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Speaker for Those Who Live in Another Universe

 

I call myself a writer. But there are days when I wonder at the justice of my calling myself such. I wonder at the truth of it. Oh, certainly I have a facility with the written word, but when it comes to writing fiction, it is seldom that I am working hard at writing. Instead, it is as if the characters appear in my head. They shout, “Write this down. This is my life. Let your people know who I am. Let them know who I was. Let them know that I existed, if not in your world, then in another.”

You may call it imagination. I imagine these characters with all their foibles. Some are essentially good people. Some are drunks. Some are bored. Some grow through their stories. Some are out-and-out sociopaths, manipulating people and perpetrating horrors.

At least one of the sociopaths is quite proud of himself, too. Sir Hortensius Aurelius would probably write an autobiography if he didn’t know that he would be arrested for most of what he has done in his life. His main business is as an art dealer who traffics works that have been “liberated” in times of war. He corrupts and seduces young people. He takes delight in the pain and even terror of those he thinks deserve it. He is happy to issue threats, and even carry them through. Of course, he thinks of it all as perfectly reasonable and doing good in the world. Could my imagination really create someone like this? Or am I somehow just channeling a real person from another world down onto the pages of my books? Most of the stories he appears in are stories of the lives of others. It is not like I am writing stories about him. But, there he is, being useful in his way here and there through the stories. I wouldn’t want to write a story about him. I’m not sure that he would change, which is one element a writer wants in a good protagonist. Yet, there he is in my imagination, laughing as he reads over my shoulder and knowing that I am horrified by him and his actions.

“Oh, my dear old fellow, I’m not all that bad. Were someone not around to pick up loose art in times of war, it might be burned and destroyed. Let’s face it, most of the soldiers have no taste. If it’s not obviously gold or edible, it’s just kindling for the fire. I save works of art. I bring them to people who appreciate them after their owners have abandoned them just because of battles nearby. Is that really so bad?”

Needless to say, I would rather hope that this is not just my imagination. Imagination is a part of us, and I don’t want to think of Sir Hortensius as part of me. Instead, I prefer to see it as an ability to tap into parallel worlds where these people must really exist. I am merely a seer, a speaker for those who were never born to this world.

Is it just me? Or do you also have characters populating your imaginations, too? What is your theory regarding them? Are they “your” characters? Or are they characters someone else first developed, such as Batman or Superman?

Published in Group Writing
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There are 30 comments.

  1. Member
    Arahant Post author

    This conversation is part of our ongoing Group Writing Series under this month’s theme of Now That’s Imagination! If you have paid any attention to your imagination or would like to share a short story with us, why not go sign up? We still have a dozen openings.

    • #1
    • June 10, 2018 at 2:55 am
    • 1 like
  2. Thatcher

    My imagination (or is it my subconscious?) repurposes historical figures. It happens in my dreams a lot. I seem to spend a lot of time with Benjamin Franklin. Last night we were on a mission to convince Billy Wilder to apologize to Raymond Chandler else the movie Double Indemnity wouldn’t be completed. In these little adventures, I seem to play Dr. Watson to Franklin’s Sherlock Holmes.

    Sometimes the characters are historical. Sometimes they are from works of fiction. Sometimes they seem to be both. I’d love to have the time to focus on writing them down, but life intrudes. I admire the people who do have the time.

    • #2
    • June 10, 2018 at 4:41 am
    • 4 likes
  3. Member

    No, I don’t have characters populating my imagination. It is a personality deficiency of mine.

    = = = = =

    Lengthy Notes.  (Can be skipped by all readers without any significant loss, and for the great majority of readers, a significant net gain).

    1.

    I don’t mean to sound pitiful. Lacking this strength, I simply don’t adopt the social role of a producer of fiction. I have what economists call a “comparative advantage” in forgoing the opportunity to create fiction, and producing other scarce goods. Society gives up less value when I don’t write fiction than it gains when I create other scarce goods, and Arahant is substituted to create the fiction I don’t, while imposing society a relatively low opportunity cost: he would produce zero minutes per month of quality Facetiming with my grandchildren in the role of Pops, for example. He has a comparative disadvantage to me in being Pops vs. writing fiction.

    2.

    I should explain my private mental term “personality deficiency”, which isn’t the same as the public meanings.

    It is a scientific term as I use it, not as a moral judgement. Although strictly speaking it implies a functional weakness, pragmatically it generally doesn’t, because a society depends heavily on individuals each performing certain specific roles which require particular strengths, and not so much on individuals having strengths required by every possible role they could take on.

