The Writing Process

Life with my Imaginary Friends

Having imaginary friends is, like being afraid of the dark, something that you’re supposed to grow out of. According to conventional wisdom, by the time you reach adulthood you’re supposed to be grounded in the real world – whatever “real” means – or grounded enough, at least, to focus on the flesh-and-blood people who inhabit your world.

© Artisticco | Dreamstime.com - Boy Talking With His Imaginary Friend Photo
© Artisticco | Dreamstime.com – Boy Talking With His Imaginary Friend Photo

This, in my experience, is one of the many areas in which conventional wisdom falls sadly short of the mark.

Just as I’ve no doubt that there are many adults out there who secretly dread the onset of night, so there are grown-ups who continue to enjoy the company of imaginary friends.

I am one of them.

I’m not ashamed of the fact. Perhaps I’ve just lived with this for too long to consider it weird. After all, I’ve been writing (or at least attempting to write) since childhood, and part of the writing process is, in my experience, becoming acquainted with people who, while they may not exist in the usual, physical sense of the word, are nevertheless real – or real, at least, to the writer.

I have several imaginary friends. When I was writing The Quickening, Lawrence Fairweather was my more-or-less constant companion. He and I used to have long chats about all manner of things – silent chats, I hasten to add, as I learned long ago that talking to thin air is not really the done thing once when gets to a certain age. We discussed philosophy, religion, music, politics and literature; sometimes, we even had arguments about them.

During our conversations, I learned things about him that never made it into the finished novel. I learned, for example, that as a young man – long before the events described in the novel – he had a passionate and ill-fated love affair; and while this was never mentioned in The Quickening, it was nevertheless a crucial event in terms of his development. I learned that, several years after the novel’s action ended, he would have another, happier relationship, which would eventually culminate in marriage. I learned that as a young man he liked swimming, and that in later life he would take up gardening. None of these things had much relevance to the story related in The Quickening, and were never mentioned in the pages of the novel; but they helped to flesh out Fairweather’s character, giving me an important insight into the kind of person he was, had been, and would be. It was a bit like getting to know a new friend.

The Quickening EBook Cover

Above all, we used to talk about the story that I was trying to write at that time, a process during which I sometimes felt less like the conscious author than the amanuensis. He told me of his fears and his sorrow, and of the various points in the narrative at which – he realised with hindsight – he could have altered the course of his personal history. I learned of his vain, hopeless love for his wife, and how, when trouble really came, that love was simply not strong enough to save her. I learned what it is like to lie in the dark in the house that no longer seems yours, considering the existence of something in which you do not rationally believe.

“The hours of darkness were the worst. The torments that the night brought upon its wings I would not have wished upon my worst enemy. In my fear I locked my bedroom door, though what I thought to keep out, and why I imagined that locks could stop it, I did not know. I could neither sleep nor read, and not even drink consoled me; my fears and fantasies came together, tormenting me, and I lay stirring and sleepless through the long night hours. I feared to keep my eyes closed, because of the bleak images that flickered beneath the lids, and feared still more to open them, lest those insubstantial threats had taken on some corporeal reality and were there with me, creeping around in the darkness of the room.”

Nowadays, with The Quickening written, Lawrence Fairweather has retreated into the background; he still comes back to see me occasionally – we’re old friends, after all – but his place as my round-the-clock companion and confidant has been filled by a new imaginary friend, one Xander Byrne.

Xander Byrne has, on the surface, much in common with Fairweather. They both live in late Victorian England, and are of a similar age, and have experienced tragic loss. Byrne, however, is somewhat different. Unlike the privileged Fairweather, he is an East End brat who managed, against the odds, to struggle up the rather narrow Victorian ladder of social mobility, first via the music halls and then care of the Metropolitan Police. Byrne is more cunning and worldly than the pensive Fairweather could ever be, and more fun (sorry Lawrence, if you’re listening); he knows what it’s like to trail criminals through the grimy streets of the Victorian capital, disguise himself as a costermonger or cabbie, and get involved in high-speed (by Victorian standards) hansom chases. In the slightly alternative Victorian world in which he lives, Detective Inspector Byrne not only worked on, but solved, one of the most famous criminal cases of all time – the Jack the Ripper murders. It’s a life that the quiet, bookish, and rather timid Fairweather could never have lived, or wanted to live.

