Listening to Your Characters


“I hear voices in my head, and if I remember correctly, I always did.” — Stephen King

By P.J. Parrish

So I’ve got my protagonist Clay Buchanan at a critical point in the story. He’s just done something awful, faced his “mirror moment” as James Bell calls it. And now he’s sitting in a dive bar, two sheets to the wind, thinking about what has brought him to this crisis.

My fingers are poised over the keys, waiting…

Waiting for him to tell me what is on his mind.

((((Silence))))

Clay? You there, buddy?

(((Cickets)))

Dude, I really need you to talk to me.

(((Goin’ dark)))

Oh man, is there anything worse than characters who won’t talk to you? It doesn’t often happen to me but when it does, it brings my writing momentum to a screeching halt. It is something I can’t just “write through” and hope I can go back and fix it later. Because when a character refuses to reveal himself to me, refuses to let me inside to hear his thoughts, I lose the heartbeat of my story.

Most writers, I think, hear voices in their heads. Yes, we visualize our stories, seeing the action unreeling in our heads like movies. But we also hear the speech and thoughts of our characters, as if we are mere conduits for voices that seem to have lives of their own. Writing is, after all, just “a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” according to E.L. Doctorow.

Hearing voices is on my mind of late not just because of my recalcitrant character Clay. But also because I read about a fascinating project called Hearing The Voice. As part of medical project on auditory hallucinations at Durham University in the UK, researchers are surveying novelists about how they experience their character’s voices. They’ve gathered info from more than 100 authors, including Hilary Mantel, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens.

And here you thought you were the only “loony” one.

The questions are intriguing: What does inner voice actually “sound” like? What is like to hear your characters or subjects out loud? What do writers do when they can no longer “tune in” to their inner voice? (Hello? Anyone want to interview me?)

Here are some interesting findings:

  • Writers tend to “experience their primary and secondary characters differently.  They have a sense of “inhabiting the interior life” of their protagonist and of looking out at the world through their eyes. But they report that secondary characters tend to be experienced visually.
  • Many writers are unable to “see” the faces of their protagonists. The main character often registers as a blank – or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph.
  • Writers’ engagement with their inner voice, and the role it plays within the literary-creative process, changes radically over the course of their careers. Early on, they report little separation between their own thoughs and those of characters. Over time, however, writers report that the inner voice becomes more complex, taking on echoes of other voices harvested from life and literature.
Now all this is fun for academic types, but what can we mere writers glean from it that’s useful as we face the task of creating full-blooded, idiosyncratic and memorable characters? Let’s break it down.
First, I am not talking about “the writer’s voice.” That is your style, the quality that makes your writing unique to you. It conveys your attitude, personality, and way of looking at the world. I’m talking about your character’s voice. This is the speech and thought patterns of your narrator and others who orbit around him or her. Each character you bring alive on the page must have her own distinct voice. It is one of most vital – and maybe difficult – elements of great fiction. No two characters should sound alike.
You make your characters’s voices come alive on the page two ways: through dialogue and through thoughts (sometimes called interior monologue). No two people talk (to others or themselves) the same way. Every person has his own distinct vocabulary, rhythm, dialects and tone. Other things that make voice unique: age, geography, intellect, education level, and — yes, I’m going there — gender.
A teenage girl living in the farm town of Morning Sun, Iowa, is not going to sound the same as a elderly Creole dockworker from New Orleans. A British solider in World War I is not going to sound the same as an American Vietnam vet.  If they do, well, you the writer are not listening.
I’m reading a terrific book by Thomas Cook called Sandrine’s Case. (It was an Edgar best novel nominee last year but Cook’s stuff is always good. His characters live on after you close the book). Here’s one dialogue snippet:

“Worked up?” I offered a vaguely contemptuous snort. “I feel like Meursault in The Stranger.

“Be sure you mention that to the press, or better yet, the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existential French literature.”

Which one is the supercilious college professor and which is the lawyer whose wife sends him to work with tuna sandwiches in bags? And here’s another:

“My grandfather would have shot you with one of the dueling pistols I still have,” he said. “But I fear I lack the courage required to defend my honor.”

This is another professor but in the legato rhythm, ripe vocabulary, and fey tone, Cook has conveyed volumes about this man’s background (genteel Southern) and personality (timid cuckold).

Here’s another example, this time from one of my favorite movie scripts:

Crash Davis: After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out. Besides, uh, I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?

Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, sex hd xxx soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pauses then winks and walks away]

Annie Savoy: Oh my. Crash…

Nuke LaLoosh: Hey, Annie, what’s all this molecule stuff?

In this exchange, we find out all we need to know about the intellectual level of these two baseball players.

Maybe we should also take a quick look at the mechanics of how we convey character’s voices. Dialogue mechanics are pretty straightforward. But I find some inexperienced writers have trouble with interior monologues. Maybe it’s because dialogue is SHOWING, but to convey a character’s thoughts, you must move into narrative mode, which technically is TELLING. And many writers believe that will slow things down too much. I disagree. A good interior monologue  gives the reader a window into a character’s soul. Yes, you can convey what a character is thinking or feeling through speech, facial expressions and movement. But sometimes readers also need to “hear” what is in their heads and hearts. It cements the emotional bond.

