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Er, one of my characters actually came to life. What the hell do I do now?

God invented editors to remind writers they can’t play God with their characters.


I don’t remember who said it, but it’s true. In this short essay I’m going to talk about another aspect of writing when we as writers are far less in control than we think we are. And that is the character’s voice.


I first encountered this when I was writing a screenplay, HBKR (it was a dramedy based on a popular emo rock band, and was squarely rejected by a studio who said they didn’t get the hell what I was talking about). In HBKR a minor character called Poppy – bit punk, bit crazy, heart of gold – suddenly started jumping off the page in her dialogue, her reactions to what was going on around her. Whatever situation I put her in, what she said was authentic, funny, unexpected – even unexpected to me. As I continued writing it was almost like I couldn’t wait to see what she would say (and do) next. She was a total scenestealer. Eventually she started directing some of the events and dramatic flow of the story. Kid you not. Of course, Poppy being Poppy she went from a minor to a major character as well.


An altogether more serious character was Columbia from The Theory of My Wonders. She didn’t have much of a dialogue voice, that wasn’t her thing, but her internal narrative was incredible. She had these theories – the Theory of Falling, the Theory of Trust, the Theory of Cruelty, The Theory of Dying and many many more – and in fact each chapter touched on one of her theories. They’re stark, weird, sometimes wrong-headed and sometimes even delusional. But they’re her’s much more than they’re mine.


The obvious following question is, how then do you find these characters that have this driving voice, this authenticity? And the answer is, they just kinda pop up from time-to-time. There’s no formula to create them, it’s just plain happenstance and good luck. In The Theory of My Wonders there were only Columbia and one other small character that had this voice – out of twenty or thirty characters in total.


That’s why you should keep writing and throwing away work. You don’t want to be trapped trying to work with characters who’re making life difficult for you (I’m starting to drift into an analogy of a movie director trying to work with a bunch of uninspired actors). So you may have a great story concept, and all the writing skills (or a good editor to fix them later), but if your characters are going to come alive on the page you’re going to have to try and try again until they show up.


Still, nobody said writing was easy. But I promise those authentic characters will come to you – and they will lift your heart and your writing!

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