When Characters Talk Back

I had one of those moments that writers live for last week. The opening chapters of my novel were nicely writing themselves, sounding good to me as I wrote. I was in the groove, feeling that mystical flow. And then I got to chapter four.

I knew what I wanted to see happen in the chapter. It’s a critical scene that largely sets the stage for the remainder of the book, as well as planting seeds that will sprout in later books. I’d seen the vision of the action in this chapter from afar, from my high-level overview / summary. However, when I got hip-deep into the actual “live” writing of the scene, I got stuck.

The scene consists largely of dialogue, one character giving some critical information to another. I had thought that I knew what they would say. Once I got them talking, however, I realized that I didn’t understand enough about one of the two to make the dialogue sound realistic / natural / real. The one I knew more about (one of the main characters in the book) kept asking the other one questions, but I couldn’t make the other one (the minor character) say what I knew he wanted to say in a way that felt right.

After beating my head against the keyboard for a few days, and after scrapping and rewriting the scene about three times, I decided to step back and figure out why it wasn’t working. What I discovered was that I hadn’t ever fully fleshed out the back-story of that minor character. I didn’t know exactly what had led him to show up on the doorstep of the major character. So I started asking myself lots of questions to try to fill in these gaps in my understanding of the story.

The result was a huge spike in my understanding of several related characters, both major and minor, and a much clearer vision of WHY they all were acting as they now were. I even discovered a whole new character that I hadn’t even realized existed before, and a whole new aspect of how one of the main story lines actually worked.

When I felt I had sufficiently illuminated this previously darkened region of the overall back-story, I went back to chapter four and started again. It still didn’t come easy, because I still had to flesh out with even more detail some of this character’s back-story. The whole process felt difficult, but I knew as I got this final” (first-draft) version written that it finally felt right, that it flowed.

These are the moments when it feels like my characters are becoming real people, taking on lives of their own, making their own decisions. As I was initially writing and making them do and say things, they were arguing with me in my mind, telling me that I was telling the story wrong, that they would never do it that way or say it like I wrote it. Maybe it’s not like this for other authors, but this is the typical way my characters talk back to me.

So now I’m pressing forward. I hope I don’t run into too many more of these difficult bits. On the other hand, these really are the moments of pure creativity that is what makes writing fun for me.

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About Richard Ewald

Author of Suspense and Fantasy Novels

4 responses to “When Characters Talk Back”

  1. Anonymous says :

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments about your writing. I appreciate all the hard work that goes into writing and I enjoyed getting some insight into your writing process. I hope to pass on this information to some of my students that wish to become authors. Hope all is well. Shawn

  2. jazzfeathers says :

    Isn’t it maddening when you characters know more than you do? But it happens so often, I’ve learned to trust them.

    When I write the first draft, I usually go on instinct and I think this is where my characters tell their story in their own way. Revisions, for me, is trying to understand why they did what they did and why they said what they said.

    It’s fun. It’s why I like telling stories 🙂

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