost in oblivion, the mind left to its own devices to dream and concoct the strangest ‘movies’ that can frighten or amuse us, make us grind our teeth or shout out loud. Yet, if we happen to remember parts of those dreams, there is usually a wish to make sense of them. The mind is attempting to create a story again that gives those fragments a meaning.
Hence, opening our eyes to the ‘real world’ every morning can be a relief as much as taken for granted because very quickly we manage to slot ourselves back into the familiar routine: getting dressed, preparing breakfast then getting ready for work, without ever having to think about these tasks. As adults, we don’t often take the time to question the fact that our brain is a fantastically sophisticated organ, able to keep us going as individuals who can adopt many different roles (father, mother, employee, friend, colleague etc.) … until life circumstances may change. As much as we watch in amazement as our children’s personality emerge over the years of growing up, we can equally observer the devastating effects senile dementia or Alzheimer’s cause to a person’s mind we hold dear and thought was forever reliable and immutable.
The answer to the second part of the question is thus dependent on how we define our capacity to experience ourselves as conscious individuals with intentions and goals. I have taken as a main premise here that – just as we do when writing fiction – our mind’s main task is allowing us to tell a story, one we add to every single day.
Therefore, in fiction, whether the main character is a ghost, vampire or ballerina, their physical descriptions, the way they speak, think and behave all need to convey enough realism and plausibility to reel in the reader. They may not like to experience what it is like to be haunted by a ghost, imagine the life of a boxer or any other character ‘brought to life’ through words but, at the very least, they’ll have been given an opportunity to enter a world they would normally never have encountered. Yet, characters can haunt you for weeks, leave a lingering feeling or thought as if you’ve met them in flesh and blood. ‘The fifth child’ by Doris Lessing for instance had that effect on me for a long time. The idea of birthing a child you cannot bond with was frightening and if I was to put my mind to it now (excuse the pun), I can still conjure up an image of this oversized, heavy and threatening aspect of the main character.
Ultimately when authors make up one or several characters, they will describe them in a way that will give the reader the opportunity to identify with certain aspects more or less freely. This may create suspense or at the very least make you curious to find out more. Further, an author will need to weave the story in a way that follows a fluid narrative and appears plausible. When the reader becomes absorbed by the descriptions – even if the perspective of a character has little to do with how the reader normally experiences the world – it appears to be a similar process as role playing or daydreaming. The difference is that the reader is a bystander who may look up from her book after an hour’s reading and get on with her next task, yet with a feeling that specific pages of the book continue to linger and carry over from the fiction into her daily life. She may for instance have a fear of heights, yet relish the description of a fictional character rock climbing in the mountains – but from a ‘safe distance’. She’ll feel the dizzying heights more intensely than a person used to working in the souvenir shop at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Equally so, we most certainly never wish to be the victim of a psychopath yet be interested in finding out how they think and through a crime novel seek to learn why they do what they do and how. So maybe because we tell ourselves and each other stories all the time, this is the reason we relish writing and reading them. None of the stories are fixed or stable because as much as we may believe our neighbour’s tales, someone else could be more sceptical. Likewise, novels can be loved and hated depending on who is reading the story.
The mind continues to fascinate academics and lay people alike, exploring it through a wide range of disciplines – philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science or the humanities to name just a few. Decades of research in artificial intelligence and the current fascination for robotics demonstrate to what extent our minds remain a mystery. Until this changes dramatically, fiction will continue to draw readers into the inspiring discovery of alternative lives, give them the opportunity to imagine different life options, such as turning a financial bank advisor into a passionate yoga teacher or a carnivore into a vegan advocate for animal rights. All that matters at the end is that each story makes sense to the particular person or reader.
About Manipulated Lives
Five stories – Five Lives.
Have you ever felt confused or at a loss for words in front of a spouse, colleague or parent, to the extent that you have felt inadequate or, worse, a failure? Do you ever wonder why someone close to you seems to endure humiliation without resistance?
Manipulators are everywhere. At first these devious and calculating people can be hard to spot, because that is their way. They are often masters of disguise: witty, disarming, even charming in public – tricks to snare their prey – but then they revert to their true self of being controlling and angry in private. Their main aim: to dominate and use others to satisfy their needs, with a complete lack of compassion and empathy for their victim.
In this collection of short novellas, you meet people like you and me, intent on living happy lives, yet each of them, in one way or another, is caught up and damaged by a manipulative individual. First you meet a manipulator himself, trying to make sense of his irreversible incarceration. Next, there is Tess, whose past is haunted by a wrong decision, then young, successful and well balanced Sophie, who is drawn into the life of a little boy and his troubled father. Next, there is teenage Holly, who is intent on making a better life for herself and finally Lisa, who has to face a parent’s biggest regret. All stories highlight to what extent abusive manipulation can distort lives and threaten our very feeling of self-worth.
About Helene Leuschel
Helene Andrea Leuschel was born and raised in Belgium to German parents. She gained a Licentiate in Journalism, which led to a career in radio and television in Brussels, London and Edinburgh. Helene moved to the Algarve in 2009 with her husband and two children, working as a freelance TV producer and teaching yoga. She recently acquired a Master of Philosophy with the OU, deepening her passion for the study of the mind. Manipulated Lives is Helene’s first work of fiction.