Are many novelists immersive daydreamers?

When I was a teenager, I assumed that one day I would be a famous novelist. It seemed obvious to me that since I spent so much of my time crafting these detailed stories in my head, I would eventually build my career around it. Many daydreamers feel the same way. As our plots become bigger and more detailed, we start to wonder whether we can, or should, keep them confined in the limited space of our own minds. Writing our stories down and sharing them with the world can feel like the natural next step. I wonder how many people have actually taken that step? How many novelists were drawn to writing because they couldn’t stop the stories appearing in their heads?

One of the things that characterises my daydreaming is that my characters appear fully formed, complete with appearance, personality and back-story. I might create a new character because they’re needed for a particular section of my plot, but I rarely need all the detail they automatically arrive with, and that detail often drives whether the character endures beyond the scene I originally created them for. Also, once I get into the detail of a particular scene, I don’t script every word and action of each character. I just decide OK, this is the situation, and I let my characters go, and the scene unfolds automatically. That’s what makes daydreaming so much fun. It’s effortless. I’m not forcing something into creation, I’m watching it unfold in my mind.

In a radio interview, J. K. Rowling said “I never write and say, ‘OK, now I need this sort of character’. My characters come to me in this sort of mysterious process that no one really understands, they just pop up”. Enid Blyton once wrote “As I look at them, the characters take on movement and life… I don’t know what anyone is going to say or do. I don’t know what is going to happen.*

Obviously, no-one should infer from these brief quotes that J. K. Rowling, Enid Blyton or any other author experienced immersive daydreaming. But the idea that characters can take on a life of their own, and that plots can unfold automatically rather than being consciously created, probably feels very natural to most daydreamers.

Of course, as my teenage self quickly realised, being able to watch a compelling and detailed drama unfold in your imagination is not sufficient to make you a great novelist. The best authors not only bring their story to life in their own imagination, they can make it come alive in the imagination of their readers. It’s one thing to see the story, it’s quite another to capture it in writing. And it’s a skill that I, for one, don’t have. The dialogue that takes place between my characters at key moments can move me to tears, but whenever I’ve tried to write it down it sounds wooden and fake. I’ve accepted that I’m much better at writing about daydreaming than I am at writing my daydreams.

The only study I’ve found that investigated the inner worlds of fiction writers is Taylor et al.’s 2003 study* into fiction writers’ experiences of their characters taking on minds of their own. In their study, 92% of authors reported that their characters acted independently to some extent. Taylor et al. hypothesised that as the author develops the character, they become more and more practiced in deciding how that character would react in any given situation, and eventually that decision-making process becomes sufficiently automatic that it happens subconsciously, so the author feels as though the character is acting independently. In other words, any author could make a character act independently if they spend long enough getting to know that character and shaping them into something that feels real.

Taylor et al.’s hypothesis may well be perfectly valid. But we daydreamers know it isn’t the only possibility. Some of us have characters that arise in our minds fully formed. We never consciously create them. They simply are. And some of us have plots that unfold effortlessly without us having to “decide” what’s going to happen. Calling those of us who experience that immersive daydreamers seems to be as a good a working definition of immersive daydreaming as any other.

But one of the most uplifting things that I took from Taylor et al.’s article was this:

Adults might interpret reports of autonomy in a [child’s] pretend friend as evidence that the child is confused about the friend’s fantasy status or even as suggesting a dissociative disorder. Actually, we might have similar suspicions about an adult who described imagined characters as having minds of their own – until the adult is identified as a novelist. In the positively-regarded context of creative writing, we are willing to accept the possibility of phenomenological peculiarities; we do not question the adult’s mental health.”*

In other words, we don’t judge authors as weird or delusional when they describe their characters coming to life and acting as if they have minds of their own. We should afford immersive daydreamers the same courtesy. If your daydreaming is immersive – if it doesn’t upset you or stop you from living your best life in the real world – then having characters that come to life, imaginary friends, even a whole parallel world in your head, is no reason for you or anyone else to question your mental health.

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*All the quotes in this article are taken from Taylor, M., Hodges, S. D., & Kohányi, A. (2003). The Illusion of Independent Agency: Do Adult Fiction Writers Experience Their Characters as Having Minds of Their Own? Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 22(4), 361–380. https://doi.org/10.2190/FTG3-Q9T0-7U26-5Q5X

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