I'd like to introduce you to someone.
I've known him for almost eight years now, and we've been through some stuff together. We've bonded. I'd say we know each other as well as two people ever can.
His name is James. And he's imaginary.
It saddens me to write that. I don't like to think that James doesn't exist in this world, but it's true. You won't find him at your local café. You wouldn't bump into him at the zoo. He'll never be standing in front of you in the queue at the library. The thing is, though, I know exactly what he'd order at the café, I know precisely how he'd respond to the animals at the zoo, and I have a pretty shrewd idea of what book he'd be checking out at the library, just as if he'd done all those things while I stood next to him.
(For those of you who are curious: a caramel milkshake which he would then find too sweet and afterwards get jittery on a sugar high; he'd think the tigers were cool but get completely freaked out by the birds in the aviary; and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.)
Think I'm nuts yet? Thankfully I have an outlet for my craziness which, at least partially, justifies the existence of my imaginary friend. He's the main character in my book.
Now, just to be clear: I didn't have an imaginary friend called James, want to do something socially acceptable with him, and decide to write a book based around him. When I sat down to write my first book I didn't...
Hold the phone. I should probably fill you in on the details of how I came to write my first book.
It was written in a fit of jealousy. I had always wanted to be a writer, but hadn't had the guts or self-discipline to actually write anything of any great length or worth. Then my friend told me she'd written a book as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge - to write an entire book of 50,000 words in the space of a month.
I was pleased for her. Very pleased. Of course I was pleased. What an achievement.
And why the hell hadn't I achieved it?
So a little while later I picked a month (I believe it was an April) and wrote a book in 30 days. I don't think I was terribly social that month - I doubt I had many conversations with people that made any sense - but it was the best fun I'd ever had. And, getting back to the point, when I sat down to write it, I didn't have the faintest idea what my book was going to be about, or what audience it was aimed at, or what my characters were going to be like. I didn't let any of that stop me. I just wrote.
And what I wrote was James.
He appeared immediately, as if he had been waiting for me. He came fully equipped with pert opinions, a dry sense of humour, a fine array of social problems and a healthy dose of cowardice. The kind of young man who would have been happy to be the main character in a book about sitting in your bedroom reading quietly.
So what do I do to the poor bastard? I make him the main character in a fantasy adventure, complete with danger, mayhem and terror. He hasn't thanked me for it.
The thing is, though, the book could have been about anything. It could have been a romance or a murder mystery or a thriller or a coming-of-age story. The genre was an afterthought. The plot was adaptable and, indeed, has changed a few times throughout the editing process.
James, on the other hand, has hardly changed at all. A few points about his backstory have, but that has been more to explain why he is the way he is, rather than to change him. I don't think I could change him now if I wanted to. It would be like trying to change my right elbow. He's just... James. He's done.
And it's not just me. My fiancé and my sister ask me how James (the person, not the book) is going. My friends who have read the book refer to him like he's an old, mutual friend. We joke about how James would react to this situation or that situation. They could just be humouring the crazy girl, of course, but I don't think so. He's a real boy!
Even the good people of the publishing world seem to appreciate the inevitability of James. The nice notes I got from publishers rejecting my work always mentioned the 'engaging main character' I had produced. A while back I got a manuscript assessment written by three different people, and none of them suggested that James needed altering. Even now I have an editor and we're tearing the manuscript to shreds, it's all been work on the plot, not the characterisation.
Unless she just fixes up the plot first, and moves on to characterisation after that...
I hope not because, if she asks me to change what James is like, I don't think I could help her. Even if I could, it would break my heart to do it. It would feel like I was betraying a friend, like I was ripping out his soul. You want me to change the plot? No problem. Let's dump him in a vat of ice cream and see what happens. How about an alien invasion? Sounds exciting. Even his physical appearance is up for debate. You think he'd work better with blue eyes, or blue hair, or a wooden leg? Sure! Why not?
Just don't ask me to change how he'd react to a vat of ice cream, or an alien invasion, or suddenly only having one leg. The boy's got his own opinions, and he's more than happy to voice them.
Seriously, my character's out of control.
I don't think I'm alone in this. I've heard of other authors just 'finding' their characters fully formed, and these characters then influencing the plot to the point where their author's can't control it any longer. I'm sure there are theories. I'll do some research and get back to you.
In the meantime, though, all us daft authors have more friends than our Facebook profiles know about, and they're always available for a chat. In fact, it's hard to get them to shut up sometimes.
And they say writing is a lonely job.