Can Characters “Speak To” Writers?

Hello again!

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Last week, I told you guys about the New Writers’ Evening at Foyles and that some really interesting writerly issues were raised. Another good inquiry made that night, which I’ve seen come up again and again, was about the idea of characters “speaking to” their authors and somehow guiding the writing process. What struck me most when it came up at the Foyles event was how differently the idea was interpreted by each author.

Kirsty Logan was quite literal in her interpretation, citing a belief in a “higher power” that the writers who make that claim — that their characters speak to them — must have, and stating that she conversely believes that it’s she and only she who drives her narrative. Ruth Ware’s take on it was that the writers who say that are likely alluding to the effect a well-developed character has on the writing process. I’m in Ruth Ware’s camp on this one.

If you’re working with a well-rounded set of characters — with fleshed out personalities, motivations, and ideas — and you allow the events of your story to unfold organically (i.e. according to your character’s fully constructed identity) you can actually experience your own writing as a reader and be surprised by what you wrote! This is my favorite writing-related discovery and my favorite thing to experience while writing. This is also, in my mind, what a person who says their characters “speak to them” is referring to (though there may be folks out there who have acid-trip level hallucinations when they write. Sounds kinda fun, tbh…). To me, it means disregarding what you want to happen in a story, and allowing things to occur as they would when people with a specific set of traits are involved. It’s usually pretty easy to tell when a writer has pointedly ignored what would’ve come naturally to their character in favor of shoehorning in a plot device or event just because they were dead set on including it in the story (Ruth Ware gave a character on EastEnders as an example who apparently inspired fan anger by acting in a way that was totally unlike her).

When a character thoroughly comes to life in your mind, they’ll begin speaking for themselves… as long as you loosen the reins and encourage those fully formed aspects of their personhood to come through. And this isn’t to say that you should throw your entire plot or any sense of structure out the window — both can coexist quite comfortably. But it’s often beneficial to let the emphasis be on who the people in these situations are and not the situations themselves. This also isn’t to say that your characters will take over your zombified mind and write your story for you. It’s still you doing most of the work; but a lot of that work is in building your characters and the worlds they inhabit. Once you’ve done that, the rest should (hopefully) come easier and the real fun can start. πŸ˜€

Happy Wednesday, y’all!

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3 thoughts on “Can Characters “Speak To” Writers?

  1. Very interesting piece! I love to read stuff about writing πŸ™‚ I’m in the middle of my novel right now and I can feel this happening – though I don’t have the energy to have more than about 2-3 properly fleshed out characters – everyone else kind of revolves around and I sometimes forget about them…ooops?

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