A group of humans I had never met before showed up on my doorstep one day. I opened the door, surprised by the knock (why didn’t they just ring the bell?), and without so much as a kind hello they pushed past me and immediately made my home theirs.
Mind you, they weren’t rude, at least, not in the sense that I felt uncomfortable having them there. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. I don’t know — I guess I just attract
After a while, we started talking. I figured, if they’re going to invite themselves in and crash on my couch until further notice, I might as well be polite. Get to know them a little. Feed them some snacks. Learn what they’re doing here, why they’re in my living room, what I’m supposed to do about it.
How to get them to leave.
They shared pieces of their lives with me one by one. Their likes, their dislikes, their wants, their fears. Very quickly I found myself actually starting to like them. They were interesting. Funny. Relatable.
But I still wasn’t sure I wanted them, you know, in my house. Taking up my space. Still not telling me what their purpose for existing was.
So eventually I decided I needed to face the truth. I could continue to be polite and give them these still mostly strangers a place to stay and plenty of food and someone to talk to, but at some point I was going to want my life back. And that would require knowing why they had shown up in the first place.
I promised myself one thing: If they told me their reason for coming here, I had to try to help them. It was, I felt, the least I could do.
“What do you want?” I inquired with genuine curiosity. “What can I do so you’ll go away and leave me alone?”
Blunt, but to the point. They seemed fine with that.
“We want you to tell our story,” they said.
And this is how my novel began.
Logically, I am aware that fictional characters are not real people who visit you unannounced, steal your food, and force you to write things on their behalf. That would be terrifying. If you are a real person, please do not do this to a writer. They’re already stressed out enough.
But at some point along my lengthy writing journey I discovered using this metaphor in normal everyday conversation is actually the perfect way to let my friends and family know that I don’t hate them — I’m just very preoccupied. By other people. Who do not actually exist.
Hey, whatever works. As long as it’s not hurting you or anybody else.
So this is how I’ve been explaining it to people. Some people showed up in my space and asked me nicely if I could help them and I said yes, and we’re still figuring everything out, and I’m exhausted mentally and emotionally (and physically?). And at this point, saying goodbye? It’s really going to hurt. I’m really going to miss my new friends.
Because sometime in the not so distant future, I’m going to accomplish what they so kindly asked me to accomplish. And they’re going to pack their bags and say their thank yous and leave the same way they came in.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to me when they do. But I suppose we’ll cry those tears when they come.
Characters, like ideas — at least so I have found over the years — are not always the most considerate entities. They show up unannounced, always at the most inconvenient moments. They don’t typically stop by for a short visit and then go on their way — they stick around. And they’re like that visiting relative staying “just for a little while” but three weeks in they’re still following you around asking you a thousand questions seemingly unable to figure out, after all that time, where you keep the spoons.
They just want you to listen to them. They want you to hear the things they are telling you. Not because they want to bother you (at least not completely), but instead because you have something they don’t: The ability to wrie a story other people will want to read.
A character without a writer to bring them to life is just a wish. It can’t change hearts. It can’t save lives. It can’t speak truths or inspire or even speak.
That is why we, writers, exist. We are responsible for telling the stories that would not otherwise be told.
And maybe that makes it sound like too much of a responsibility. Maybe you’re a little overwhelmed by the thought. Well hey. Welcome to the writing life. Sometimes things seem scary at first, but are really sort of fun once you dive headfirst into them.
The thing about some ideas is they simply cannot allow themselves to be ignored. I think every writer has encountered at least one instance in which shutting the door on an imaginary friend was simply not an option. Often times, before you even have the chance to open your mouth to say “no” they’re already raiding your fridge asking you if you have any crackers to go with the hummus.
And honestly? Sometimes you can’t get rid of them. They will keep pestering you until you give them what they want.
But all they want is for you to tell their story. That’s it. They’re not asking for anything else in return. All they really want you to do is the thing you already love doing — write.
Sure, the story might seem “out there.” Unlike anything you have ever written before. It might seem too unfamiliar, or feel as though it hits too close to home.
What’s the harm, really, in giving the story — and its characters — a chance?
So what if, for a while, it consumes you? So what if you have to explain to your parents that no, you can’t come to dinner, you’re busy entertaining a fictional cast of people who just might change your life?
You never know. This could be the story that makes all your dreams come true.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.