Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

If I could talk to my characters

Hans Christian Andersen being briefed by the ugly duckling

Hans Christian Andersen being briefed by the ugly duckling

Recently in another blog I like to frequent, the writer described an incident in which a character she has created impelled her to do something risky. He spoke to her, she heard his voice, and knew he was trying to tell her his story. She also did what he demanded of her.

Frankly, I’m jealous.

I’ve been writing fiction for almost as long as I’ve been shaving, and never has a character spoken to me like that, never mind goaded me into doing something scary. I’m not much the type to do scary things anyway, so that could be a factor here. My characters are probably chin-wagging in some bar, going, “Don’t bother telling him to skydive. You know he’s a chickenshit.”

For whatever reason, I’m not one of those writers who effectively “channels” characters from the  ether. The details that emerge as I develop a story or novel come from painstaking thought, consideration, re-consideration, trial, and plenty of error. I might write first-person testimonials in the voice of a character to help flesh him out, but I’m always aware that it’s my brainstorming mind and my subconscious that are coming up with the words. (Who was it who said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”? I’ll have to look it up.) In other words, I don’t have any illusions that this character actually exists somewhere and all I have to do is write down what he tells me, or somehow view him in action as if in a film. Once in a blue moon I might have a dream in which someone kind of like the character makes a brief appearance, but usually he sprouts phallic earlobes and flies away by flapping his arms. I can’t use that in a book. (Or can I? Hmmm.)

What an advantage those who achieve psychic communion with their protagonists have! Among other things, it takes some responsibility out of their hands as writers. They can shrug and say, “Don’t blame me — that’s what he did.” It probably makes writing sequels easier too, since the character obviously goes on living in the plasma after you’re finished with him. All you have to do is pull out the old Ouija board and get him to spill his guts some more.

I wonder if I need to rethink my whole approach. If most writers are getting inside information directly from their characters, why am I busting my butt making stuff up?

Often, when I think about this dimension of fiction writing, I remember what Spencer Tracy said about the art of acting: “Come to work on time, know your lines and don’t bump into the other actors.” In many ways, maybe because writing novels is a psychologically taxing endeavor, we’re inclined to look for suitably complex explanations for how it all works. For me, there are no voices, no figures hiding in the fog who I need to hunt down and interrogate or confront. There’s only my imagination, and I find it useful to keep that in mind as I write. Nothing mystical is happening to me.

Or is it sort of mystical that my neurons, running on nothing but proteins and amino acids, cook up people and stories and settings and metaphors, then compel me somehow to write it all down?

What do you think? When writers talk about hearing their own creations talking to them, are they using a metaphor (“It’s as if I hear him talking…”) or should we take them literally?

And if it’s the latter, what distinguishes them from someone who hears voices but doesn’t bother writing down what they say? We medicate those people!

10 comments on “If I could talk to my characters

  1. kateshrewsday
    September 12, 2013

    Ah, Kevin, now you’re asking. When I was a composer I used to pray for Tartini’s experience of waking to find the devil at the bottom of his bed, playing a tune which would captivate generations to come. But it’s my belief that was not Lucifer paying a visit, but Tartini’s unconscious.

    Our unconscious is a powerful tool which can work in many ways, some of them close to insanity, many incredibly unconventional. And then there are those like JS Bach who create , without fireworks, the sublime, simply by harnessing the incredible power of the unconscious economically, without wasting a single shred of their energy on the superfluous. No drama, just economical genius.

    Not all of us need voices.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 12, 2013

      Maybe it’s actually more comforting to think of these influences as outside ourselves. To accept that it all comes from within is a little daunting!

      I’m curious that you say you were a composer. Why did you stop? How did you stop?!

  2. John W. Howell
    September 12, 2013

    Kevin I think the discussions authors have with characters are a matter of planning and then actualizing the plan. I happen to think about characters all the time and I’ll just bet you do as well. I am with you on not having a character enter the real world to have some effect on my life, but who knows maybe we are all characters in an author’s book in another dimension. “Hey author! Write me with a NYT top ten seller book!” Thanks

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 12, 2013

      I agree, John. But there’s a rhetorical difference between planning/actualizing and saying that a disembodied voice told you something. When I think about characters, I guess I try to inhabit — mentally! — the world I’ve plunked them into and imagine their histories, actions, and words. Works for me.

      I remember a couple of years back some speculative science guy theorizing that we’re all figures in an elaborate computer simulation. Not sure what my line of code must be revealing to the programmers, whoever/wherever/whenever they are…

  3. Andra Watkins
    September 12, 2013

    In my case, I really have heard this person. Because he lived, I choose to believes he’s haunting me or whatever. Still, I don’t think you have to be crazy like me to write good fiction. It happens how it happens.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 12, 2013

      Ah, so you admit you’re crazy!

      At least you’re in good company. I hear Tchaikovsky “would often hold his chin with his left hand while conducting after once imagining his head falling off his shoulders.”

      Where would we be without Serenade for Strings? 😉

  4. Dave
    September 12, 2013

    Yeah, I’ve not had any voice of a character speak to me about who they are. If this had happened, I would have visited my psychiatrist and asked for some medication. I struggle with characters, and to me they are just one other aspect of a story, and a hard one at that. I hope they become easier someday … time will tell.

  5. Kevin Brennan
    September 19, 2014

    Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    Now and then I like to reblog some of my older posts, and this one seems apt, since I’m releasing a new book next week. Where do your characters come from, and do they “speak” to you as you write? Or are you more like me, hammering them out of found material?
    I also remember what Tom Robbins said once about where his characters came from. He said, “They’re the ones who showed up for the audition.”

  6. sknicholls
    September 19, 2014

    My characters are like actresses and actors on a movie set. They do talk to me. But when I write about them it’s like telling their stories. Their performance becomes real.

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