Listening to the Voices

Sometimes stories falter. It’s in the nature of writing. The trick is being able to pick up and start again even when you reach a seemingly insurmountable wall. The thing is, as a writer, you’re not the only person invested in your story. You’re the main person, sure. It won’t get written without you, and no one will care more than you whether it is or isn’t successful.

But. There are other people, without whom you don’t even have a story. People you rely on wholeheartedly in order to write in the first place.

They’re your characters.

Your protagonist, your antagonist, your secondary characters and side characters. They’re the focus of the whole thing. The story is about them. I could argue that there’s nobody more invested in your story than its characters, because without it, they don’t even exist. Or if they do exist and now you’re faltering, they risk being left in limboland, dangling and inconclusive because you can’t figure out where to go next.

In some ways, you and your characters are a team. You need each other. When encountering problems in other walks of life, we talk with our team mates, colleagues, partners, spouses, whomever, and conclude how to proceed from there. For me, it’s no different with characters. My consistently best solution to writing-related stumbling blocks is to talk to my characters. It works every time.

I don’t strike up direct conversations with them per se. For a start, they don’t even know I exist… But if I can get them talking to each other, conversing on something that’s just happened or is imminent, or even just regarding how they feel about a situation, solutions come flooding in. Sometimes these conversations will make it into the story, although they’re usually abridged, because these guys can get mighty chatty and they don’t give a liquorice clog about word counts. Sometimes the conversations themselves don’t get written down, but they still provide massive insight into where my characters are at a given moment, and they always manage to dig me out of a pit.

It’s amazing how much insight comes through in these visualised chats. When I can get into the characters’ minds and feel what they’re feeling, I end up knowing what they’ll do next, even if that might not be what I’d envisioned. It leads me away from the trap of forcing them to behave the way I need them to (which never works) and allows them to show me how they’ll behave, what they’ll do next, what it is that really matters to them at the specific point in the story. I don’t know of any better way to discern these things. Listening to my characters, observing their discussions, and trusting what they feel has always shown me where to go next and frequently throws up all kinds of surprises that end up making perfect sense down the line. As well as being my number one problem-solving tool, there’s something organic about it that I love. And it’s an amazing way to get to know my characters better.

So, my number-one rule of fiction writing: always listen to your voices.

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