Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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!