Where is the Line Between Reality and Imagination? Guest Post by MA Demers

While writing my first novel, Baby Jane, which is set in Vancouver, Canada, I wanted to restrict my main male protagonist to a single detective, Dylan Lewis. In Vancouver, though, homicide detectives work in pairs, and thus I contrived to have Dylan’s partner, Tom Farrow, off on holiday for the whole book. So you can imagine my surprise when, only 48 pages in, I found my imaginary medical examiner asking Dylan, “When’s Tom back?” “Sunday,” Dylan replies.


Tom Farrow did indeed return on Sunday, and became one of my favourite characters in the book.  Question is, why did he come back, and uninvited no less? Was it just my creative subconscious realizing I needed another foil for Dylan? Or was this something more intriguing: that Tom existed in another, perhaps parallel, universe, and I had merely tapped into his existence?

Many moons ago, in university, I studied comparative religions and was intrigued to learn that the monotone beat of shamanic drumming induces the brain to produce theta brainwaves, which are the same brainwaves our brains produce when we dream. “Ecstatic” religions, such as that of North American Natives, teach us that when we dream we enter the spirit world, or, more precisely, that we connect with our soul that lives in both the spirit and the mundane worlds, and as such keeps us connected to the rest of the universe, that is, to Creation. Our dreams are therefore messages from the spirit world, from both guardians and foes, or are events we experience in this parallel dimension.

(In Western medicine many psychologists suggest their patients keep a dream diary in order to analyze and understand their problems better; in Native medicine, rather than passively wait for messages from dreams, shamans — also known as medicine men/women — use the shamanic drum to enter into a controlled dream state where they can communicate directly with the spirits to gather information and help the patient.)

If dreaming, then, is really us connecting to another dimension, then is this also what imagination is? After all, what is imagination if not a form of controlled dreaming? And if so, what, then, is a “product of my imagination”? Are my stories and characters manufactured by me, the writer, or am I merely a stenographer for the universe?

I decided to explore this theme in my latest novel, The Point Between, in which a famous mystery writer is murdered only to meet in the afterlife the lead detective of her novels. Marcus Mantova claims authorship of the now dead Lily Harrington’s stories, and his assertions send her into a crisis: what, if any, talent had she then possessed? And if none, then why her? As Lily ponders in the book, “she must have had some aptitude for the job … you certainly don’t hire a mechanic to perform brain surgery, or vice versa.” So is Marcus really the author of her books, or is she the author and he merely her muse?

Ironically, while I was writing the novel the experience I had with Baby Jane repeated itself. The Point Between was supposed to be centered around Lily and Marcus, but a woman named Penelope Winters inserted herself into the story. Like Tom Farrow, Penelope arrived fully formed, her looks and personality both clear as a bell. When she first popped into my head, I thought it would be fun if she, too, had been a character in Lily’s novels, but Penelope was having none of that:

“I’m a dead Whatcom County homicide detective.”

“But wouldn’t it be cool if you were Marcus’s great love from early in the series? You know, the one who got away and so now he’s a womanizing narcissist who can never love again, like Vesper and James Bond?”

“No. I am Marcus’s ex, but I’m a dead Whatcom County homicide detective.”

“Huh. Okay, then.”

And thus I found myself in the rather bizarre situation of experiencing the very experience I was writing about even as I was writing it:

“[Penelope] had appeared uninvited, like some of the characters in Lily’s novels who seemed to write themselves into the narrative, leaving her wondering where they had come from, what far recess of her mind had conjured up the apparition. Or the way a minor character, written in to bridge a gap or maybe create a red herring, would then take on a life of their own and become central to the plot. It was always a spooky feeling when such events occurred, and each time they did Lily would assign responsibility to her muse, yet this muse never had a name or even a face, was nothing more than a mechanism to explain the inexplicable.”

So the next time you’re reading a novel and imagining yourself in the story, or imagining the hero or heroine as a real person in your own life, ask yourself what if? What if he or she is real? What if your alleged fantasy life is actually taking place — but in another dimension? Would that make your dreams more real? More possible?

