Monday, January 21, 2013

4 Benefits of Listening to Your Characters

Nothing will pull me out of a story faster than a lack of character motivation. It’s a sure sign that the author didn’t listen to the characters. Sure characters can be obstinate, even infuriating at times, but they’re worth listening to, and here’s why:

Character Believability
Characters know more about themselves than the author does. Like an old friend, we think we know a character, but when we continue to listen to them, we continue to discover more about them. When we know our characters, getting deep into their histories and personalities, their likes and dislikes, they become real on the page, even when those details often don’t make it into the story.

Story Direction
When we listen to our characters they will tell us where the story needs to go. My latest work in progress has an ending that’s been rewritten twice and needs to be rewritten again, all because I failed to listen to my main character. Clearly she is smarter than me.

Breaking Writer’s Block
Characters don’t have the same hang-ups as writers. They don’t care if the story is good enough, or if it’s ‘The One’ which will finally catch the eye of a dream agent. Therefore, they have a clearer head so they don’t second guess themselves. They will continue to guide us through the story—if we are willing to listen.

Writer’s Sanity
Characters will act up even more when we don’t listen to them. Often we’ll end up with a bunch of rebellious characters who’ll refuse to play their part. So we might as well listen to them and save ourselves some grief.

Do you listen to your characters? If so, when do you listen to them?

89 comments:

  1. I'm currently editing a piece that I didn't listen to my character. So it's back to the drawing board.

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    1. Yeah, I know that feeling all too well ;)

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  2. I love the comment about how characters don't care if the story's good enough! I also totally agree that you need to get to know your characters: it's the only way they'll react with believability when you put them in any given situation.

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    1. Exactly! They're not trying to sell their story, they're trying to share their life experiences with someone who will listen and care about what they have to say. :)

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    2. Yep, and it's not just about giving the characters a personality, but looking into their history to see why they might be a certain way.

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  3. I have to revamp a character in my WIP, because, in listening to her, found out that she has a much larger story than I first thought. I hope to flesh her out more fully in a later work, and with that in mind, have to adjust her current activity to make sure it meshes with those plans.

    Wonderful topic!

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    1. That's why I try to get to know my characters as early as possible, although I'll admit they don't always tell me everything straight up.

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  4. I listen to them but they never listen to me! :-(

    Take care
    x

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  5. So far no one is really talking to me, but...
    Letting the characters take the flow of the story in a direction different that the outline led to the creation of another character in my third book. And he's one of my favorite, so that worked out well!

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  6. I'm not a plotter so If I don't listen to my characters I don't have a story.

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  7. I do ask characters why they're doing stuff - and hope the answer isn't 'just to fit in with your plot'.

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  8. Listening to the character has turned out very productive and enlightening for me recently. It is a good practice.

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  9. you mean you hear voices when you're writing, Lyndy? :P

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    1. I hear vocies all the time, not just when I'm writing ;)

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  10. I used to think writers were flaky when they'd say things like this. I don't think that anymore. LOL I've argued with my characters enough to know better. ;)

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    1. Yeah, when I talk about my characters, my non-writing friends smile and nod in that way that says they're considering sending me off to the padded room ;)

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  11. Interesting. I think I write the other way - I create the character that has the motivation and just the right personality issues to do the thing that needs to happen (or have it done to them).

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  12. Sure I listen to my characters. They fight among themselves competing for face time in my books. ANd they are usually right. Its amazing at the end of a WIP some minor characters develop into major characters.

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  13. I'm a complete pantser so most of my plot turns come from the things my characters say or do. I got a little stuck this weekend because my character said something that I had no clue how to answer. Had to go back and ask her to rephrase that and we moved on. :P

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    1. hehe, yeah, I've been there too. That's where author control comes in. It's perfectly ok to ask a character to 'rephrase' as you say, as long as it's still within the bounds of the character's personality.

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  14. 'Characters don’t have the same hang-ups as writers. They don’t care if the story is good enough, or if it’s ‘The One’ which will finally catch the eye of a dream agent. Therefore, they have a clearer head so they don’t second guess themselves.'

    I LOVE THIS.

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  15. MY characters definitely scream for attention and want to be heard. I take their feeling into consideration when I am writing ... LOL.

    But you are so right, characters drive the story and we should listen to them...

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  16. Very good points! I must admit I'm always paranoid that I have this problem, and that my characters are far too flat... Love that last point--so true!

