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Embodied Imaginations
Fictional Characters Making Experiential Crossings into Real Life: An Unusual Phenomenon
By Chidambaram Ramesh Posted in Non-fiction 8 min read
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Embodied Imaginations

by Chidambaram Ramesh

available on Amazon

The Big Magic of Fiction

The Greek myth of Pygmalion involves him falling in love with his own creation, a statue of a beautiful maiden. Throughout the process, he worked carefully to avoid bruising the artwork, as if she were made of flesh and blood. Although the sculpture featured a human face, no one sat for the artist or modelled. He carved the now-famous statue entirely out of his imagination. Galatea, Pygmalion’s creation, was adorned with expensive attire and jewellery. After carefully placing soft cushions beneath her, he invited her to share his bed. While kissing the statue, he imagined it was kissing him back. He spoke affectionately to it, and his touch softened her ivory breast. It was the first time he had felt anything like this before. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, gave Pygmalion the confidence he needed to believe he had been given a gift from God—the power to animate matter. To bring his ivory girl to life, he made an offering to Aphrodite, and the goddess granted his wish. In the end, Pygmalion and his creation led happy lives. This story narrates the process of metamorphosis that took place in the sculptor’s imagination. An artist never stops harboring the dream that his works will someday become a reality.

Much like Pygmalion, who created a statue that became flesh, many writers create characters by the imagination that seem real and have a life of their own. Those who have constructed a character from scratch provide their subconscious with an authentic form of imagination. Therefore, the characters in a writer’s mind take the form of thought. Sometimes, these thoughts will gain concreteness until they have discernible characteristics. Imagination and thinking make the figures of their imagination come to life and establish them wholly connected with themselves and everything they need to manifest and exist. In a book, the characters are not limited by what they can do on the page; they have the ability to alter reality itself. It is not uncommon for them to go beyond fiction into the writer’s personal life. This relationship between the characters and the writer is intriguing.  Despite what may seem like a crazy idea initially, it is supported by much evidence.

One of the essential claims of this concept is that human thoughts may manifest as reality. Due to our established theories of reality, we have an innate tendency – what Peter Carroll terms a psychic censor. – to reject this idea.

Although it may seem strange at first, the concept is not new. In 1859, David Masson, a Scottish academician, said that the best thing a novel could do was create “living characters.” He promptly posited that they were real creatures: “In a metaphysical sense, these phantoms of the human imagination are things, existences, parts of the world as it is, equally with the rocks which we tread, the trees which we see and can touch, and the clouds that sail in the blue above us. May they not, then, have a function in the real evolution of the future?”

John Ferguson Nisbet, a Scottish journalist and dramatic critic of the London Times, wrote in 1899, “Minds there are which, owing to excessive sensibility, are able automatically to throw into visible form almost any image or idea occupying them at a given moment. The gifted novelist sees and hears his fictitious characters as if they were living beings.”

A century ago, Dr Hereward Carrington, the foremost psychic researcher of his time and an eminent American Society for Psychical Research member, recorded a curious case that sheds light on this subject. A clairvoyant was sent to a writer’s home and asked to describe the individual she found there using her psychic powers. She described a person in detail—hair, eyes, build, etc. When the psychic had finished and recovered full consciousness, she was told her description was entirely wrong, and no such person existed in the house. Her report was erroneous throughout. When the facts were stated to the writer (whose home the psychic examined), he replied that although he did not resemble the clairvoyant’s description in any way, it corresponded precisely and in minute detail to a character he was creating and writing about in his book. In other words, his thoughts had taken form and were visible to the clairvoyant.

How did the clairvoyant come to be able to see it? What is the essence of the imaginary character ‘conjured up’ by human imagination? When authors encounter entities during the creative phase of writing, should they consider them as real as physical creatures, exclude them from the realm of incredible imagination, or should they just be treated as pure hallucinations? Is it hinting that some world exists midway between matter and spirit? This book addresses many fascinating topics.

In her best-selling book Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert explores the enigmatic quality of creativity and imagination. Gilbert regards creativeness as a force of enchantment rather than being solely human. “Our earth is inhabited not only by animals and plants, bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas,” she says. “Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely.” Gilbert says that while ideas have no physical body, they possess consciousness, which means they can decide what they want. Creative energies visit authors like house-elves, she believes. A new idea will visit someone it thinks might be able to lease it into the world and try to get his attention if it believes he can help it. Someone else will make this a reality if he refuses to accept it. Gilbert illustrates her point with an idea that veered away from her toward a friend, Ann Patchett. In the following, Gilbert talks about her unfinished novel.

She came up with the concept for a novel while discussing a Brazilian incident from the 1960s with her beloved, Felipe. He said Brazil’s government conceived of building a massive highway through the Amazon jungle. Brazil invested much money into the grand project at the time. It began raining during the development process, and no project planners seemed to know how the Amazon wet season would affect their project. The team was forced to leave the site without equipment, and months of rain followed. Returning to the construction site, they noticed that nature had destroyed their road project and buried their equipment. This story initially sparked Gilbert’s interest in writing a novel set in the Amazon jungle. She even came up with the storyline for the novel early on: a spinster in Minnesota falls in love with her married boss, who gets embroiled in an outrageous business scheme in the Amazon jungle.

Other priorities diverted her attention for a long time, so she ignored the idea. It was at this point that Gilbert met novelist Ann Patchett. The two of them became good friends and exchanged thoughtful letters. In a letter, Patchett announced she was working on a new novel set in the Amazon rainforest. This naturally aroused Gilbert’s interest. Gilbert said she had previously pondered doing something similar but had decided against it. Gilbert’s novel is about a middle-aged Minnesota spinster who falls in love with her married boss. An operation involving shady business people in the Amazon gets her entangled. The novel has several disappearances of people and money, and one character is sent to investigate. It is a love story.

When Patchett heard that, she was taken aback. The plot of her novel sounded hauntingly similar to Gilbert’s, which followed a middle-aged spinster as she made her way to the Amazon jungle to handle a messy business deal. A person and money disappear, and the protagonist is sent down to find them, leading to chaos in her life. It is also a love story. Both writers were astonished at what they had just exchanged. They were confident that Gilbert had passed the idea along to Patchett, who was eager to give it life.

Gilbert’s theory is remarkably close to what Carl G Jung said about archetypes a century ago. Jung asserts, “The archetypes are the numinous structural elements of the psyche and possess a certain autonomy and specific energy which enables them to attract, out of the conscious mind, those contents which are best suited to themselves.”  As Jung noted, archetypal energies have characteristics of their own which surface as personality traits in the individual.

There is more to it than that, however. Often, a character in a story may not behave as the creator intended. Instead, they tend to form their own identities. Ideas, particularly those nestled at a higher level of unconsciousness, can manifest their own physical reality independently. Fictional characters often have their own mind, break away from the plot the author created, and live their lives according to their agendas. Characters in fiction behave in ways that raise the question: Have they got a mind of their own?

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