    I think of personality and physical ability in terms of a single universal set attributes, some of which are attributes of degree: they could be reasonably be described by a rational number between zero and unity, as an aid to communication. (I don’t mean that they could all be measured that way in a scientifically precise or even meaningful way.) If a given attribute of degree is a monotonically increasing measure of useful ability, then it is a “figure of merit.”

    An individual with a below-normal level (by some reasonable definition of “normal” for that attribute) of a personality figure of merit has a “personality deficiency”.

    Ability or tendency to imagine fictional characters is a figure of merit. That’s because it is required for creating fictional stories, which is a useful social skill. I score near 0 on a scale of 0 to 1.

     

     

    • #3
    • June 10, 2018 at 7:56 am
    • 2 likes
  4. Contributor

    I don’t have strange and mysterious characters visiting my imagination. My brain simply doesn’t work that way, and I’ve not been inclined to develop that ability. In fact, it’s not clear to me if one can develop an ability to write fiction if you’re don’t naturally think that way. Recently I wrote a piece for Group Writing, a forum that invited me to use my imagination. So I did, and although it was based on real events and real people, I guess it could be called fiction. But no one odd showed up; just the scenario was beyond belief. (It was lots of fun, though.) I envy those whose minds work that way; for me, non-fiction is my vehicle of expression. Great post, @arahant!

    • #4
    • June 10, 2018 at 8:03 am
    • 4 likes
  5. Coolidge

    Now I know why I have never been able to write fiction :) Thank you for this post, Arahant, fascinating. My mind has never once produced an imaginary character, and I have been a delusional schizophrenic, so that is saying a lot. Even when I am delusional, though, my delusions all revolve around people who actually exist. I never realized that people who write fiction have these imaginary characters running around in their heads, although I should have realized: it’s pretty obvious when you think about it, just never thought about it :)

    • #5
    • June 10, 2018 at 8:47 am
    • 2 likes
  6. Member

    Arahant: Is it just me?

    I don’t know about “just,” but yes, it’s you.

    • #6
    • June 10, 2018 at 10:21 am
    • 8 likes
  7. Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    No, I don’t have characters populating my imagination. It is a personality deficiency of mine.

    = = = = =

    Lengthy Notes. (Can be skipped by all readers without any significant loss, and for the great majority of readers, a significant net gain).

    1.

    I don’t mean to sound pitiful. Lacking this strength, I simply don’t adopt the social role of a producer of fiction. I have what economists call a “comparative advantage” in forgoing the opportunity to create fiction, and producing other scarce goods. Society gives up less value when I don’t write fiction than it gains when I create other scarce goods, and Arahant is substituted to create the fiction I don’t, while imposing society a relatively low opportunity cost: he would produce zero minutes per month of quality Facetiming with my grandchildren in the role of Pops, for example. He has a comparative disadvantage to me in being Pops vs. writing fiction.

    2.

    I should explain my private mental term “personality deficiency”, which isn’t the same as the public meanings.

    It is a scientific term as I use it, not as a moral judgement. Although strictly speaking it implies a functional weakness, pragmatically it generally doesn’t, because a society depends heavily on individuals each performing certain specific roles which require particular strengths, and not so much on individuals having strengths required by every possible role they could take on.

    I think of personality and physical ability in terms of a single universal set attributes, some of which are attributes of degree: they could be reasonably be described by a rational number between zero and unity, as an aid to communication. (I don’t mean that they could all be measured that way in a scientifically precise or even meaningful way.) If a given attribute of degree is a monotonically increasing measure of useful ability, then it is a “figure of merit.”

    An individual with a below-normal level (by some reasonable definition of “normal” for that attribute) of a personality figure of merit has a “personality deficiency”.

    Ability or tendency to imagine fictional characters is a figure of merit. That’s because it is required for creating fictional stories, which is a useful social skill. I score near 0 on a scale of 0 to 1.

    I think you underrate your ability to write decent fiction.

    • #7
    • June 10, 2018 at 10:22 am
    • 2 likes
  8. Coolidge

    All sorts of characters must populate a writer’s imagination. Writers are, after all, a little like gods in that they engage in creation. If God Himself let forth some of the worst of humanity, then people should at least try to create and examine some characters who reflect that which is darkest in the human heart or the world they draw is flat. After all, one can write about serial killers and not be one, right? 

