Monday, November 16, 2009

Hearing voices (part 1)

It was something of a relief to me when I arrived at the CompuServe Forum in 2006 to see other writers talking about hearing voices in their heads.

Not voices in general, of course, but a sort of literary schizophrenia- the phenomenon of "hearing" your characters talk. Many, if not all, writers will know what I mean by this. The story and the people become so familiar and so ingrained in your imagination that you don't even need to think when you're writing. The voices are already there in your head, and they're already doing and saying things. All you have to do is channel this brilliance and get it on the page, and you're on your way.


Well, sort of.

There's been a long-standing debate over character-driven versus plot-driven stories. Character-driven stories are supposedly those in which character and emotion drive the story. Plot-driven stories are, in turn, those in which the action takes central stage, and the characters are simply reacting. Of course, you really can't have one without the other, and I suspect that the origin of the debate actually comes from stories where there's an imbalance between the importance of those two elements- character, and plot. I argue, therefore, that your ideal story contains both of those things in equal measures.

So, while it's all wonderful to hear character voices and fantastic to know your people so well that they just leap off the page fully formed, there's a need for input from the author. And that comes in the form of the plot, or the events to which your characters are reacting. Your characters may be so good that you know just how they'll react in any circumstance, but you need to decide what circumstances they'll face.

It's up to you to know your characters well enough that their reactions to the events are realistic and understandable. If you get it right, you can throw anything at them and the reader will hang onto your every word. If you get it wrong, though, readers have a keen instinct for character motivation and what rings true, and they may just throw your hard-written baby against the wall.

We'll have a look at plot sometime later. In the meantime, how do you make sure those character voices are ringing true, and ready to respond to the events you throw at them?

All of us are different people at different times of our lives- shaped by our families and our early lives, changed by our experiences and all the things we learn. Knowing where your character is coming from at any point in time is vital to knowing how they'll react.

I'm not talking about a character dossier in which you jot down their height, eye colour and favourite beverage. I actually think that's a counterproductive approach, because let's face it- how many of us can say we like the same things at times twenty years apart in our lives? We change our perspectives, opinions and attitudes as we reassess our experiences and our understanding of the wider world. Your characters, to be completely realistic, should be doing the same based on the life-changing events they're living (or dying) through in your story.

So, here are two tips that have been invaluable for me in shaping my characters (bear in mind these are utterly useless for many other writers- it's up to you to decide whether they might help you or not):

1. Write character backstory scenes that will never see the light of day; and,
2. Write stream-of consciousness moments to get deep inside your characters' heads.

1. Character backstory

I firmly believe that the first step toward realistic character voice is to write, write, write. The more you write, the better you'll get to know your people. Sure, you might get to know them so well that you have to go back and change the earliest pieces you wrote, but it's all part of the journey.

Sometimes, though, those voices don't tell you things that ring true. You know you're missing something, but you can't put your finger on what it is.

What to do?

The main conflict in my novel Between the Lines is between two Australian brothers, Bill and Lionel Cutler. When I started writing, I knew that they hated each other, but I had no idea why. I wrote lots of scenes of them having a huge fistfight about Lionel insulting Bill's girlfriend Kit, when Bill was about 18 and Lionel 22. Nothing I wrote came out quite right.

So, I realised that what I had to do was go back in time to understand why it was that Lionel would want to hurt his younger brother.

I thought about these brothers and where they came from and what their early lives had been like, and here I had equal measures of "the voices told me" and authorial decision. They couldn't have had an idyllic childhood, even though their parents were good people.

That's when it hit me that Lionel wasn't Bill's brother- he was a half-brother, with a different father. Though Bill's father Jim is a decent man, he couldn't help but favour his own son (Bill), which over time grew into a deep resentment on Lionel's part. I picked the important moments that would define these people- when Bill was born, and his brother was 4; when resentful ten-year-old Lionel almost killed his younger brother in an accident; when the family moved from the city to the Outback and the brothers only had each other for company; when Jim forgot about 14-year-old Lionel's football final.

I wrote each of these scenes from both Bill and Lionel's perspectives. I didn't worry about the language, or thinking it through, or whether those scenes would ever see the light of day. I didn't worry about wasting time or words- I just accepted that the value of these never-to-be-seen scenes was so high it was worth it. And I truly believe that those scenes are at the core of my characters for the whole 25-year span of my story.

After all, your opinions may change, but your history doesn't.

Here's a little snippet of four-year-old Lionel at the birth of his new baby brother Bill:

All day and all night, the little boy sat outside the bedroom door, listening to his mother cry and shout.