And while you’re reading a book, consider this: is it possible someone somewhere else is reading — or writing — about you?

About M. A. Demers

M. A. Demers is a writer, editor and self-publishing consultant with a diverse clientele as far away as Australia and Columbia. In 2011 she self-published her first novel, Baby Jane, followed by The Global Indie Author: Your Guide to the World of Self-Publishing, now in its third edition, and the concise To Kindle in Ten Steps: The Easy Way to Format, Create and Self-Publish an eBook on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. The Point Between is her second novel. She lives near Vancouver, Canada.

About Baby Jane
There’s more to good and evil than meets the eye...
When human remains are found in her pre-war fixer-upper in an east Vancouver neighbourhood, Claire Dawson’s grand plans to fix the house—and her life—take a disturbing turn. Suspicious there might exist a relationship between the discovery and her own tragic past, Claire insinuates herself into the investigation, unknowingly placing herself in harm’s way and Homicide’s Detective Dylan Lewis in an impossible conflict of interest. And when Dylan’s grandmother, a Coast Salish medicine woman, wades into the mystery, challenging the demon whose earthly form is behind the murder, the three find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes battle where lines are blurred and worlds collide—but souls are ultimately freed.

About The Point Between
It’s hard to tell fact from fiction, especially when you’re a ghost …
Bestselling mystery novelist Lily Harrington has been found hanging in her home in the tiny, oddball haven of Point Roberts, Washington, and all signs point to suicide. Worried the truth will be buried with her, Lily teams up with Marcus Mantova, the sexy detective of her novels, to influence the investigation and catch her killer. Yet no sooner has Lily come to terms with the existence of Marcus, the womanizing egomaniac she had thought a product of her imagination, than dead Whatcom County detective Penelope Winters also worms her way onto the case. Lies, frauds, and competing agendas take Lily on a roller-coaster ride over heaven and earth until, at last, she discovers the truth and another chance at life.


