David Carlson: As real as it gets

It is always rewarding when people tell me that they’ve enjoyed reading one of my books. We authors hope that what we’ve written informs and entertains, but there’s nothing like a supportive comment from readers to encourage us to continue writing.

My wife has written letters to authors whom she enjoys, and quite often she receives a thank-you note in response. Even bestselling authors appreciate a personal comment.

This past week, I received the greatest compliment by far to my own writing efforts. I was having dinner in Franklin with a past student when Walter, a man I’ve known for over 40 years, approached our table. He told me that he recently purchased the eighth mystery in my Christopher Worthy and Father Fortis series and finished it in two days.

That was a very kind comment, but what he said next stunned me. He shared that he found the plight of one of my main characters so frightening that he prayed that my character would be safe.

He laughed as if he knew that praying for a fictional character was somewhat silly, but I know that others have done something similar. I remember hearing about soap opera fans who have called TV stations to say how worried they are about the trouble that their favorite character is experiencing.

Haven’t all of us who read books or watch TV programs or movies met characters who feel real to us? Even when we logically know that our heroes will survive, don’t we feel our pulse quicken and our breathing become shallower when they are in trouble?

And while it isn’t logical, it seems true that we can feel closer to fictional characters than we do to some people we know in real life.

I like to say that I didn’t create my two main characters, Christopher Worthy and Father Nicholas Worthy, but rather “met” them in 1995. My agent, who’d done well in selling my non-fiction work to publishers, had no success in selling my first mystery. The main reason that her failure didn’t keep me from writing a second and then a third mystery was that I enjoyed spending time with Worthy and Father Nick. The more I got to know them, the more I realized that they are both smarter than me. In particular, Father Nick has a knack for teaching me what I need to learn. Why wouldn’t I want to hang out with these friends?

When a publisher in Seattle picked up my first three Worthy and Father Nick mysteries in 2014, my greatest joy at the news was knowing that I could now spend more time with Worthy and Father Nick as they investigated murders and searched for missing persons. Like “real” people, Worthy and Father Nick often surprise me with what they say and choose to do. Many times I’ve gone to bed thinking I knew what was going to happen next in the mystery only to have Worthy and Father Nick wake me — sometimes in the middle of the night — with a plan of their own.

Perhaps it is true that part of our brain doesn’t completely distinguish between fiction and reality. When a friend in our real world passes away, we mourn. When a fictional character whom we’ve come to love or admire passes away, guess what? We mourn.

So, when my friend said that he’d prayed for Father Nick while reading my latest mystery, I understood. I also heard Father Nick’s voice inside me, saying, “Tell your friend thank you.”

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].