Friday, July 5, 2013

What If my Characters Don't Talk To Me?

     If you are a writer does that mean that your characters talk to you? The internet is teeming with amateur ( and professional ) authors who boast of their characters incessant chatter. Your villain won't stop bugging you during dinner time? Your main character is protesting in your head about a plot twist she doesn't approve of? It reminds me of the crazed Alex Roper of Nim's Island. (schizophrenic much?)

    But what if your characters don't talk to you? What if your protagonist has never offered a cheesy joke in the middle of an awkward party or butted in an argument against your latest plot changes? Are you doomed? Is it time to call it quits? Are you just not cut out to be a writer?

   Hmm. My characters have never really talked to me ( strictly speaking). And for some reason that has never bothered me. Characters belong to us completely. Everything your character says/thinks is created by you. For convincing writing you have to be able to think like your character, but that doesn't mean you have to enter some sort of halfway crazed and imagined conversation. You can think like your character in however way works best for you -whether it be a full fledged imagined conversation or simply a long thought process of eliminating what doesn't work/sound right for whatever fits better.
  The point is, your characters do not live outside of you. The whole idea and description I've seen from writers online is (while somewhat idealistic and no doubt appealing) slightly ridiculous. Characters can never tell/teach/discover/ anything apart from you. Characters cannot create ideas or change plots in ways "you could never imagine." Thus "unruly" characters hoping around in your brain is not an integral part of a good story. Everything a character can think up, you can think up.
   When authors speak of "talking" with their characters, I believe they really mean that they are engaging in a deep intellectual thought process in which they are able to explore ideas for characters by placing themselves in the imagined personality of someone they have created. Talking to your characters is not an organic process, it is a mental exercise that can be very enjoyable and profitable for developing deeper character ideas. That means it isn't magic, it is a thought game or imagination trick that can be learned and practiced.

Pros and cons of Unruly Characters 

    I can definitely see some benefits to the cliched dream of characters jumping out and "surprising you" with plot twists and conversations you hadn't planned. I can also foresee some potential problems with this type of scenario.

Pros -

   Dialog may be easier. Sometimes I just wish I could step into my characters brain and figure out something really funny/appropriate to say. In my opinion, dialog is one of the most difficult to master skills of writing. I can see many benefits in the practice you would obtain by hosting imaginary conversations in your head. Dialog for each character would gradually grow more individualized, perfected, and realistic. Dialog may flow easier if you are familiar with the nuances and idiosyncrasies of how each of your particular characters converse.

Cons - 

    Long conversations with your characters and random lines popping into your head may lead to unnecessary dialog and details in your writing. Just because your character "tells you something" really funny, does not mean you must put it in the book. Just because your character suddenly offers a zinging one liner that seems to perfectly match with who she/he is, does not mean that it is appropriate material to add to your manuscript. Make sure that your conversations do not lead to unnecessary baggage in your final draft. I can imagine an enthusiastic character wizard interrupting here with a "but...but... I just have to... That was such a great line." If it doesn't further your plot or strengthen your character for the purpose of adding to your story, it shouldn't be in your manuscript. No matter how great it is.

So... Dealing with Shy Characters:

    So is it okay that my characters don't talk to me? The short answer is: yes. However, placing yourselves in your characters shoes is a skill that you may want to develop over time. It may help to deepen your character back stories and give you new ideas for how your character should interact. If you are having a hard time getting to know your characters, I suggest that you:

1. Create Character Profiles

    One way to get to know your characters without imagined conversations is to create detailed character profiles. The profiles I've created for my DADD were long and detailed, including such things as physical description, age, family, pet peeves, favorite things, favorite quotes, what would he/she do in X situation, and a full life back story.
   I have found that they make a really fun afternoon project, and lead to deeper and lead to characters that are more well rounded and believable. There is a danger though. I beg of you, don't use all the information you come up with! Just because you write a full fledged biography of your character doesn't mean that the reader of your book needs to know the whole story. Even if you come up with some pretty great stuff in this process, it should only go into your manuscript if it has a definite function in furthering your plot and/or fulfilling the purpose of your book.
   Some great online platforms for creating character bios are listed below:

Long But Thorough ( you could probably skip parts of it, but you never know - some question may produce a new dimension or trait that surprises you!)
Very Basic 

2. Wait.

  Are you ancy to start engaging in those interesting conversations with your characters? Let me tell you one thing, you can't just lay down on your bed, spread out in a comfortable way, and demand your brain to SPEAK! Many authors I've met online noted that they didn't develop the skill of fake character conversation until they had already finished one or two novels! So just continue to develop characters in other ways (namely through the character profiles mentioned above). Remember that talking to characters is not a magical experience, it is a skill that must be practiced. Randy Sez of put it right when he said:

If you’re just beginning to write fiction, this probably won’t happen right away. That’s okay. Put in a thousand or two thousand hours of writing, and you’ll probably start connecting amazingly well with your characters, if you have any talent for fiction whatsoever. (If you have a desire to write fiction, then you almost certainly have some talent.)
( Rex wrote a beautiful article on the topic of character conversations that you can read here

      So if your characters are staying silent, have no fears. Remember that 1. It is not an integral part of the fiction writing process and 2. It is a skill that you may develop at a later point in time. Just keep writing. Just keep working. Practice developing those wonderful characters whose voice is really your own. 

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