writers · writing tips

How do writers “hear” their characters?

helena fairfax, the writers' project
Image courtesy of Pixabay

Last week I caught the tail end of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme. It was a fascinating discussion about how writers actually “hear” the voices of their characters (you might still be able to hear this episode on iPlayer).

Dr. Jennifer Hodgson, who was interviewed on the programme, is a writer and teacher who carried out some research for a project called Writers’ Inner Voices. She’d often heard writers say that their characters “arrived fully-formed” in their heads, and so she interviewed a hundred authors at the Edinburgh Book festival last year to find out just what that phrase actually means.

If I think about all the characters I’ve ever read about who have actually become real in my mind as a reader – the Artful Dodger, Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Lizzie Bennett, d’Artagnan – it seems to me incredible that  they have been created out of someone’s mind. And when I read back my own books – even sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing a scene – and I “hear” my characters talk to one another, I ask myself, where did these people actually come from?

I listened to what Dr Hodgson had to say about her research, and I could identify with everything the authors she spoke to had to say.

Here are some of the things writers told her:

  • their characters had become so real to them, that they dreamt about them;
  • they couldn’t begin writing until they had “heard the voice” of their characters;
  • their characters took on a life of their own;
  • they became immersed in their characters’ lives, and wanted their readers to be similarly affected;
  • after the book was finished they felt lost, as though suffering a bereavement
helena fairfax, freelance editor, author

After hearing these examples, I tried very hard to work out how my own characters came into existence, and how they had become “real” in my head. How did I dream up Kate Hemingway, the heroine of my novel The Summer of Love and Secrets, for example?

Dr Hodgson believes the process of creating characters involves four elements: Subconscious; Memory; Imagination and Craft. I applied all those in retrospect to my creation of Kate Hemingway.

First of all, craft. I had deliberately decided I wanted to write a romantic novel about a heroine who is working-class and has had a disadvantaged childhood, as at the time I started it I struggled to find something similar.

I wanted the heroine to be the daughter of an immigrant (since this is now the case for the majority in London) and so I created her Czech father. Then my subconscious took over and in the back of my mind I developed her father further. He’s Czech, he came to England to improve his life: why not have him leave for Australia for an even better life, and leave his teenage daughter behind?

My imagination started working. What effect would this have on Kate as she grew up? How would it affect her to be abandoned? How about when her husband dies, and he therefore also “abandons” her?

And then my memory threw up an incident that genuinely happened, about a war widow who shouted through the window at the men approaching her house: “Don’t tell me he’s dead!” I’d found this so terribly tragic and moving, her words stayed in my mind long after I’d read about it.

With all those elements, I began to put in place a living and breathing person in Kate Hemingway. One of the things I think is essential to a writer wasn’t mentioned by Dr Hodgson, and that is empathy. Once I’d begun to outline my heroine, I began to empathise with her, and as soon as I did that, then in that moment that’s when she came to life.

After this, I had a “close and intimate relationship” with my heroine (in Dr Hodgson’s words) and not only with her, but also with the hero, the heroine’s best friend, her son, and all the other characters that appear in my novel. To me, they were real.

Of course all writers dread the time their characters’ voices stop and they can no longer “hear” them. This sort of block happens to nearly every writer at some time. I was interested to hear how other writers overcome this. Here are some of their suggestions:

helena fairfax, the writers' project
Image courtesy of Pixabay
  • take a walk;
  • make up a “mood board” (I do something similar);
  • take a nap (ditto! As silly as it seems, I ask my subconscious to please tell me what my characters are thinking whilst I’m asleep);
  • go for a swim;
  • act out the voices out loud;
  • listen to music (even make up a Spotify playlist of the characters’ favourite tunes);
  • sit at the keyboard and bash it out, until a turn of phrase or the small jolt of imagination suddenly brings the voices back to life (I do this, too)

Dr Hodgson was interviewed again later, and here are some of the tips writers gave to aspiring authors:

  • try to engage with your characters’ voices, but don’t worry if they don’t arrive perfectly. Keep going;
  • try to think about something a character doesn’t want anyone else to know;
  • try to imagine their private thoughts as they lie awake in the small hours;
  • what do they love the most, that they would do anything in the world to protect?

I find that last tip particularly useful and often use it for my own characters. Kate Hemingway, for example, loves her son most in the world, and would do anything to protect him.

What do you think to Dr Hodgson’s reasearch? As a reader, who are your favourite characters, and why did they come alive for you? If you’re a writer, do you “hear” your characters’ voices? And how do you bring them to life?

If you have any questions or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

22 thoughts on “How do writers “hear” their characters?

  1. I wish I could hear the program. I tried several times but just couldn’t get it to play. What a fascinating thing. I read the list and all of those points apply to my relationship with my characters. I too dream their lives and yes, when the book ends I do feel lost for a time. Great post. Thanks for sharing.


    1. That’s a shame the programme wouldn’t play for you, Rose. I think sometimes BBC iPlayer isn’t available outside the UK, which is a great shame.
      I could identify with a lot of what these authors had to say, too. Such an interesting piece of research. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment.