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  17. Great post! I wish I had read this last year. :-)

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  18. I always talk and listen to my characters. If I get stuck (because it certainly isn't them!) I simply ask them, "what would you do?" or "What do you want?" Often I'll go the opposite direction (think tension) and the story runs away with itself and them.

    It's their lives, their story...who better to ask but themselves?

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    1. Listening to your characters is probably the best way to find the plot of the story. Character is plot, I believe is a quote. :)

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  19. "Do you listen to your characters? If so, when do you listen to them?"

    Yes. Constantly. My life is filled every moment of every day with their voices. :)

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  20. Great post, Lynda. Like all writers, I would say I always listen to my characters...my crit partners sometimes disagree! I think unconsciously I have a predetermined agenda for my story, and it's not always what my characters would do. Thanks for the awesome reminder.

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  21. My current WIP is definitely character driven, so before I started I had to sit down and listen to them talk. . . a lot. I'm glad I did though, because it finally helped me figure out which way the story needs to go. Of course I'm probably going to have to sit down and listen to them again after the first draft is done. ;) Great post!

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    1. Yep, listening to them more than once is definitely helpful because often characters will evolve over the cause of the story creation.

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  22. Lol, I would say I have not been listening to mine. For that reason they sit idely in a file on my computer.
    Thanks for the reminder.

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  23. Ha! I made the mistake of listening to my characters and the one book I intended to write ended up being four books. Problem is, the little brats tend to take over. So much for author control. www.emandyves.com

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    1. hehe your patience with your characters is a sign of your passion for the story.

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  24. EXCELLENT tips!

    My characters make me listen. For realz.

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  25. I agree. Discovering our characters is an iterative process. Familiarity happens with time and engagement.

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  26. I've been deep into editing and trying to listen to my characters.

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  27. Well phrased post! I find my own characters often surprise me. One time I tried to kill a character off, but he refused to die, and by making him live it made the story better and better:) Go figure:)

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    1. hehe, I had the opposite experience where I wanted to keep a character alive but he refused to live.

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  28. i keep hearing my characters whine, this is too hard. why do i have to do this?
    then i bless them with something they enjoy =)
    ha ha, but this is really good advice! will compromise with them =)

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  29. Great post! My characters refuse to be quiet if I don't listen. I mostly let them guide the way, and if I waver when I have some doubts, they do steer me in the right direction again.

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  30. I write character journals before I draft and I'm surprised by what comes out of them. I try to stick to my outline, but these characters want to go in a different direction sometimes.

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  31. I think I need to create my characters first, but when I do I will definitely listen to them. Thanks Lynda.

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  32. i love love how you say listen to your characters!! great advise!!

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  33. Any character I create is based off a real person so if I'm ever confused about how they'd act, I'd just observe it in real life.

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  34. I'm a bit of a control freak. So, at the start, I try and get my characters to where they need to be but as they become more familiar- it's like any other relationship and they start to take liberties and turn things on their head for me. By the end, I'm practically a slave:)

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    1. You know you've created a great character when he or she becomes strong enough to control the story.

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  35. This is very timely for me as I'm editing right now and really digging into my characters. I need to take them out to lunch or something and get into their heads more.

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    1. While you're having lunch with them, make sure you don't let slip that you're planning on doing mean things to them ;)

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  36. I've listened to one character, but am ignoring another. One thought I was making her come across as too ditzy, so I changed that. But her husband wants to use more "colorful" language than I'm comfortable using, so he's just gonna have to suck it up.

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  37. This is so true. I tried to ignore Jake Solomon, but he wouldn't have any part of that.

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  38. Great post! I agree... the writing is stiff when we ignore the characters... let them breath, I say! :)

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  39. Oh, yes. Totally. That's how I write my books, actually! I write out the whole thing, synopsis style. Then I let the characters take it from there. And sometimes we stick w/the plan... :D

    Great post, Lynda! <3

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  40. I find that it really helps to start listening to my characters early, well before the first words hit the page, sometimes even before I start outlining. And then I don't stop listening until I type those magic words "The End." :)

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  41. I'm outline kind of writer so I pretty much know how the story's supposed to go. While I'm writing the draft however, I realize that my characters have other plans. I usually go with what they tell me :)
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  42. As I write, especially a new piece, the character's become more 'themselves' and less directed. Well, they are directed, but it seems less so. Because as you say, the story becomes wrapped around them.

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  43. Great post! Writing out synopsis style is like a road map. Even if characters do make you take a detour, you can always come back fast to the original map!

