Hello. My name is Tanya J. Peterson. I’m forty-two years old, and I play with imaginary friends. Perhaps I should be ashamed of myself. Should adults really have imaginary friends? If those adults are writers, I would argue that pretend companions are a must.
I have a goal with my novels: to humanize mental illness, to deepen empathy and compassion. In order to humanize mental illness, I must create humans to whom people can connect. The best way I can accomplish this is by connecting with my own characters. How can I expect others to feel anything for them if I myself am indifferent?
Long before I even begin researching and writing a novel, I create my theme and my characters. I decide what it is that is important to convey through the novel I will be writing, and then I ponder who it is that will be experiencing the things in the story. I make the main characters come to life. I visualize them; I imagine their lives and their various experiences. How do they feel about what’s happening around them? What experiences have shaped them? What makes them happy, and what makes them hurt?
By the time I’ve answered these (and other) questions, I have come to care a great deal for these people. They are now on my mind almost constantly. If I’m at the dinner table, for instance, without my even meaning to do so, it feels as though these new friends are dining with me. They’re with me during my every waking moment—not just thoughts about them, mind you. It truly feels like they are fully present with me. They have become my imaginary friends.
You know how sometimes when we really care about someone, we experience emotions right along with him, celebrating when he’s celebrating and hurting when he hurts? That’s what happens to me as I write my characters’ stories. Often times, it feels as though my imaginary friend is the one doing the writing and I’m along for the ride. Our friendship is that close.
I know that this is probably not something I should go around openly admitting. Yet I wouldn’t change this little quirk I have of creating and maintaining imaginary friends because, hopefully, it helps my mission. Ideally, readers empathize with characters in novels. Commonly, people transfer their empathy to real-life human beings. As one reader wrote, “[Leave of Absence] really made me examine how we, as a society, generally treat people with mental illnesses. The story is heartrending. Penelope and Oliver are two people trying to overcome devastating mental illnesses and the book realistically depicts what that is like. It is a book about love, fear, friendship, rejection, despair and just about every other human emotion.” (The full review is here: http://bit.ly/16C3vyM.) Did my “playing” with my imaginary friends help this reader feel the way she does?
Perhaps it is strange to say that I fell in love with Oliver, Penelope, and William in Leave of Absence. Strange or not, I did. It took me a long time to separate them from myself. They’re still a part of me, but they’re no longer my primary imaginary friends. I have some new ones who have come into my life. One of them is my new best (imaginary) friend. His name is Brian, and I can’t wait for you to meet him in my next novel.
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