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Are Your Characters Talking?

The title of this post isn’t actually a rhetorical question. I’d love to hear what other writers have to say to the question: do your characters talk to you while you’re writing their story? Because I know that answers vary. I know authors– wildly successful authors– who will give you a funny look and an, Uh, no, because they’re . . . fictional? response if you ask whether they hear their characters’ voices. I know other authors– also wildly successful– who swear that they’ve had entire books thrown into disarray by a particularly “noisy” character who refuses to cooperate with the planned story. I’ve also read books and articles on craft– some of them here on WU– that are fairly dismissive of the idea that a fictional character can, or should, influence the direction of a story. Writers, these articles suggest, should take responsibility for their own plots, be the captains of their own ship– and I’m not sure that I necessarily disagree.

But I do tend to hear my character’s voices. Now, I don’t think either answer to my question makes you more or less of a writer or better or worse as a storyteller. Every author is different, and everyone has to find the writing process that works for them. But I have had characters entirely hijack my plot before. Villains who insisted that they were going to reveal themselves as heroes in the end. Romantic pairings that I never planned for, because one character simply pointed to another inside my head and said, “I want that one.”

I also know that it’s the kiss of death to a work-in-progress when my characters stop talking to me and go radio silent. It’s happened a few times, and every time, I’ve had to set the work aside and write something else until they– thankfully– started talking again. So what do you do if your characters have suddenly gone quiet on you? Or if you haven’t had characters who feel like they’re talking inside your head, but want to see whether you can encourage yours to start speaking up. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found are helpful when I need to “hear” what my characters have to say:

Dialogue
. Probably the most obvious strategy for getting your characters to talk is to give them something to say. Makes sense, right? Sometimes if I’m stuck on where a scene is really going, or what the emotional heart of a chapter needs to be, I’ll start with dialogue and ask myself, “What does this character MOST want to say out loud, in this moment? If someone asked them to voice exactly what they’re thinking, what would it sound like?” Now, your character may not actually say what they’re thinking out loud in the final draft of your story. But still, knowing what they want to say always helps me to channel that emotional truth into the story.

Backstory. This one is huge for me. I usually don’t fully connect with a character until I know the details of where they came from and what made them who they are at the moment my story begins. What was their family life like growing up? What were their childhood hopes and fears? What were the best and worst things to every happen to them? Of course, not all of those details can possibly make it into your story, but I always find that imagining the life my characters led before I and the readers met them makes them come to life in my mind in a way that nothing else can.

Journal. I also really like this one. If a scene just isn’t coming alive for me, I like to try to imagine how it would read if one of my characters was writing it down as a diary or journal entry– or maybe as a letter to someone they love. I don’t necessarily write that journal version down, but just imagining it is often enough to get my character talking again.

Abandon Ship. I’m mentioning this one last, but I do think it’s important. Sometimes my point of view character is flatly refusing to talk to me when it comes to narrating a scene– and it turns out that that’s okay, because that particular character wasn’t supposed to, an entirely different character was. I’ve been stuck on impossible scenes or chapters that suddenly worked when I flipped the point of view to another character’s. Sometimes your characters may not be talking because they’re trying to let someone else speak up for awhile.

On the plotter/pantser scale of writing, I fall much more towards the plotter end. I love outlines, I typically jot down an ordered bullet list of key points in a scene before I write it, and I never start a book without knowing– or at least thinking that I know– how it’s going to end. But I also have to say that I live for those unplanned moments, the moments when my characters seem to take on a life of their own and throw all my careful plotting out the window. Whether or not you hear your characters voices, I think most authors would agree that there’s an element of magic to crafting a story. Call it the muse, call it the manifestations of the writer’s subconscious, there are moments in writing that take your breath away because they come to even you, the author, as such a revelation. Those moments when I can hear my characters’ voices are my favorite of all.

Do your characters talk to you? What do you do when they go stubbornly silent?

About Anna Elliott [1]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.