Writing Basics: Why Your Characters Should Speak For Themselves

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Take this moment and pause. I know you can hear them. The voices in your head. Talking to you. Telling you things. How others are thinking, feeling. Listen to them.

Every writer I know has the gift/curse of voices in their head that are not their own.

Note: This  is not to make fun of or make light of schizophrenia, a mental illness that millions live with and I do not claim to know anything about their journey. When I mention voices in a writer’s head, I’m talking about characters.

For a writer, these voices can become loud and distracting. Borderline domineering.

It isn’t a secret that one of the more important elements of a story is the character(s) you create. Whether you craft your character(s) to be loved, emulated, or feared, you want them to be remembered. The best way to achieve this is to listen.

As writers, we often think of ourselves as gods. We create whole worlds and people them as we see fit.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: Sometimes, you’re not the god. Sometimes, you’re just the transcriber.

There is a lot of advice on writing out there in our wide world. A lot of good advice (a lot of bad, too, but we won’t focus on that). The experts tell us how to plot and craft our stories to make sure they are the best they can be. In our pursuits of solid story structure, we often try to cram our characters into certain molds and restrictions. We want them to go from point A to B to C. There are times that they don’t want to go from A to B to C. Sometimes, they want to go from A to M to F to R. Or start from Z.

Here’s the thing: As frustrating as it can be when your character isn’t cooperating in the rigid structure you’ve created, you need to let them be who they are. Your story will be a lot richer for it.

Example: My short story Yanka and the Dragons

I was in a rush. I wanted to get this story out into the wide world as a fundraiser, and I created a story structure and crammed Yanka, her brothers, and everyone else into a tight (too tight) storyline. Did it work? On some levels, yes. It was a cute story. Some beta readers loved it. Others, not so much. Why? Because, my characters weren’t living. They were passive aggressively protesting, and I didn’t notice.

It was killing my story.

One Beta reader saw this. They saw poor Yanka pouting as only a ten-year-old-child-with-a-lot-to-say-and-not-allowed-to-say-it could pout. So, I finally listened. It turned out, there was a lot to Yanka I hadn’t noticed before. The things she told me lit up my world, and the story. Because I listened, the story is a lot more exciting and has opened up the possibility for a lot more stories to follow. A lot more.

Your characters have a voice. They need to be heard. Give them their agency and see where it takes them.

Now, remind them of the rules. Let them see the structure. They can be a bit like a child testing their boundaries, but assure them those boundaries are there for their own good. Without them, they’ll get into trouble and you won’t be able to rescue them. They’ll probably burn the whole story down, too.

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So, what are your characters trying to tell you? Are you listening? Let me know your struggles and triumphs in the comments below!

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I would love to discuss this story and more with you. You can Contact me through email, or Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

And, if you’re an author, I want to offer you help in any way I can. Check out my Author Services page to see more.

Like what you’re reading? Join my New story Email Group. You’ll get the latest news and access to stories you won’t find anywhere else. (And offers for my books not available to anyone else).

Need a good book? These are what you’re looking for:

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Yanka and the Dragons:

Ten year-old Yanka Ouedraogo finds that dragons are not monsters of stories. They are real, and they are coming. After the arrival of mysterious Princess Su Yin, Yanka discovers her mama once bore the title of Dragon Watcher for the legendary Knights of Tiqvah. Mama leaves to stop the onslaught of dragons and tasks Yanka with protecting her two younger brothers. One problem: after her father’s death, Yanka fears she’s the last person to protect anyone. When dragons invade her village, Yanka learns they want one thing: her. Can she escape the invasion and prove able to protect her brothers? Will the mysterious Knights of Tiqvah arrive to save the day? Or will a new Dragon Watcher appear and stop the carnage in time? (Middle Grade level, but good for the whole family!)

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The Piano Player:

World famous musician Mike Jonas broke a promise. Greek muse of music, Euterpe, gave him fame and fortune in return for his complete devotion. When a new love enters his life, Euterpe strikes. She kidnaps Mike’s fiancée Megan and threatens her life unless Mike proves that he still belongs to her. In his quest to fulfill Euterpe’s test, Mike is shaken to his core and all he holds as true is questioned. (Does contain language that might not be suitable for children.)

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3 thoughts on “Writing Basics: Why Your Characters Should Speak For Themselves

  1. Great post, Russell. I think your right about letting characters be themselves. I’ve noticed in my own writing that my characters need really strong, almost desperate, goals. That tamps down tangents and any tendency for my characters to become passive. It allows me to give them a lot of freedom to achieve those goals in an authentic way. 🙂

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