Why Assign Fictional Characters an ISNI

When the International Organization for Standards (ISO) published the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) in March of 2012, the idea was that it would be used to identify “the millions of contributors to creative works and those active in their distribution, including writers, artists, creators, performers, researchers, producers, publishers, aggregators, and more. … ISNI can be assigned to all parties that create, produce, manage, distribute or feature in creative content including natural, legal, or fictional parties, and is essential to those working in the creative industries for quick, accurate and easy identification.” (ISNI International Agency)

The practical application for unambiguously identifying  creators is straightforward: making sure people who share names don’t get confused with each other, and that creators who work across platforms receive proper, centralized credit. ISNIs have already been adopted by large organizations such as Wikipedia and R.R. Bowker’s Books in Print, and feeds into Google’s Knowledge Graphs.

Where ISNIs get interesting, though, is when they are assigned to fictional characters. Laura Dawson of Bowker explains that fictional characters are eligible for ISNIs “So they can be referred to in Linked Data contexts.” This means that they would also show up unambiguously in Google’s Knowledge Graph, and multiple works about the same character would be linked to each other, even if the author changes. In fan fiction, for example—even officially licensed fan fiction, like the Star Wars books—where multiple authors contribute to the same story, or at least to the same canon, an ISNI could help identify all the works about a specific character—say, Yoda or Anakin Skywalker. An ISNI would also help distinguish real people from fictional characters of the same name. For example, ISNIs would make sure that Edinburgh under siege 1571–1573 by Harry Potter—ISNI 0000 0000 8166 9371—doesn’t get misattributed to Harry Potter—J. K. Rowling’s character, who doesn’t have an ISNI at the moment.

Unfortunately—as is the case with Rowling’s Harry Potter—most fictional characters don’t have an ISNI. Of the 7.5 million people in the ISNI records (March 2014), Dawson estimates that, because “As it stands now, they’re rather an edge case,” the percentage of fictional characters is “probably very low. Plus or minus ‘a bunch’.” With such clear applications, why wouldn’t more writers and publishers register ISNIs for their characters?

Part of the reason is that the ISNI-IA and the Registration Agencies do not make it obvious that fictional characters should—or even can—be assigned ISNIs. In the agency’s About page, the reference to “fictional parties” is obscure; of the official pages about ISNI, only Bowker’s even mentions fictional characters explicitly. As a result, few publishers are aware of the possibility.

On a deeper level, perhaps we simply don’t see fictional characters as equals to “real” people. But this isn’t quite accurate: Alayna Smith argues that fictional characters are just as real as we are.

Reading is an experience and an interaction that actually allows for the development of relationships with fictional characters and their fictional worlds; ultimately, these interactions and relationships have an incredible and even tangible impact on the reality in which we live. Fictional characters possess autonomy and are subject to socialization, just the same as any reader or author, and function and exist within a shared reality.

In fact, the only difference between fictional characters and real people is that they lack a physical presence. But that makes them no less real—forces, like gravity, also lack a physical existence, but are unanimously accepted as real. Both fictional characters and forces can only be (figuratively) measured by their impact on the world around them—they are equally real. Registering ISNIs for characters only strengthens their network presence, and consequently their realness. More importantly, it signals an acceptance of their realness, an acknowledgement of their existence and impact on our lives. The bonds we forge with characters can be as strong as those we form with each other.

Why shouldn’t Harry Potter the character have a unique identifier like Harry Potter the scholar? Rowling’s Potter has a stronger network presence; there is certainly more information on the web than about his scholar namesake. If anything, people are more likely to question the existence of the scholar—”You mean there’s an actual person called Harry Potter? You’re kidding me, right?”—than of the boy wizard.

I lack the expertise to discuss, from an anthropological, sociological or psychological perspective, the reason we don’t naturally consider fiction (or characters) a subset of reality (or of people). What concerns me is that we don’t: we keep fact and fiction separate by default. But, as Sarah Wanenchak argues, “we need to understand them as categories with different natures, uses, and intents that nonetheless constitute the same ‘reality’, the same lived experience.” Readers tend to be more open to being touched by a memoir, for example, than a novel, because it is a “true story.” But what makes Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea more real than Harry Potter? Certainly not fact—Mortenson’s memoir was as fictional as many novels—; only the perception that one is true and the other is not. This perception is what allowed readers to engage more deeply with Mortenson than with Harry (and what made Mortenson’s readers so angry when his embellishments were discovered), when perhaps Harry is more deserving. Are Harry’s constant struggles with a mass murderer any less significant than Mortenson’s equally fictional imprisonment by the Taliban? When we label something as fiction, and therefore “not real,” we raise a veil that keeps us from engaging as deeply with the story, and perhaps from getting the most out of it.

Allowing fictional characters to be eligible for ISNIs was one step in breaking down the fact-fiction distinction. It is now up to us, publishers, to follow through and actually register characters—at least the important ones, whatever that means—in the ISNI database. It will help us with more complete, reliable, and linked metadata; and it will help the world in understanding fiction is as real as anything else.