Monday, January 07, 2008

Conversations with Characters by Judy Gregerson

The first time a writer told me that she talked to her characters and they talked back, I laughed. It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I figured this was akin to channeling, something I wasn’t interested in doing, so I dismissed the idea totally and went about my way. It wasn’t until I hit a road block in my novel that I began to think that maybe my friend knew something I didn’t. After all, she’d published 5 successful novels. She didn’t seem like a total weirdo. Maybe she was right.

I was working on (my just published) BAD GIRLS CLUB and I had a very secretive character. Trying to get her emotions on paper was very hard and I often just didn’t understand who she was. Sometimes I’d write and then go back and read it and it just didn’t hit me as true. I tried every way I could to get her on paper, but she left me clueless. I knew that to finish the book, I would need to find out who she was, so I decided to have a conversation with her.

One night, before I went to sleep, I lay in bed and talked to her. It went something like this:

ME: Destiny? Hello? Are you there? Will you talk to me?


ME: Please?


ME: I need your help. I have to finish this book and I have no clue who you are sometimes. Can you tell me?

DESTINY: I’m afraid.

ME: Why?

DESTINY: If I tell you, no one will understand. I can’t talk about how I feel.

ME: What if you tell me how you feel and I’ll tell everyone else for you in a way that they will understand?

DESTINY: You’d do that?

ME: I would, if you’ll let me.

DESTINY: Do you think that people will understand?

ME: I’m sure they will. Can you tell me what’s bothering you?

Well, that began a conversation that went on for 18 hours, during which I got up and wrote every word she told me. The next evening, I had 45 manuscript pages, all of which are still the heart and soul of the book."

And then she stopped talking. My book had become her book and she’d taken charge. Over the next year or so, I had to learn to listen for her and know her voice when I heard it. Sometimes I just had to sit down and have a conversation and ask questions and if she didn’t answer right away, she usually got back to me fairly quickly, except for the time when she wouldn’t speak to me at all for about three months.

I think that interviewing your characters is the most fun way to discover who they are. And characters, like actors, love to talk about themselves because you, as the writer, are a captive audience. They will tell you things they won’t tell anyone else, if you’re willing to hear the truth, and sometimes they’ll tell you things you don’t want to know at all. In fact, they may hijack your story, as mine did, and send you off on a whole new path.

But isn’t writing about finding the heart and soul of a character? What better way to do that than to sit down and ask them questions. I suggest that you find a quiet place. Make your mind still and then invite your character into a conversation with you. I don’t suggest that you do this in public or ask people in the room to be quiet because you’re hearing voices! In fact, you might not want to tell your significant others that you’re talking to fictional characters because he might, like my husband, spit his coffee all over the table and say, “You have GOT to be kidding.”

This is a solitary exercise that requires a good ear, but the longer you listen to your character, the better you’ll know her voice. You’ll start hearing it at all times of the day and night (be ready to get up and start writing those words) because once they get talking, it’s hard to stop them. In a sense, it’s like learning the sound of your own baby’s cry; you’ll know it when you hear it.

It took a tremendous leap on my part to do this, but it was the greatest forward movement of my writing life.

So, go ahead. Try it! And let me know how it works for you.

Leave me a comment at and let's have a conversation!


Cheryl said...

Amazing post Judy! I have to admit this seems odd to me, but I think that's because I'm mostly a non-fiction writer. In the character development workshop I took this year--because I'm trying to dig more into fiction--we talked about using pictures to discover our character's traits, occupation, wants, and desires. That worked really well for me. I wonder if I can get your suggestion to work for me too.

Thanks for the great post.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Cheryl. I think it can work for anyone. I also took "private lessons" with a writing coach to help me do this. Once I learned it was easy.