General Question

lefteh's avatar

When writing or speaking about a fictional character, which tense do you use?

Asked by lefteh (9351 points ) August 22nd, 2008

Preference seems to vary from person to person and educator to educator. Personally, I generally use the present tense.
For example, after reading a book about a man named John I might say, “I got the impression that John is a man of regret. Remember when he cries after firing his assistant?”
Many others would say that John was a man of regret, and that he cried after the firing. What about you?

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43 Answers

scamp's avatar

I use past tense. I don’t know why. Maybe because it seems like the past, since I am finished with the book .

gailcalled's avatar

Present tense implies ongoing action. Poor John is always firing people and therefore a big cry-baby.

Past tense implies that John fired some poor schlub and regretted it (that one time.)

Conditional implies probability. John would probably cry if he had to fire that dolt who isn’t a good assistant.

And this tense, whose name I have forgotten; John was firing people on a regular basis and therefore always blubbing.

gailcalled's avatar

(And better to say that “John was filled with regret.”)

lefteh's avatar

Yeah, that is how I would speak if John was a real person.

For some reason, I have a tendency to apply the present tense to any action in a novel.

flyawayxxballoon's avatar

I use past tense. As gail said, present tense is used when something is still happening. Something happened in the book, not currently happening.

lefteh's avatar

That’s where my thinking is bizarre.

To me, something did not happen in the book. I can flip to the page, and it is happening again. When you read the book, it will happen for you. I guess I think of events in books as eternal things, that are never really in the past. I was hoping to find somebody who thinks the same way, but it’s starting to look like I’m even stranger than I thought I was.

flyawayxxballoon's avatar

Your thinking method is understandable as well, just a different take on how the book exists. You see it as eternal, while I see it as only happening while being read. I don’t find it strange, just different.

gailcalled's avatar

Lefteh: you are entitled to be as strange imaginative as you like; but there are conventions in writing that help make things clear.

When you are speaking informally, that is another kettle of fish (whatever that means.)

augustlan's avatar

When describing a character I use present tense…“Harry Potter is a wizard.” When referring to plot, I use past…“Harry was running from Voldemort.” ps: I had to say this aloud to my daughter to figure that out!

breedmitch's avatar

I do what lefteh does. “It’s sad when Bambi’s mother dies.”

lefteh's avatar

@breedmitch: I was starting to think I was the only one….

gailcalled's avatar

@Aug: “In chapter 11, Harry ran from Voldemort” would work.

Brian; good point. Waaaa…

lefteh's avatar

@Gail: I’m aware of the conventions; I use them when doing formal writing for school. It is hard for me though, because I have to write the paper naturally, using present tense, and then go back and edit it.

gailcalled's avatar

@lefteh: What does your English teacher say about this? I’d be interested in the answer.

(so young and so schmart)

breedmitch's avatar

It’s sort of empathy vs. sympathy (sort of). The story doesn’t (not didn’t) happen to me, so it’s not on my timeline (not in my past). The story is timeless (ongoing) so present tense is correct. (to me)
sorry for all the parenthesis

gailcalled's avatar

@Breed; been raiding the stock, have we:-)

lefteh's avatar

parantheses

They don’t mind generally, because as I said, I go back and revise it. Once in a while I will leave something in the present tense by mistake. I’ve never been docked for it, though.

breedmitch's avatar

Sober as a judge! hic.

gailcalled's avatar

I hope that it is a really good vintage, at least.

MacBean's avatar

Huh… Interesting. I’ve never thought about this. But now that I’ve been asked, I think I do what augustian does. So, using the original examples, I’d say that John is a man of regret and that he cried after the firing. Unless John died in the book, in which case that would be past tense, as well.

emt333's avatar

you should use the present tense when talking about a fictional character. John is a man of regret and he cries after the firing.

pathfinder's avatar

If somebady get in to a situation with someone.So both of them expect to speak without fiction.This relay on character of them.True reality can have many characterystic.I mean that fiction does not to be fiction.

Larssenabdo's avatar

@Lefteh, like you, John ‘is’ a real person to me, and I would be speaking of him in the present.

lefteh's avatar

Yay! I’m not completely crazy!

gailcalled's avatar

OK, Lefteh, I’ll give you the present tense but will raise you the usage of John is a man of regret. That is very awkward. How about “John, being a sensitive man, regrets having fired what’s-his-name, and cried afterwards.”

Maybe John shouldn’t be in a management position.

nina's avatar

Fictional perfect.
But seriously, would not the tense rules be the same as for writing about non-fictional characters?

lefteh's avatar

Non-fictional characters are either alive or dead.

Does a fictional character die after you finish reading the book? To me, they are immortal (unless they die in the novel).

@gail: Agreed.

gailcalled's avatar

Interesting, Lefteh. If you were (are) doing a book report on Moby Dick, what would you do with Ahab, who dies, and Ishmael, who doesn’t?

lefteh's avatar

Ahab was, and Ishmael is.

emt333's avatar

i’m sorry to bust bubbles but correct writing about fictional characters, no matter whether they are alive or dead or their actions take place at the beginning, middle, or end of a book, should always be referred to in the present tense. Ahab pursues Moby Dick to his doom, Ishmael survives the shipwreck. that is the correct english paper way to talk about them.

gailcalled's avatar

@emt333. I thought that was a clear and very lucid explanation. (except last sentence. Would any good writer ever use “english-paper” as a modifier for “way”? Why not: *T*hat is the correct way to write a formal essay about them”?)

Knotmyday's avatar

@emt333— Reference?

jkap's avatar

I typically use present tense when describing characters, but past tense when describing actions.

Zen's avatar

Past Perfect Progressive and then Past Simple/Progressive, resepctively, of course:

“I had gotten the impression that John was a man of regret. Remember when he cried after firing his assistant?”

gailcalled's avatar

@Zen: No matter what tense you choose, to describe John as “a man of regret” is awkward and unacceptable usage.

“I had gotten the impression that John regretted his actions. Remember when he cried….?”

Zen's avatar

This could be from the 18th century, @gailcalled, as we know nothing about John. He could have fired his assistant (or apprentice), and thus become a man of regret.

Of course, if this is about Hi-Tech John Smith, a dot.com Executive who has just fired his assistant… then I would agreed that John might have regretted doing so, if his assistant would turn out to have been a valued asset, plus the fact that he was blackmailing him with photos he’d taken of John’s little indiscretion.

gailcalled's avatar

Now on to the interesting question of all those “he’s’ and “him’s.” HIs assistant turned out to be a scum-bag with a good SLR camera; so we’ll never know whether he (assistant) might have turned out to have been a valued asset.

I can’t think of a way to use “his assistant would turn out to have been…” correctly. What tense is that, anyway? At least we’re clear about the ongoing blackmail and the single indiscretion, I think. Are we?

Zen's avatar

@gailcalled Oh, it’s Future Perfect Progressive Conditional, dear.

gailcalled's avatar

@Zen You said “dear” and not “clear,” right?

Zen's avatar

I keep forgetting. Sorry.Clear.

BBawlight's avatar

I like to speak and write in present tense. Like a diary entry without the dates. When I refer to something in the past plot, I use past tense. It just sounds better to me.

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