    • #8
    • June 10, 2018 at 10:23 am
    • 4 likes
  9. Member

    I’ve known other writers who have claimed the same thing – they don’t so much craft dialogue as transcribe what the characters say in their head. One guy was a little too convinced of the separate reality of his characters and once tried to convince me that Nixon had done something not n any history I’ve read of heard about. He quoted to me dialogue from a play he had written involving Nixon. Because his character Nixon confessed to something in his play, he believed that this was evidence that it had actually happened. He was of course a leftist. I pointed out that it would have been much more convincing if he had “evidence” of Nixon’s innocence. Can’t argue with crazy.

    Not that I’m suggesting you’re crazy, Arahant.

    • #9
    • June 10, 2018 at 10:29 am
    • 3 likes
  10. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Not that I’m suggesting you’re crazy, Arahant.

    Yeah, I don’t think I take it too far. But it does make things easier to write when one knows one’s characters.

    • #10
    • June 10, 2018 at 11:25 am
    • 2 likes
  11. Member
    Arahant Post author

    There is a recent movie that speaks of this process:

    The Man Who Invented Christmas.

    • #11
    • June 10, 2018 at 11:26 am
    • 1 like
  12. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    After all, one can write about serial killers and not be one, right?

    Mebbe.

    🙄😁

    • #12
    • June 10, 2018 at 11:27 am
    • 3 likes
  13. Member
    Arahant Post author

    JudithannCampbell (View Comment):
    I never realized that people who write fiction have these imaginary characters running around in their heads, although I should have realized: it’s pretty obvious when you think about it, just never thought about it :)

    I don’t know if it’s all of us, but certainly some of us do.

    • #13
    • June 10, 2018 at 11:28 am
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    You are not the first writer I’ve read to talk about the characters who “just had to be written”. I think it was maybe Isaac B. Singer who was the first but I know Dan Simmons said something to that effect. He named it as one of the sure signs you are a “real” writer. 

    • #14
    • June 10, 2018 at 11:36 am
    • 1 like
  15. Thatcher

    Arahant: a speaker for those who were never born to this world.

    On the contrary, ‘Hant, you bring/have brought them to birth as you’ve written…

    • #15
    • June 10, 2018 at 12:37 pm
    • 2 likes
  16. Member

    Arahant: Is it just me? Or do you also have characters populating your imaginations, too? What is your theory regarding them? Are they “your” characters? Or are they characters someone else first developed, such as Batman or Superman?

    As I mentioned in my essay a couple of days ago, I have a lot of favorite characters in my head. Some are real people whose lives I admire; some were created by someone else. I may once have imagined being those characters in my girlhood (I am Sparrowhawk, I am Hercule Poirot, I am Kit Carson, I am Anne Shirley) and now they provide a running conversation and commentary in my head, helping me be the person I want to be.

    Some of them are rogues, but none of them are amoral. All of them are characters that I love, or else I would not want them in my head.

    I’ve never had a character I couldn’t get rid of or didn’t want there!

    • #16
    • June 10, 2018 at 3:35 pm
    • 4 likes
  17. Thatcher

    I don’t have characters in my head waiting for their lives to be written down. But I’m not a writer and have never tried to write fiction. Business and non-fiction is pretty straightforward.

    Now I can tell if a writer does not have a clear idea of the character of their characters. They start going all inconsistent and I usually then leave the book behind.

    • #17
    • June 10, 2018 at 6:29 pm
    • 4 likes
  18. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Clavius (View Comment):
    Now I can tell if a writer does not have a clear idea of the character of their characters. They start going all inconsistent and I usually then leave the book behind.

    Yes, I have seen that sort of thing.

    • #18
    • June 10, 2018 at 6:41 pm
    • 2 likes
  19. Member

    Two things: if you write novels I wanna read ’em. In my experience here, I’m probably the only person who doesn’t actually know who you are, so please reveal your name or at least your nom de plume,  or at least the names of your works. Thanks! 

    And–since we’re in is-it-just-me mode:

    has anybody else ever, not imagined, but been,  a character in his/her own life? I mean, when I was a kid, I narrated my entire life to myself. “She went out into the woods and stretched out on the cool, mossy roof of the pump house.” “Her hair blew across her eyes turning the world gold for a few seconds.” “She curled up next to the attic window and settled down for an afternoon of reading.” But I used different names for myself, to protect my identity, I guess.

    When did that internal stream of narration stop? I thought it never would, but then, it was gone.

    Anybody? 

