Deb Elise Hears Voices

Hearing voicesSince this week is all about “Voice,” I thought I’d talk about my favorite voices… the ones I hear in my head.

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!

~ Deb Elise

19 Replies to “Deb Elise Hears Voices”

  1. I definitely relate to what you’ve just said. Mostly because I’m kind of in that middle place right now with the characters in my current novel. They’re almost there, but I’ve just got to keep writing to figure out what they haven’t told me yet. (Yes, my characters talk to me too – they can be quite opinionated sometimes!)

    Have I been completely surprised by a character? Definitely. I’m normally surprised by my characters. I think I have them trapped in a box when BAM, something shows up that completely re-directs my focus on them.

    As for having to change my story – that’s happened too. Normally when a character changes I’ll have to change some part of the story, a lot of the time a big part, so that he or she will fit again.

    Great post today, it got me thinking. (:

    1. Thanks, Julie!

      I’m with you on changing the story. I’m in awe of my editor, because I sold Populazzi on a treatment, and now that I’ve shared my process, you can imagine how far from the final novel that treatment was. Sam McFerrin is like a genius archaeologist to me — she was able to see what I’d unearth even before I started excavating.

      Have fun with your current novel! I just started a new one, expanding an idea into a treatment, so I’m back at the place where the characters are hinting deliciously at everything they’re going to be, but there’s still so much I don’t know about them. It’s exciting — makes me eager to get to the page and see what they’re going to tell me next!

  2. Oh, yeah, my characters talk. Sometimes it’s tough to get them to shut up–they’re opinionated suckers. Like with real people, though, some of them are more bashful than others. A few take some real coaxing to open up to me, while others are (for want of a better expression *grin*) open books right from the beginning.

    I have had to make plot changes occasionally, depending on what I’ve learned about a character during the drafting process. Actually, I get pretty excited when that happens, because it feels more organic to me somehow. Less contrived, more real.

    1. I agree, there’s a huge (and semi-psychotic) difference between a character trait that comes from me and one that comes from the character. That’s why in theory I love those character worksheets — they appeal to my craving for order — but in practice they don’t work. If I sit there at the start and go down the list: “Okay, um… verbal tic… he… um… clears his throat every other sentence!”, that’s just throwing darts. But if I get to a point in the story where I realize “Oh my god… this guy’s clearing his throat all the time!” Then it’s organic, even though it means I have to go back through and weave the tic throughout the book.

  3. My characters speak pretty clearly from the start, but the voices just get stronger and stronger until they’re full people to me, and I can completely forget that the only place they live is in my head.

    I completely agree that your characters are that real – can’t wait for everyone else to discover Populazzi!

    1. Thank you for the added plug! 🙂

      What’s interesting — and I don’t know if you’ve found this with the Andreas clan — is that while Cara, Claudia, Trista, and the gang were filling my house for awhile, it has now been long enough that their voices have faded. I can call them up again — when Larramie asked me questions for her awesome piece on TDW, the questions were so beautifully deep and probing that it brought everyone back to vivid life in front of me. On a daily basis, however, they’re not keeping me company anymore. There’s another crew doing that right now, and since we’re just getting to know each other, it’s like the beginning of a middle school dance where we’re all standing in our own little spaces, not quite ready to dance.

  4. Oh Elise, I hear you. (Pun TOTALLY intended there!) I especially appreciated the point that often times we put personality traits or passions on our characters because we fancy them–but as the character grows, we can find we’ve put the cart before the horse.

    I’m always amazed how my characters change/evolve through drafts. But when they are firm, it’s heaven. Recently I got to return to Maine to do some research on my WIP and it was such a gift to be able to stand at the top of a lighthouse (where my lead finds himself often) and look out to the sea, and there’s no question he spoke to me there–as did the other chracters in the book. But getting there hasn’t been easy…

    My novel ideas usually come out of a relationship, a dynamic that fascinates me, but of course that is only one piece. I find that I best explore my characters early on through dialog sketches that I may or may not use, but they can be of great help to flesh out a character–and evenrtually,a plot–early on.

    1. I love the dialogue sketches that you don’t actually use! I do that too… only I always think I’ll use them at the time. My early drafts are filled with sentences, paragraphs, even chapters that really have no place in the final MS, but are vital to me when it comes to figuring out who everyone really is. I don’t delete the passages — they go in a slush file — and to me they really happened — they’re part of the backstory. They’re in fact so real that I’ll sometimes get asked a question that references something I’m positive I spelled out in the book… and I have to go back to see if it was really there, or if it’s actually in the slush pile.

  5. I find I tend to see my characters first, as if on a screen – they’re usually doing something, sometimes pertaining to the novel idea, sometimes not – and then I start to hear them. But sometimes it’s the opposite and I hear his or her voice first and then I see them. I’ve given up trying to figure it all out. 🙂

    I love the idea of those detailed character sheets, too – the structure, the order – but when I sit down with them, it often feels like I’m forcing the information. I’m finding that if I use general sheets, it feels less formal, and I also go back and fill in the info as it comes up/comes out in the novel drafts.

    1. Seeing visions is just as beautifully psychotic as hearing voices — I love it.

      For me it takes awhile for them to become visually clear — that usually doesn’t hit until the voices are really together, at which point I go back and tweak all my descriptions.

  6. It’s not so much that I hear their VOICES, it’s that I just start to understand who they ARE. Like watching a fuzzy photograph slowly coming into focus. They begin to materialize along with the plot. As I begin to know what happens to them, I begin to understand who they are, what happened to them before, what’s going to happen to them now. It’s something I often think about — where stories and characters come from.

    1. See Jen, that’s a much more sane way to go about it! Me, I’m in the back of Panera post-workout, hearing voices and mouthing their dialogue like an unwashed crazy person.

  7. Wow, Elise, I love reading about your process! The voices aren’t as strong for me in the beginning, but they grow louder as I write. My biggest weakness is plotting, so that’s what I focus on in the early stages. For some reason, characters and dialogue come more naturally to me. So interesting how everyone has a different approach.
    I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of a little brown box containing Populazzi… not much longer now!

    1. It’s like the stork is bringing you Populazzi! I can’t wait for you to read it, and thanks so much for putting it in your TBR pile!!!!

  8. I’ve been writing and (if you can call it that) illustrating a Web comic recently – completely new medium for me – and I’m finding that rather than the events and dialogue unfolding as a write, they really need to be fully formed before I set anything down on paper. Whether that’s due to the nature of the medium — punchlines pretty much have to be reversed engineered — or just the fact that I’m new to it, I’m not sure. But I do know that that the few instances where I’ve just started writing/drawing and the punch lines emerged of their own accord, I’ve felt positively God-like, like I just nailed a particularly complicated improv exercise.

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