“You see, all my characters write the book. I don’t write the book. All these characters come to me and say, “Listen to me.” And then I listen to them and I put it down, and the book gets written. That’s how I write, you see. All these lovers surround me, and they love life and they tell me about it.”
– Ray Bradbury
You know that feeling when a book ends.
All these characters and emotions and friendships and conversations and adventures and loves and wonderment and hate and laughter and tears and triumphs and tragedies and salvations and retributions and justices and injustices and moments and thoughts and ideas and insights and beauty that have changed your life for the better… and now you have to say goodbye.
Bad enough that all the real people in your life abandon you. The imaginary ones do it too.
That sense of loss and bereavement is something only you passionate readers can understand. Those of you who fall in love with those boys and girls on paper. Those of you who worry about their hardships in your day to day life, because they are so visceral to you. You worry about characters on the page even more than some people you know in the real world. After all, the world in the book is far more real than this place you’re in right now, isn’t it. This world is the dream. The book becomes your reality.
When I began to write my first duology, The Vampire Noctuaries, in 1993, I had already known the characters for 2 years. They wouldn’t leave me alone. They kept on talking. Kept on showing me things. I couldn’t get them out of my head. Anytime something in my real life reminded the characters of something, they were sure to start speaking up again. Next thing I knew, I was daydreaming about them all the time.
By the time I finished writing the first book, The Gothic Rainbow, I knew them intimately. They were more than friends. They had become a part of my psyche. Part of the fabric of who I am. After all, we are defined and shaped by our experiences and therefore, for every author, our characters become not just imaginary people in a book, but they are part of the story of our lives. Of our very being. You can’t talk about the life of J.D. Salinger without talking about Holden Caulfield, or J.R.R. Tolkein without Bilbo Bagins, or Mark Twain without Tom Sawyer, and by that measure, they not just imaginary characters, they are a very tangible facet of what defines the existence of these authors.
The Vampire Noctuaries are a very dark story. Very grim. Very depressing. And frankly, my real life became a lot better after I wrote that first book. One of the biggest reasons it took me 16 years to write a sequel was because I had started living a much happier life and I really couldn’t bear to return to those shadows.
Once I did return to that world, and I wrote the last sentences in the final book, something very unexpected happened. I fell into a terrible depression. It took me several weeks to pull myself out of it.
You know all that sorrow we feel when we finish reading a great book with characters we love? That grief is nothing compared to how it felt when I finished writing a book. I had no idea that would happen to me. I never thought about it. I never considered the possibility. It never crossed my mind. Because, you see, I didn’t feel remotely upset when I was done writing the first book, because I always knew there was more to write. I spent 16 years knowing there was more to the story. 16 years knowing anything the characters continue to whisper or nudge me about was always something I could write down later. By never writing the last book, it kept all my friends suspended in a state of endless possibilities. There would always be a new adventure to compose.
Once I completed writing Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival, all the possibilities had been exhausted. There was nothing left. My friends were gone. I could hear their voices no more.
Never did I imagine I could miss imaginary characters so much. I’ve lost flesh and blood friends in my life that I didn’t lament losing half as much as these fictional people.
I know many people would think that weird or strange, but it’s really not at all.
As human beings, we don’t really fall in love with people. We think we do. But we don’t. We don’t fall in love with a physical being. We fall in love with personalities. We don’t fall in love with what a person is, we fall in love with who they are. Their spirit. Their passion. Their outlook on life. Their dreams. Their hopes. Their humor. I’m not implying a physical presence is irrelevant. Obviously, there’s certainly a desire and a need for physical attraction and interaction and intimacy. Don’t mistake my sentiments for pragmatic nobility. I’m a shallow bastard just like everyone else and it’s a lot easier to fall in love with a girl when she looks like Aly Michalka instead of Keith Richards. My point is that falling in love is more than just a physical connection. After all, when a loved one dies, we don’t stop loving them, just because their physical body is gone. Right? We continue to love people who no longer exist. Their emotional connection remains. And that is what we fall in love with – how they make us feel when we’re around them. Their presence in our lives changes us forever and our feelings for them don’t vanish just because we can’t touch them or hear them talk to us.
How are fictional characters any different from a deceased loved one?
You still think it’s crazy to fall in love with imaginary characters you never met? Look at how many people fall in love over the Internet without ever meeting face-to-face. Messages and emails and phonecalls are enough to get to know a personality, to discover all the parts of a soul that are lovable. Keep in mind, these kinds of love affairs existed decades before the Internet was even invented. Before the Internet, generations ago, people would exchange handwritten letters and fall in love with pen pals, all over the world. In fact, in my personal life, not in a book or anything, I know a married couple who met and fell in love as pen pals. He was from England. She was from California. And they’ve been married over 20 years. Falling in love with someone you’ve never met, with a person who is just words on paper, is not crazy. It has been happening to people for centuries. How is the ink in the letter from a pen pal any different than the ink of a character on the pages of a novel?
Fictional characters have passions and opinions and dreams and hopes and humor and beauty, just like real human beings. In fact, fictional characters have everything a real human being has, except a physical body. When it comes to personality, a fictional person can be just as vibrant and alive and complete as any living soul. Therefore, falling in love with imaginary people isn’t strange at all. In fact, developing feelings for imaginary people might be even easier, because we are often exposed to their deepest thoughts and secret feelings; we get glimpses into their psyche that we never experience with people in the physical world. With imaginary characters, we get to know who they truly are, with no lies, no pretense, no betrayal. Even their imperfections and flaws are everything we dream them to be.
There was a time, when a girl I was dating finished reading The Gothic Rainbow, she told me that she felt sorry for the character of Helle. She said she wanted to get Helle a glass of milk and some cookies and take care of her.
I replied, “You know she’s me, don’t you?”
“What?” the girl said.
“As an author, every character in a book filters through the prism of the writer. Helle is largely based upon many girls I’ve known, but there’s also a little bit of me inside her. You do realize that, don’t you?”
The girlfriend didn’t really say much of anything in response, because she was horribly inarticulate and about as expressive as a plate of lima beans. Nevertheless, I think perhaps she began to understand what I’ve been trying to convey in this entire commentary. Fictional characters are still real people with their own morals and beliefs and agendas and loves and desires and dreams.
Believe me when I say, there is no shame or oddity in falling in love with imaginary people and seeing them as your friends. Corporeal people are a constant source of disappointment. Incarnate people will abandon you. They will betray you. They will lie to you. They will lead you on and make you think they care about you, when in truth they only care about what they can get out of you.
Imaginary characters will never do that. Makebelieve characters will always be there for you when you need them. They will never expect anything from you. They will never let you down. They will always remain loyal.
We never need to say goodbye to characters in a book. They will always be there. We can always spend time with them, talk to them, bring them with us. There is no need to give your heart to lovers who will never cherish it. There is no need to nurture friendships that will serve only to forsake you. Unlike any living person, the characters of your dreams will love you forever and befriend you for the rest of your life.
So, when you reach the end of a book, do not despair. That is not the time to say goodbye. That is the time to start a new chapter with soulmates who will live in your heart for eternity.
“The only thing worth writing about is people. People. Human beings. Men and women whose individuality must be created, line by line, insight by insight. If you do not do it, the story is a failure.”
– Harlan Ellison