Is there a “right” way to communicate with your characters?
I pondered this question late one night when I couldn’t sleep (the places a mind can go at three in the morning!). The topic was on my mind due to a Facebook discussion, where an author was concerned she had a problem because her characters wouldn’t “talk” to her. She had heard other authors say they had regular and vivid conversations with their characters, and she felt left out because she didn’t.
Many in the responses assured her she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Several authors, myself included, said their characters don’t communicate with them like disembodied entities. The consensus at the end of the thread was, like most aspects of writing, there’s no one right way. How your characters communicate with you is part of your writing process, and what works for one person may not work for another.
Whose Head Is This?
Personally, my characters don’t talk to me, they talk through me. I do a rough character sketch before I begin writing a story, but the characters, whether main or secondary, reveal themselves to me as I write. They don’t get inside my head, but I get inside theirs. When I am writing in a character’s POV, I am that character. I inhabit their mind, see what they see, feel what they feel. I think that is why I am able to write in deep point of view, and also why I can’t stand “head hopping” (alternating POV in the same scene). It may also be why I write slower than some writers, because it takes time to get into, and out of, character. The only downside is, when I write from the POV of an antagonist who is psychologically messed up, or a villain type, it sometimes creeps me out and takes a while to recover!
My reviews have cited “a wealth of character development” and now I know why. I didn’t even realize that I was, so to speak, “inhabiting” my characters until I thought about how other authors communicate with theirs.
Characters Are Crucial
Characters and their motivations, quirks, and personalities are extremely important in fiction. No matter what genre you write, character development is what makes the reader care about what is happening plot-wise. Some genres have more emphasis on character development and interaction than others, but knowing your characters is crucial for all fiction.
So, what can you do if they aren’t jabbering?
Here’s a few tips I have heard about getting to know your characters:
Write a character sketch– it can be a few paragraphs, a list, or a dossier. Some writers swear by this, and it helps them to know what food the character likes, what astrological sign they are, what happened to them when they were six, etc. Much of the information may not be used in the story, but serves as background, which helps to develop the character’s motivations and quirks.
Interview your characters– pretend you’re a journalist or a psychologist, and grill them with questions. Many writers find this helps when they are stuck, to ask the character what he/she wants to happen.
Try deep POV– even if you are not writing your story that way. Really get inside your character’s mind, and figure out why they behave the way they do. Writing a scene or two, which you may or may not use, can trigger you to discover aspects about that character you were missing.
Map it out– use a structural template, such as Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, or something similar, to map out your character’s development and arc. Sometimes breaking it down like that can trigger all sorts of ideas and provide insight into the character’s psychological makeup.
Brainstorm- talk it out with another author or a trusted beta reader. If you feel disconnected or blocked from a character, talking it through with someone else can also trigger understanding. Sometimes just voicing your concerns out loud can make the character more “real” and you can gain insight into what they want or should do in your story.
The bottom line is, there is no one right way to communicate with your characters. Whether they are noisy or quiet, how they get the story through you and onto the page is highly personal and individual. While it is a good idea to try new methods, don’t compare yourself to other writers. If your way makes you comfortable and works for you, bravo!
Do your characters talk to you? What’s your process for finding out what they are all about?