Interior monologues can be short or long. Short ones are one- or two-sentence thoughts inserted into an action scene or dialogue. Long interior monologues can go on for paragraphs or pages and because they slow the pace, you have to be careful where you put them.

Another mechanical consideration: Do you use “I thought” or “he thought” or do you simply signpost a thought with italics? I like to use both. Here’s a sample from my WIP, the thoughts of my stubborn character Clay:

YOLO. It was a dumb name for a restaurant, he thought. But then when he glanced at the matches he had snagged from the hostess he saw that it stood for You Only Live Once.

He ordered a Martin Mills bourbon. Hundred bucks a shot, but he wasn’t paying. He took a sip, closing his eyes in pleasure at the caramel taste.

Carpe diem, baby.

I used both techniques in the same interior monologue. Why? Clay’s thoughts about the restaurant are illuminating but sort of mundane, so I think “he thought” is sufficient. But by setting the “carpe diem, baby” off in itals, I am trying to say something unique about Clay’s rather louche personality. It’s a grace note, a kicker, an extra beat. If you use this, I recommend you set it off on its own line. And use it only for special moments or emotion, humor or info. By all means, write:

Oh God, what have I done? 

But never:

 I think I’ll have egg salad for lunch.

Some moments call for you the writer to directly “speak” what is on the character’s mind. I call this intimate interior narrator. You don’t use itals or attribution but when well rendered, the reader feels a psychic connection with the character. 

Alex stared at the back of Buchanan’s head, a spasm of disgust moving through him, like that time that rapist had reached through the bars of the Tallahassee jail and grabbed his arm, grinning and saying he had never touched that little girl. Alex had gotten the man off. Two months later, he quit his public defender job and signed on with a small Orlando firm specializing in corporate law. It wasn’t only for the money. He just wanted to feel clean.   

Even though this is me, the writer, in narrative mode, I am deep within my character’s psyche as he has a key memory, hence the slightly run-on stream-of-consciousness rhythm. If I were in an action scene, however, the rhythm would be staccato and tense.

And speaking of my characters, Clay decided about a half-hour ago that he was going to start talking to me again. Originally, I  had thought his mirror-moment had left him depressed. Then I thought it had left him angry. Well, I realized it was neither. I was confused about his motivation and well, I wasn’t really listening to him.

Now I can’t shut him up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to chapter 22 before he decides to clam up again.

 Carpe diem, baby.

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30 thoughts on “Listening to Your Characters

  1. My goal has been social acceptability, and now I have it, That’s enough to be going on with. The rest of your post is great. I have had trouble with showing inner thoughts — in my writing. Your examples are excellent. Thank you.

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    • I think all writers have difficulty with the “interior monologue” thing, Lance. It’s hard writing because it requires you to really analyze what is in your character’s head and if you are off even a little, it just doesn’t work. This is, for me, the part of the book that comes hardest for me.

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  2. Great post. Wish I had more time to expound on it, and the voices in my head, but there’s a voice outside my head reminding me of the time and get to work so let me just say; if you wrote a ‘how to’ book on writing, I would buy it.

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    • Amanda, thanks for the great compliment. Actually, Kelly and I have put together a “how to” book but it was a self-pubbed thing for our Michigan writing workshop participants. We can’t sell it because we used pix and stuff that is copyrighted. Maybe someday…when I have an extra couple months. (Who am I kidding?) :))

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  3. Another great post, Kris. I always look forward to your gems!

    I wonder about the author’s voice, though… Why have an author’s voice for narration and exposition? I think it would be more powerful to just mainly be in the protagonist’s voice for everything – description, exposition, etc. – except for when we switch POVs and are in another character’s head for a scene or chapter. After all, when your main character is riding into town or whatever, the descriptions of the scenery around him and the people he meets should be colored and enriched by his mood, agenda, personal observations, and his mental, emotional, and physical reactions. That way the readers feel they ARE this character and are experiencing his world with him. They bond with him quickly and start worrying about him. They’re sucked in and emotionally engaged.

    I think the best novels are those where the author stays out of it completely and lets the characters tell the story. In this case, they really need to know their protagonist intimately, which they can develop by free-form journaling in their voice.

    And unless you’re writing a series with the protagonist and other important characters reappearing, or several stories taking place in the same town with similar types of people, wouldn’t or shouldn’t the author’s voice be different for each novel? I say step back as the author and leave your own opinions at the door and just let the characters tell the story, in their own words.

    (By “you” and “your” I’m referring to fiction writers, of course, not P.J. Parrish! 🙂 )

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  4. It’s a good point, Jodie. One that I have debated on panels in fact. I don’t think I explained myself well enough regarding that “intimate narrator” thing. It’s a very subtle distinction I am trying to make between the type of narration where you are FIRMLY in the character’s POV (ie everything is filtered thru his sensibility) and the kind of narration where you allow yourself to almost become ONE with the character so we a blend of the character’s and the writer’s POV. Generally speaking, I, too, want to be rooted in the character’s psyche. But sometimes, I like it when a hint of the writer’s point of view is implied.

