Most Authors Can Hear Their Characters Speaking to Them
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Many famous fiction writers report interacting with their characters, as though the imaginary people they write about have minds of their own.
Alice Walker has said that, when she was writing The Color Purple, her characters often visited her, choosing their own actions in her narrative and even commenting – not always favourably – on her life.
Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, had to negotiate with his glamorous character Mrs. Coulter to convince her to spend time in a dank cave.
When Robert E. Howard was writing his Conan the Barbarian novels, he felt that he wasn’t creating new stories but rather recounting events that had already occurred. Some sources say he even imaged Conan holding him hostage as he wrote, standing over his shoulder with axe drawn.
Researchers at Durham University surveyed 181 authors who were attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018 to find out just how common it is for writers to see, hear, or feel the presence of their characters. The writers were asked questions like:
- Do you ever hear your characters’ voices?
- Do you have visual or other sensory experiences of your characters, or sense their presence?
- Can you enter into a dialogue with your characters?
- Do you feel that your characters always do what you tell them to do, or do they act of their own accord?
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The researchers discovered that almost two-thirds of the authors surveyed hear their characters’ voices, while over half see their characters or sense them in other ways. 61% feel their characters have agency and can behave differently than the author wants them to.
“I hear them in my mind,” said one anonymous writer. “They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’.”
Several authors compared the experience to watching a movie: “I can watch [my characters] going about their business in a kind of inner cinema screen often complete with dramatic score…. I find the imagined dialogue relatively easy to write: it seems as if I just have to transcribe what they say. I can also rewind the inner tape and listen again if necessary.”
20% of the authors, like Robert E. Howard, occasionally even sense the presence of their characters in the room with them.
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“Sometimes, I just get the feeling that they are standing right behind me when I write,” explained one writer. “Of course, I turn and no one is there.”
The level of independence the writers ascribe to their characters varies from one author to another. 13% credit at least some of their characters with full agency (“They do their own thing!”); 27% say their characters develop agency only after a certain point in the writing process (“When sets of characters have matured… they sometimes seems to take on an independent existence and can surprise me with how they interact.”); and 22% experience their characters as having agency sometimes, but not always (“My characters can often swing the story in an unpredictable direction. Depending on the story, I can either rein them in or let them run with it.”).
According to the study’s lead author John Foxwell, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of English at Durham, the way these authors experience their characters is less like a hallucination and more like the “inner speech” most of us are familiar with.
“Inner speech is the inner monologue and/or dialogue that most of us have when we think verbally,” says Foxwell. “It can vary a great deal from person to person. For instance, some people are aware of hearing their inner speech most of the time, and some are barely conscious of it at all.
“People can also be aware of having the voices of ‘other people’ in their inner speech – for instance, hearing the voice of one of their parents giving them a piece of advice or criticism.
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“According to this line of thinking, most of us actually have independent and agentive ‘characters’ and hear their voices – it’s just that these characters have the same identities as the people we know in the real world.”
One of the authors in the study expressed it this way: “It’s like when you see a dress in a shop window and you hear your mum’s voice saying ‘it won’t wash…’ in your mind. It’s involuntary but not intrusive, and it’s not like hearing ‘real’ voices…. Ultimately it’s me speaking to myself, but imagining/putting on a different voice to do it.”
The study also compares the way some writers experience their characters as independent entities to the interactions children have with imaginary friends. Children can speak with their imaginary companions, like some authors do with their characters, without necessarily believing those companions are real.
The researchers conclude that an author’s experience of their characters “acting of their own accord” isn’t necessarily very different from the way many of us imagine and try to predict the behaviour of people we know in real life.
“After a certain point,” says Foxwell, “the writer’s greater familiarity with the characters provides the same kind of immediate and intuitive sense of what they would do or say that often applies to our imaginings of real people.”
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