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

Believe in the Process of Writing

There’s a great thing that happens after you’ve spent a morning writing, and you think I haven’t got anything there, not anything, and then you go away and become depressed, and when you come back, you find a good sentence or a good speech buried somewhere in the yards you’ve written. It’s in those hours of writing crap where you find a little thing that’s worth it, that makes you believe in the process of writing.  ~Emma  Thompson

I was cleaning out my ever-growing pile of notebooks yesterday and found six of them from mid 2010 through late 2011. I tend to keep them at least until I can go through them and pull out any promising story bits. It’s also nice to see how much I’ve grown in some areas and whether I’ve made progress in others. But I digress.

Believe in the Process of WritingThese years were a time of stress.  We relocated from Tennessee to Texas, we lost a beloved pet, and my husband spent seven weeks in the hospital. I wrote when I was worried and when things weren’t going well and when hope was ebbing. But in these writings I found three story starts that are actually pretty good (and half a dozen others that will go into my seeds file). The tension is there, the flavor of the back story is there, the attitudes of the characters are  hinted at. One is quite developed. One short story was written twice and I like them both.

Most of my story starts are much rougher than these. It’s always interested me that, while writing crap, worries, or just nonsense, how often little gems, golden descriptions, and amazingly clear prose sitting right in the middle of it all.

It’s as if they slip secretly through our pens when we are most distracted. That’s one of the many things I love about this thing called writing.

No matter how many notebooks I fill with complaints about a circumstance or worrying over things I can’t control, reading them later always reveals some treasure that restores my faith and love for writing.

Keeping a journal has given back far more than the effort it took. I’ve transferred these recovered seeds to a binder. I’ll ponder them and hope to take at least one of them to completion. I’m still excited about the short story.

If you don’t keep a journal, I encourage you to do so. Keep them until you can dig  out those gems and bits of gold. Destroy them afterward if you like, but keep the best bits that you find. I find them very encouraging when I’m at a creative low.

I hope a journal does the same for you.

What  gems have you discovered in old writings?

Things No One Told Me About Writing

Things No One Told Me About WritingPerhaps the bits of creative process I’m talking about today are unique to pansters (I doubt it) or so common that no one thinks to mention them (possible), or because everyone’s process is so different, I’m the only one that experiences these (doubtful).  There are aspects to the creative process that I find intriguing, frustrating, and necessary.

No one ever told me that I would go on binges of research, sensory input, a process of voracious feeding that encompasses everything from fine art to YouTube. In addition to the main line of research, tangential topics are also pursued with avid interest.  No one told me that the longer I neglected to balance the input of life and senses with the output of words, the more single-minded this pursuit would become until it would completely take over my waking hours for weeks on end.

No one ever told me that there would come a time in the creative process when I would put my pen down and not pick it up again for sometimes two or three weeks. I write every day, both on key board and by hand.  For it to stop and for there to be an almost secretive sense of hoarding words was a startling experience.  It certainly doesn’t fit in with what I believe about producing on a regular basis whether I feel like it or not. This weird little turn out in the road would stump me until it happened three or four times and then just became an acknowledged part of my process. When I start hoarding words and want to clean the whole house, it’s time to clear my schedule.  A novel is coming.

No one ever told me that sometimes I would be overly emotional for no reason and, in turning to my journal for relief, would find myself writing a story just a few paragraphs into a normal entry—and that it would not stop until it was finished. These are usually the most poignant bits of flash fiction, essay, and short story I’ve written to date, and complete surprises. I had no idea I would sometimes capture a character’s emotion before the character or their story.

No one told me that my most deep-seated need in life (to write) would be a non-event for those closest to me.  Of the 10 or so family members I communicate with most often, only two have read my stories. Only two have any interest in the thing that drives my being and neither of them are under my roof. Writer friends and critique groups are priceless and the close friendships I’ve made through them are sustaining in such necessary ways. They let my family off the hook.

No one told me of the deep contentment I feel in the midst of a writing session.  Whether it’s going well or not, the act of putting a story on paper, one word at a time, brings a joy not repeated elsewhere. Though I resist as strongly as any other writer, once I’m putting those words down, my world comes right and life is good.

No one told me that I would flip the “normal” process of struggling through a draft and then enjoy the edits.  Drafts are easy and generally take thirty days or less for me.  Edits are painful, slow, and agonizing. I am apparently Queen of Opposite Day in the writing world.

