World's Oldest Fledgling

The blog of Stephanie Wardrop, Y A Author

Let them talk: Using the voices in your head

on August 12, 2013

Monday Morning Writing Tip

I just read a very good post about getting to know your characters. This writer advocated, as many writers do, imagining what they look like and answering a checklist of questions about them to get to know your characters. I’ve done this and found it somewhat helpful but a little mechanical for me, somehow. Still, checklists/questionnaires like this one can be kind of fun, like taking a Cosmo quiz as your character.

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And as for writing down what the character looks like, for me, appearance often comes to me later. I hear my characters first. They’re the voices in my head that I start to recognize as distinct from my own. They’re the ones saying less mundane things than “Did you actually turn on the dryer before you came up from the basement or have there been wet clothes sitting in the machine for the last three hours?” And I know there’s a character developing in my head if the voice becomes more distinct or persistent, like its trying to be heard. Or get out.  Image

And yeah, I know this makes me sound at least a little crazy. Maybe the difference between the mad person and the writer is transcription. Because for me, the best way to get to know my characters is to listen to them, and to write down what they say.

It kind of is like transcription. When I’m stuck, especially in a first draft, I’ll just let them talk to each other and try to catch up on typing what they say. (Maybe my brief tenure as a court reporter prepared me for this method.) I kick back and let them talk and write down what they say. That’s the simple part.

The “writing” comes in when I go back and look at what they said and see what I can use. And most of it is pretty useless. I may get a character announcing, for example, “I don’t like eggs” and even the other character I am listening to doesn’t know how to respond to that because it’s not that interesting.  Unless it sparks something like a great plot point (Dr. X discovers that the deadly pandemic is being spread by unearthed pterodactyl eggs!) or great dialogue (You don’t like eggs? You don’t like anything! Including your wife! I’m leaving you, Bill.) Okay, that’s not great dialogue, but I can work with that. And I’ll take it from there.

But please keep in mind that while you, their creator, may be fascinated by everything they say, these creatures you are channelling from another dimension, your reader isn’t going to be. Remember that these overheard conversations are for you, to spark your imagination.  They are not in and of themselves a novel or short story.

I just read a self-published novel that was mostly this sort of dialogue, two characters that the writer obviously cared deeply about, chatting away for page after page about Chardonnay and pop music and Shakespeare, but their conversations didn’t take them anywhere.  It didn’t drive any discernible plot, or, to be honest, make me care about the characters much, any more than I would care about people I overhear talking about this stuff at the food court at the mall.  I wouldn’t wistfully watch them pick up their shopping bags and move on, wishing I could follow them and hear what happens to them next. Instead, I was wishing the writer had taken these dialogues and figured out the heart of what they reveal about the characters and what it means for the plot and then used the conversations s/he “overheard” to craft the story arc, to function as the invisible scaffolding that supports these characters and what they do.

The reader doesn’t have to know everything about your characters. S/he is going to fill in the blanks themselves – that’s how fan fiction works, right? It’s the same for readers even if they ever write down their own versions of the story and characters. And you don’t have to know everything about your characters either. When you take time for these little conversations, when you let them talk to you, you find out stuff about them that surprises you and you can use this to make the plot and characterization richer. But each syllable does not have to go into the story.

So sit down with a cup of tea and a keyboard or notepad and let your characters talk to you. Just try to keep up, because sometimes they have a lot to say. It won’t all be golden, but there will usually be a nugget there you can use.

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