Fiction writing is a mysterious process. It involves leaving reality behind and looking into a world that doesn’t exist, and then describing it as if it did in incredible detail. Take a fictional city for example. It could be a bright, bustling metropolis full of people dashing to and from their workplaces or it could be a dark and sinister place where night dangers lurk around silent street corners, where shadows cling to every unlit building. Every sound, every smell, every flicker of movement needs a mix of careful, almost scientific, planning and a good helping of the sense of freedom intuition can bring to make it come alive. Imagining a complete person can be an even greater challenge. Just think of a time when you tried to remember, in vivid detail, a friend you hadn’t seen in years – it can be difficult, even frustrating, to get their features and expressions exactly right in our mind’s eye. And that’s someone who exists. To fully appreciate the complexity and subtlety of inventing a new character – from nowhere – a writer has to consider their physical characteristics, tone of voice, attitude to life, whether they have a sense of humour or not and, most crucial, what in their past, present or future motivates their actions, thoughts, hopes and desires.
So how do writers create such appealingly vivid places, characters, conversations and events that feel so real to themselves and their readers? And, more importantly, what do they ‘see’ as they invent?
It seems there are two things going on. First things first: creative people ‘see’ the real world differently.
According to New Scientist, researchers at the University of Melbourne say that ‘open’ people – those who score highly on the openness trait – ‘see’ more possibilities whenever they look at the world around them. As one of the lead scientists, Anna Antinori, explains, “They seem to have a more flexible gate for the visual information that breaks through into their consciousness.” People who are open to new experiences in general (one of the five main areas in assessing personality traits) are more flexible when it comes to their basic visual perception. It seems to me that they don’t make as many assumptions about what they’re seeing as other people might. And the good news is free-to-learn techniques like mindfulness and meditation can make less ‘open’ people become more mentally flexible and, therefore, more creative.
But there’s more to a wild imagination than perceiving the world from an open-minded perspective. The second element is that creative individuals visualise their inner world in more accessible ways.
It was the cognitive scientist and psychologist, Steven Pinker, who first got me thinking about what actually happens when we daydream, ‘look’ at something in our mind’s eye or even write fiction. All three states require a person to perceive things that are not technically in front of them. It turns out that creatives can ‘see’ what they imagine far more clearly than the average Joe. They also ‘see’ those inner worlds – objects, people, places, even cognitions and emotions – right in front of their open eyes. Imaginary Joe has to close his eyes to do it and the image is often above his head or somewhere else entirely. A truly fascinating – and sorry for the pun – insight.
One thing’s for sure, inventing new fictional scenarios or imaginary people is a lot of fun and a lot of work. To encourage total creativity – brand new thoughts and ideas that appear out of the blue – it can be good to think of the mind as a blank page upon which new worlds and the events that happen within them can take shape. Sci-fi and fantasy writers are particularly adept at coming up with brand new concepts, places or events. Examples, in that order, would be the artificial intelligence first properly alluded to in “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, the made-up universe in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series and the apocalypse described in “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. All stunning testament to the power of a deeply imaginative brain.
But sometimes it’s easier and occasionally even more effective, believe it or not, to start with a known place or person and then to add a fictional twist. Using a little ‘interpretation’, a writer can take a piece of reality they find intriguing, such as a fascinating person, then tweak the personality, physical appearance and motivations of their chosen human bean* to fit with the story they’re developing. It’s especially fun and daring when the technique is used for people we know well (but it has to be used with caution if we want to remain friends with people!) Just take any successful film that boasts it’s based on a “true story” to see how brilliant this technique can be. As for places, environments and indoor settings, it can be immensely rewarding for both the writer and their readers to select somewhere that really exists and then adapt it in inventive ways to make it more suitable for a certain story. In fact, you don’t have to be a writer to try it out. Think of your favourite pub, restaurant or park. Now imagine a bizarre, fantastical or unexpected scenario happening within that environment. Go crazy. You could have a couple of talking dogs coming into the pub out of the cold and calmly asking for two pints after a long walk or all the water in the lake in your chosen park suddenly exploding out of the ground and turning into a doll’s house. Sounds ridiculous, but I bet you actually imagined what I just suggested – in your mind’s eye.
Our ability to ‘see’ almost anything we can think up is the essence of true creative thinking – it’s elevating what you know and feel comfortable with to new and unpredictable heights. And, yes, I also just proved that, as Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist at New York University, says, “Imaginative people have messier minds.”
So, it seems ironic that fiction writers and other creatives can imagine in so much detail when neuroscientists and psychologists still don’t have all the details about how they actually do it. There are simply far too many questions unanswered. Like… Do writers imagine their scenes in colour? Do they feel the breath of wind they ‘saw’ touch their characters’ hair? Do they hear the voices of their characters? Are the images they create inside their minds so accurate, so detailed, that they could identify their own fictional creations in a police line-up? Do they feel sad when they ‘see’ a character they like cry? Emotion, empathy, understanding, cognitive function and intuition are inextricably linked to creativity, so, perhaps, anything’s possible.
As I’m sure regular readers have guessed, my work as a fiction writer meant I was quickly picked as a guinea pig to try out the mind’s eye experiment. Thankfully, it wasn’t that difficult. Last Sunday, when I chatted with my partner over dinner about all this (he studied psychology and loves anything remotely creative), he asked me if I ‘saw’ imagined people or situations with my eyes open or not. He predicted the answer: yes, I can visualise, very clearly, unreal people, objects, events, conversations and places right in front of my open eyes and I do it every day as I write or type new stories. I ‘see-in’, as I like to call the process, on the train, at home, at friend’s houses, in bed, on holiday and in the garden. I’ve imagined invented people and scenarios at real parties I’ve attended, in busy cafes or even during theatre performances. Once, I thought up a character on a roller-coaster. (To be precise, I was riding it, not them.) The reality is, if it’s a skill you have, daydreaming – or “creative incubation” as Rebecca L. McMillan wonderfully described it in her research paper “Ode To Positive Constructive Daydreaming” (Reference 2) – can happen anywhere if you’re open to the possibility and fully accepting of the strangeness of having an overtly capricious mind. I’d be very interested to hear other writers’ experiences – if this ability to “do it anywhere” is also true of them and I also want a tally of how many weird looks they’ve had in their career.
Technically speaking, because my blog is supposed to be about ordinary people doing inspirational/amazing things, I ought to pick a single person I look up to and write about their creative experiences, but I think it’s ok to break the rules this once. By working on enhancing our openness to experience, all of us can be more inventive, more creative and, you never know, maybe a lucky few can use that newfound boost of imagination to achieve something extraordinary.
As always, questions, comment, insights welcome. And, if you have more time to spare and like this topic, you might enjoy Carolyn Gregoire’s “18 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently” over at the Huffington Post archive.
*By the way, human bean is a (cough) little reference to the name for humans in the most imaginative children’s book I ever read, “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton.
1. Check out Alice Klein’s informative and easily-digestible article (which will take you through to Anna Antinori’s work) via New Scientist for more.
2. The full research paper, “Ode To Constructive Daydreaming”.