No one told me that stories can die.  Sometimes it’s because what I thought was a novel is really a short story.  Sometimes it’s because there’s a fatal flaw in the premise. Thankfully, I’ve only experienced one major story death in the last few years, but they are painful and unsettling.


 What are some of the things no one told you?

Write or Robots will take over the World: An Evening with Chuck Wendig

(c) Amanda Headlee

(c) Amanda Headlee

At the time of this writing, it is 9:09 pm EDT on August 17, 2015. My brain is fueled by espresso and California Tortilla’s Chips & Queso (that shit is liquid gold). I just spent the evening listening to Chuck Wendig talk about his amazing new novel, Zeroes. So let it be known that it’s about to get all crazy up in here!

First off, if you don’t know Chuck Wendig, stop reading this now and go to his website, Terribleminds. You’re welcome.

Now that we have established that and you are more privy to his world of writing, let me start by saying his book launch of Zeroes at the Doylestown Bookshop was Earth shattering. Not only was the night filled with an except reading from his latest novel along with a Q&A session, but he discussed his writing process, the imminent possibility of A.I.s taking over the world, and terrifying realities of the interconnectivity to EVERYTHING via the Internet. Needless to say, the little story minions in my head started conjuring up ideas and I had to poke them with a sharp stick to get them to shut up so that I could hear Chuck speak.


His views on the horror genre closely resemble mine, and to hear that validation was something that I am very thankful for. As I have said in other articles on the topic, “horror” is not necessarily a genre, but an emotion. It can transverse all genres and rear its ugly head when least expected. A tactic, that when properly used, will keep a reader fully engaged with the story and embed a scary memory in their brain. It is the most primal emotion that humans feel:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft

A strong tool that all writers should equip in their arsenal for world domination via books. Chuck is one who wields horror like a young, charming psychopath who found a shiny, new machete in his daddy’s dresser drawer and has a vendetta against his hometown. He meticulously plans out the invocation of fear in his stories. All actions of “horror” are precisely placed to generate the most explosive experience of terror in the reader. Using horror in his work is like “turning the volume from 0 to 10”. The fear tactic is expertly played.

Authenticity vs. Fact

Chuck indicated that research is tricky, and while important (especially when writing on a topic that you are not a subject matter expert), with fiction there is an allowable amount of leeway. In most cases, authenticity is favored more than cold hard facts. True accuracy is not always riveting. Case in point, his novel Zeroes delves into realm of hacking. Hacking itself, for an observer, can be rather boring. Hacking in the real world is someone sitting at a computer screen for hours upon end stringing together lines of code. Chuck equated this to an author being observed writing a novel. Watching paint dry is more exciting — unless you spying on a writing Harlan Ellison sitting in a certain 5th Avenue bookstore window. TV shows, like the CSI types, tend to play up the suspense and make hacking look like a quick push of a button to blow up a helicopter or cut the electric grid in a major metro area. Unrealistic portrayals. Scenes like these are where authenticity is favored over factual content. The authenticity is more exciting than reality.

One is writing fiction, after all. So some fictitious license is acceptable. Just as long as your creative spin is believable.

The Thunderdome

How do you come up with your ideas? Chuck’s response, “How do you get them to stop?”. The plague that most writers experience: over influx of ideas that traumatizes the brain because we can’t find the time / energy / finger strength to write down every tidbit. Chuck alluded to his selection process for choosing an idea as if his brain were the Thunderdome. Whichever idea survives the odds against the others (the idea that resurfaces) is the victor and tends to be the one worthy for a story. A good analogy for any writer who struggles to pinpoint one concept to follow through on: choose the idea that resurfaces over and over again. That may be your brain’s subliminal way of saying, “Hey dummy, pay attention to this one. It’s some good stuff!”

Evolve your Writing Process

Towards the end of the evening, Chuck made a rather keen remark about the writing process that all writers (nonfiction, fiction, business, etc.) need to heed:

Writers should always modify their writing process

As writers, we are continually evolving and adapting to the world around us. Thus, our writing process should grow along with our evolution. The writer we are today is not the same writer we were 10 years ago nor will become 10 years in the future. Your writing process must be agile and reflect your growth. A dormant, unchanging writing process will never lead to success. There is nothing learned or gained from stagnation. The biggest take away from Chuck’s discussion is to allow your writing process to be fluid. It should be adaptable and agile, morphing into a form that differs year to year to reflect the amazing writer that you are evolving into.

This is his best piece of advice from the evening.


I lied. The best piece of advice is: “Don’t kick the robots. They remember.”