My imaginative home at the moment. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
My imaginative home at the moment. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Differences notwithstanding, however, I like to imagine connections – albeit minor ones – between my characters.

In one of my “mental movies”, it is a dank winter’s evening in late Victorian London. Evil-smelling brown fog curls through the streets; office clerks shiver and sniff as they wait for omnibuses to take them back to their suburban homes in Hammersmith and Fulham. Big Ben chimes in the distance, the sound muffled and distorted in the thick air, and passing carts and hansoms throw up a fine spray of muddy water. Two men are walking in opposite directions along the Strand. One is fair-haired, slight, and handsome in an unassuming way. His hazy blue eyes are preoccupied, as though he is not quite present in the moment, but is reliving something from his past – something unpleasant, if his downturned mouth is anything to go by. The other man is taller, older, and walking at a faster pace, as though he has some urgent business to attend to. He, too, looks worried; but his seems to be the anxiety that comes with immediate and pressing concerns. In contrast to the former man’s dreaminess, he looks like a man who lives entirely in the here and now; and yet, looking into his eyes, you catch a glimpse of a man who is haunted by things that have no apparent reality, but of which he cannot be free.

The two men have never met, but as they draw level a momentary glance passes between them; and in that glance they recognise each other as companions in suffering. They have experienced a similar manner of loss, and they identify with each other’s pain. The glance lasts barely a second before inbred politeness causes them both to look away and hurry off in different directions, probably never to meet again – but that second has been marked by the sympathy of one being for the pain of another.

That, in fact or fiction, in this or any other world, should not be undervalued.

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13 thoughts on “Life with my Imaginary Friends

  1. Mari, your relationships with your characters intrigue me. Being more philosophical than literary, I tend to focus on the ideas in my work rather than the characters who carry or represent them. Fairweather and Byrne are both men. I wonder if you enjoy such closeness with any of the female characters in your books.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Thomas. It’s true that my writing tends to be more character-driven, though the ideas that find their expression in the novels are important too. ‘Character is destiny’, as Heraclitus said; I’m fascinated by the way in which a person’s virtues and flaws may be said to constitute his or her fate.

      It’s funny, but despite being a woman I often seem to find it much easier to slip into a male character’s head. I honestly have no idea why this is! I like my female characters and empathise with them, but I do find it harder to enjoy such an intense rapport with them. It’s beginning to get a tad irritating, as I’d really like to write something with a strong emphasis on a woman’s point of view. Good question!

      1. Men are much simpler creatures to understand, right? I believe more women can write a believable male character than the other way around. Yet with the abundance of female readers, it’s essential that we learn 🙂

        I like how you put this post together. It sounds like a much more entertaining way to get to know your character than the stodgy old “character interview.” You actually made them live with you for awhile. I like it. And yes, sometimes it’s the secrets we know about our characters that no reader will ever know that makes them more real.

        – Paul D. Dail

      2. Thanks for the comment, Paul! It’s strange that you should say that, since I’ve never found men particularly easy to understand. Believe it or not, men are (in my experience) every bit as difficult for women to understand as women are for men to understand.

        However, I agree that we should try; the results can be startling. An example that springs to mind is Tolstoy’s portrayal of the female protagonist in ‘Anna Karenina’. Whenever I re-read the novel I’m always amazed, as a female reader, that Tolstoy could write such a profoundly believable female character. While we’re reading the novel we are inside Anna’s skin and mind, experiencing the world as she experiences it. It represents a remarkable imaginative leap, and I think it’s the sort of thing we should always be striving for!

      3. Hmm. I’ll be curious to see where this reply ends up. Your site wouldn’t allow me to click “reply” to your most recent comment to me, but I could still hit reply to your first comment to Thomas.

        Anyway, your comments are surprising to me, as well. I always thought women much more profound in general. I always think of the Seinfeld episode where they get the deal for the sitcom and are trying to write Elaine’s character. He says to her, “Even right now, I’m sitting here, I know you’re going to say something, I have no idea what it is.”

