During last weekend's writing conference, when one of the instructors was lecturing on how to get in touch with characters, and those in the audience were taking notes with an intensity that suggested we were receiving a map to the lost treasures of Atlantis, my brain stepped outside itself. I had one of those detached, questioning moments of saying to myself, "Wow, look how we are concentrating so hard on--what? Imaginary characters! Characters who don't even exist! We put all this energy and effort into a mirage, and what's it all for?"
But half a minute later, I answered my own question. In dissecting fictional characters, in putting them through their paces and observing them with the close focus we ordinarily reserve for our flesh-and-blood loved ones, we--or at least I, and I suspect most of us--are not only trying to understand characters. We're trying to understand human behavior. Maybe we're even trying to influence it, by illuminating something about it. We're not just telling a single story about a single character or experience; we're trying to say something universal.
Even if our characters are not human (maybe they're aliens, or robots, or anthropomorphized animals), they are usually stand-ins for us. (By "us," I don't mean the writers, literally and specifically, but humankind in general.) I am passionately curious about why the world works the way it does, and why people do the things they do, and writing is one of the ways I work out some of these questions. Of course, I often end up with more questions than answers, but that's okay. It's part of the deal.
Story-telling is deeply ingrained in the human experience. Characters are our better selves or our worse selves, or they get to test out the choices we might have made, or they make the mistakes we almost made, or they make the mistakes we made and remind us how we got out of them. They entertain us. They let us live another life for a while. To live more than one life in a lifetime--that's the privilege of reading and writing.