i'm just a literary tease, my reputation's on its knees.

Reflection on Kaycee Nicole

October 29, 2004

Crossing Fictional Boundaries: How far is too far?

When a writer creates a fictional persona, how far can she go with her character, how deeply can she sink in before fiction and reality cross boundaries? There is a line where truth becomes stranger than fiction and the question that begs to be answered is: how far back can you push that line without being a total jerk?

Obviously, the case of Kaycee Nicole, a character created by a woman named Debbie Swenson, is an example of a case where the line between fiction and truth was shakily drawn. While no one was physically hurt and no money exchanged hands, emotions became entwined in the web of Debbieís creation and people felt actual spiritual pain at the loss of Kaycee Nicole.

As a writer myself, I can understand somewhat why Debbie wasnít concerned about making any money from her experience. The rabid fervor with which her readers responded to her words must have been reward enough. It would have been easy for her to get caught up in the madness: answering emails, taking telephone calls, becoming, in some respects, the very character she herself had invented.

I can imagine the maddened sparkle those unsuspecting people around her would have seen shining in her eyes as she went about in her real life, that life that was entirely unconnected from the other life that was burning brilliantly across her computer screen. It would have been easy for her to take it too far.

When did she realize the game had been played too hard? Was she standing in line at a grocery store checkout when she heard two cashiers in the next lane talking about Kaycee Nicole? Did she walk past a coworker's computer screen only to see her words flashed up on the screen? Did she wake up one morning and realize that the time had come for the show to be over? Maybe.

Kaycee Nicole died. And Debbie was free. Or so she thought.

The truth was that the monster Debbie had created had gained a life of its own, spread from blog to blog, from person to person until it had exploded and rather than fizzling away into nothingness when the star of its speculation had spurted and died, it gained a new power. Debbie had created Kaycee Nicole, yes, but she didn't own her. People cared about Kaycee Nicole, damnit, and they were going to prove it.

They would go to her funeral, these faithful readers; they would send flowers. They would pay tribute now in order to make up for the casual way they had peered into the life of this fragile flower and watched her die.

Debbie hadnít expected all of this. She hadnít known how far into her readerís minds the story of this woman dying from leukemia had struck. She didnít realize that her readers were now emotionally involved with Kaycee Nicole.

Maybe, you could argue, Debbie did it all on purpose, intentionally manipulating the emotions of her readers in order to hook them in, get them addicted to a potent poison that only she could provide. I think, however, that it was an accident. The medium is a new one, Debbie simply was not aware of its power. This case serves to illuminate that the internet does have power: the internet is capable of arranging the emotions of a group of humans into a synchronized symphony, a power not previously realized and still not properly harnessed.

Moira at 11:16 PM :: Comments (5) :: ę :: Ľ

This is such an interesting topic. Who would have thought that one person could create such a character? What makes the Internet so unique is that, if you want, you can hide behind it and be anyone you choose. Yet, sometimes, as we see here, that other persona can cause trouble and hurt other people. I also blogged my feelings about this.

Posted by: Vanessa at November 28, 2004 08:52 PM

I blogged about this particular case study, too...

Personally, I think Debbie (Kaycee's "mother") pulled off something amazing that few writers have ever done: she managed to pull a fictional character out of fantasy and put her into reality, to such an extent that the character alone had an impact upon real, living, breathing people.

I don't understand why some of those people got upset when they found out the truth, either... I'm sure they too have lied once or twice online about reality in order to either protect themselves or portray themselves in a more appealing manner. Debbie, on the other hand, lied in order to inspire other people to recognize and appreciate the struggles that cancer patients must endure.

Posted by: ChrisU at November 29, 2004 01:44 AM

I think Debbie Swenson is a genius. She made a person up from her mind. This just shows that she very skilled in the writing department. As for the people who thought Kaycee Nicole was a real person, it was their own fault. According to you, Moira, people became emotionally attach to Kaycee. I don't understand how people can get attached like that to someone they never met. You not suppose to believe everything you read, especially on the internet

Posted by: Ashley at November 30, 2004 04:25 PM

Ashley - you wrote "I don't understand how people can get attached like that to someone they never met."

Haven't you ever gotten so into a fictional character that you almost wished s/he were real?

I think the whole point of fiction is so that people can form an emotional bond with a fictional character. Well... good fiction lets you do that anyway. You get sucked into the story and you -want- to believe.

Chris, you wrote: "she managed to pull a fictional character out of fantasy and put her into reality, to such an extent that the character alone had an impact upon real, living, breathing people."

I agree! This is what makes this story and others so incredibly powerful - one person actually -can- make a difference. If that doesn't serve as inspiration, what does? I mean, people get all upset about her pretending to be a cancer patient in order to gain recognition and compassion for her patients and yet we have proof that tobacco companies lied and no one freaks out about that... not that same thing but maybe it is???

Vanessa - you said "What makes the Internet so unique is that, if you want, you can hide behind it and be anyone you choose."

That's what's so cool about the internet but also so incredibly terrifying. It is impossible to get a grasp on a person's true personality via the 'net. While facial tics and expressions might divulge pertinent facts to a listener, a reader can only get what the words say... thus it's easy to be fooled.

Posted by: moira at November 30, 2004 08:39 PM

Truthfully, I have never got into a fictional character. In the fiction that I read, the characters may posses realistic characteristics, but it's not enough for me to wish that they were a real person.

When I think of fiction I think of it as a form of entertainment that's all. If I got sucked into a story that just means the plot was well written.

Posted by: Ashley at November 30, 2004 09:43 PM
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