That Shock of Recognition

Distressingly, I have not been able to trace the authorship of this wonderful image, which has been widely distributed by a wallpaper website. If anyone is aware of the original authorship, please let me know!

Being a writer can be strange.

You’ve likely heard all sorts of things about how fiction writers work.

Alice Walker and Jean M. Auel were among those who eventually behaved very much as though they were not creators, but mediums – both were known to thank their characters “for showing up,” and suggest at times that they thought they might have been describing real things that really happened in their work.

Stephen King and Greg Bear are among those who characterized fiction writing almost as an illness – something they couldn’t stop doing, even if it would have made their lives easier. King’s wife famously bought a typewriter to his bedside after his near-fatal car accident, reasoning that she knew he wouldn’t die if he was writing.

I could spin you a tale about my beliefs that the creative process is largely subconscious, rather than conscious, in some people. I seem to be one of those writers – and some of my most bizarre moments have been when I did not create, but rather recognized, a character’s personality or choice.

My very first protagonist was a stubborn bastard named Jack. After years of me trying to get him to do what I wanted to advance my plot instead of drinking excessively and letting dangerous women seduce him – well, we’re still not on speaking terms.

But I may have a better idea of how to wrangle him now that I’ve seen how William Gibson did it in Neuromancer.

I was a bit of an odd science fiction reader in that I managed to ingest a great deal of cyberpunk as a child, without ever reading Neuromancer until I was well into adulthood. By the time I read it, my Long Dry Spell had set in and I’d scarcely thought about Jack, much less written with him, in years.

When I first opened Neuromancer, it took me several pages to realize something was amiss. Then, four or five pages in, it hit me like a sledgehammer: “Holy shit. This guy is Jack.”

Gibson’s main character had the same psychology as mine, nearly to a tee – which I realized around the time another of Gibson’s characters informed him that “he was trying to get the universe to kill him while he wasn’t looking.”

That, I realized, neatly summed up Jack’s problem. Neuromancer’s protagonist proceeded to go through a bevvy of addictive substances (like my Jack) and get himself seduced by a dangerous and arguably unstable woman (also like my Jack, although his fling had been before the scope of my main story – no spoilers, but the two ladies even had the same general career progression).

Gibson, being a far more gifted writer than I, finally managed to wrangle the fellow with far more grace than I had ever managed.

But the similarities kept growing more bizarre. Gibson had a Rastafarian space colony with vaguely messianic theology; so did I. Gibson had a family of obscenely wealthy, culturally refined white people who had taken to cloning themselves. So did I. Gibson had a sweetly charming blonde psychopath with special penchants for sadism and creating gorey but oddly compelling artworks. So did I.

Of course, the arrangement of our elements was very different. My psychopath was a child of the clone family, Gibson’s was not. Mine was not due to begin his escapades until my protagonist was middle-aged; Gibson’s protag and his psychopath were contemporaries. My protag’s dangerous girlfriend was well out of the picture and he was involved with another woman when his major plot arch happened. Neither my protag nor my psychopath were ever due to rendezvous with the Rastafarians, who lived in the asteroid belt, not in near-Earth orbit like Gibson’s.

But still. The similarities were deeply unsettling.

The sensation is not unlike something I’ve encountered when working within my own works; I’ll occasionally call a character by the wrong name when writing, and realize with a shock that he or she is actually a version of that other character who’s apparently slipped through security to take up a role in another story.

Once I had to change a character’s name (because I just couldn’t bring myself to write a vaguely vampiric love interest named Edward, even though I’d named him well before Twilight came out). He refused to accept any other name for days, then suddenly responded when I read the name “Julian” in one of my college textbooks.

On that occasion I stopped for a full five seconds, wondering what felt odd to me.

Then I realized what had happened: upon sighting the name Julian, my character had forgotten that he’d ever had any other name, and so had I. The dissonance I felt had been the result of that you-were-always-Julian feeling rubbing up against my factual memories that he had in fact never been named Julian until that moment.

Maybe you’ll meet Julian someday.

That shock of recognition is in some ways strangely comforting; it tells me that something is going on far below the level of my awareness, which is comforting, I suppose, because I don’t trust my awareness as much as my un-awareness.

Have you other writers out there ever had anything like that happen to you?

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