This article from The Guardian crossed my eyes the other day: A survey of authors reported that 63% said they could “hear” their characters talking, and 61% felt their characters had their own agency (although what, precisely, that means has a lot of variance).
“I hear them in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’,” said one anonymous writer. “They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn’t right – that they would never behave or speak that way. I don’t usually answer back,” said another.
It links to something I read a few months ago that fascinated me — the idea that some people have no inner voice. No internal monologue? No ability to narrate everything you do? I literally can’t imagine it. My brain often has more than one audio channel running at the same time. I wonder if those people are better at meditation and yoga, because I’ve often thought the reason I’m so bad at them is because my brain is utterly incapable of being quiet. The internal monologue never ceases.
I am absolutely one of those who can hear my characters. Some have stronger voices than others — usually the characters who popped up without my having to craft them. If I’ve needed to build a character to fill a specific story need, the voice often isn’t quite as strong. But the ones who come naturally, those are the characters whose voices come through loud and clear.
In the Aven Cycle, it’s Aula who first occurs to me when I think about this. From the very beginning, her voice was so strong: I can hear its tone, its cadence, its tics and quirks. I almost never have to wonder about the words I write for her; the dialogue flows entirely naturally. Latona takes a little more finesse — not least because she is more likely to weigh her words and decide what she can or can’t say based on who she’s talking to, whereas Aula has fewer filters. Alhena, though, shy and reticent, has even more. I can also “see” most characters, as the article mentions — how they move, what their gestures are, how they interact with the environment. I’ve wondered how much of this is due to theatrical experience. I’m always thinking of what the “stage business” would be. All of these things add up to more than the sum of their parts: they help inform a reader about who the character is, what’s important to them, how they process the world.
I don’t experience what some of the authors in the article say, though, in terms of a character “talking back”. They don’t address me. They aren’t aware they’re being written; they exist in their world, and it’s one I can manipulate. When something feels off and isn’t working, it’s because I haven’t fit the pieces together properly. I operate more like what Val McDermid describes:
“I do not think they act independently,” McDermid said. “They have the life I give them and no more. … I don’t think I’m possessed by the characters; I just think my subconscious is good at processing data.”
I love that idea, because it ties in to what the article says about how people interact with each other in real life: our brains are constantly trying to make predictions, and they update their predictions based on newly-input data, all the time. Some writers’ brains, it seems, do the same thing, just with the people we’ve invented. Our brains collate and process that data, and just like we can tell if a well-known friend or family member is behaving oddly, we can tell if something isn’t working for a character when we play out an imaginary scenario for them.
This is yet another place where fanfic can be, truly, such amazing training for a writer — because what we’re talking about, really, when we talk about a character having their own agency or “talking back” or “refusing” to do something — is the idea of being OOC: Out Of Character.
With fanfic, when you’re writing established characters, you’ve got existing data to rely on: the characters’ words and actions in canon. If you’re writing fanfic for a movie or TV series, you get the added bonus of the actor’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms. Your brain can process all of that data much like it would a real person. It makes it much simpler to test the dialogue and actions you write against “what they would really do”. There’s a sort of answer key you can check your work against. It operates on a lot of levels — choices they make, actions, love interests, all sorts of things. But in terms of “hearing a character’s voice”, specifically, canon provides a basis for dialogue (or internal monologues) in fanfic. If you write something that goes against the grain of established vocal patterns, it’s going to feel wrong.
(That wrongness can also be used within canon for comedic effect: One of my favorite things in the MCU is any time Loki impersonates someone, because you get this wonderful tangle of another actor pretending to be Tom Hiddleston pretending to be Loki pretending to be someone else. Or in Harry Potter, there was the great joy of watching Helena Bonham Carter play Emma Watson’s Hermione pretending to be Bellatrix. Body-swapping scenes like that present a challenge for both writer and actor, but when done well, they are so good — I suspect in large part because of the mental jungle gym they give our brains to exercise on. And oftentimes the real actor for the character will play out the scene in rehearsal for the other actor’s benefit, giving them something to check against in much the same way that canon gives fanfic that mark).
Picking apart why dialogue feels OOC is great training for a writer, because that drills down into the nitty-gritty of how words work and why. What about these words is wrong? Is it about word choice — words that are either too complex or too simple for a character, or slang they would or wouldn’t use? Are you using too many filler words and verbal pauses (um, ah, look, well, etc), or not enough, or the wrong type? Is it the cadence — are the thoughts too long or too short, do they rise and fall in the wrong places? Is it more emotionally-based — something a character wouldn’t admit out loud, or at least wouldn’t in these circumstances? Is it too blunt, or too circumspect? How about the tone — is it too snarky, too earnest, too casual, too formal? Would this character use profane language or minced oaths? Do they think before they speak, weighing their words carefully, or do they speak without a filter?
And then, if you’re the sort of writer inclined towards original work as well as fanfic, you can apply these lessons even when you don’t have a canon outside of your own brain to check against.
In From Unseen Fire, I remember a scene that changed from a conversation between Latona and Rubellia to one between Latona and Aula. The information conveyed was the same, but I had to tweak the dialogue in a big way, because Rubellia’s speech patterns are not the same as Aula’s. Because I’ve spent so much time thinking about how words work (and rhetoric plays a big role in this), I can break that general sense of wrongness down further into granular parts: Aula uses more parentheticals, more terms of address; her flow is both faster and choppier, while Rubellia’s is more evenly-paced, with longer thoughts; Aula exclaims, while Rubellia does not. I had a similar experience working on Give Way to Night, in a group scene that involves all three Vitelliae, Rubellia, and Vibia. The original version of the scene was missing Rubellia and Alhena; adding them in changed the balance of conversation. I had to think more critically about who would say what when, who conveyed which information, and what words they used to do so. Alhena offers information more timidly than the others in the room; Vibia doesn’t waste words by cushioning what she says with platitudes or endearments. Small details, but they’re what can really sell a character — and help a reader to understand them, without having to spell every aspect of their personality out in the narration.
How about you? Are you someone who hears voices when you’re writing or reading? Does your brain process interpersonal data that way?