Don’t freak out; I’m sane… reasonably. The voices I hear are my characters, and I know I’m not alone. It’s practically a cliche for a writer to say he or she hears their characters speak to them, whispering their stories like ghosts to a medium.
What’s interesting to me is when the voices speak. I’ve read other author interviews, and I know some authors don’t even pursue a story until the characters start their gabbing. That’s what drives these authors to begin, so they can express whatever incredibly compelling stories the characters are screaming in their ears.
Not so much with me.
In the very beginning, my characters are nebulous and fuzzy. I get a dim idea of them, and only a vague sense of the story they want to tell. Sometimes that’s it. When it is, I’ll most likely let the story go. However, if the idea is right, I also have a strong sense that there’s more — that if I just give these characters a chance to worm their way deeper and deeper into my brain, they’ll reveal their true selves.
How do I give them that chance? I write. I do a summary. I do a treatment. I do a draft. I do another draft. And another. I keep detailed character notes as I learn more and more about each person in the story, no matter how big or small his or her role. Sometimes my notes are wrong. I’ll be sure a character is passionate about marine biology, but as I keep writing I realize that hobby was something artificial from me, not from the character, and I have to delete it from the notes.
With each draft of the story, the characters grow deeper and more real… until suddenly their vague whispers turn into full-fledged voices, easily differentiated from one another, and quite apart from my own. This is the most exciting… and probably weirdest… part of writing, and for me it takes a long time to get there. The characters in Populazzi, for example, didn’t start speaking loudly and clearly until draft two. When they did, writing was both exhilarating and painful: exhilarating because I was so surprised by the now-obvious new places the story needed to go; painful because I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with everything the voices needed me to write.
By draft three even the most minor characters were so alive and clear that I felt like I was never alone — everywhere I went, I was surrounded by the population of Chrysella High, watching their lives play out in ways that often had nothing directly to do with the plot of my book. By the time I went through the ARC to do my final pass, I knew each character so well that I felt I could legitimately write a completely different book about every individual who appears in the novel.
That’s how it works for me. The character voices begin as vague murmurs, then I write them into clarity. When they’re so clear that they’re telling me what to do and living lives completely beyond my control, I know they’re ready.
How does it work for you? Do your characters talk to you? Do they speak clearly from the start, or do you have to write your way towards them? Have you ever been completely surprised by a character who turns out to be different from what you thought? Have you had to change your story when a character reveals his or her true self, and you see he/she would never do what you had mapped out in your outline?
Let me know — I’m excited to compare notes!