Writer Dreams: The A Priori Characters

In helping a critique partner edit a manuscript, the title of a book came up. The 1984 novel The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, which I had never heard of before.

A few weeks later, I picked up a copy at the library and devoured the book in a day.


It’s so dark. It’s so good. So good that I had to own a copy RIGHT NOW and bought a hard copy as soon as I finished. This is a book that has to take space in my life. A book so good I have to make sure the words stay close to me.

The narrator in the tale is an unnamed woman who tells the story through different parts of her life. The love affair referred to in the title takes place when she is 15 and a half and her Chinese male lover is 27. Marguerite Duras stated in an interview that this book was pure autobiography. The details concerning her life story are incredible. She was born in 1914 near Saigon and grew up impoverished in French Indochina. Her father died early on, and her mother was manic-depressive. She had one brother who was a psychopath (who she wanted to kill) and another mentally retarded brother she had sex with. Without food at home, she learned to hunt in the jungle.

Her life story is so incredibly rich, and her novel is so incredibly good– that I ended up being struck with such passion for writing– such a consuming oh-my-God-I-love-to-write mental fireworks, that the book I’m working on now, which has 207,000 words completed (out of a presumed 350,000) was put on hold. Not because I don’t enjoy working on that book. I just had another book take life in my mind, and I needed to drop everything and listen to those new characters for a while.

I think of my characters as existing a priori— independent of experience, already formed in my mind. I don’t bring them to life, I simply realize they are there. I pay closer attention. Really good literature can make that happen, and that’s what The Lover did for me. It made me realize I had these two other characters in my head (as well as the various people who populate their lives) and I had to pay attention to them for a while.

It so happens that one of these two characters is a combat veteran, which meant I had to start reading books about veterans right away so I could just immerse my mind in that soldier’s reality. The other character is a suvivor of child sexual abuse, perpetrated by her father, who also made pornography of her and sold the videos to organized crime (i.e. they went viral) and this young woman lives with the constant awareness that pedophiles can recognize who she is from all the sexual abuse material they’ve collected of her. It’s a horrible reality, one I didn’t even know existed until this girl came to life in my head and I set out to do some research and then– oh my God– the facts of what these survivors of child sexual abuse pornography face is such an ongoing nightmare, and the more I read, the more this girl just kept talking away in my head, telling me all about what had happened to her so I could put it down on a Microsoft Word page and tell her story.

You might wonder what in the heck a combat soldier and a child sexual abuse pornography victim have in common, to which I would respond: I had no idea, either, until I learned that combat soldiers with PTSD and depression are now being treated with the same therapy techniques developed for rape victims and victims of child sexual abuse. When I learned that, I was all: oh my God, no wonder these two characters showed up in my head at the same time, ready to star in the same story.

But every time this happens to me, and I start mapping out a book while I’m already in the middle of another novel, the characters in the first novel have a tendency to get mad. Some of them, anyway. They stomp around. They give me dirty looks. I get a lot of long, heavy sighs. “We were first,” those dirty looks say. “You tell those other people to get in line.”

So I gave this new project of mine a week. Thanksgiving break. It was perfect. Research, outlines, notes, daydreaming, I wrote a first chapter… and then I waited a few days, read that first chapter, contemplated how much WORK that project is going to be… and then went back to the characters who were huffing and puffing and stomping around, irritated that I’d put them on a back burner for a week. They were happy. Relieved, but still a bit wary I might dump them again. Even characters hate feeling rejection.

One of my husband’s good friends told me, “I can’t wait to read your first book, so I can find out all about you.” I was speechless. Nothing in my first book has anything to do with my life. Any tiny wee glimmer of anything directly related to me was so distorted and embellished and manipulated for plot purposes– I just wanted to run away when he said that. The same kind of horror goes through me when I realize I’m going to write a story with a combat vet and a child sexual abuse survivor. What if people think I’m writing my own life on the page? What if I get emails that start, “I’m so sorry, I had no idea that your father did this to you,” and I have to explain that, no, “I made that all up.”

Except how much do I really make up? If someone shows up in your head and starts talking to you, telling you their life story, can you really claim that it’s imagination at work? Who the hell knows what that is? The creative muse? I think of a muse as a single entity, and these characters are all distinct. They don’t come from the same place. If I have a writer’s muse, then I think mine was broken. She’s up in my brain in pieces, waiting for things like great literature to wake those still parts of her up.

I sound totally crazy, don’t I? What a life.

Hopefully, no one will ever tell my husband about this post. He thinks I’m already bad enough.

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