Friday, April 16, 2010

I hear voices, but I'm still sane.

I've mentioned in numerous blog entries that my characters dictate the stories. And yet, in the same breath, I tell my loyal blog minions that I am, indeed, sane. (Well, sort of.)

So how, you ask, does one claim (semi)sanity while admitting to hearing the voices of fictional people?

I shall 'splain.

Here's the thing: As a writer, I know my characters better than I know a lot of real people. They are, after all, in my head. I know their inner workings. I know what makes them tick. I know all their little personality quirks, even if I never actually put them into the story. For example, one of my current characters is bisexual. Another thinks it's criminal to put pineapple on a pizza. The reader will never know this from the book, though, because it's never mentioned.

So, suffice it to say, I know my characters. With those quirks and inner workings in mind, I write the outline. Then I write the book. The more I write, the more quirks and inner workings make themselves clear. And, invariably, there comes a point when a character steps back, folds his arms across his chest, shakes his head, and says, "Nuh-uh. Not going to do that." This almost always results in a modified outline to accommodate whatever the bastard wants.

This is where some authors clash. "I'm the author! I'm in control of the story. These are fictional people, they do what I say they'll do."

To a point, yes.

But when we write, we're writing about people. Vivid, three-dimensional people who should behave, for the most part, like real people. Their actions and reactions must make sense, and they must make sense for that individual. Certain people react to certain things in certain ways. Have you ever read a book or watched a film, and a character does something that is so far out of character, it leaves you scratching your head?

Therein lies my ticket to sanity: If it's out of character, it won't work. And sometimes I'll reach a point in the story where it becomes clear that the preordained path written in the outline is not in that person's character. When I try to write the scenes, it's like hitting my head against a brick wall. The dialogue won't flow, the action won't happen, and the characters seem stuck in the mud. It's like getting blood from a stone. Why? Because I'm asking people to behave out of character in a way that the readers will believe is in character. The extrovert suddenly has to get shy and tongue-tied over something that wouldn't have that effect on her. The ballsy-to-the-point-of-arrogant protagonist is suddenly a doormat for inexplicable reasons. The protagonist dumps the love interest for no other reason than to manufacture conflict.

Essentially, what happens is I've written an outline for an X-Files episode in which Scully insists it's aliens working with the CIA while Mulder rolls his eyes and says there's clearly a scientific explanation that doesn't involve conspiracies or little green men. It. Doesn't. Work.

So, it's not so much that the character is literally speaking to me, it's the fact that I've created a character whose traits and quirks are so vivid to me, he or she simply wouldn't do whatever I've asked him or her to do.

My readers aren't stupid. Neither are my characters. Once in a while, I like to follow suit.


  1. I hear voices too. Your explanation is fabulous!

  2. I talk about my characters as real people. "Daniel wouldn't do that," or "Reece wants to try something different." And only other writers get that.

    They don't come to me fully formed, but what little they do tell me at first is vivid, and makes this course of events or that one more or less likely according to their few revealed personality traits.

    And what happens throughout the course of the book either reveals more of their character or influences them.

    For instance, if events make it clear Character X has to do something he doesn't want to do, it'll happen...but their personality type will let me know whether they do it fearlessly, with trepidation, while complaining, using black humour, or whatever.

    Does that make sense?

    And sometimes - as you well know - the character will say "Nuh-huh. Ain't gonna happen."