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We Are Large! We Contain Multitudes!

It's not as if there aren't enough real people in the world. Seven billion at last count, and ten on the horizon.

So why all the imaginary ones?

Enough already!

Who on earth thought it was ever a good idea to add to the sum of humankind by concocting hordes of hypothetical men, women, and children?

The answer is that we need those ghostly presences. Urgently. (Interestingly, it's not reciprocated. Those fake folk don't give a damn about us.) I'll get to my "we urgently need" claim later.

But first, the stats.

Tending toward the nerdy side, I sometimes wonder whether the fictional population is expanding at the same rate as the real oneI sometimes wonder whether the fictional population is expanding at the same rate as the real one. Or whether the imaginary characters concocted by writers and dramatists over the centuries might soon outnumber their mortal counterparts. Maybe they already do. It's possible, given that they're eternally alive. But it's a tricky equation for a pedant like me to resolve, because you have to decide whether imaginary hordes — all those infantry in War and Peace, for example, or the populations of multiplanet science fiction novels — bear the same notional weight as their real-life equivalents. If so, then yes: we're easily outnumbered, and we have been since the pre-Frankensteinian era. If not, then up pops the next question: What level of definition does a human being require? How much sketchiness can a person get away with before being disqualified from the Real Folk vs. Fake Folk statistical league tables?

These are heady philosophical issues, and I don't pretend to have the answers. All I can tell you is that as a worker in the imaginary-people production industry, I've had a busy 20 years. During that time I grew two real people in my pelvis, who emerged as babies and are now young adults who say ew, Mum, please don't be so embarrassing. No grandchildren yet so the grand total rests at two. Two! That's nothing compared to the unreal people I've brought into the world, via my head! Nothing!

I haven't just invented them. They're first-person narrators all, so I've actually been them too. I'm exhausted! But I can't stop!

The fun and games started when my first son was born. I am talking about my first real son, on Planet Earth. During the four years that followed, I spent a great deal of time in a parallel universe being a housewife incarcerated in a mental institution by a deranged scientist. I was also mother to a fictional son who was a bit like my real one. After my next real-life son was born on Planet Earth (are you keeping up here?), I tried a parallel-universe sex change. Upon which my personality and time-line split in two, and I became both a sleazy veterinary surgeon in the 21st century and a devout Victorian who discovers he's half monkey. After a futuristic spell on Death Row on a prison ship in the Atlantic, I returned to my female state and went back in time for a disastrous fling with a GI in World War II. I then contracted Alzheimer's and died in an old folks' home.

Around this time, on Planet Earth, I got divorced and remarried and acquired a step-daughter — whilst in my parallel universe, I reincarnated as a middle-aged male neurologist with a crush on a patient's mother. After a stint as a nine-year-old boy in a coma, I awoke to find I was a 19th-century Danish prostitute. In the real world, my husband, also a writer, dramatically upped his own contribution to the fictional populace by producing a massive multigenerational saga. (We are large! We contain multitudes!)

Back in the imaginary future, but still female, I took a job as an art therapist in an institution for criminally insane minors, where all hell broke loose. Actually that's an understatement: the entire world came to an end. Most recently, feeling the need for another sex change, I became Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist with Asperger's syndrome investigating an epidemic of child violence. He's pressing me for a sequel but he's not getting one: I've moved on.

So has life on Planet Earth: my sons have grown up and left home. And who can blame the poor children: they lived with their mother's "sick imagination" (I quote my youngest) for long enough. I'm still female, still married, and still writing. Unless of course I only think I'm real, and I'm straight out of your parallel universe. (If that's the case, I'd have to take issue with your narrative arc, life-story-wise. Get back to the drawing board, buddy.)

Anyway, here are the questions I sometimes ask myself in the middle of the night, when I'm not fretting about other urgent issues such as whether we've got enough milk for our morning tea. Twenty years, eight novels, a slew of short stories, and umpteen fictional incarnations: Why conjure these invisible armies? And is it really healthy to shut yourself in a room away from real people, the better to concentrate on the imaginary ones in your head?

At the start of this little thought experiment, I claimed that humankind has an urgent need for fake folk. Grandiloquent? Maybe — but I'm prepared to supersize the claim by adding that if there weren't a strong emotional market for these multitudes, we'd never summon them in the first place. So why do we? The clue to this lies in what they're up to. Think of any character in a novel you've read, and if you cast your eye over their activities, you'll see how busy they've been.

Busy how? you admonish. They're not even real!

Busy maintaining your sanity, my friend, is my solemn answer. Keeping you on the straight and narrow. Presenting you with a continuous stream of hypothetical scenarios designed to keep you away from the divorce court, out of the nuthouse, and far from that shooting range.

How so?

I'll answer that with another question: What's a story? Boiled down to its essence, I'd say it's simply a bunch of characters getting into a mess and then getting out again.What's a story? Boiled down to its essence, I'd say it's simply a bunch of characters getting into a mess and then getting out again. The challenge they face may be caused by the world around them, or it may be of their own devising. Either way, simple. Mess. In. Out. (Or — in tragedy — in deeper.) Catharsis. The End.

I won't be the first to postulate that Real Folk need to read and write stories about Fake Folk because life is generally as chaotic and meaninglessly confused as an adolescent's bedroom. Or that real life doesn't make sense, while fiction does, by simply allowing us, in its generosity, to deny the randomness of existence. To escape it altogether, via the cathartic In-and-Out-of-Mess method.

I like to read newspaper stories because the questions they provoke quickly teleport me into fictional territory. Those that begin with "What if?" always take me in the deepest.

What if my beloved daughter turned out to be a psychopath?

What if the Rapture really was around the corner?

What if you got hypnotized in order to forget a crime you'd committed?

What if someone sabotaged their life's work without knowing why?

By the time I have finished writing the book, I have an idea of the answer I've been seeking. But I have to write it to find out. As E. M. Forster famously said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

I'm with him a hundred percent on that one.

It's not just imaginary people who are present when I write. You're there too. The reader. You're at the back of my mind and in the corner of my eye. By the same token, you're not alone when you read what I've written. I'm there with you. Except I'm not. Intimate strangers, divided by space and time.

Or perhaps — as I hinted earlier — you simply made me up.

If you did, you'll know my schedule. So you'd better send me back to the keyboard immediately because I'm multitasking at the moment, OK?

Wish me luck.

÷ ÷ ÷

Liz Jensen is the author of seven previous novels, including Ark Baby, shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award, War Crimes for the Home, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, and, most recently, The Rapture. Her work has been published in more than 20 countries. Jensen lives in London.

Books mentioned in this post

Liz Jensen is the author of The Uninvited

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