My Characters Don’t Talk to Me–And I’m Okay With That

“My character told me he certainly did not want to go on a date with his intended love interest.”**

“My protagonist decided she had a fear of space-walking zombie rabbits, despite the fact that she single-handedly eradicated the emperor’s face-eating hellhounds.”**

“My supposedly loyal warrior waltzed into the scene and said, in no uncertain terms, that he would, in fact, betray his oath–for the right price.”**

** These are statements invented by yours truly, not pulled from anyone else’s blog, tweet, or brain.

In my salad days (read: 14-17), I drooled over stuff like that.  While lurking in the corners of writing forums in the vast expanse of the internets, I ate up all the threads in which writers talked about conversations they had with their characters.  Said characters invariably had come to point out that something, everything was very wrong with what the author had intended.  The course of the story would be irrevocably altered (for the better) as a result of a character dictating to the author.  He or she would NOT do/like/be x, y, and certainly not z.  Conversely, he or she would very much like to do/like/be q, j, and, most of all, ö.

I wanted this to happen to me.  Something bad.

Whether it was my English aristocrat, Civil War era spy, or Roman centurion, I desperately wanted my characters to grant me these glorious moments.

I pretended it happened.  I’d chime in on one of the countless threads and invent the moment in which my character changed everything.  But it never happened.  Not like they all said it did, at least.

I went through a lull in my fiction writing during college, my time taken up by papers about Shakespeare and history, physics (blegh) and oceanography (yes, those last two fulfilled my non-humanities requirement, quiet you).  And when I came out the other side of the fiction-less chasm, something had changed.  For whatever reason (maturation, brain growth, general stubbornness are all possibilities), I no longer worried about whether or not my characters spoke to me the way so many writers said theirs did.

When it came to writing The Song of the Ash Tree, I never gave it a second thought.

Does it show a lack of imagination?  I certainly don’t think so, but I can see why some people might conclude that.  I mean, if I’m doing it right, I should be deeply connected to my characters–but I don’t think that requires having conversations with them.

Does it prevent me from surprising myself?  Nope.  I’m a pantser when it comes to writing.  For those of you less versed in writing lingo, that means I write by the seat of my pants–as opposed to being a planner, who outlines to varying degrees of detail.  So as a pantser, I had only a vague idea of where I was headed.  Each day of writing brought new things and new possibilities.  And I’m frankly tickled by the number of times I, in the later stages of each of the books, realized I had planted something early on, entirely by accident, entirely without design, that turned into the perfect solution/connection/super-awesome-plot-kernel.  Those were great moments.

Here’s what I really think about the notion that characters must jump out and declare themselves (I’m not going to pull any punches, so…):

It’s a time-wasting concoction created by some people*** who need the illusion that they live and breathe their writing.  Maybe they need the illusion because that’s what the cool kids are doing, or maybe they need it because they rely on the sense of accomplishment it generates, or maybe they need it because they don’t really have any idea what their story is.

Me?  I knew my story.

*** I do not lump all writers into this generalization.  That would be silly.

This will sound like a load of baloney, but I don’t know how else to say it:

By the time I was a few thousand words into the first draft of The Blood-Tainted Winter, I came to understand that this story had quite literally been waiting inside me and that I was meant to tell it.  I didn’t need to quibble with my characters over their personality traits or their likes and dislikes because I could feel the story in my blood.

I don’t mean to insult anyone who genuinely uses this technique to create full-bodied characters and a great story.  I just think that for a lot of aspiring writers, it’s not genuine, it’s a fabricated mechanism that may actually do as much harm as good.  They spend so much time going through these motions with their characters, they never get around to writing the story.

Maybe it’s just me.  But I’m willing to bet there are others out there who feel as I do.

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