When Fictional Characters Come to Life

Posted by:
Susan Rooke
March 9, 2017

Sometimes I can’t find what I’m looking for until it comes looking for me.

I’m thinking about the characters I’ve created for The Space Between, as well as for Book 2 in the series. I’m sure the same will hold true of Book 3, when its time comes. But I don’t really mean I “created” these people. I mean, “They spoke to me in dreams and reveries, insistently, until I heard their voices and wrote down their desires, their heartaches, their regrets.” To me, these characters aren’t fictional. I’m not at all sure that my belief hasn’t imbued each one with a sort of cloudy reality that transmits a life and will of its own. I’ve read often of writers who feel the same way about their own creations. I never thought I’d be one of them.

I’ve been considering this phenomenon over the past week as I unpack moving boxes. My first priority has been to get the kitchen up and running, but it’s been an exercise in frustration. Each time I opened another enormous box marked “KITCHEN,” hoping to find my daily use items, like the dough hook for the stand mixer, or my favorite saucepans, instead I’d find the huge roasting pan brought out only at major holidays, or the steamed pudding mold that I bought in 1979 and never used. (And lots more besides, but that’s another blog post.)

I was getting a bit wrought up about the repeated failures, until Glen calmly said, “Quit worrying. It’ll all turn up.” The next day, after a conscious effort at tranquility (remember George Costanza hollering, “Serenity now!!” on Seinfeld?), I began unpacking my old familiar treasures, one by one. It seemed as if, once I was ready, they found me.

A few years ago, a group of my characters did something similar. I was in the middle of the umpteenth revision of The Space Between, every day completely immersed in the work. Each night I fell into bed with a flaccid, overtired brain, still thinking about the Penitents. (As I said in last week’s post, the Penitents are a tribe of faeries who feel such remorse over a moral transgression their ancestors committed that they have caused some pretty awful physical afflictions to themselves.)

One day I spent a lot of time on one particular scene that takes place in the great hall of the Penitents’ Keep and features Lugo, Master of the Keep. That night I had a dream.

I was at the service counter of an old-fashioned hardware store, waiting to pick up some small appliance I’d left to be repaired. It was the kind of store with scarred wood floors and dusty shelves displaying every part you’d ever need, whether to repair your lawnmower or build a perpetual motion machine. The kind where every employee knew the inventory by heart and had worked there at least thirty years.

As I waited, a group of eight or ten very odd-looking folk entered the store and filed past me in a line, their eyes averted. All were dressed in outdated clothing. The men wore leisure suits and Nehru jackets; the women wore polyester pantsuits, and had blue eyeshadow and teased, frosted hair. They looked strikingly out-of-time in the 21st Century, as if they’d walked in off the set of an old TV show.

Despite the fact that they wouldn’t look at me, I had the strong feeling that they very much wanted me to notice them. Then I realized (without giving any of the story away) that every one of them bore some physical deformity. Suddenly it dawned on me that I knew who these people were. They were my Penitent characters—Laurel, Constant, Deirdre and the rest—and they’d tried to disguise themselves as ordinary hardware store customers by dressing in a way they believed to be fashionable for humans.

They had come to find me. But what did they want?

I remember so clearly the sensation of being thunderstruck to see them there in my human world. But they remained silent, and soon had looped past me and left the way they’d come in.

Then the last one of them, a man wearing polyester bellbottoms and an open-necked shirt with an oversized collar, stopped in front of me, and, unlike the rest, he gave me an appraising look. It was Lugo.

In the dream I stared at him, speechless. Then he spoke to me.

“We just wanted to make sure you’re as comfortable with us as you think you are.”

Before I could respond, he turned and followed the others out of the hardware store.

So Lugo, wherever you are, here’s my answer: I’m not sure I was, then. But I am now. And thank you for finding me.

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12 comments on “When Fictional Characters Come to Life”

  1. Great post! I love the imagery...that dream could be the basis for its own story or poem! (I hate unpacking, though...I have good intentions of finally creating a perfectly organized space but usually wind up dumping things into random places and calling them 'junk drawers.')

  2. I'm always immediately pulled in to the river flow of words and imagery you unfailingly produce, Susan* It was a serene ride until your dream. It felt unsettling, very unsettling. The character at the end, with his question to you, pacified a bit, but still... I was relieved you were settled by your realization. I'm amazed at your dreams and memory of them... Agree with Diana that this one, and I suspect all, could germinate (?) Into their own stories*... or this provides a tantalizing tidbit / appetizer for the main meal of your book.... And I am sooo relieved to hear about your & Diana's junk drawers. ..Carry on, I say 👀

    1. Thank you, Claire! I love your summarization of the dream. You've hit the nail on the head. It definitely had all those different elements in it, but Lugo's comment to me at the end was a blow to my heart. It made me a little sad, because I hadn't realized until that moment how much they were depending on me to tell their story, and to tell it right. It felt like a huge responsibility. I hope I'm doing them justice. On another note, boy, did it feel good to just shove some stuff in that junk drawer and forget about it! 😉

  3. Hi Susan,
    Did you ever find your favorite Kitchen stuff? I know we get use to cooking with a couple of things, they are not replaceable.
    Just like good friends! Not replaceable! ❤️

  4. Writers never rest, not even in their sleep. Right before sleep, during sleep, and early morning rise, best ideas come to fruition. You're an awesome writer, Susan. The way your ideas and characters come to life is amazing! Looking forward to continuous reads from you. Blessings...

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