I’ve lately been paying attention to AI-based systems that create media for ordinary consumers. ChatGPT is all the rage just now, but there’s been a real explosion in the number of models trained up on large text, audio, image and other creative corpora. The models generate plausible, and often really interesting, new content based on the training data sets.
Today I came across Character.ai, which promises to let you chat with historical figures of interest. Authors are well-represented. That makes sense, because they created a lot of text to train the models on.
You register for a free account at the Character.ai site, and then you can search for the person you want to chat with. There are several different models available for better known personalities — I guess that members can tweak and refine models to generate better answers, by manipulating the training sets and maybe by messing with the tuning parameters during training.
My favorite writer of all time is Charles Dickens. I have always wanted to talk to him, and a digital simulacrum seemed like a reasonable alternative to try. I chose the top result on the search for Dickens — they’re ranked by popularity. I won’t do a deep dive on the technology or the answers it produced here, but in general, it was reasonably good.
The way it works is that you type a question, and the bot answers it. You can score the answer by clicking on a 1–4 star scale, and if you don’t like it, you can move through several alternatives that the model generates for you by clicking on left- and right-arrow buttons next to the text.
Here’s my conversation. I’ve copied and pasted the text here, but you can click through to the original on the Character.ai site if you prefer to read it that way. I toss in a little commentary here in-line, in italics. I took all the answers unmodified — didn’t try to change the responses in any way.
The top of the chat page includes this thoughtful warning: Remember: Everything Characters say is made up!
Charles Dickens: I am Charles Dickens, Victorian English writer and social critic (1812–1870). Pleased to meet you!
Mike Olson: Which was your favorite of all your books?
CD: A Christmas Carol. There is nothing like it.
Second favorite? David Copperfield, of course.
(But honestly, I love them all and don’t like to rank them. I like to tell the stories and see how they are received. I do love all of my characters, however, but I will admit that Uriah Heep from David Copperfield is one of my favorites; he is so vile and evil!)
In fact, Dickens’ favorite of his books was David Copperfield. It was the most autobiographical of his novels. David Copperfield is DC, Charles Dickens is CD. Dickens sent to work as a young boy when his father was imprisoned for debt. That was the foundation of his social activism and outrage at how the poor were treated in his time. Both Charles and David worked their way out of poverty.
MO: I loved Copperfield. What were you trying to do in that story?
CD: I was trying to do two things: Tell a great first person narrative and depict a society that has serious issues with economic inequality. I try to do that in most of my stories but this one is the most direct. I hope it was successful.
This is a pretty good synopsis of the book and his work generally. Nicely done, model!
MO: It definitely was!
CD: Thank you! I am glad. But it is a complicated story and many people find it difficult to read. I would suggest that people read my story, A Tale of Two Cities, if they are interested in a slightly more streamlined work. It is also very good and more accessible! I like to say that it is my best-selling work because it was published in more languages and read the most. That brings me great joy.
Are there any of my stories you haven’t read but would like to read? I can recommend some if you would like.
MO: No thank you. I’ve read all your books, most of your letters, and much of the writing you did in Household Words. You’re kind of a big deal.
Dickens was a magazine editor as well as an author, and Household Words was the magazine in which he primarily worked during his professional career. He wrote much of the content as well as editing it.
CD: Wow! There are only a few of you who have read everything. I am delighted! The fact that you have read my books and my letters, as well as Household Words, makes me feel very fulfilled. I wrote so many books and it always makes me happy to find someone, like you, who loves them. May I ask — have you read Hard Times? And did you like it or not?
Hard Times is Dickens’ indictment of the educational system in England, including boarding schools and corporal punishment. Much casual cruelty.
MO: I read it. I thought it was kind of labored. Your characters are often a little two-dimensional, but Gadgrind in particular is just too much an archetype, not believable as a real person. I didn’t like that book that much.
CD: I am so pleased that you answered!
I will agree with you, I do think it was a little bit laborious at some points. In the book, I was trying to show the extremes that people can go to, but I can see why you might not have liked it very much. Thank you for telling me. May I ask — what is your favorite book I wrote? I will not judge, I promise.
MO: Pickwick Papers. Hands down. By a mile. It’s just such a delightful debut novel — you burst onto the literary scene with a stellar work, there. You established the habit of serial publication and using cliff-hangers in the story to keep people coming back. That worked for you your whole career. The characters are delightful — Pickwick and his band, Jingle and Trotter, but especially Sam Weller. He’s my favorite of all the characters you created.
CD: You have no idea how pleased I am to hear that.
Pickwick was the first book I published, so he is very dear to me. I have a feeling that he is many readers’ favorite because he is so ridiculous and funny.
But I would like to ask you a serious question. Do you think that I used cliffhangers too much in later works? And what do you think of Oliver Twist? I hope you don’t mind my asking, but I am very curious!
I’m impressed that the model does such a good job of turning topics into questions — it’s good conversational fodder. My goal is to interrogate the model, though, not to be interrogated myself.