    Nas

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  44. Such great points here. There have been too many times when I've become bogged down in details, stopped listening to those characters, and ultimately regretted this.

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  45. Sometimes it's not a choice about when I listen to them!

    My secondary protagonist has kind of taken over my WIP. She's much smarter than my main one (a boy), so I had to listen to her ideas! This'll mean I'll have to go back and give more page time to her in the first part of the book. Character outlines are great, but you can only really get to know them by seeing them in action.

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  46. Every so often I forget to listen to my characters, but man, they let me know it.

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  47. Yes, I like to listen to my characters and to keep in mind that my characters aren't me, that they'd do things I'd never do!


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  48. Ah, this post is so right on the money! As a playwright, I get into trouble quite a bit when I don't listen to the dialogue my character is dictating to me. They DO know best!

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  49. I like the writer sanity one... so true. Sometimes my characters go down the wrong path, so they need a bit of coaxing.

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  50. Whenever I have problems with a manuscript it's usually because the character is forced. You've got it spot on.

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  51. Very cool blog. Interesting posts. ;)
    Nice atmosphere guests with you here on the blog. ;]
    Yours. Have a nice day. !

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    I'm very concerned about this, please. :)
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  52. I listen to my characters quite a bit Lynda. I listen to their heart beats, to their thoughts, I tune in to their moods. All of this helps me.

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  53. I listen to mine! Although sometimes I have to show them who's boss. But they're pretty good at balking when I try to get them to do things that's not really them. :)

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  54. Good points Lynda. Thanks for this list. My current editing project is passive voice, POV, head hoppping etc.

    So this post gives me a different perspective to view it now.

    Nas

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  55. Just a quick note to say that I have been enjoying reading your blog despite the fact that I have not been commenting on your posts recently.

    I hope you can keep producing such excellent material.

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  56. I listen to them too late, usually in the revision stage. Much more efficient to let them take me where they want to go in the rough draft.

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  57. Those are awesome! I agree, if you can get into your character's head and listen to their story, the writer's block will end because a character's life does not end (well, unless you kill them off).

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  58. These are excellent! You really have to set your characters free. That's where voice and tone come from. Let them say and do what they will, even if it would curl your own toes to do so. In fact, ESPECIALLY if it would curl your won toes to do so. That's when you know you're onto something good. :-)

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  59. I think I listen to my characters. Actually, I think they run the show during rough draft. Then I argue with them in revisions.

    Good luck with those rewrites!

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  60. Definitely some top-notch advice right there. When I'm unsure about the exact details or direction of the story, I just start writing with what I've got and see where I end up, do what feels right when I get to the point where I wasn't sure before. A good way to keep on top of knowing your characters is to build a character profile with any important information about them. It helps me out a lot to do this when the characters and/or story are more complicated than I'm used to, because I can double check details I might have forgotten. Knowing your characters and listening to them is definitely a good way to go about writing. Thanks for sharing, Lynda :)

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  61. It's a great idea to get a bit of dialog going with your characters. Of course, some can become a bit overbearing at times!

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  62. My characters usually speak the loudest in the first draft phase. I just played with a later draft where I let the characters out again, and it was a ton of fun.

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  63. I like this! And yes, I listen to my characters. Have gotten much better at it over time. :) Always something to learn.

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  64. The characters sound a lot like toddlers. The only difference is now we take turns having tantrums! Thanks for the great advice Lynda! Julie

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  65. I love this post! Yes, my writing flows so much quicker and clearer when I'm listening to my characters rather than the voice in my head!

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  66. Thanks for the great insight, Lynda. Like many writers, I hear my characters all the time! ^_^

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  67. I'd listen to my characters more if they would just talk louder. There's too much mumbling going on. lol
    I hope you're having a nice vacation. We miss you.

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  68. Awesome post. Yes, I always listen to them, even when they want to take me a different path to where I'd originally thought I was going. It makes the story truly theirs with a unique voice.

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  69. Sound advice. I'll keep it in mind.

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  70. Thanks, Lynda, for the insight.

    Second guessing my prose happens all too often. Listening to my characters? Usually, I let them tell me how it's going to work out, although sometimes I have an idea of how it works.

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  71. "My latest work in progress has an ending that’s been rewritten twice and needs to be rewritten again, all because I failed to listen to my main character. Clearly she is smarter than me."

    I've said things similar to this, and most of the time people look at me funny. I'M NOT CRAZY, I JUST CREATE FICTIONAL PEOPLE AND THEY TALK TO ME, OKAY??

    I love this whole post to death.

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