    Does that even make sense?

    Maybe it’s like in that movie “Ghost” when Whoopie Goldberg’s character Oda Mae Brown allows spirits to enter her body and speak through her…we get the main voice of the “inhabiting” spirit (protag) but we still know it is filtered through Oda Mae. (writer)

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  5. I guess I see what you mean, Kris, but why keep the author’s POV in there at all? Why not just immerse us completely in the character’s psyche and his story world? Aren’t the best novels the ones where we as readers are sucked right into the fictive dream, where we feel like we ARE the character, and we get really worried about him/her and how they’ll manage? The closer in, the better, I think. Then start a new chapter or scene for the POV of the villain or love interest or other important character, but keep going back to the POV of the protagonist to keep him/her uppermost in the minds of the readers.

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  6. I’m probably a little “out there” with my thinking on this, but this is how I feel, both as a reader and as a fiction editor. (More in my upcoming book, Captivate Your Readers.)

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  7. Gnillii: Wait a minute, is she saying we’re just voices in Basil’s head?

    Boffin: Or maybe he’s a voice in our head?

    Fillii: Or maybe we’re all voices in the Internet’s head.

    Boffin: Well, the ground does seem kinda squishy sometimes.

    Gnilli: …And lumpy

    Fillii: What’s that blue light in the corner?

    Berthold: “Ghosts in the Machine”

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  8. PJ–
    I admire your search for a way to get Clay talking to you. But here’s a simple solution. Go back in the story, to the point where you start his drinking, and delete. Rewrite this section without over-serving Clay, and see what happens.

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    • Barry: You know, I actually considered that. But he’s got a drinking problem (part of his arc) and I need him to sort of hit bottom soon so I can start him back up again. But I DID go back and delete some of it so he is drinking, yes, but still sober. I had him really in his cups the first draft and that was part of the problem. He wasn’t really in the mood to drink heavily yet I was asking him to. I changed it….maybe that’s why it’s working now.

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  9. PJ–
    Forgive me, but here’s something else. Clay has done something awful, and he’s drinking to deal with it. But if it’s possible for him to hear others in the bar, certain things said and not others, what he hears would tell the reader what he’s thinking. That might be interesting. His state of mind, his guilt or fear is editing his perceptions, so he doesn’t have to think/talk, just hear, taste, smell, etc. But that would pretty much depend on how POV is operating in your story.

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  10. Barry: You know, that is very interesting. You have given me something to think about here…a different perspective on the scene physically. What Clay observes in OTHERS at the bar can resonant in his thoughts. Thanks!

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  11. I finally listened to one of my characters after about 35k words. 15 yrs. clean of a drug habit when he stumbled upon 25 kilos of heroin. He wouldn’t leave his house or talk. all he wanted to do was splat heroin in his arms.

    Revised story and started over. His long estranged brother showed up to take half of character’s role as his little brother shoots dope.

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  12. Great post, Kris. I’m not the first to say it, but it’s true. I like that peek into other writers’ minds. Glad Clay is talking to you. I just turned in my May Dead-End Job mystery and it took several days to get Helen Hawthorne to shut up.

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  13. Let me just say, Kris, that I just finished reading A Killing Rain (as part of the recent book deal–and such a deal it was, too) and you two really knocked my socks right off. I’ve always appreciated your observations and posts here at TKZ and the various pearls of writing wisdom you drop on us. It’s always good to see a couple of Michigan girls make good. I’m from southwestern Michigan decades ago. I’m going to have to come back for one of your seminars–unless we can talk you into doing one in Montana.

    But I must say that you two don’t pull any punches in your stories and I am supremely impressed.

    Your newest fan,
    Jim in MT

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    • Thanks Jim. I appreciate the compliment and getting a new reader. That was one of our earliest books and we’ve changed some as writers. As for Montana…well, the closest I will get is through one of my characters, who is driving through there right now in one of my chapters. I am traveling with her via Google Street View. Pretty desolate stretch of road…

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  14. Great post as always. =D

    I once had a college professor tell me that authors always had control of their characters and if they were hearing voices, they should get checked out. I never believed him of course and argued the point with him. Ironically, we later watched an interview with Doris Lessing, author of “The Good Terrorist” and she went on and on about how one of her characters completely broke through and took over a story and that his voice was so clear. My professor, who loves Lessing, was floored. XD

    Funny that you mention that research article. I read one a few months ago called “The Illusion of Independent Agency: Do Adult Fiction Writers Experience Their Characters as Having Minds of Their Own?” by Majorie Taylor, Sara D. Hodges, and Adele Kohanyi that was published in 2002. It has a similar premise. The researchers for your article might want to check it out!

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  15. These are great insights. I always feel story magic is what happens when our characters speak. Suddenly, we have several typed pages whereas earlier they were blank.

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