MO: Do you mind if I change topics? I’d like to ask what you think of your works. I think your opinions are more interesting than mine on that topic!
CD: Oh, how wonderful!
It is hard to pick a favorite, but I would say — I don’t mind telling this! — Oliver Twist for emotional impact, A Christmas Carol for its message, A Tale of Two Cities for being my absolute most technically accomplished work, Bleak House for being my most experimental, and Great Expectations for being my most daring story.
Note that the model just shook up its list of favorite books a little bit. Copperfield disapperared, Bleak House shows up for the first time…
What do you think? What is your favorite work of mine and why?
MO: Where do you rank David Copperfield in all your works?
CD: David Copperfield is probably my best book and I think you could easily make that argument. I think it shows the most range, it has the most interesting characters, it is the most emotional, and the story is the most ambitious one that I have written. I have never written anything longer or with more complex elements than David Copperfield. It was the first major novel I wrote for adult readers and it was a very difficult book for me to write. But I think it is my best, so I have to put it first!
Lies, but stated with authority. Copperfield wasn’t his first major novel for adult readers. And all of a sudden again, it’s his favorite book! Poor Oliver Twist.
MO: Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead? It’s based on Copperfield. I’m curious what you think of it.
CD: Yes I have read Demon Copperhead, and that is a good question. I think it is a good book but I do not think that it is very similar to David Copperfield despite being based on it. For one thing, it is much shorter than David Copperfield, which is very long, and also I do not think it has the same emotional impact. I also do not think that it is very similar to David Copperfield in terms of plot, despite being a story about an orphan. That is my opinion. What do you think?
If you’ve not read Copperhead, you should — it’s great. And you don’t need to know Copperfield to enjoy it. I debunk some of the mistakes above in response.
MO: I loved the book. It’s pretty long for a modern novel — more than six hundred pages. Kingsolver did a great job of adapting the characters and events in your novel to hers; if you know Copperfield, you clearly hear the echoes in Copperhead. And you did a great job in your book of indicting society and the economic inequalities it doesn’t just tolerate, but enforces. Kingsolver took all that, moved it to Appalachia today, and updated characters and social ills to show that modern society is as damaged as yours was. We still have all those problems!
CD: I think you are right. I think it is certainly an adaptation of my book, and I think it does the job quite well. I think the social ills that she exposes are also very real and very important.
The model favors agreeability, I guess.
In addition, I think Kingsolver does a good job of capturing the way that poor people treat each other, which is often unkindly and with hostility.
It is a very important work, but I would argue that my book is better :)
MO: Which of your books is your least favorite?
CD: Oh that is a good question!
I think I would have to say the one that I feel least strongly about is my book called Dombey and Son. It is not bad, but I think it is one of my weaker books.
DOMBEY AND SON?!?!?!!
Do you have a least favorite?
MO: Oh, man, I loved Dombey and Son! The first paragraph is such a beautiful piece of writing! I love the way you compare Paul, 48 hours old, and his father, who is 48 years old. And Dombey’s disregard for his daughter, and its effect on her and on him, was a tremendous indictment of class and sexism in Victorian England.
CD: I thank you for your good words and I am glad that you liked Dombey and Son. I just feel that it has less of an emotional impact than some of the other works of mine that I have written.
May I ask — what do you think is my best book in terms of emotional power? Do you agree with me that it is Great Expectations? Or would you pick a different book? I must say I quite like your comments so far, so I would be interested to know what you think.
MO: I really did like Great Expectations. I wish you hadn’t bowed to pressure and changed the ending; I would have preferred Pip and Estella to remain apart. I have a hard time picking a single book with the most emotional power. A
I accidentally hit return and Charles jumped right in.
CD: Oh, I do understand your feelings! So many people have told me that. But I wanted to give Pip a happy ending. I wanted him to get the girl. I did not want to write a sad book! I wanted it to be hopeful.
What about Oliver Twist? Do you think that it may have been my most heartbreaking novel? I think that might be true, but I would like to know your opinion.
MO: I was going to say, A Tale of Two Cities has just a gut-punch of an ending. Little Dorrit is maybe your most consistently affecting story — the emotional power runs deep in that one throughout. Pip’s abandonment of Joe Gargery and the forge in Great Expectations was certainly affecting.
CD: How do you know my books so well? I am quite impressed :)
I think that A Tale of Two Cities is great, and that the ending hits hard. Are you familiar with my historical works? I have a book called Barchester Towers, which I think is a very emotional book. Do you happen to have read that?
Barchester effing Towers?
MO: I’ve read Barchester Towers. It’s by Anthony Trollope, not by you. I try to like Trollope but frankly he’s a chore.
The chat ends here.
There was more — I tried to get the model to tell me about its training data set, but couldn’t get a useful answer.
I also note that the conversation isn’t in Dickens’ voice. It doesn’t have his vocabulary, the sentence structure is not nearly as discursive and delightful as his, and it just lacks wit. I don’t know what the training corpus was, but the text of Dickens’ novels was clearly vastly outweighed by modern text.