That Moment When Your Characters Show Up in Real Life
I had a moment, driving home last night, when a sentence popped into my head that struck me as something that Nikki Velvet, my lead character from Still Life, would say. And just like that, I think I have the first line of my next novel. Sometimes, tiny little bits of writing are that effortless; they happen to you while you’re doing other things. (Don’t worry, I wrote the line down when I got home.)
It reminded me of an article I’d read the other day, one inspired by William Gibson mentioning that one of his characters from a previous book had showed up to his mental “casting call” for a new one:
While Gibson was referring to the character ‘turning up unannounced’ in his imagination, it’s interesting the way in which the character seems to have moved forward with his life regardless of the author’s own thinking – as if created characters live on independently in that otherworld referred to by Alan Moore as ‘ideaspace’.
And strangely, authors have reported seeing their fictional creations act in this independent manner not only in their minds, but also ‘in real life’ – especially in the worlds of science fiction and comic books. Alan Moore himself has mentioned in an interview that he once saw one of his creations, the mage John Constantine (from the Hellblazer [comics] series), in a sandwich bar in London. “All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine,” Moore revealed. “He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.”
Another comics writer, Grant Morrison, has had a similar experience with Superman:
I’ve told this story in more detail elsewhere but basically, we were trying to […] figure out a new way into the character of Superman and coming up short… Until we looked up to see a guy dressed as Superman crossing the train tracks. Not just any skinny convention guy in an ill-fitting suit, this guy actually looked like Superman. It was too good a moment to let pass, so I ran over to him, told him what we’d been trying to do and asked if he wouldn’t mind indulging us by answering some questions about Superman, which he did…in the persona and voice of Superman!
Which may sound like just play-acting, but Morrison refers to this moment as “shamanic,” and in the same interview he talks about another comics writer from years past, Alvin Schwartz, who had a “notion of Superman as a tulpa, (a Tibetan word for a living thought form which has an independent existence beyond its creator) and claims he actually met the Man of Steel in the back of a taxi.”
All of which might sound a little crazy to you, and if it does, this will sound a little crazy to you, too:
I saw Nikki Velvet, once.
It was a few months after I’d finally finished writing Still Life. I was out at the Mercury, a nightclub in Seattle that also happens to feature as a location of a few scenes in the novel. Across the room, I saw this girl —
And stopped dead in my tracks. I don’t describe Nikki in great detail in the book, beyond her close-cropped, bleached-blonde hair, but I had certainly pictured her in detail while I was writing, and — this was her. I recognized her, as sure as if it were someone I actually knew and remembered.
I’d never seen her there before, and I’ve never seen her since. I asked around, and none of my friends knew who she was.
I could have gone over and said something to her. But — what, exactly? If I told her the truth, I was worried it would come across as the weirdest and most pretentious pick-up line of all time.
Besides, I had this weird, electric, left-of-center feeling of heightened reality, just catching glances of her from across the room. Colors too real, details too sharp, a feeling like I’d had seeing UFOs when I was a kid.
I didn’t want to ruin that. Sure, I could have gone over and proven to myself what I rationally knew was true — that this was just an ordinary girl who happened to look the way I’d imagined a character I’d created looks.
But I didn’t, and instead, I left room in my life for uncollapsed wild possibility — honoring my imagination, and giving respect to wherever it is characters and ideas and all of that crazy magic comes from — and let myself believe, just a little bit, that Nikki Velvet had really come out to the club that night with her friends, just to let me see her, and just to let me know that, after everything I had put her through — she was happy and safe.