A Writer’s Inner Voice?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve just returned from a ten day trip to Australia and, apart from a vestiges of jet lag, I’m also suffering from what I like to term ‘character withdrawal’. This has occurred because, despite my good intentions, I didn’t manage to get any writing done while I was away (my laptop remained firmly ensconced in my backpack, never to be opened). So now, as I hazily return to normality, I face a temporary silence – the voices of my characters have been mute  for too long (and, I suspect, they’re a bit miffed about this…so they may actually be ignoring me). Oh, I’ve had the occasional glimpse of a scene, and a fragment of conversation maybe, but by and large I forgot my characters amidst the whirl of a family wedding and reunion.  Now I’m going to have to listen hard to let these characters voices be heard once more.

So I was intrigued by a project conducted at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year in which writers were asked about how they found their characters’ voices. More than 100 writers have so far participated in the project, responding in terms of how they experience their characters’ voices, and how this process had changed over their careers.  A short summary of some of the initial findings of the study can be read here

The most interesting finding for me (at least) was that many writers have different experiences when it comes to their primary and secondary characters. For primary characters/story protagonists writers reported that they tended to see the world through this character’s eyes, inhabiting that character’s interior life. They often found, at least early in their careers, difficulty in distinguishing their own ‘author’s voice’ from that of their main character. These writers felt as though the main character was formed through their own voice, often expressing what they, as the author, felt but could not express in real life (hmm…interesting…) 

For secondary or minor characters, writers reported that they ‘saw’ them more visually rather than hearing (or being a conduit for, perhaps) that character’s voice.  Many writers in the study also reported that as their writing careers progressed they found they were able to distance their own ‘author’s voice’ from the character’s voice and thus create primary characters that were no longer versions of themselves.

I’ve often wondered how other writers access their characters’  voices  For me it tends to be a visual as well as an auditory experience – but it is true that often I cannot picture my main character as clearly as I can visualize the other characters, because I am, in many ways viewing my fictional world through the eyes of that main character. 

So as I spend the next few days listening once more to my ‘inner voices’ and coming back to my writing, I wonder…how do you access your characters? Do you ‘hear’ their voices? Do you experience the process differently when it comes to your protagonist versus your secondary characters?

21 thoughts on “A Writer’s Inner Voice?

  1. Finding the “voice” for a story is, in the initial stages, by far the hardest thing for me. When I first started writing under contract for the Nancy Drew series, it wasn’t an issue. Nancy already had a well-established voice, as did the other characters, and all I had to do was copy it.. But I struggled for years after that, trying to find a voice for my own work. Everything I wrote sounded flat, terse, like a newspaper article. (No surprise, since I used to work as a journalist.) I spent years making false starts. One day, I was in a book store, and I happened to pick up a book that combined the chick-lit “voice” with a mystery plot. It was like a lightbulb going off. I can write like THAT, I thought. After a series, I decided to switch genres and write a suspense thriller. It was like going back to square 1 in terms of seeking a voice. Hopefully my current WIP is not another false start!

  2. I’m sure it isn’t a false start at all Kathryn! I’ve recently discovered that all too often I stifle my own voice in some of my writing and when I just let it go, the result is so much better!

  3. As a newly out of hiding writer, I am struggling with this very thing.

    When I roleplayed, the voices were constant companions. Now that I have taken the mental plunge to take soul responsibility for getting those voices out into the world for others to enjoy, things have gone almost frighteningly silent.

    As a roleplayer, I would imagine a story idea and a character would leap forward and say, “Oh that one’s mine! Now listen up!”

    I miss the voices. I need them back. I need to know I am telling their story.

    • Keep listening Wren and I’m sure they will return. Sometimes you just need to keep writing for the voices to return:)

  4. I try to get inside a character’s head and look out at the world through their eyes. Often I will go around town trying to channel a character. I’m interested in how a character reacts to everyday things. It’s really a worldview thing with me. I do some of this with minor characters, too, if they are intriguing enough. I like to write down an “interview” with a character—just me and the character with me taking notes. Or sometimes I’ll do a group thing, as long as nobody gets violent. Some characters won’t put up with too much foolishness. Some I have to meet in a dark alley in the middle of the night. Next I’m going to start asking “them” what they think of the storyline—much like a director asking for feedback from actors.

    I think getting feedback is important. Allowing a character a sense of autonomy can be enlightening. Another ploy is getting a character to take you along on a walk or drive around town. I’m obsessed with trying to get an inside-out viewpoint, when it comes to characters and stories.

    • Adam – this inside out viewpoint is critical I think to getting a voice established though I find I do it subconsciously rather than consciously. With certain characters (like Ursula Marlow) I know what they would or wouldn’t say/do in any circumstance as I can easily get back inside their heads and view the world their way. Other characters are trickier and if I can’t easily get to that place I know their ‘voice’ still isn’t fully formed.

  5. When I’m trying to find a character’s voice, either a major character or a minor one, I’ve found doing a character interview to be an invaluable part of the process.

    I use 8 base questions to get me started, but it inevitably expands on an interview-by-interview basis. In fact, I think I got the questions from TKZ’s own James Scott Bell!

    You can find an example of the process I use here: http://www.erindorpress.com/2012/12/how-do-you-find-a-characters-voice/

  6. I’ve had difficulty getting back in the groove again after coming home from Ninc. This is compounded by the blogs I’m writing up on the sessions I attended there and the secondary project of revising my mystery backlist. It helped to reread my story from the beginning, editing as I went along, until I’d read enough that I could jump back into the last scene and continue on. My progress might be slower than normal but at least things are moving forward. But this is getting back into a story after an interruption, not getting to know your characters at the start of a work.

  7. Clare–
    First, I think you should give yourself a break. Unless it’s a regular trip for you, traveling all the way to Australia should almost require you to leave your characters at home. Keeping track of local detail, though, that’s another matter.
    As for how I go about hearing/seeing my characters, that’s a good question, and I have no very satisfactory answer. If they sound like themselves, good–but what exactly does that mean? I guess what I am mostly interested in is that my characters not sound like other people’s characters. Of course, this is not entirely possible, but it’s what I strive for.

    • Barry – I honestly think that so long as you are striving to create your own character whether it’s hearing or seeing them doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they are coming to life in your head (and hopefully on the page!) I think some writers come a cropper when they try to mimic someone else’s character or create a character based on the stereotypes they’ve read.

  8. I channel the character. I forget about me and my own views and I become my character, seeing the world through their eyes. For example, the protagonist in of my books is British. I am not British. I do not have any British friends. But in order to pull off a British protagonist, writing a whole book from their POV, I had to become a British. I knew British people are known for their humour, so I also had to become humourous. By the time I was finish with that book, long after it had been published, I was still in British mode, still using British slangs. Until I started a new book about an assassin and had to abandon the jokey British “me” for being a cold, heartless assassin.

  9. I tend to visualize my characters, although as you said, my main character is hard to pin down, and may actually change in looks and personality until I get her just right. Somehow when I write, their words flow through me, so I guess in a sense, I’m “hearing” them then as I go along.

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