    • #19
    • June 11, 2018 at 4:13 pm
    • 2 likes
  20. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    Anybody? 

    Just you. 😜

    • #20
    • June 11, 2018 at 4:41 pm
    • 4 likes
  21. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    so please reveal your name or at least your nom de plume,  or at least the names of your works.

    What Angels These?

    Angels Revolting

    • #21
    • June 11, 2018 at 4:43 pm
    • 2 likes
  22. Member

    Years ago, I was reading A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe and it dawned on me how much I envy fiction writers.

    When a non-writer thinks up a really offensive joke or makes a politically incorrect observation, he can’t just blurt it out. He might not be able to tell it to anybody, let alone say it publicly.

    A fiction writer can say it publicly, by having one or more of his characters say it. Here’s the passage from A Man in Full that made me realize the freedom fiction writers have. The men were talking about a ball for AIDS victims. (Warning, not for sensitive readers.)

    “I can remember plenty a fellows with vernerl diseases, but I don’t remember anybody throwins parties for’m!” exclaimed Billy, bursting with mirth. “I don’t remember any DANCES! I don’t remember any LET’S RAP FOR CLAP nights! Or LET’S RIFF FOR SYPH!”
    Or LET’S HOP FOR HERPES!” volunteered Judge Opey McCorkle, who was laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out.
    “Or LET’S GO GREET THE SPIROCHETES!” contributed Charlie, who was now in the same paroxysmal condition.
    “Or LET’S GO ROAR FOR THE CHANCRE SORES!” exclaimed Billy Bass.
    “Or LET’S PAY OUR DUES TO THE PUSTULAR OOZE!” exclaimed the judge.
    “Or LETS GO HUG A DYIN’ BUGGER!” cried Billy, who was gasping for breath and weeping with laughter at the same time. “Now—now if you get AIDS, you’re some kinda saint!—and they give banquets for you! Everbuddy goes dancin’!”
    “Glory me—I got da HIV!” sang out the judge, who had his mouth open, his eyes wide, and both hands flopping in the air up by his ears, as if he were a minstrel performer. This started Billy and Charlie laughing even harder.
    “They never used to give lepers banquets for being LEPERS!” shouted Billy. “They put BELLS around their necks so people could hear ’em coming and stay outta THEIR WAY! Maybe they could do that with all these characters with AIDS!”

    All of that came from the brain of the erudite Tom Wolfe. Mr Wolfe escaped blame by having characters from the alternate universe say it. They said that stuff! Tom Wolfe would never say anything like that. Writers don’t get blamed for what their characters say.

    I envy you @arahant.

    • #22
    • June 11, 2018 at 5:09 pm
    • 4 likes
  23. Member
    Arahant Post author

    BastiatJunior (View Comment):
    Writers don’t get blamed for what their characters say.

    It’s good to be king! Er, I mean, I’ve got the pen in my hand…

    • #23
    • June 11, 2018 at 5:33 pm
    • 3 likes
  24. Member

    BastiatJunior (View Comment):

    Years ago, I was reading A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe and it dawned on me how much I envy fiction writers.

    When a non-writer thinks up a really offensive joke or makes a politically incorrect observation, he can’t just blurt it out. He might not be able to tell it to anybody, let alone say it publicly.

    A fiction writer can say it publicly, by having one or more of his characters say it. Here’s the passage from A Man in Full that made me realize the freedom fiction writers have. The men were talking about a ball for AIDS victims. (Warning, not for sensitive readers.)

    “I can remember plenty a fellows with vernerl diseases, but I don’t remember anybody throwins parties for’m!” exclaimed Billy, bursting with mirth. “I don’t remember any DANCES! I don’t remember any LET’S RAP FOR CLAP nights! Or LET’S RIFF FOR SYPH!”
    Or LET’S HOP FOR HERPES!” volunteered Judge Opey McCorkle, who was laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out.
    “Or LET’S GO GREET THE SPIROCHETES!” contributed Charlie, who was now in the same paroxysmal condition.
    “Or LET’S GO ROAR FOR THE CHANCRE SORES!” exclaimed Billy Bass.
    “Or LET’S PAY OUR DUES TO THE PUSTULAR OOZE!” exclaimed the judge.
    “Or LETS GO HUG A DYIN’ BUGGER!” cried Billy, who was gasping for breath and weeping with laughter at the same time. “Now—now if you get AIDS, you’re some kinda saint!—and they give banquets for you! Everbuddy goes dancin’!”
    “Glory me—I got da HIV!” sang out the judge, who had his mouth open, his eyes wide, and both hands flopping in the air up by his ears, as if he were a minstrel performer. This started Billy and Charlie laughing even harder.
    “They never used to give lepers banquets for being LEPERS!” shouted Billy. “They put BELLS around their necks so people could hear ’em coming and stay outta THEIR WAY! Maybe they could do that with all these characters with AIDS!”

