By Glynn Young
The news report made quite a splash. Researchers at Durham University in the U.K. teamed up with The Guardian newspaper and the Edinburgh Book Festival to do a study of authors. And the study reported that two-thirds of authors hear their characters speak while they’re writing.
My first thought was, this is news?
The study was more of a survey. Some 181 authors who participated in the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2014 and 2018 were asked an array of questions. The biggest surprise, at least to the researchers, was that 63 percent of the authors hear their characters speak, and 61 percent say their characters can act independently.
I’ve been listening to my characters speak since I’ve been writing. I’ve experienced characters getting a mind of their own and doing both the expected and the unexpected. Other writers I’ve talked with say they’ve experienced the same thing. Of course, characters speak. Of course, authors hear them speak. Of course, characters get themselves totally out of character and screw things up, at least temporarily. This is part of what makes them real to the author and the reader.
I’ve heard my characters speak. I know what their voices sound like. They’ve talked with me. They’ve talked with each other. They’ve talked about each other. They’ve argued. They’ve opened their hearts and closed them again. They’ve told stories. I’ve heard them telling stories long before I committed the first words to the Word document.
In four published novels with mostly the same cast of characters, the same four or five main characters dominate the stories. When you write a series of some 375,000 words, you get to know your characters fairly well. You get to know yourself as a writer fairly well, too. When I hit a block or a wall or a hard spot, I’d go for a walk, and take the characters and the scene with me.
I was having fits with the opening of the fourth novel. I wanted to skip the opening and start with the action scene. The problem was the story needed the opening to set the stage. I went for a long walk, taking a particularly troublesome (and relatively minor) character with me. I was a block from my house when I clearly heard him speak: “This is my story. I have to tell it, but I can’t. It’s too painful to break through that wall, and I’m frightened to find out what’s on the other side. I’m frightened of that darkness.” And there it was – the opening of the story. It sounds crazy, but that character told me how to write the opening – in his own words.
I had a different problem with the novel I just recently finished. A character kept showing up in scenes where he wasn’t wanted, and where he didn’t even fit. The character was a four-year-old boy, inspired, I suspect, by my four-almost five-year-old grandson, who’s the family photobomber. The character kept showing up, but he wasn’t wanted for the scene. For that matter, he wasn’t wanted for almost all of the story in my head and in my outline. The story was about something else entirely. But this kid, this character, kept sticking his head in.
It took months of struggle, but I finally realized this four-year-old character with a mind of his own was actually who the story was about. Once I got over the shock, I rewrote the text. It took considerable work, but it turned into a far better story. I can see him now, sitting there, looking at me, and grinning.
Perhaps we needed an official study to tell us that authors hear their characters speak, and that sometimes characters can get a mind of their own and take over. But I don’t think this is news. For me, it’s been standard operating procedure.
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Glynn Young is a national award-winning speechwriter, communications practitioner, and novelist. He’s the author of four published novels, Dancing Priest, A Light Shining, Dancing King, and Dancing Prophet; the forthcoming Dancing Prince; and the non-fiction book Poetry at Work. Visit Glynn at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, his blog, the Dancing Priest book page, and his business web site.