Wendy H. Jones said…
What an entertaining and fascinating post. You also made me laugh and have got my day off to a great start. I was really interested in what you said about the beats of the Shaman drum. I come from a teaching background and music which has four beats to the bar enhances learning. Music is a powerful thing
Bill Kirton said…
Thoroughly absorbing, Michelle, and, as Wendy says, fascinating. The sort of alchemy you're describing is a familiar experience. The way some characters establish (in fact, commandeer) their 'reality' is astonishing. So much so that it may seem hubristic for us to claim to have 'created' them. And yet that's what we've done. One of the characters in my WIP recently intruded into the narrative and forced me (yes, that's not too strong a word) to alter my proposed dénouement. I have to admit, too, that his version was better than mine. I look forward to reading your books.
Chris Longmuir said…
What a fascinating post. I think most writers experience their characters taking over the development of the story and dictating decisions we might not necessarily have made. I also use a technique when I'm stuck on a scene, of playing it over in my mind as I go to sleep, and when I wake in the morning it's fully developed. I just have to grab it before it escapes! In the meantime I've added a shaman drum to my shopping list!
I love this post - and identify with it very strongly. Plot solutions sometimes come to me in dreams, or rather not so much solutions as the answers to questions, so that I wake up thinking 'oh THAT'S what happened!' And sometimes I find myself 'seeing' a character very clearly in a dream. In my last novel, the Physic Garden, an agent had suggested that it should be rewritten in the third person in order to make it more marketable, but the main character/narrator just wasn't having it. And eventually I simply had to let him go on telling his story. Which was, as it turned out, very much the right decision! Your books sound intriguing. I'll definitely be seeking them out.
Mari Biella said…
This resonated with me, too. Characters sometimes take on a life of their own, and I love it when they do - when they stop being puppets and become players. I've become strangely close to many of my characters, and think of them as being my friends. One in particular I was almost in love with.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes a fascinating post, and a great idea for a crime thriller too incidentally! Characters do take over at times though I suppose they could be a way for our subconscious minds to express themselves and sidestep our conscious control - or they could indeed be critters from another reality!
mad said…
Thanks to everyone for their comments. This topic has been on my mind much of late, probably because the subject features heavily in The Point Between, but also because I've been in a constant battle this past year over what to write: do I start writing more commercial fare and for a younger demographic (who are easier to market to), or do I keep writing the stories that come to me, that the universe -- or its characters -- seem to be dictating? As a writer, do you really get to choose what you write?
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, I echo much of what others have said. I've actually had the experience of three characters ganging up on me together and telling me I'd better change the way the story was going or they wouldn't cooperate any more, I'm reminďed of that marvellous post-modern novel by Jasper fforde, The Well of Lost Plots, where two characters called Ib and Ob, ompletely featureless blobs, obtrude into 'real'life and, as the novel continues, gradually shape themselves into completely realised characters, though with absolutely nothing to do with how the novel resolves itself.
Enid Richemont said…
I really loved this post, and like others here, identify with it. I'm sure I've already told the story of the old lady in a nursing home who turns out to be one of the pivotal characters in my Y/A novel, WOLFSONG, and of how, months later, and well after the book was published, how I was contacted out of the blue by the relatives of an old lady in a nursing home in Paris wondering if I might be a relative? Yes I do have a French surname, but not that one. Thanks, Denis, for mentioning 'The Well of Lost Plots'- just found it in David's library. Never read it - now I will.And I MUST look into Shamanic drumming - fascinating.
mad said…
I just discovered to my horror that there was a glitch at CreateSpace that rendered the paperback version of "Baby Jane" as temporarily unavailable on all Amazon sites. Should have that fixed by tomorrow hopefully.
Dennis Hamley said…
Enid, you will meet the Cheshire Cat who, as a result of local government reorganisation, is now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat. In his capacity as gatekeeper to the W of L Ps, he signs his letters U.A.W Cat. Read and enjoy!
Nick Green said…
The brain doesn't access another dimension. The brain IS another dimension. And ideas happen fractions of a second before we are aware of them, so in that sense it's true to say that we (the conscious self) do not create them. Our brain creates them, and then notifies us. That's why it sometimes seems that ideas have come from elsewhere. But the elsewhere is inside our heads.
mad said…
Interesting idea, Nick Green, but if the brain is another dimension, how does one explain its physical nature in this dimension? If our brain is inside our head, and WE are in this dimension, how can our brains be in another dimension, or be another dimension itself?
Nick Green said…
Er, well... I suppose I meant 'mind' rather than brain. Your mind is another dimension, just as Microsoft Word is another dimension on your PC screen (you can contain thousands of pages without using up any more physical space in 'this' dimension). Our minds are virtual worlds, like computer worlds only far more complex. And clearly much stuff goes on in them of which we are not aware. For instance, just the other night in a dream I bought a seven-litre bottle of banana milkshake from Peter Falk (of 'Columbo' fame).
mad said…
Here's an interesting tibdit: the ancient Greeks believed that the mind was not the brain but in the spaces between the physical matter, and therefore contained in the spinal fluid.

But the thing about Microsoft Word: the more pages you have open in a document the more space it does take up. Perhaps not in the sense that your screen gets bigger but the pages use up more of your RAM. So it is taking up space somewhere.

However, the interesting thing -- and I think this is where you are going with your analogy -- is that regardless of how much knowledge we do or do not possess, our physical brain does not change in size: increasing our volume of ideas/knowledge in our brain does not increase its physical dimensions. But is that really a function of mass or of permutations? In other words, we do not need to increase the physical size of our brain in order to increase its capacity because memory is not a function of storage space, as it is on a computer, but a function of synaptic relationships between billions of neurons whose possible permutations are incalculable. And if we damage a part of that physical object, we do lose function, memory, and creative/cognitive ability. So the mind IS, at least partly, contained in the brain.

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