    All of that came from the brain of the graceful and charming Tom Wolfe. Mr Wolfe escaped blame by having characters from the alternate universe say it. They said that stuff! Tom Wolfe would never say anything like that. Writers don’t get blamed for what their characters say.

    I envy you @arahant.

    OMG that is a GREAt book. Did you read I Am Charlotte Simmons? I’m the only person I know who liked that one…

    • #24
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:09 pm
    • 1 like
  25. Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    so please reveal your name or at least your nom de plume, or at least the names of your works.

    What Angels These?

    Angels Revolting

    Ordered vol 1–looks great, looking forward to it! 

    • #25
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:14 pm
    • 1 like
  26. Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    Anybody?

    Just you. 😜

    Yeah. And reading over the examples I gave, I, like, really sucked at writing, too…

    • #26
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:16 pm
    • 1 like
  27. Member

    Hypatia (View Comment):

    BastiatJunior (View Comment):

    Years ago, I was reading A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe and it dawned on me how much I envy fiction writers.

    When a non-writer thinks up a really offensive joke or makes a politically incorrect observation, he can’t just blurt it out. He might not be able to tell it to anybody, let alone say it publicly.

    A fiction writer can say it publicly, by having one or more of his characters say it. Here’s the passage from A Man in Full that made me realize the freedom fiction writers have. The men were talking about a ball for AIDS victims. (Warning, not for sensitive readers.)

    “I can remember plenty a fellows with vernerl diseases, but I don’t remember anybody throwins parties for’m!” exclaimed Billy, bursting with mirth. “I don’t remember any DANCES! I don’t remember any LET’S RAP FOR CLAP nights! Or LET’S RIFF FOR SYPH!”
    Or LET’S HOP FOR HERPES!” volunteered Judge Opey McCorkle, who was laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out.
    “Or LET’S GO GREET THE SPIROCHETES!” contributed Charlie, who was now in the same paroxysmal condition.
    “Or LET’S GO ROAR FOR THE CHANCRE SORES!” exclaimed Billy Bass.
    “Or LET’S PAY OUR DUES TO THE PUSTULAR OOZE!” exclaimed the judge.
    “Or LETS GO HUG A DYIN’ BUGGER!” cried Billy, who was gasping for breath and weeping with laughter at the same time. “Now—now if you get AIDS, you’re some kinda saint!—and they give banquets for you! Everbuddy goes dancin’!”
    “Glory me—I got da HIV!” sang out the judge, who had his mouth open, his eyes wide, and both hands flopping in the air up by his ears, as if he were a minstrel performer. This started Billy and Charlie laughing even harder.
    “They never used to give lepers banquets for being LEPERS!” shouted Billy. “They put BELLS around their necks so people could hear ’em coming and stay outta THEIR WAY! Maybe they could do that with all these characters with AIDS!”

    All of that came from the brain of the graceful and charming Tom Wolfe. Mr Wolfe escaped blame by having characters from the alternate universe say it. They said that stuff! Tom Wolfe would never say anything like that. Writers don’t get blamed for what their characters say.

    I envy you @arahant.

    OMG that is a GREAt book. Did you read I Am Charlotte Simmons? I’m the only person I know who liked that one…

    It was a good book, but downright scary. I have three daughters, the oldest of whom is in college.

    • #27
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:18 pm
    • 3 likes
  28. Contributor

    Arahant (View Comment):
    It’s good to be king! Er, I mean, I’ve got the pen in my hand…

    That is hysterical! I love it! I have no idea where you find these things, but I love to hear them.

    • #28
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:22 pm
    • Like
  29. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    That is hysterical!

    Andy Breckman is better known as a TV writer, but he also had his folk music “career.” His song on reincarnation is hilarious.

    • #29
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:49 pm
    • 2 likes
  30. Member
    Arahant Post author

    Hypatia (View Comment):
    Yeah. And reading over the examples I gave, I, like, really sucked at writing, too…

    Well, perhaps you just needed to live a more exciting life to narrate.

    • #30
    • June 11, 2018 at 6:51 pm
    • 2 likes