Character is shaped by what I’ve called “pictures,” by the models that we strive to imitate and the worlds we attempt to bring into being.... All of us have been shaped by living role models, people we admire and seek to imitate, and knowing fictional characters and worlds adds to the store of models that we have, models to imitate and to avoid.Leithart goes on to point out that our own character is affected by the people we keep company with, and that "fiction is a kind of keeping company with other people." It is important then, to choose the right fictional characters to keep company with. It is important to choose the right friends. "If growing up with Southerners encourages us to speak Southern, growing up with Othello and Pip, Alyosha and Tom Sawyer will shape our speech, and our character, in enriching ways."
When we continually associate with the wrong kind of characters (e.g. anti-heroes, immoral protagonists) and live in the wrong kind of fictional worlds (where good is called evil and evil good), we run into as much danger as if we were hanging out with a "bad crowd" in our real lives.
None of us escapes the influence of fictional pictures or fictional friends. Imagination is not something we can take or leave. Our thoughts and actions, and our character, are always guided and shaped by some form of imagination. The issue is always whether our imagination is richly or poorly stocked, whether it is shaped by nightmares or molded by dreams. The issue is whether our imaginations are stuffed with pictures drawn from the M-TV or pictures drawn from Melville, whether we make fictional friends at the cinema or meet them in Shakespeare.Instead of feeding ourselves a steady diet of pop literature (or pop cinema), Leithart makes the argument for reading more substantial books like the classics. There we can find the friends who ought to be influencing us, the strongly-molded characters who can strongly mold our own character into something better than it is.
Though Leithart's article asks the question "Why Read?" by implication it also poses a corollary question to authors: "Why Write?" In the twelfth century Gesta Tancredi, Ralph of Caen gives an answer that sorts well with Leithart's article.
It is a noble exercise to recount accurately the deeds of princes. To do so is to consider generously all that is subject to time, to celebrate the dead, to entertain the living, and to set out a past life as a model for later generations.The medieval chroniclers agree with Leithart, that the purpose of portraying a character is to create character.
This is an awesome responsibility for every author, whether a writer of history or a writer of fiction. The characters we create are models for others to mold their character upon.
Thanks to Miss Pickwickian for pointing out this article on her blog The Erratic Muse.