The Voices in My Head

Character is what drives the story. Not fantastic world-building, creativity, or exciting plot. A book can have the most beautiful, unique world, with a great concept and cinematic plot–but it is nothing, without character.

What books do you remember most? Which are the ones that stick with you?

Maybe it’s the one that kept you on the edge of your seat. But more often, it’s the book with the voice that stuck in your head, and wouldn’t go away. It’s the one with a person you lived inside, for the hours or days it took you to read that book, and forgot who you were. You felt them. You became them.

As a reader, I love that. Isn’t that one of the biggest draws of books, stories? That we can escape into this world of ink and paper, and forget who we are, and let our world, our reality, fall away?

As writers, how do we create that?

I’ve been writing stories my entire life–meaningless stories. Stories where the plot drove the characters, not the other way around. A few years ago, I finally recognized this, and set out to create the perfect character.

I did my research, I read the articles and the books, I did the character sheets, and inspirations, and trait lists. I could tell you about the tattoo on their ankle, what their middle name was (and whether they hated it), and which side of the bed they slept on. I came up with quirks and flaws and strengths.

And what did I have? Paper.

I had filled them full of things meant to make them feel real, but they still felt flat, hollow. They were real, but they weren’t alive. Characters are not devices, or plot points, or vessels for your wit. Characters are people.

I am not discouraging anyone from studying the craft, and doing character exercises. They were critical in starting to learn who my characters were. It got me to stop thinking about them as characters, and start thinking of them as people. That, I think, is when they started to take shape on their own.

I stopped worrying about adjectives and quirks and fears. I stopped seeing them as words, and started seeing them as people. I don’t know when exactly it happened, but something shifted. First, it was Falcon. I could see her reacting, to every situation I was faced with. I could feel how she would, what she would think, what she would do, right in that moment. Sometimes she even reacted to me. All of the sudden, it was like there was this person inside my head.

I know, that sounds absolutely crazy. Like, I should be checking myself into a mental hospital crazy.

But I’m completely serious. That was the moment she became real, and my story came alive. She was the first of many voices (some of which you’ve seen glimpses of, in snippets or yesterday’s character hop). They peeled themselves up off the page and started talking and walking, and erasing things and rewriting their own story. Sometimes, when I’m writing, it’s like my hands are not my own. I can go in with one intention, and end up with something completely different.

I’m discovering this all over again while writing Nightfire. I started with literal, flat concepts of characters–a wild, fur-wearing girl with beads in her hair, a monstrous bear-wolf hybrid with humanly amber eyes, a skilled hunter with a shaved head and criss-crossed swords at his back. I started with the concepts, and as I wrote, they started to emerge. The hunter boy wasn’t cold and calculated–he was skilled, but also surprisingly soft, and loved to talk whether anyone listened or not. And though they’re still not entirely whole, I’m discovering more of them everyday. It’s kind of exciting, like getting to know a new friend, or even falling in love, bit by bit.

Maybe I’m taking this too literally. But it frustrates and even saddens me when I see so many writers in the blog-o-sphere so caught up in technique and development and word count, that they forget the story. Not the plot, the story. The one our characters are screaming at us, we’re just too blinded by ourselves to listen. I’m not trying to preach this, or say that my method is better, or anything. Maybe it’s not, for you. Maybe you haven’t really tried.

I realize there’s no way to guarantee this will happen. There’s no magic spell or incantation or rain dance to make them come alive (what do you think I am, crazy?) Don’t be worried if it doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen for me, for years–most of the time that I’ve been writing. But we have to stop being so caught up in ourselves, that we don’t see our characters right in front of us. We have to stop worrying about how to make them unique or interesting or whether they would really do that, and just let go. You have to give them room to grow.

Even when I set out to create the perfect character, I didn’t realize they were already there, in my own writing. I just had to get to know them. Spend time with them, feel them, laugh and cry and talk with them. The same way you get to know a person, sit down and get to know your characters. Because they really are people, just made of ink and paper instead of flesh and blood.

Make friends with the voices in your head. You’ll thank me, I promise. 😉

 

 

 

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16 thoughts on “The Voices in My Head

  1. This is all so very true!! They do become people, ‘voices in your head’ with personalities all their own. Character sheets and such can be a good start, but it isn’t until you start putting the characters in a situation and write about what happens that you start to learn about them.

    I think that’s often why book series get better with each iteration: the characters are more fully developed in each subsequent story, they become more interesting, and as a writer, I find that I have to think less about how a character reacts the more I write them. Eventually, they tell me all on their own, and it just flows out as I write.

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    • Absolutely! I totally agree. It’s pretty great when you can finally get to that point, because it makes writing so much easier and more exciting and fun 🙂 It really is about spending time with them, and once you’ve gotten to know them, they just become second nature, so you don’t have to spend time thinking about “Would they do this?” or “Would they react like that?” you just know. Thanks for commenting 🙂

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  2. This is essentially how I write my stories. I imagine a character, first and foremost. I try to get into his or her head, see things they way they would see them. Then I add in details. What’s the world like? What things move or inspire them within that world. What would Joe think if the guy sitting across from him were fidgeting; would he think the man was nervous, scared? Would he think the man was crazy? Would he think the man was about to do something dangerous? The way Joe thinks directly builds his character, his traits and foibles.

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    • Absolutely 🙂 I usually start with a world or concept first, but the voices are a crucial part to develop in the beginning, otherwise there’s no real story! Getting inside their head and learning how they see the world is the most important part. Exactly 🙂

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  3. Definitely true, as others have agreed. The eye colour and ankle tattoo questionnaires really didn’t help me a great deal either. I think the best thing that helped for me get into each character’s head was to ask: what is this character’s problem, and what is their proposed solution for it? Then you just look for what could go wrong between the two. Happy writing!

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    • They can be a good starting point, but I don’t personally think they add true depth. I think it’s much more helpful like you said to see how they would handle certain situations, and write it out, and learn about them through that. Thank you 🙂

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  4. This is absolutely true! I have a similar process when I start fleshing out characters, I always begin with a rough outline and go deeper from there. It’s literally like making a new friend, and to be completely honest, sometimes I forget that my characters aren’t actually alive (it’s secretly my personal mission to find real-life people who remind me of my characters) 😛

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  5. I love how you’ve written this–it’s so perfectly true. I can try and make character sheets, but however much I try, they’re not what make the character. The true, good characters, are those that I just wake up and have in my head one day–I love those little voices in my head. And if we had to check in to mental hospitals when they heard voices in their heads, we’d have a whole country just for writers’ mental asylums!

    – Sabrina

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  6. The character I am writing now has been locked away for a couple of years under my bed , and now he seems to have become a bit pissed at me for leaving him stranded. He’ll, come around though and tow the line after I show him how nasty my pen can be when I recap the last ten years of his life.

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  7. Pingback: Two Voices in My Head | Coffee. Write. Repeat.

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