How Literary Characters Have Shaped My Life by Isabel Callahan

by | Dec 17, 2020 | Voices from PEN/Faulkner

“I would say I most relate to Ross from Friends.” Laying on my mom’s studio carpet, phone pressed to my ear, I smiled in response to my friend’s observation. We were in the midst of a conversation about which TV show characters we relate to the most and, after comically considering Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants, my friend has settled on Ross.

Ross: kind, smart, loveable, goofy. The shoe seemed to fit. 

My friend spoke again, their sentiment something along the lines of: “I wonder how much we want to emulate parts of these characters, rather than innately be these characters.”

I paused, taken by this observation. While I often think about how I relate to characters, rarely do I consider the ways in which I am influenced by them. The more I thought about this, the more I saw how the person I am and the person I hope to be have been shaped by literary characters.

The first character I remember being influenced by was Margaret Simon of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, MargaretThe story follows Margaret, a nearly twelve-year-old girl who has just moved to a new town, as she navigates both puberty and her first explorations of religion. Growing up without a religious affiliation, she is curious about how other religions work. Though I might have related to her middle-schools fears, I most remember relating to Margaret’s religious and spiritual curiosity. I was inspired by something she had I felt I lacked: a relationship with God.

Growing up Unitarian Universalist, I had been encouraged to think about life’s “Big Questions” (Why are we here? How should we live? Where are we going?), but was never presented with a specific creed. Though this never bothered me, some of my friends seemed to have more of a sense of there being something or someone out there—a kind of faith I wanted too. In reading Blume’s book, I loved the conversations Margaret would have with God (or someone she called God), often beginning with, “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.” Inspired by Margaret, I began my first conversation with this something or someone. Looking up at the underside of my sister’s top bunk bed one night, I put out my probing question: “Are you there God? It’s me, Isabel.” 

I don’t remember how the conversation went. I can only imagine I spoke about my day, about my fears and joys and sorrows. And probably, much like Margaret, about that cute boy at school. Though this practice had no defined beginning or end, it strikes me now as the beginning of my relationship with something beyond myself.

The more I read, the more this mirroring continued, going beyond just the habits and quirks of characters. In high school, I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech This is Water, wherein he describes two fish who suddenly realize—upon the prompting of an older fish—that they are swimming in water. I wanted to develop the awareness of the older fish, the recognition that we are all swimming in a current of something (of thoughts, expectations, feelings). 

In college, I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and found myself inspired by Lily Briscoe’s dedication to capturing through her art the essence of what she sees around her. A young woman attempting to paint a portrait of two other characters, Lily initially struggles. As a writer and twenty-year-old trying to uncover my own voice, I found comfort in both her struggle and eventual perseverance, encouraged to continue my own studies.

I remain influenced by the qualities, mindsets, and endeavors of characters I meet, continuing to assemble from them a vision of who I want to be. I can’t help but think others do the same, in their own way. If this is true, if the characters we read about and watch influence the people we hope to be, then the stories we read, write, and share are especially important. The people we hope to be more often than not become the people we are. That is not to say we cannot have complicated, imperfect characters; the complications are often what lead us to connect to the characters in the first place. Rather, it is to say that storytelling is a powerful avenue for manifesting the world we wish to see, and this world—much like our stories—deserves great consideration.

Join Our Mailing List

To make sure you never miss out on one of PEN/Faulkner’s inspiring literary programs and award celebrations, sign up for our email list.