He knew something was terribly wrong as he rocked back and forth, hunched in a ball against the cold. Now and again one of the nurses would bustle out the door and all but trip over him, but they never stopped to see how he was. Once his father went past, the floorboards creaking in his wake as he rubbed a hand through wildly sticking up hair and patted his pocket in search of his pipe.

By the time the dawn light came trickling through the lace curtain at the end of the long hall lit shone off the polished floor, his legs had cramped up and his eyes were burning. He wouldn’t move, though, not until he knew.

Irrational it may be, but right there is the root of Lionel's hate for his brother. As a kid, he thought he was going to be left without a mother thanks to Bill, and later he found himself marginalised as the black sheep of the family thanks to that same pesky brother. It took very little for simple sibling rivalry to meet war and become deadly. Of course, Lionel's also a bit of a born sociopath, but there you are- writing backstory helped me understand Bill, Lionel, their parents, and the intricacies of all of those relationships.

It may not serve any direct purpose in your story, but understanding where your characters have come from to be where they are can be priceless. I've written backstory pieces from many different characters' points of view for all kinds of plot moments that don't appear in the actual story, whether they're in the past or just happening off-stage.

I'm going to look at stream-of-consciousness exercises next week, and probably plot sometime after that, but for now I'll leave it at this: know your characters well enough that they speak to you. Then listen to the voices, but never forget- you're ultimately in charge of what happens to them.


  1. Claire, great post!
    I agree; writing quick-and-dirty scenes of pure backstory is a great way to expose the inner-workings of your characters. I've done a couple with my characters - Isabel dissecting a cadaver at medical school, an especially putrid body selected by the male students in an effort to break her will and force her out of the school; and a scene set some twenty years before the events of my book, in which my villain murders his lover. Neither scene will see the light of day, but both have been immensely useful in understanding how these two characters work. Hmm, I reckon it'd be helpful to have another read of those scenes, just to refresh my memory - thanks for reminding me of them!

  2. Great post Claire!
    I agree, writing all sorts of scenes about characters (instead of a dossier type info sheet) is certainly the best way to get to know them.
    I think it was last winter, or the winter before, that we had a stream of consciousness exercise on the forum; since I don't normally write in first person, it was a great way to break out of my mold and really delve into some of my characters - very useful if you're stuck on something!

  3. Excellent post!

    I totally agree with you on both counts. Backstory is so essential to getting into your characters minds.. If you don't know who they were, what they've gone through, etc. there's no clear way of knowing how they'll react to things.

    That said -- chunkster here. I often write without knowing backstory. And I often find that you're right -- readers will call you on different things, demanding to know why this or that character responded to a situation the way he/she did. As I always do things completely assbackwards, I tend to develop backstory as I go.

    "Jen, why do Maddy and Drew have this weird relationship?"

    "Well," Jen says..."I THINK it's because of this and this... and oh, this, too...which I THINK happened when they first met."

    I live for questions these days. It pushes me to really consider different motivations and backstory that I may have overlooked. It's all forming in my head as I go along, and dang if I couldn't tell you a good chunk of history without having written a single word down. Enough to write a whole book about in fact. I almost have every last detail in this head of someday, if I get the chance, you betcha I'll write it down on paper. A prequel to FI.. OMG. The dream. :)

    That said, even if it never gets written, it's come in SO handy in understanding both Drew and Maddy...and really, why she is the way she is. And a lot of that stuff, people will probably never know.

    SOC exercises. I've used them a couple of times...mainly because I find it hard to get into the male mind. And seeing as I write from a first person, female POV, understanding male motivations is even more difficult.

    Can't wait to hear what you'll say on the subject! :) Maybe you'll unlock the mystery for me. (g)

    Great snip, btw. I almost *cough* feel sorry for that scumbag. ALMOST.


  4. Claire - I'm one of those who can't do stream of consciousness. It's not something that works for me at all. But to each their own, and the bits I've read of BTL show that whatever you're doing to get completely into your characters' heads is working *s*

  5. Hi Claire, I'm just catching up on the posts here. I have to agree with you here,Cathy had me doing this sort of stuff with Jack when I hadn't really got past the cliche of filmstar good looks. I "saw" a scene of a teenage Jack at a swimming hole with a group of other boys discovering that he's the only one with a woody.
    And then I also realised he's the same age as me, had the same sort of normal suburban upbringing, same music and cultural background. Plus, I think he was the random guy I snogged at the Simon and Garfunkle concert.
    I also realised that my son Robert could well grow into a Jack (just without the bisexual bit I hope).
    But, it was the flinging him down a mountain at the communal writing lunacy of the compuserve writers houseparty that helped me be able to physically see him and know him. Those scenes had nothing to do with my WIP but in putting Jack in a really weird place, suddenly he came to life.
    Not sure how helpful that is to anyone. But it meant a lot to me.