The reader collaborates with the author. But the reader also argues with the author. The reader is absorbed in hearing the author's story. But if there are vivid characters, "Dear Reader" also has her ideas about them. If there aren't vivid characters, why read the book?
The reader is Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Ishmael, Daniel Deronda, Oliver Twist. God help the poor reader, she may identify with Ahab, Bertha Rochester, or Nance. Let us hope that she does not see herself in Mr. Collins. Of course she may be many characters at once. This could be a sign that she is a writer.
Whose story moves you most? Which character do you most fear you resemble? When I read Pride and Prejudice, I fear that I may be Mary, the pedantic sister, but I feel fairly certain that I am not Mr. Collins.
Characters may take over our lives. We are not mad, just obsessed. We wander down the street wondering if we are Dallowayesque. We ponder about other people's lives and worry that we may be like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, imagining dire deeds where there are none. Reading Crime and Punishment may make us start feeling guilty for something terrible and blabbing to cover it up. Reading Beloved may haunt us. The ghosts of literature make us aware of the ghosts around us in our lives.
And if we are writers, we may want to create new lives for the characters we have loved in books. We wonder how creative that exercise really is. Is Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea with a new prequel for Bertha Rochester so different from fan versions of Star Trek? If those efforts are utterly different, which are we pursuing when we are inspired to borrow characters from earlier books?
I am compelled to rewrite various stories, various legends. I tell myself that there is nothing wrong with borrowing characters. Shakespeare's plots were not original. But then again, my writing is not like Shakespeare's, I modestly admit.
It is unnerving that other readers won't read my stories they way I want them to be read. But the thought of "my" characters, even those stolen from other books, escaping me and living in other minds, in the endless chain of reading/writing, is appealing.
Which characters move you? Which characters establish a dwelling place in your mind? Whose stories have you rewritten? Is rewriting trivial compared to literary criticism, or is rewriting a form of literary criticism?
Do novels rewrite our lives? Do we change to make ourselves more like the characters we admire or less like those we dislike? I believe we do. When I first read Sense and Sensibility, I thought I was more profound if I acted with sensibility like Marianne, but now I find more kinship with Elinor's sense. When I was younger, I believed that thinking like Ivan Karamazov was nobler than being like Mrs. Ramsey in The Lighthouse, but I am no longer so certain.
If we live in a wide range of novels, we are at least somewhat remade. The Invisible Man becomes visible to us, and perhaps the "invisible" women and men around us also become more visible. Books that we would not venture to rewrite, like Elie Wiesel's Night, nevertheless rewrite us. The more worlds we have lived in, at least vicariously, the more we know. Or should know, but that is another matter.