I live with a small universe of imaginary worlds in my head. All of the places I’ve written about and all of the characters that inhabit them, continue to exist when I’m finished with them. I wonder what happens to these worlds when I’m not thinking about them. I suspect that they wait suspended, at particular moments, because when I think of a story, or a character, I always think of them at the same point in time.
There is an old woman, sitting on a stone bench in a winter garden; an old man, cobbling shoes in a small cottage in a place that might be heaven; a young woman, standing on the edge of a causeway, waiting to cross to an island beyond. These are all stories that I’ve written and the points in time at which I think about them. I can visualise them in detail, without any effort. I think of them and they’re there, in my head. Yet none of those points in time are at the story’s beginning, or at its end. They’re not necessarily even the most significant scenes, but are the moments in time where the characters seem to live.
And then there are all the stories I’m yet to write, even those that are only the barest idea of a narrative. They are there too, waiting for their turn. I can see a woman weaving in an abandoned house. I know something of her history and something of the future I have planned for her, but until I finish her story, she waits, stuck in a single moment.
My characters don’t seem to want anything from me: they don’t cajole or plead to have their stories continued or told. They’re simply there, waiting for me. But maybe when I’m not paying attention, they do carry on their lives, independently. Perhaps they do strange and unexpected things when my attention is elsewhere, rebelling furiously against their creator. And then, when I think about them once more, they trick me, by being exactly where I expect them to be, as though playing grandmothers footsteps. I imagine the characters from all my different stories banding together and creating new narratives of their own. But just as easily, I can imagine them trapped in separate worlds, trying to move on but never succeeding.
There’s a theory that says that time doesn’t exist as we know it – that the past, present and future are all happening simultaneously. And there’s a school of thought that says there are many worlds happening all at once, where our lives are slightly different depending on the time frame we’re in. I wonder if these characters and these worlds are just that: different parts of me, living some of the lives I might have lived in a different time or place.
But what of the characters whose stories will never be finished? Jesse, the new-age traveller that I wrote about when I was a teenager still sits forlornly on a moonlit riverbank somewhere. He will sit there forever, never knowing how his story ends. The nameless blonde girl, watching strange lights in a cornfield from her window will always watch, never knowing what they mean. Sometimes I feel a little sad that I’ve created characters that will never have an ending to their story. Perhaps there should be a place where writers can send their unfinished characters – a kind of character orphanage – where they’ll be adopted by the perfect author to give them a story of their own.
Of course I’m talking about my characters as though they’re real beings, who can think, feel and rebel, when we all know they’re only collections of words. But are they? If that is all they are, how can they ever be real to a reader? We spend hours agonising over them, naming them, discovering their likes, dislikes and motivations. We put a lot of energy into making them real, so maybe in some sense, they are. There’s some debate among witches about whether goddesses and gods really exist as separate entities in themselves. One view says that all gods are one god and that these deities are just convenient personifications of different traits. Another theory says that humans have worshipped them for so long that, in effect, our thoughts and our energy has created them. If this is true, could this ever happen with the characters we create? Thousands of years from now, will Harry Potter be a god?
I know my characters too well to ever worship them, or expect anyone else to. All the same, I find it comforting to think that while I gave them life, somewhere, they can carry on living without me.
Do your characters live on when you’ve finished with them? What are they doing while you’re not there?