  2. Interesting post. I’ve been looking deeply into those things that give the characters spirit, a soul. Whether evil or endearing, the best characters, the immortal ones, seem to have one. :)


  3. Really interesting post, Helena. As a reader, I remember and can still feel that awful loss when I’d finished a really good book and didn’t want to lose those people from my life. I worried I was nuts! LOL Apparently no. Glad to know. As a writer, I don’t ever quite feel that loss so strongly because the characters are still there in my head, even as I go on to write other characters.
    I’m impressed with your system, Helena. Thanks for the reminder about finding whatever it is the character will do anything to protect. I’ll share.


    1. Hi Marsha, I can identify with that sense of loss you describe as a reader. Sometimes you feel desperate to remain in these characters’ lives. I do feel a sense of loss when I’ve finished writing a book, but in a different way. It’s more a sort of emptiness, until the next project takes hold. Thanks so much for your comment, and for sharing!


  4. Hi Helena, You’ve given us another interesting post to take with us into the weekend. I think that characters come alive in ways which are as different as the imaginations of the individual involved, whether a writer or a reader. I also think that the reader may have a character take shape in his or her mind that has subtle or not-so-subtle differences from the character the writer envisioned. Isn’t it a little bit like trying to explain what a color looks like to someone else? Even if you were to say “she has almond shaped, blue eyes and blond hair, won’t your conception necessarily be different than mine? Thanks for posting!


    1. Hi Ken, that’s a good point about how readers “hear” a character’s voice in a different way to the author. I try to write in such a way that readers hear and picture my characters exactly as I do – but of course that’s impossible! And I’ve often been disappointed watching a film if it doesn’t fit my “picture” of the book.
      It would be fascinating to have some research on how readers hear characters. Thanks for your great comment!


  5. Wonderful post. I always hear my characters, just as I alwasy know when they stop talking. The last is a bad time for me to get through, but I usually manage. I think when authors hold off on the end for fear of letting go, it can really hurt a book, but I still hate to let go.


    1. That’s interesting you say that about letting go, Calisa. I always feel a sense of enormous relief when I’ve written The End, but then a few days after that the empty feeling sets in. I have trouble letting go of books I’m reading, too, if I’m really involved in the characters. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Love this post! I hear my character voices all the time. I get so emotionally involved with them. I used to think I was barking mad but have come to conclusion I am a writer :-) Thx


    1. That’s so interesting you say that, blondeusk. The research on writers was done as part of a wider project called Hearing the Voices http://writersinnervoices.com/support/ which aims to study all manner of people who “hear” voices, including people suffering from schizophrenia. They say art and “madness” are often linked. Where do we draw the line between an imaginary world in our heads and losing our grip on reality? That could be a whole other blog post. Thanks for the great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Actually, Drusilla never spoke. Apart from the time she grabbed onto me for dear life on the West Highland train, she pretty much just turned up as requested like a hologram in STAR TREK. Only the expression on her face seemed all her own, although she seemed pleased as punch when i brought her back after a year’s layoff for the last story.

    When it was all over, she virtually seemed to retire to the house in Avalon I’d found for her, and “sent” me a postcard from a day out in Santa Monica one time. And that’s it. Think she’s now often to be found reading a book on that big squashy sofa I described in DRUSILLA REVENANT…


    1. James, you are one writer I know who “sees” his characters as real, in a way that I haven’t experienced. I’d find it thrilling to have my characters so life-like… but also a little unnerving! Drusilla is a genuine Muse to you, and I admire how you’ve made her come alive for others. Thanks for the interesting comment!


  8. such a good post, Helena and it’s a really interesting area for all of us. I start with a dramatic scene and listen to the characters talking to each other. It’s a hang over from play writing and I think it was Harold Pinter who, much more successfully, did the same. Put two characters in a room and listen…anne stenhouse


    1. That’s very interesting, Anne. I hadn’t considered how a playwright must create his or her characters. There was a comment from a radio playwright I heard on the podcast I mentioned in the post. He said that he has to give each of his characters in a radio play a very different voice, so that listeners can distinguish between them. That’s also something I hadn’t thought of before. Interesting comment, Anne. Thanks for dropping in!


  9. What a great post! I had no idea the topic resonates with so many writers. As well as hearing my characters, I am in the room with them and scribble down what’s happening and their conversation as if I am a mouse in the corner eavesdropping on these characters. Now I know why at times I feel completely rung out emotionally after writing a scene/chapter– I have gotten so involved in the character’s lives. Maybe it’s so hard to submit our stories for publication because we care about our characters so much, we hate to expose them to criticism in that cold, cruel world. Thanks, Helena.


    1. Hi JQ, I completely agree with you about exposing our characters to criticism. I empathise with my characters so much, it’s as though someone has said something critical about my close friends. You’ve summed up so well what an emotional process writing is. Thanks so much for your comment.


  10. What a fascinating piece, Helena! I’ve kept this post on my phone for a few days until I had the chance to read it properly. I love the way in which you write, breaking it all down for readers to follow so easily. And, even though not a writer myself (yet!), I completely agree with the ’empathy’ aspect. I think many writers are quite open-minded and accepting of people’s situations simply because they can empathise. Your advice and notes to both writers and readers is absolutely priceless. – Caroline x


    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Caroline. I totally agree with what you say about writers being open-minded and accepting. The best writers get into the heads of their characters and find some reason for what makes them the way they are. The more they are able to do this, the more “real” their characters’ voices become to the readers. Great comment. Thank you!


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