Christina posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
What do you do if you can’t get your characters to ‘speak’ to you? I’m attempting to write my first novel, and I’m stuck just creating the characters! I’ve tried asking questions, but she isn’t forthcoming and very tight-lipped. I’ve tried a journal, but all I heard was my own voice instead of my characters’. Do you have any suggestions?
Randy sez: The key thing here is in your second sentence: You’re just starting your first novel. And you’re hoping that the same methods that work for experienced novelists will work for you. Those methods will work for you some day, when you’ve put in hundreds or possibly thousands of hours of learning the craft. Not until.
I’ll bet Danica Patrick’s car “speaks” to her. Mine doesn’t, other than to whine in an indecipherable mutter sometimes when the engine’s cold and I’m in a hurry. I haven’t put in the thousands of hours behind the wheel of a high-performance engine for my car to talk to me.
I’ll bet Lance Armstrong’s bike “speaks” to him. I used to have a bike. It never said a darned word to me. My legs did — mostly things I can’t print in a family-oriented blog. But the bike — never.
I spent two or three years writing before my characters began to get real to me. I remember the first time it happened. I was doing my daily writing in my “notebook computer” — in those days it was a real notebook, made out of actual paper, and you wrote on it with a pen that left permanent black marks on the white paper. I was writing a scene about a certain historical character and I was fictionalizing an event that actually happened. And at the end of the scene, I found that I was crying. And I thought, “Wow, I actually got inside the skin of that character. Finally.”
That novel never got published, but years later I was working on another novel that I had already sold to a publisher. And I wanted to fictionalize that same event from the point of view of another character. I looked up that scene from my old novel, typed it up in a new POV, and the same thing happened. I connected viscerally with the characters and the scene brought those pesky tears to my eyes. That scene is, in my opinion, one of the strongest scenes in that novel. [If you’re wondering, the novel is RETRIBUTION and the scene is in chapter 22 and ends on page 176.]
If you’re just beginning to write fiction, this probably won’t happen right away. That’s okay. Put in a thousand or two thousand hours of writing, and you’ll probably start connecting amazingly well with your characters, if you have any talent for fiction whatsoever. (If you have a desire to write fiction, then you almost certainly have some talent.)
Put in your hours at learning the craft by doing the craft. Eventually, either your characters will start speaking to you or you’ll realize that you were created to listen to a car or a bike or a spreadsheet instead. You can’t forge the gift of fiction and you can’t force it, but if you just put in the time, the gift will show up on its own. Or not.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.