Real People

Michael, in Quartz
In the course of one of our frequent discussions about each other's creative practice, an artist friend asked me a fascinating and thought-provoking question.
'When you create a character,' she said, 'Does that person seem real to you? I mean do you actually think of them as real in your mind?'
Now I've done many talks on the potentially thorny issue of creating a character, writing believable dialogue and all the other things that go into a writer's armoury of techniques. And I've been asked all kinds of questions. But I don't think it had occurred to anyone to ask this one before. Or not in so many words. The questions had all assumed a certain artifice, a certain control. How do you 'make' a character like this or this or this?
But the answer to my friend's question popped into my mind straight away. I didn't even hesitate. 'Yes,' I said. 'Absolutely and completely real. I think about them as real people existing in real places. Always.'
It's an uncanny thought, but when I write a novel or a play, the people are real. As real as anyone else. In some strange way, they occupy the same part of my mind. When I've finished a novel, they may recede into the background a little, but only because somebody else is more immediately in my mind. Currently, it's a mismatched couple called Joe and Helen who are hogging most of the space. I go to sleep thinking about them at night and I wake up still thinking about them in the morning. Sometimes I dream about them as well.
But somewhere in the bizarre landscape of my mind, easily summoned, as easily as any of my real friends,  Kirsty and Finn from Bird of Passage are wandering the hills above Dunshee together, while Donal and Alys, from the Curiosity Cabinet, are down on the shore, a different shore, watching a little boy called Ben gathering treasures from the beach. Somewhere, Henrietta is standing on a cliff top, while the sea-birds ride the wind, while elsewhere, a young man called Michael is making jewellery out of quartz. Somewhere, an ex fisherman called Rab is sitting in a cafe with a cup of cold coffee, telling his story to whoever will listen while in a different place and time, a pretty young woman is skating on a frozen pond - and even earlier, two young men called Thomas and William are meeting for the first time in a summer garden and finding that they have many things in common.
And all of them, every last one of them, seems as real, as alive to me, as my next door neighbour who is cutting his grass, and the kids who are walking past the window on their way back from school.
Until my friend pointed it out, I hadn't actually thought about just how odd this is. But it's the absolute truth.
Also - possibly - true, is that not a lot of  people do this.
Do you?


Marit said…
I enjoyed your post today and right the moment I read about the characters being 'real' to you, I thought 'I have the same'! Even fairytale characters 'are alive' in my world. To me, Aragorn still wonders down the woods while in the deep waters, mermaids sing songs. I cry when people die in books, as they really 'are diseased' in my mind then too and I cannot picture them in the world anymore... hard to explain in English (as you know I am Dutch) but I'm sure you understand what I mean. Thanks for this post and making me discover something about myself!
I know exactly what you mean, Marit - but until my friend asked the question, I had never quite thought of it in that way before myself, either!
Mari Biella said…
I love this post, Catherine, and it does match my own experience pretty closely. I find that my own characters are not only real to me, but have even become some of my best friends in a sense. I understand them and, because they are real to me, I can understand them; I even find myself holding conversations with them in my head.

Out of interest, do you find that your characters appear fully-formed in your mind, or do they gradually reveal themselves to you while you're working on a novel or play?
So sorry, just spotted this comment (I've been away from home for a while and offline!) But I find that they gradually reveal themselves. Interesting, isn't it? It's as if they exist somewhere beyond me, but I have to write to find out about them. Sometimes that's a fairly quick process but sometimes it take rather a long time. Thank-you for such a good question!