        For men, just picture a monkey. Shave most of the hair off (depending on your male character). Make it stand upright and give it the capability to speak. And voila! 🙂

        No, I realize it’s not that simple, but it would be interesting to do a poll and see how many writers (of both genders) feel this way about writing the opposite gender. In my life, I’ve actually always preferred the company of women. When I was single, my theory was, “I already know how men think. It’s the women whom I need to understand better.” Now as a writer, I just think it’s good business.

  2. I love this post. The intense communication and interaction you have with your protagonists is fascinating. I tend to be more voyeuristic with my characters, and watch them interacting with other characters in the confines of my imagination. I have never had a conversation with any of them, and I’m a bit jealous that you get to chat – even argue! – with yours. I think the reason THE QUICKENING felt so vital is because you understood Fairweather to such an extent the events of THE QUICKENING were only a cross-section of his total reality. That explains the sense of fullness I got when reading his story.

    The idea of your two characters passing one another would be a lovely thing to include somewhere. Your devoted readers will recognize what happened, and I trust you as an author to make it feel seamless and unobtrusive to those who haven’t yet read all of your works. I love that kind of thing! 🙂

    My entire WIP is almost all women! It is strange, because I don’t tend to spend much time with women in real life. I work on a team of all men, studied subjects in college that were predominated by men, and just never feel comfortable in groups of women… going to the hairdressers feels like visiting a foreign country!

    Okay, now I am returning to my internet sabbatical!

    -aniko

    1. Aniko! I am so pleased that you broke your internet sabbatical to leave this comment! And thank you for the absolutely inspired suggestion of including the moment when the two men pass each other in the finished novel – I cannot wait to experiment and see if I really can fit it seamlessly in! That is GENIUS! (Sadly, I think my ‘devoted readers’ are about 2 in number at the moment, but still… 🙂 )

      I think watching your characters interact is a perfectly good way to get an imaginative ‘handle’ on the story. I’m really interested in how other writers find that their stories develop in their imaginations, so if you wanted to write a blog post about this when you return to the internet I would be very eager to read it.

      It’s funny: in real life I spend an awful lot of time with other women, and enjoy female company, but my writing nevertheless tends to be strangely male-dominated. I’m aware of this and not altogether happy about it, and have challenged myself to one day write a story that focuses on a central female character!

  3. Mari, I tend to forget about time-zone differences. The internet makes everyone seem as if they are at the same distance. You know, out there in cyberspace. (Virginia Woolf would denounce me for “woolly thinking”!) You have already visited my blog and seen the award post, but let me make the announcement here as well.

    As a gesture of respect for the impressive quality of your blog posts, I have nominated you for the Blogger Idol Award. There isn’t much fuss associated with this one: just put up an announcement post and pay your respects to four bloggers you admire. The award’s logo and my own write-up are now posted on my blog. Congratulations and keep up the great work!

  4. I enjoyed this post immensely, Mari. Insightful and true – fully imagined characters do live with you while you write and then slip away from you. Glad to have discovered your blog too, with its stimulating posts and intelligent visitors!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Paul! I love your blog too.

      I always like to hear how other writers get to grips with their characters, so to speak, so it’s interesting to hear that your experience is similar to mine. For me personally, the process of ‘living with’ characters is essential if I’m to really understand them.

  5. Just co me across this post, Mari, and you are evidently good at what occultists call ‘pathworking’, though those with their feet firmly in this world would call it a ‘vivid and pictural imagination’.
    It’s amazing how real these characters become to us, isn’t it? Your male protagonist did come across as very vivid to me particularly, and I think part of the reaoson is that you knew so much about him.

    This is also a case of ‘synchronicity’. I don’t want to write a spoiler, but if you ever honour me by reading my next (still working on my revisions) ‘Aleks Sager’s Daemon’ you’ll see a highly problematic relationship between character and author, ha ha!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. I agree – it’s almost frightening the way characters become real people to an author, quite as if the construct of your imagination had taken on a life of its own. And thanks for the comment about the novel – Fairweather’s character was extraordinarily real to me, and I’m happy that some of that ‘reality’ came across.

      I’d be happy to read your next work. Your comment about your problematic relationship with your character has piqued my interest!

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