“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Characters, even the most memorable ones, are creatures of their place and
time. Time is an inescapable aspect of character, giving it weight, dimension,
and volume like a physical property. As people are born, live their lives and
die, so is the fate of fictional characters. While the expiry date condemns most
fictional characters to the literary graveyard, a few manage to achieve a kind
of immortality. This literary elite roll call of characters is handed onto
future generations. But as this is such a rare event, we should be asking how
and why that happens at all. As Lewis Carroll implies in the opening quote,
people, like novels are period pieces, who understand themselves in a way that
has little relevance to the contemporary world shaped by new and different
As the cartoon suggests, an essential quality defining a character in a novel
(or life) is the way they are products of the technology of their time. Their
technology has shaped their view of the world and how they see themselves and
In crime fiction, the office of a private eye might contain a Remington
typewriter, a hat and umbrella tree, a Bakelite rotary phone and a couple of
metal file cabinets with neat rows of paper folders. The private eye’s Secretary
takes short hand or transcribes her boss’s dictation.
Investigations are centered in the analogue world where people are followed,
watched, and there are face-to-face meetings, confrontations, discussions and
arguments. We can read the classic fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell
Hammet with pleasure by the simple act of accepting that we enter a world of
very different artifacts, objects, and technology. This conceit works because
inside that world everyone is working, living, stealing, killing, lying, and
running on the same technical infrastructure. None of them have a significant
technological advantage over the other. It is then a war of wits, shoe leather,
discipline, and one or two lucky breaks that makes the difference in a private
I have described a world that pre-dates the age of big data, computers, GPS
systems, Google, Facebook, Twitter, tracking programs recording computer
keystrokes and website searches, CCTV cameras, and computer forensic experts.
This technology provides the context in which we live, move and die; it is how
we perceive what is meaningful in the age we live in.
Let’s take the example of a murder. If the police or private eye discover a
murder victim who had no email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Skype
accounts, and who had no text-messages, no smart phone, and whose sole
possession was a black and white TV, radio and cassette player, they might
wonder if this person was a time traveler from the past. Certainly it would seem
odd; a character who chose in 2014 to divorce himself from the digital world
would be a fish out of water. His murder would appear more freakish to the new
generation because he chose find happiness in a life totally removed the digital
world. That seems incomprehensible to many young people (a hypothesis that needs
It is easy for the older generation to devalue communication channels such as
texting and tweeting. Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of
many books including “How the Mind Works” and “The Better Angels of Our
has a good response to this tendency to criticize the new channels:
“So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. I have
no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be
brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences
and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works.
All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast
to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we
are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so,
too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that
does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums.”
A non-connected character stands a chance to gain a reader’s interest if she
is a technology lover, who wonders how such a character can exist outside her
digital zone and call themselves content and happy; and satisfies the Luddite,
who sees her own possibilities in following a life (minus the unhappy ending)
like such a character, drawing inspiration and courage from the example.
It would be a character both sides of the digital divide would enjoy but
for different reasons. That’s what makes for a good character—he or she plays
across the narrower bands of class, education, and status lines.
Unfriending or blocking someone online and offline are two different social
spaces, protocols, repercussions, and reactions.
As readers we follow the lives of characters moving about inside fictional
worlds that are significantly different from our own life. The strength of the
characters and their story can (and do) allow the reader to enjoy the human
aspect of the experience that transcends primitive information retrieval and
storage systems, and rudimentary communication systems which makes their culture
very different from our own.
Readers now expect their characters to be influenced, affected by, and in
reaction to the things that happen in the digital world.
The technological distance between 2014 and 1974 is only forty years. In many
ways the forces that shape lives have changed considerably over this brief
period. Part of the fallout is that more people have vastly more information
about each other. Meet someone new and want to find out who they are? In the
analogue world it might take a long time to find out information about someone.
Today, we Google them and in a few minutes have a profile.
All of us have become private investigators with access to far more
information than any governments had at their disposal 50 years ago. The lives,
possessions and luxury life style of the .1% are no longer secret. Inequality
and the gap between those who own the system and those who work for the system
has created digital interest, with the online communities channeling statistics,
reviewing books, discussing causes, priorities, policies and propaganda. A
worldwide audience has a conversation that goes on twenty-four hours a day and
leaves that conversation online for others to read and participate in.
Our ideas about secrecy and privacy come to have very different meaning and
importance depending on the technology environment.
Are the old classics relevant to the new generation and those who will have
more advanced technology in the next 50 years? Will they enjoy Richard Stark’s
Parker novels like The Score, or James Crumely’s The Long Good
Kiss or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Cain’s title begs for a cartoon with the ten year old asking: Was his email
account down? The issue isn’t limited to crime fiction. The classic Zen and
the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry of Values by Robert M. Pirsig
written in the early 1970s assumes a technological platform that has long since
vanished. A son and father on a road trip, discussing the meaning of life; they
lacked a digital connection. In the novel, there were just the two of them on
the road and the stars above their heads at night. Hard to imagine, isn’t
We are at a crossroad (some would argue we are always at a crossroad). There
are those who read these novels, learn from them, share them with others, and
increase their understanding of others (call this the empathy bonus). But there
is no doubt that the characters in such books experience life in a quite
different fashion from contemporary people.
We shop online. We socialize with one another over large distances, fall in
love, out of love, feud, form alliances, vent anger and hate—all online, from
the safety of their home, office, car, Starbucks or Siam-Paragon shopping mall.
