Friday, October 7, 2016

Do Your Romance Characters Speak to You?

Wearing one of my other writerly hats, I've been working on collecting interviews given by children's fantasy author Madeleine L'Engle. When a writer is interviewed multiple times, even by different writers writing for vastly different types of magazines or journals, similar themes tend to thread through the interviews as a whole. One theme that I've been noticing in L'Engle's interviews is her thoughts on characters.

In an interview/Q&A for Scholastic Books, in response to being asked if Charles Wallace, one of the main characters in her Newbery Award-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time is based on a real person, L'Engle replies, "I don’t base my characters on real people because if I do I’m limited by what I know of that person. I like them to be who they are." And in an interview with the magazine New Moon in 1996, L'Engle tells the "New Moon Girls" who are serving as interviews: "Most writers of fiction will agree that our characters do things we don't expect them to. They say things we didn't plan for them to say. And they know better than we do, so we have to listen to them." L'Engle speaks of the characters she has created as if they were actual people, people separate from her rather than constructs from her own mind. They act, they know, they speak.

I was struck by this thread in L'Engle's interviews in part because I had just read something quite similar in an interview by a major romance writer. In an interview for The Writer magazine, historical romance author Beverly Jenkins says this about dialogue: "This will probably sound strange to those who are not writers, but my stories play in my head like a movie, and I can hear the pitch, rhythm and flow of the characters' voices as they speak." And this about suspense: "Being a pantser allows my characters the freedom to take me along for the ride and sometimes lead me to places and situations that are so jaw-dropping my fingers are flying over the keyboard in an effort to keep up."

Both L'Engle and Jenkins suggest that the characters that they write have a life somewhere beyond the words each puts on the page. And they also imply that other writers feel the same way about their characters: "Most writers of fiction will agree"; "This will probably sound strange to those who are not writers."

I'm wondering, though, do most writers of fiction feel this way about their characters? That their characters speak to them, that they are somehow separate from the writer who has created them? I don a fiction-writing hat almost every morning, but I've never thought of the characters in my stories as separate from my own self, my own creativity. I don't always feel rationally in control of my writing, but that is because my unconscious sometimes points me in a direction that my conscious brain has not yet considered. But even my unconscious is a part of me, not a character with an existence separate from my own.

Because my thinking about characters is so different, I've been wondering a lot why so many writers talk about their characters as if they are not their own creations. Are they simply speaking metaphorically, as if their unconscious ideas are coming from a different source than their conscious ones? Is thinking about your characters in this way a personality thing, the difference between what Jenkins terms a "pantser," a writer who makes things up as she writes, vs. a "plotter," someone who plans a story out ahead of time?

I'm also wondering if the trope of characters speaking to an author is more often heard from female writers than from male writers. Historically, women have had to justify speaking out and writing, have had to prove that what they say is valid, is as worthy as the speech and writing of men. Is claiming that a character speaks to you, which makes it appear as if a writer is channeling the voice of another rather than creating it herself, allow a writer to sidestep the burden of providing justification for what she writes?

Would love to hear from other romance writers about whether or not their characters speak to them, and in what guise(s)...


  1. A topic relevant to my interests and then some!

    I used to feel that writing was something I produced, made happen, willed my way through with effort. It was an active thing. More recently, as various things in my life have changed and I am very slowly emerging from a long period of intense creative block, writing feels more receptive to me. I can't do it on demand, but strings of material will come to me. I don't really see it as a movie, for me it's more like someone is dictating to my brain. I can hear the whole thing in my head, dialog, description, everything. It feels very different than "making it happen" types of writing. It's more like a flow that I connect to, and trying too hard makes the flow switch off.

    I don't personally agree that this is because I don't feel that I'm allowed to claim power over my own work. I was reading a review of Big Magic (by Elizabeth Gilbert), and it sounds like her metaphor for creativity is quite similar to mine, that it's something that comes to you, that you receive, rather than something you make happen with your brain.

    1. Thanks, anonymous, for chiming in.

      But do you think you receive your "strings of material" from your own unconscious? Or from something outside yourself? That's what I've been wondering—is this a "metaphor" for how you view your own creativity? And if so, what is the purpose of the metaphor? If it's not a metaphor, where is the material coming from?

  2. This is a great topic. I am always interested in the creative process and how much it differs among writers. My answer is no. As I proceed through a book the characters become more formed and not always as originally planned. As they become real in my head I may have to change a planned plot point because it is wrong for the way the character has developed: he/she wouldn't do that. And he/she often wouldn't say that, leading to scrapped dialogue.
    BUT I never think of my characters as having a life of their own - I am in control. I make those changes because of decisions I have made, not because they are speaking to me from some undefined ether.

    1. Thanks, Miranda, for sharing your thinking about your process. Interesting, that you use the term "real" to describe how they feel "in your head," but that you do not think of them as having a life of their own, separate from your control. Does "real" mean more substantial, more well-rounded? Or something different?

    2. Bad word choice on my part. Yes, by "real" I mean just what you say. To wander a little off topic, I thought about characters having a life of their own. When I read I like to think about what a character is doing when she/he is not on the page. If I have no idea, I don't find the character "real." It's a frustration I have with the trend in romance to be so exclusively focused on the relationship that often the characters don't seem to have lives of their own. They are therefore not interesting to me.