When I wrote the first draft of my first novel, The Prison, I actually dreamed it three nights in a row. The morning after the first dream, I woke up and thought, “Wow! That was a cool movie!” Then I realized it wasn’t a movie that I’d ever seen. When I dreamed it the second night, I woke up recalling all the more vivid details that had come to me than had been there before. And by the time I dreamed it the third night with even more detail, I took it as a sign that I needed to write it down.
The Prison wasn’t the first time I had repeating movie-like dreams, but it was the first time I actually ever took the initiative and did anything about it. In my dream, I was the main protagonist, Rachel, and my sister, Michelle, was the second female character. I was married to a man that looked like Brad Pitt (Oh, how I love when THAT happens!), and my sister was married to a man that reminded me of Johnny Depp. Brad’s mother reminded me of actress Kathy Bates, and his father reminded me of actor Dan Lauria. Jack in the book reminded me of Jack Black. And police officer Joe DeLuca looked like actor Jake Weber (who played Joe Dubois in Medium).
So, since God was kind enough to give me an all-star cast in my dream and allow me and my sister to perform along with them, I decided when I wrote to keep the names they’d already “been assigned” in my subconscious. The first half of the book is a wife’s recollection of her time with her abusive husband, and the second half of the book is the husband’s memories of the times he spent with his wife who he loved more than anything. So, in the first half of the book, Brad looks like Brad Pitt when he has the long, stringy hair and hasn’t shaved in a while, and Johnny looks like when Johnny Depp has the longer hair and the goatee. And in the second half of the book, Brad has short hair and is clean-shaven, and Johnny also has short hair and a smooth face.
So when I wrote, it was like I was taking dictation from another part of my brain. I didn’t have to think about anything at all. The characters were already developed, and the plot and dialogue was already in place. As such, everyone got to keep their first names as I dreamed them, and my only real work was typing like a madwoman before I forgot any of the important details. A lot of the first half of the book (and of course my dream on which the book was built) was based on some actual experiences I had many years ago. So, quite frankly, I didn’t really have to go far to wrap my brain around the brutality the protagonist endures and how nasty her husband is.
Now, this might be a good time to tell you that I am Autistic. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and as such, I have an amazing audio recall for anything I’ve ever heard… but because I can rarely look at people in their eyes, I don’t do well with faces at all, and names also give me trouble. Even when I watch TV, I seldom really watch, but rather, I listen. I can generally hear the first few seconds of a TV show that I haven’t seen in years (sometimes not even since I was very small), and more likely than not, I can tell you exactly what happens in the episode as if I saw it only yesterday. But if I watch and two people look similar, I’ll more than likely think they are one in the same. To give you an example of what I mean, when the original show Law and Order was on, I didn’t like it, even though I loved Law and Order SVU. Finally, one day, my sister asked me why I didn’t like it, and I told her. I thought it was stupid that the attorney was always doing the detective’s job. She didn’t know what I was talking about until I showed her. And that was when we both learned that I thought that Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterson were the same person!
Frankly, this happens a lot in my real life, too. Quite frequently in my life, I’ve been unable to remember a person’s name (even though I can easily remember every other word that person ever said to me, as well as where they were when they said it, whether they were facing North, South, East, or West when they said it, and the precise time of day along what we both were wearing at the time.) So, when that happens, I’ve just assigned them a nickname that corresponds to either a distinctive physical feature or even more often, a habit or trait they possess. Of course, these people don’t often know that I don’t know their names. So, a lot of times, my sister or my kids will get a phone message from “Mister Big Nose” or “Lady Snow Ski Feet.” But they know who I mean, so it’s all good.
As such, after I finished with my first draft of The Prison and decided that I definitely had more stories in me worth telling, I found that what worked for me was to make my female protagonist be me (named Rachel), and the characters around her are my closest friends or family (or sometimes my worst enemies). Then, when I’m done writing, I go back in and change all the names to what I really want them to be. This method, however odd it might be, usually works well for me, especially since most of my books are based on portions of my own life. So if you know a writer, you, too, may actually be a character and not even know it.
But the neatest thing that happens for me is when my characters start developing themselves. When I was writing my first draft of Thou Shalt Not, I complained to my sister that I hated how the father always called his daughter “Kitten.” She laughed and said if I didn’t like it, then why did I write it that way? (And if you write, of course you know the answer.) I told her that I didn’t mean for that to transpire that way, but as his character developed it “just kind of happened.” I can totally see now why all those Twilight Zone episodes and other such shows about writers who have characters come to life and attack them make good sense.