Twice in the past week the topic of fictional characters talking to their creator has come up.
The first time, I was answering my daughter’s friend’s questions about my writing. I suspect he’s more diplomatic than actually interested, but he’d just cooked us a spectacular supper including baked brie with honey and mixed berries accompanied by chocolate/orange port for dessert, so I played along.
“By normal people standards, fiction writers are weird,” I explained, probably unnecessarily. He’s had to have heard the stories… “It’s really not put on. Our characters have minds of their own. They only do what they want to do, and they talk to us.”
He gave me the eye roll, half-hidden by a mock serious nod, but he didn’t call me a liar outright. I like this guy.
“When we’re really lucky, they narrate the story and all we have to do is play stenographer and fix the punctuation.”
“I understand you write poetry. Have you memorized any?” he changed the subject. Oh! He’s good! I promised to send him some. I’ll forget.
The second time, a member of my critique group who has just had the memoir she’s ghost-written picked up by a publisher announced she’s ready to learn to write fiction.
“My characters haven’t even made a peep,” she complained. “I can see them. Are you sure they actually talk?”
Skepticism is a wonderful thing. Truth is, I didn’t believe it either—thought it was all writer’s mystique mumbo-jumbo—until it happened to me.
You see, I was in a rush—feeding dogs, getting ready for church—when I heard this soft Southern drawl inside my head…
Second chances don’t come often. When Lori walked into Will’s Auto Service after twenty-five years, I thought mine had arrived.
“Huh? Who’re you?” I talk to myself all the time, but this time, I got an answer.
I’m Will. I’ve been divorced for years, and I’d been thinking about proposing to Marilee Shelborne—there’s a downside to freedom that I was plumb tired of. But when I saw Lori again, my plans for Marilee and me evaporated like drizzle on a campfire…Well, what’re ya waitin’ for? Write it down, dummy! Back in 1985, Lori’d been a farm kid who came into town for school. She was sixteen and drove a blue Corvair exactly the color of her eyes. I had no business noticing, but you can’t hang a man for looking…
Ever try to get dressed with one hand and take dictation with the other? Drive while writing longhand against the steering wheel? Well, I made it to church, frazzled, but on time. And Will’s story—exactly as he dictated it—sits in my portfolio.
But let’s get serious for a minute. Do characters really talk to us? Probably not. One writer theorizes these voices are constructs our subconscious invents with our own creative energy to tell us what we’re thinking in a way that catches our attention. It presents the story we've invented using a character we’ve already endowed with a complete personality. We’ve programmed him to tell it his way, but it still comes from inside us.
That’s a reasonable explanation. Especially since the alternative is we’re badly in need of medication.
But constructs or otherwise, I’ve learned to listen when my characters speak to me and to do as I’m told because, as Will observed, “Second chances don’t come often.”
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