Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Voices in Your Head

Some writers hear their characters in their heads. Have running conversations, arguments, even have to put up with particularly pushy characters complaining about what’s happening in their story. I know this because I read about it all the time on other writerly blogs. It’s fondly regarded, I believe, as a sort of eccentricity that comes along with being a writer- if you write stories, you’re probably not alone in your head.

This makes me worry that I’m doing it wrong. My characters don’t talk to me. They’re not my friends and they don’t keep me company on the bus home by complaining about the state of my shoes or harassing me to get on to the exciting scene. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think about them, because I do, very much, but always in the context of the story. When I am following the story in my head, day dreaming where it will go next, I am observing the characters closely, and feeling what they’re feeling, but they don’t talk to me.

The reason, I think, (and this sounds weird) is that it wouldn’t be canon. My characters don’t know who I am because I don’t exist in their world, and my world wouldn’t make sense to them, so they don’t chat casually with me either. Eri Fellsmith lives in a world of swords and the walking dead- I’m not sure what she’d make of a receptionist from South East London, other than my clothes are really strange and I can’t hold a sword to save my life. It just wouldn’t be authentic, to me, which is why my mind seems unable to make that leap to conversations in my head.

Does any of this make sense? Does anyone else out there not hear the voices, and wonder if this will make them a less competent writer? Any writers who believe that it is essential to the writing process?


  1. The concept of characters talking in my head is completely alien to me. They are very much constructs of my imagination - puppets that I get to play with. If they're in a scene, the conversation between them can flow quite naturally, as if I were listening to a radio play or watching the action on screen, but it's still very much me controlling the flow - they don't do anything without my instigation.

    As I like to believe I'm a competent writer, I would therefore also like to believe autonomous voices in the head is a sign of madness, rather than being essential to the writing process.

  2. I don't think it's a case of a character coming to life like some secondary personality and intruding on a writer's consciousness. For me, it's when I'm writing, a character will decide to take a course of action that may be unexpected or not follow the outline I have written. Sometimes, I'll be coming to the climax of a scene, and suddenly a character will reveal a secret or a motive that I did not plan or suspect. This occurs because the character is fully formed enough that they can direct themselves in the prose - my subconscious, having worked out how the character behaves, then directs this to the page.

    It's always in the context of a story (as you say). Characters are not independent split personalities of the writer, but they are alive enough to do what they like while you are writing. It's not about hearing voices or interacting with the characters. They're locked away in their own universe, and whenever I bring mine to mind, they're forever looping scenes, action and dialogue from the story. True, some of what I picture hasn't been written yet, but that's what's coming up.

    Ultimately, there IS a lack of control over characters (and therefore plot) which writers have and which non-writers can never understand. I think if you are experiencing that, to a lesser or greater degree, then things are working how they should.

  3. I do hear voices, but I don't think it's the only way to write a book! If you're getting the words down, then you're doing it right!

  4. I don't converse with any of my characters, but they do have unique internal "voices" that I mentally "hear" when I'm thinking through all the dialogue options.

    If I don't do that, then every character I write "sounds" like me to me, but more importantly they all have the same rhythm to their dialogue on the page - which is a problem.

    But no, characters don't speak directly to me or with me. In my head it's more like winding a movie back and forward as I play around with the scene and the structure, then I write out what happens (or what I feel is important). I don't interact with the characters.

  5. I don't hold conversations with my characters. I hear the rhythm of the story in my head, not individual voices.

  6. Just to add: I'm starting to be looser with characters in my outlines than I have been, simply because characters I write never quite turn out the way I expect. For example, in Ludmila, My Love, there is a celebrity called Zia Hollywood. I imagined/designed her as a beautiful, fast-talking, rip-roaring beer-with-the-books character (she's a space miner, so is no stranger to rough company).

    When she first appeared in the book (around halfway), she was cold, aloof, and quiet, and she wouldn't take off her mining goggles. This was totally unexpected, but after a few chapters I discovered that she a] was keeping a secret and b] had recently had an experience which made her bring the terrible secret to mind, so when she arrived she was understandably being secretive and difficult because she'd been through a trauma.

    None of that had been planned, but it became apparently as her plot began to unfold. She largely followed the outline I had written, but with a different personality and with more depth than I had designed.

    So for the next book - the weird Western I'm co-writing with Kate Sherrod - we've deliberately left a couple of character descriptions almost blank, because (and this is important, I think) we simply don't know what these people are like until they appear in the story.

    Which is exciting, because while we know what they are going to do (plot), we are not entirely sure how they are going to do it!

    Goes back to my favourite thing that Stephen King wrote about 'Salem's Lot. He wrote that book because *he wanted to find out what would happen when vampires arrived in rural New England*. When he started writing, he didn't know!

  7. Beer with the books? Beer with the *boys*!

  8. It's very interesting to see the different ways in which we approach the story when alone with it in our minds- I no longer feel quite so odd with my "watching it like a film" method. ;)

    @Adam- books on the brain! ;p I know what you mean with regards to characters evolving by themselves: Joseth in The Steel Walk was supposed to be wise-cracky and flippant, but he has actually turned out to be rather noble and level headed. Sneaky characters!

  9. I think the major difference is in whether you're a more plot driven writer or character driven writer.

    There is no wrong option of course, but character driven writers usually make sure they know their characters inside and out before they even start writing, sometimes having a complete back-story for each even if they're not actually going to use them within the story.

    It's all about getting to know the characters I feel. For instance I often play a game in my head, where I'll be in a situation somewhere (can be as mundane as standing in line at the till) and will think what would this character do or how would they react?
    It's not about setting either, a knight wouldn't appear in a modern day shop of course, but the general situation could still occur. Would he/she be impatient if he/she had to wait for something, or would he understand the social rules of politeness?

    This game allows you to ask questions about your characters that might not necessarily come up in the writing process, but will ad to your knowledge of them. And in the end will help them come to life in your head even before you put pen to paper.

    But again, I don't think it's essential to your writing, it's all down to preference.

  10. My characters don't speak to me because they ARE me. Every character I write, male/female, whatever is an facet of my personality; it's me playing a role, like an actor. If they spoke to me, I think I'd be a little schizophrenic. It'd be cool though... But I don't think you need it to be a great writer.

  11. I wish I could get involved enough to have a problem like this. The jiggerybuggery I'm trying to tie up has pretty two dimensional characters (it's all boys own war stuff).

    My odyssey, however, has a bloke I want to be interesting, but I don't talk to him. I think I maybe fantasize a little about what he'd do, and how he'd deal with it.

    I think what I do is this;

    Start with a mannequin.
    Give him/her some core traits.
    Give him/her some defining experiences and memories.
    Try and consider how this creature would react to x, y and z.
    Insert myself as gently as possible into the puppets shell, and roleplay, in my head, their actions.
    Write those actions.
    Scribble over it all, tear it up, swear at my wife a bit, then start again.

  12. I hear the conversations my characters have with each other.
    They do seem like totally real people though.