Pretend People

Terentia is invited to speak at a local library about writing. A well known but ageing author, her latest manuscript has just been declined by her agent, so she’s in a sour mood. But at the library, she meets a young woman who asks her to appraise her first novel….

Paul is a Catholic school teacher. Disillusioned with teaching, he volunteers as a prison visitor, and is assigned Trevor, a notorious hitman soon to be up for parole. Trevor tells him that he wants to become a pastor when he gets out, and would like to talk with Paul about the Bible…

I made these people up. You’d think, therefore, that I’d know what happens next, but I don’t. Is Terentia’s young fan any good? Has Trevor really contracted religion? I don’t know (yet). I’m still waiting for them to tell me.

And yet, what’s the basis of all this? How do I know how Paul feels about his class of uninterested adolescents? How do I know what it’s like for Terentia to receive her first rejection in forty years? How can anyone know – they’re not real people.

This raises a real question for me as a writer, though. It’s true to say that the only person I really know is myself (and I wouldn’t say we’re that close, mind you). Next to that, I know a little about the inner lives of my friends and relatives (from what they tell me, and pop psychology). So Terentia and Paul’s entire fictional personalities are built using the template of ‘me plus my mates’. Can any author really draw on more than that?

Which means that fiction is basically an elaborately constructed portrait of (relevant extracts of) the author’s inner life plus the guessed at inner lives of people he or she has met. Apart from entertainment, then, what universal truths can it offer us?

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash


  1. Well, now I want to know more about Terentia’s story – as long as Terentia doesn’t have an existential crisis from meeting the young woman writer and change her ways to become a much nicer older woman who mends her hard-bitten ol’ ways. Ok, maybe a little bit of a change somewhere is okay, but no Hollywood stuff, please. That’s if Terentia was hard-bitten in the first place, otherwise an existential crisis to make her so would be okay 😊

  2. Agreed … our stories are generally what our lives are and the lives of those around us. Our re-imaginings of all those lives and our efforts to push those re-imaginings into something that is entertaining and meaningful.

  3. Hmm. Sometime people appear in my head saying ‘Write me! Write me!’, and I start, and then they go away again, and maybe come back after they’ve done whatever they had to do and resume. Maybe there’s bits of me, and bits of people I know or knew, but there’s also people I’ve seen on the bus and people I read about or saw in film. After all, Rose wrote a story about mermaids and does not like seafood.

  4. I like the sound of both those characters – Ternetia is a fantastic name. They’re a mystery, the characters we write. I can see bits of people I’ve known in my characters, while some are made from bits of one person I maybe only knew for a passing moment, mixed with bits from another person I met similarly and years later. Other characters I suspect are unrealised aspects of myself, both male and female. Other times I really don’t know where they come from. But the thing they all have in common is, once they appear on the page, I haven’t clue what they’re going to do or say next.

    1. I refuse to read tragedies, no matter how literary, but I like books that change my view of something, or deepen it. My approach is, one entertainer, followed by one enricher. Rinse and repeat

  5. That’s the God complex of the fictional author. We create lives and point them in any direction we choose. Sometimes we use our truth or a friend’s truth, or even something we read in an article or even a stranger we assume truths about! It’s in our brains or it drips from a wallflower who speaks directly to us about what they have seen.
    I am going on and on…

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