Most young people spend as much time (if not substantially more) online as they
do in their offline world. People hang out online the way in once did at the
local pub. A character’s personality, desires, motives and goals are as much
defined by his or her relationship with others online as in the old analogue
world. We think we know others in the digital world and they know us? But what
do we really know about each other from our computer screen, iPad, or iPhone?
Pinker might argue there are different styles of knowing. To some extend that is
true. We all know some people much better than others even in the analogue
But the medium of the messages, its style, is also a clue to its limitations.
The digital world is a substitute for face-to-face conversations. Your choice of
medium will be a trade off in the quality of collecting and analyzing
information. In the analogue world, you can see a person’s facial
expressions, their hands making a gesture, their posture as they sit, talk,
stand, walk across a room, or observe their eyes during a moment of silence when
all kinds of information about mood, attention, veracity, and
openness/resistance is revealed outside of formal language. Emotional icons are
a poor substitute. The judgments we make in the analogue world are both
restrictive—what you see is all that you get—and expansive—they include smells,
sounds, touch and taste.
Many readers hunger for a reading experience that not only explores the
technological impact on the lives of fictional characters. A novel recreates the
risks, dangers, and opportunities such innovations bring, ones that disrupt like
a knife blade cutting through skin and soft tissue and ones that change the ways
we think about ourselves and each other.
News feeds produce a huge volume of information about the global migration of
people across geographical boundaries. The Rohingya fleeing Burma on old
unseaworthy boats to escape persecution and murder under the eye of local
authorities. Africans escaping again by boat to Europe. Hispanic people cross
into America for a better life. Cambodians and Burmese cross the border into
Thailand for a new, better life. We don’t get a true sense of the proportion of
such people and their problems in our cozy digital social networks. The one
justification for writing a novel is to make such people ‘real’ and ‘tangible’
and ‘individual’. How do such people fit into our hybrid analogue-digitally
divided lives? That’s the question you should be asking a novelist?
The physical world continues to draw our attention and when we read these
stories we rarely ask how much longer until the digital world distracts us from
the analogue migration patterns of our species. As the locus of the real action
moves into ‘hyperreality’, blurring what is ‘real’ along with what we are paying
attention to, we may be losing our ability to distinguish digital migrations
from physical ones.
We can easily make a list of our favorite analogue world authors, where the
technological perspective is pre-1982 (IBM PC goes to mass market). Writers like
Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Richard
Stark, and many others who are widely read, discussed and admired fall into that
The Bakelite phone generation, as a result of the scope and nature of their
technology, have (to our modern eyes) severe limits on how they can find out
things about other people, how they go about looking, where they search, and
what they do when they find what they are looking for. We see them as
handicapped in a way that we are not.
The people in the pre-1982 novels had no devices others than telephones to
communicate with each other. Most of the inter reaction is face to face. How
primitive the new generation might be tempted to conclude.
We expect a character from a contemporary author to mirror the reality of the
modern world and that means an accounting of his or her connections to the
digital world. Readers expect to find hybrid characters with a foot in both
worlds. These connections are essential to understanding a person’s identity.
The separation of what they believe, know, or understand from the two worlds is
blended in a way that it can’t be untangled. Person and device blurred into one.
The device augments, enhances the character, makes him feel smarter, more
knowledgeable, capable and in control. Like drugs or alcohol, in the digital
world the information flow becomes an addictive river where people wish to bathe
for hours. Such people start their morning and finish their day checking their
timelines, email accounts, and browsing for the latest breaking news.
People who have crawled into the digital world are readers looking for
stories about how others have used this crawl space, their problems, ups and
downs, and the way they handle relationships in the online and offline
The final chapter about character remains as open ended as technology. But
there seems no going back to the time of the classics, not in crime or literary
fiction. As future readers, if an author is to purchase a piece of their
fragmented attention, he will need a story that transcends time and technology.
That’s a tall order and no one can say what will survive. Readers in
different times have wanted the same experience: a literary mirror, a compass, a
shield and a sword to go forth and wage the battles in their daily life. And to
understand the meaning of those battles, the victories and the defeats.
Characters in books will need to adjust what they pay attention to and who
pays attention to them. Authors who ignore the evolution of human relationships
and identity building will be writing about a lost past. There will always be a
market for nostalgia and idealized fictional characters. As there will be those
suffer from the delusion that such characters whose lives never touched the
digital world are meaningful to the new generation of readers. Those of us who
reached adulthood long before our world was rewired for broadband width
communication remember that earlier off the grid analogue world we grew up in.
We also know that this world is behind us. And the new generation of readers
will expect, what we expected, characters we could identify with; not characters
that would judge us or look down on us, our way of life and values.
What will this new generation of readers expect from fiction authors? In my
view, we will enter fictional worlds where characters’ emotional reactions,
intentions, preoccupation shift between the analogue and digital experience.
Young readers will have many more people they call ‘friends’ than prior
generations. Most of these friends, they will have never met outside a computer
screen but that won’t lessen their feeling of connectedness and intimacy.
Friendships in the analogue world will have a different time scale and priority.
Books will chart the connection between characters inside the two worlds.
Technology disrupts not only jobs and industries; it disrupts the nature of our
identity. Authors, in the future, will discover ways to tell the stories about
people whose identities are the product of information and communication linking
two different worlds of thought, experience, ideas, values and