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
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:
- 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!