Many novelists would probably agree that you don't know whether your fiction is working until the characters come alive and run off and do their own thing. Yes, all fiction is to some extent autobiographical. Flaubert said, famously, to someone who asked him about the model for his most famous character, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi". Yet Emma Bovary lives and breathes beyond her author.
In coming fully alive, fictional characters can step out of the covers of a book or the frame of a movie or TV screen. I've listened to kids recount fabulous dream adventures in which a hero or villain from a story they were reading carried on through the night, beyond the writer's script. I haven't published a novel for a while, but some of the characters I have created turn up in my own dreams, as if to remind me that they're still around and would like me to spend some time with them.Recently, in a dream I received a message from Feliks Nikolsky, asking me to meet him at a reception in Moscow. Nikolsky is a character in my spy novel Moscow Rules, first published in 1985. He's a boozy KGB philosopher who works for a wicked crowd but whose heart is really in the right place, and who dies (in my story) trying to overthrow the system. He's literate, funny and pays attention to his dreams.
As I say, Nikolsky resurrected himself in my dream. He gave me directions to the building where we would meet, telling me I would know it was the right place if I noticed something funny about the tea. That bit was mysterious until I arrived in the marbled Stalinoid lobby of a huge institutional building where there was an industrial-sized samovar in an alcove. I poured myself a glass of tea, and nearly gagged. The "tea" was lukewarm vodka, only slightly flavored by tea leaves. Nikolsky, ever the trickster, had substituted vodka for water in the tea-maker.
I turned and found Feliks himself, grinning at me from the stop of a short flight of wide steps leading up to the main reception area. He was dressed in service uniform, in a double-breasted jacket with red flashes. (I remembered him with the blue flashes of the old KGB, and wondered what outfit he was in now.) Reddish hair, round face, regular features - handsome except that he was pale and puffy from constant drinking. He gave me a big bear-hug and announced he was going to show me his city. "Nalivay! Let's get on with it!"
He proceeded to squire me around Moscow. I met artists and restaurateurs, "new capitalists" and old KGB types, mystics and mob bosses. Since this was Russia - and this was Feliks - drinking was required in all these scenes. I woke cheerful, but with the worst hangover I had experienced since 1985 (though apart from my dream, I had little to drink the previous night).
I know that many writers meet their characters in dreams. Some writers claim that their characters can even step into the physical world. Alvin Schwartz, famous as the writer for Superman and Batman comics back in the 1950s, claims in a metaphysical memoir (An Unlikely Prophet) that he met Superman in a New York City cab. He relates this experience to prior ones in which he says he encountered a seven-foot tall Tibetan lama who proved to be a tulpa, a being generated by thought that can manifest in the physical world and sometimes gets away from its creator.
I don't think I want to meet Nikolsky - or any other characters from my novels - in a city cab, and I think I'll allow a little recovery time before I accept his next invitation to party in Moscow overnight.