Home » Writing Advice » Listen Up! Your Characters are Speaking

Listen Up! Your Characters are Speaking

The voices in my head... (c) Mr Seb Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The voices in my head… (c) Mr Seb (Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0))

Do you hear that whispering? The incessant chatting that constantly sounds in your ears, originating deep from your mind? Did you know that I hear them too? No, no, no… stop worrying. I can’t hear yours, only mine. Hey, don’t look so freaked out! We are not schizophrenic. At least I don’t think we are. The voices in my head say that we are not, so we are okay! The ones in my head are good people, at least some of them are. Um… well, an 1/8th of them are. They’re all interesting to say the least. And each of them has a compelling story of adventure to tell.

Writing is a socially accepted form of schizophrenia – E.L. Doctorow

The voices in my head are all of my characters. Yes, all of them… and there are many. And they each want their story written. All day long they are whispering plots and settings and scenes to me. Some of them even get into arguments and dialogue starts to build. They fight with one another, some even love each other, and then there are the ones that go to places I really shouldn’t talk about… I’m a dark fiction writer after all.

These voices are always vying for my attention. I have them trained that while I am at work they mostly keep quiet. However, every once in a while one pipes up during and starts chatting away. When one interrupts “quiet time”, I know it is important. During a recent training presentation that I attended, there was a trigger word was said by the presenter and that instantly spurred a new character to life. From the moment he was born, he would not shut up. After the work day was over, the moment I got into my car I pulled out my voice recorder and began to recite his story for later use.

As good as most of them are at keeping quiet during my work day, they are all awful little jerks when I am trying to fall asleep. The moment my head hits the pillow they all start blabbing away. I take a pen, notebook, and recording device with me to bed every night. And like clockwork, I am up 5 minutes after I lay down to scribble down or record whatever my characters are gabbing about.

It is times like that when they piss me off. I don’t take kindly to my sleep being messed with… but, my characters are my motivation and I need to honor them. When I had to take my writing break earlier this year, they are the ones continued to pull me back into the writing world. Their constant talking kept me on track. Each one of them takes a turn at talking so that I work on all my “WIP” equally. All of the newbies have been shelved until the older characters’ stories are told. Though the newbies do raise their voices every now and again so that their story is not forgotten.

As a writer, you know exactly what I am talking about. I know you have these same experiences day after day. Don’t even dare try to deny it.  It’s disrespectful to deny your characters’ existence.

Draw your inspiration from them. Utilize them. Capture everything that they say or do.

It can be so troublesome when you sit to write during your “designated” writing time to get the story to spill onto the pages. Your mind is too focused on the process at hand that obtaining a fluid flow of writing is a struggle. “Writer Block” occurs. In situations like this, the writing is forced and characters absolutely hate that. Many clam up and disappear. Characters don’t like to act on command.

That is why it is so important to listen to them when they do speak, especially when it is outside your “designated” writing time.

A few tips to help you to capture what your characters say during unplanned interactions:

  1. I have stated this so many times in past blogs, but… Always, always, always carry pen and paper on you. Best tried and true method.
  2. Recording devices are a great way to verbally capture what your character is saying. Remember, most smart phones have one already built in.
  3. If you have a photographic memory, try to take mental pictures of your character and how they are acting. A great tactic to aid you in writing up character descriptions.
  4. If you are ever caught unawares without a way to record or write, repeat what your character says / does over and over again until you can get everything recorded / written.
    1. Note: Saying it out loud helps the memory process
    2. Note: Saying out loud an action or scene in which a character does something horrible (i.e.; gruesomely slaughters 100’s of people) is best to not say out loud.
  5. Don’t question the motives of the voices too much. They are usually leading you down the right path to a great story (Unless they are telling you to be like Jason Voorhees… you should probably ignore those ideas).
  6. Don’t try to poke your characters with sharp objects. That doesn’t do anyone any good and only pisses them off (and hurts your brain).
  7. Allow them to speak naturally to you and on their terms. Don’t force them to talk when you want them to talk–they may abandon you.

Characters are a writer’s greatest ally. They all want their story told and will do everything that they possibly can to help you be successful. Don’t shut them away or ignore them. Allow them to flourish and be chatty and inspire you. Take notes and ask questions. It is perfectly acceptable to talk to your characters. In a future The Sarcastic Muse post, we will discuss how to interact with those voices to pull the deeper story out of them. You never know what rabbit holes you can uncover by talking to them.

If I see you off in a corner talking to yourself, I won’t think you’re crazy.


Interested in character development? Check out these The Sarcastic Muse posts:

13 Characters

Darling Supporting Characters

Joyce Carol Oates – On Writing Characters

Writing 101 – Developing Characters Through Short Stories

8 thoughts on “Listen Up! Your Characters are Speaking

  1. “It’s disrespectful to deny your characters’ existence.” Hihi, well, I think there are many reasons why I haven’t given them a chance to exist yet. And this is what I mean when I say that I’m not a writer. I might write but it’s me that I’m writing about. I don’t look at myself as a character. I’m more like a boss. And it seems the boss doesn’t like competition.

  2. What do you mean, not crazy? I think it is essential for me to be slightly crazy in order to feign any semblance of sanity. Or maybe that’s one of my characters talking, who knows? 🙂

    Seriously though, I can’t tell you how many times I have sat down to write and thought, “Okay, start talking characters.” And they stubbornly sit there smirking at me. And incidentally, sometimes it feels like they are the ones poking me with sharp objects!

    I remember hearing a quote once. Paraphrasing, the muse likes to be courted, not confronted. The ideas you set forth, Amanda, help us in that courting process, to tap into the thoughts and lives of those characters roaming around in the vast world of our imagination. Thanks for the well-thought out and engaging post, already looking forward to the next one! 🙂

    • I think we (and the voices in our heads) are the sane ones. It is the rest of the world that is crazy. 🙂

      See, you can’t push them! They have a mind of their own and will not bend to your demands. And I agree, usually they are the ones poking with a sharp stick to say “Pay attention!”

      I love that quote. Do you recall who said it?

      • It is in one of the many writing books that I have read. I believe I may have highlighted it along the way. I will need to see whether I can locate it and let you know. In any case, it was a very good quote to remember as I have become a little too pushy with my imaginary friends lately. Thanks again Amanda 🙂

  3. The voices in our heads are kinda shy, they whisper to us but they hide when we stare at them. You managed to put creative work (and blocks) in such a joyful read. Thanks for those tips, I’ll keep them in mind for drawing as well.

    • Hey Oscar!! What a powerful sentence about the “muses” in our heads, that they are shy and hide when we stare at them. There is such truth in that.

      You are welcome for the tips and you’ll have to share with me what you are working on.

  4. Pingback: Is it an error or a tale? | jean's writing

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