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

Writing 101 – Character Creation

Character Creation

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury summed it up quite appropriately: without characters there is no story. Characters are strange…erm…characters. They’re the driving force behind our stories, striving to overcome any and all obstacles keeping them from realising their goals. Everything else is either plot or setting, and neither can tell a tale.

I know a lot of writers who struggle with character creation but I’m not one of them. Protagonists, antagonists and whole supporting casts can appear to me with little effort on my part, albeit rarely fully-formed. My problem is usually having a cast without a story. They sit around in my head like freeloading room-mates, eating my food and keeping me awake with loud music and incessant chatter. In the end, I have no choice but to evict them onto paper.

I know what you’re thinking (besides all the bad words): if you can pluck them from the air, why are you writing a post about character creation? Well, just because they come natural, doesn’t mean I don’t have to work at them once the spark has gone.

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

― Ernest Hemingway

Characters ARE people (not necessarily human but people none the less). They populate the worlds we create. Live, love, laugh, and generally spend their time being tormented by us, their creators. We pick them up, turn them this way and that, even give them a little shake to find out what falls loose. We place them into dire situations for our own amusement and test to see how far we can push before they break.

Love them or hate them, a well-developed character can affect us in more ways than we can imagine. Readers will stay up all night, eagerly devouring our books, simply to find out what happens next and how X will deal with the situation. They want to relate to our protagonists, despise our antagonists (although, not always), and sympathise with the long-suffering sidekick. People relate to other people.

So, how do we create a well-developed character?

I’m not going to lie to you, creating characters is hard work; a labour of love. The greater the influence a character has over the path of a story, the more you, the writer, needs to know about them. A main character should have no secrets from their creator.

1. Characters should have a voice

Every one of us is unique, shaped by our experiences. We all have our own way of telling our story and your character is no different.

How would your character tell their story if they could speak freely?

2. No-one exists in a vacuum

Most of us have some form of support network around us that we can call on for help when times get tough. Family, friends, colleagues are always (begrudgingly) on hand if we need them. We even have those who don’t necessarily want the best for us and will do all they can to hurt our efforts. Your characters have these too.

What is your characters’ support networks? Who are their closest friends/family members and why? Who are their enemies?

3. Goals and experiences

We all want something out of life, things we want to achieve, things we want to own. How we go about attaining these shapes who we are.

What are your characters’ goals, long- and short-term? What will they do to achieve them? How far will they go? How far is too far? Don’t confine yourself to the goals within the story you’re writing, think about their whole life.

4. Remember you’re unique

If everyone was the same, the world would be a very boring place. We all have our little habits and quirks that make us who we are. Some mask fear with humour, others are out-spoken to hide insecurities. I have colleagues who go through a precise morning ritual when they first arrive at their desks. All of these little traits add extra layers to our personalities. For instance, we all laugh at that crazy woman with the funny walk but if we look closer we’d see she walks that way to avoid the pavement cracks. If we took a moment to talk to her, she tell us that as a girl, she didn’t heed the warning and her mother suffered the consequences.

What are your characters’ quirks and mannerisms? Do they have a unique way of saying hello? What are the reasons behind all of these?

5. Be all that you can be

When we’re not out defeating the zombie hordes and saving the world from certain doom, we all have our day jobs and ways of relaxing. Your characters will also benefit from a life outside of the story.

What is your character’s occupation? What hobbies do they have? How do these impact on their actions and skill base?

Minimum character information

Fellow muse, Robyn LaRue, is a character-obsessed nut…has produced a comprehensive worksheet for those dipping their toes into the murky waters of character creation. It’s free and you can download it here from her site. For those who don’t want to read (shame on you), we should know the following about our characters as a bare minimum:

  • Age, gender, nationality, occupation
  • Family, partner, close friends, workmates
  • Desires, motives and fears
  • Physical appearance
  • Attitudes
  • Backstory
  • Reputation
  • Habits, mannerisms and unique vocabulary

The more you know about your characters, the more real they’ll feel. The days of one-dimensional archetypes are long gone, and good riddance. The “perfect” hero no longer excites us. We want to see flaws. Readers don’t just want to know that our characters are going down that pitch-black, blood-soaked staircase. They want to know details of the childhood trauma that caused their fear of the dark, their fear of blood and they expect you to know all about it.

I need to know everything about my main characters. It’s just not enough for me to say “oh, yeah…he tricked the guy into giving him is glasses” I need to know how he tricked him, what he said, what con he used. The information may never make it into the finished book but I HAVE TO know.

After all, the devil is in the detail.