Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Characters Speak

One of the topics that fascinates me most about writing is when an author talks about how their characters "speak" to them. I've heard countless stories of writers waking up in the middle of the night to have their stories dictated to them by their main character. Most of the time, I'm in awe when I hear this and dream of the day (or night) it will happen to me that way.

I'm still waiting. Truth is I usually have to buy my characters a few milkshakes before they open up to me.

They do eventually open up, sometimes to the point where I have to tell them "not now" but I have yet to experience that thunderbolt moment of a character saying "Hey, wake up and listen to this!" Sometimes it takes a few weeks for a character to speak to me. Other times, a few months. In my experience I've had to really live with a character for awhile to differentiate which voice is which. It's hard for me to allow the story to evolve from that raw, organic place. My mind gets in the way and I begin to ask questions like "How is this relevant to the plot?" OR "What will - fill in the blank - think if they read this?"

Recently we did a character exercise in my writing group and my first thought was "Oh...crap." Writing on demand is not one of my specialties. Instead of pulling a character out of thin air, I dialed up an old friend from a story I'd struggled with a few years ago. I was pleasantly surprised when he spoke to me. I was equally astonished at how strong his voice was. Had he been sitting in my subconscious with duct tape over his mouth? Or had I just decided to listen?"

So my question is this - how does it happen for you? Do your characters speak to you or does it work better when you get to know them a little more? When do you feel you need to step in and lead, or should you ever do that?

I'm listening.


  1. Characters speaking to writers is an excellent happening because they don't speak until the writer has done the job of creating vibrant people. Can't carry on a conversation with a character as flat and bland as a piece of paper!

  2. When I am "in the zone" a character creates his or her own voice. I may have been the one who decided who my character is - gender, age, time period, and role in the story - but if I let myself go and write what comes, it's the character who decides whether they are going to be sassy, complacent, well-spoken, or whatever. Characters do speak to me, sometimes more clearly than others, but I have to listen. When life is hectic, I push their voices away. Then, when I have time, I have to urge them to return. Sometimes, I'll have to struggle through a few days of really bad writing before the character gives in and returns. As if they are saying, Okay, okay, you need my help. THAT'S when it really gets fun.