The more I think about how I’m using egregores as a fantasy element in this novel, the more I understand that a really unforgettable fictional character fits the definition of an egregore: a non-physical entity that arises from the collective thoughts of a distinct group of people.
Usually occultists use this term to talk about spiritual beings that they believe arise from their ritual practices, develop an independent existence, and then enter a feedback loop of mutual influence with the community that created them. The word has drifted from the world of ceremonial magic into the Neo-Pagan movement and various other places, and its meaning has sloshed around accordingly. Some people, including me, think of deities this way, as an emergent phenomenon of culture (the way life seems to be an emergent phenomenon of matter, consciousness seems to be an emergent phenomenon of life, and culture an emergent phenomenon of consciousness). But once you consider egregores as a concept, you start seeing them everywhere: corporate brands, political parties, economic ideologies — you can sift through every atom in the United States and not find a single particle of a substance that you would capitalism, but it governs our lives every day, despite being a human invention.
Fictional characters don’t all rise to the level of an egregore. Most of them just aren’t culturally sticky enough, but a few of them really take off. I’ve been rereading Jane Eyre with one of my students, and man, Jane is absolutely an egregore. Whether you like the book she’s in or not, you feel like you know her, as if she has an independent existence. Prickly, willful, determined to survive, compassionate in the most irritatingly human modes, trustworthy even while she’s driving you up the wall. I love her, and I’m glad she’s not my roommate. She’s one of the driving forces in the invention of realistic psychological characterization, despite existing in a novel where her lordly love interest dresses up as a Romany fortuneteller and nobody sees through the disguise, and the plot resolves by means of literal telepathy. Jane imposes her existence on her readers, and her readers have responded for nearly two centuries by carrying her around in their heads as if she were a real person, occasionally making art back at her.
Game of Thrones was a veritable egregore factory, with the Red Wedding showing up in Barack Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and hundreds of parents naming their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi. Ask me, in any situation, What Would Arya Do, and I can answer without hesitating.
Egregores are powerful magic, in the Dion Fortune sense of the word, change of consciousness in accordance with will. I try to be responsible in my magical practice when I’m changing not just my own consciousness, but other people’s too. It’s odd to quote Orson Scott Card, of all people, a painfully conservative Mormon writer, but I once heard him say that a writer puts pictures in other people’s heads, therefore you should choose the pictures you put there carefully, so that it will be a blessing to those other people to carry your pictures for the rest of their lives. If I’d thought about the responsibility first, before getting addicted to writing, I might have been intimidated out of the whole enterprise.
But this is what all fiction writers are trying to do, are potentially doing, whether they know it or not. So here I am, in the egregore business. I might as well make kickass egregores.
And this week, I may finally have found the quirk that makes my current protagonist get up off the page and walk. He’s been almost there, on the edge of independent life, for months, but he was missing something. It’s too soon to talk about in detail, but in another week I’ll know whether I’ve finally got him. He’s no Jane Eyre — you might not want him to be your roommate, what with his sprawling repair projects all over the house, but he’s someone you’d enjoy hanging out with. He was already odd, but he somehow wasn’t odd enough. I won’t be satisfied with his oddness until he’s unforgettably odd.