When Characters Speak

Anyone who’s read my longer works is likely well aware of my penchant for, shall we say, raunchier material. Admittedly, writing sex is a relaxing outlet for me. It puts me in touch with my characters in ways unmatched by any other technique I’ve yet found. But, like in real life, sex isn’t all about the sex, but about what we learn from it.

A few months ago, while I was in the middle of editing, I really wanted to write a sex scene. There’s just something very visceral about the experience of writing two people engaged in the physical act. So, I wrote one, using the characters from my “Finding Mister Wright” universe. At the time, I enjoyed the process: it helped me loose some of my writing energies, and that got me back on-track with the very different chore of editing a long work. But, recently, I went back and read that scene and had a new reaction to it.

I didn’t like it.

I found the progression and action passable, and I liked the ending, but the middle section – the actual sex scene – didn’t sit right with me. I realized it was because it wasn’t true to those characters. I’d forced them into a situation that served my own purposes but didn’t speak from their hearts. And I felt like it showed.

So, I rewrote it. I had to. For them. It’s not like anybody’s going to read the story, but I was compelled to re-imagine and re-do that interaction regardless, because I felt like I wasn’t being true to those characters otherwise. And – and this is going to sound weird and crazy – it felt like they approved. They flowed so much more naturally on the page, with their words and actions, it was like they were speaking not just to me but through me. I often feel my characters’ influence while I’m in the middle of writing a story, but rarely after the fact. That’s how I knew I’d messed up with them. Luckily, they’re generally an easy and forgiving bunch.

I guess the moral of this lesson is that writing is just as much about listening to a story – your characters’ story – as it is about telling it.

EDIT: For anyone interested in reading the story in question, I’m sharing it here as PDF media, which will open in a new window by clicking the link below. Please note that this scene involves two people engaging in sexual situations described in fair detail. Their story tends to run sappy and silly, but if you are at all uncomfortable with or offended by sex, please do not click the link for “Mirror, Mirror,” A “Finding Mister Wright” pre-fic.

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17 thoughts on “When Characters Speak

  1. I remember that drabble. You were insecure about it then, too, I think. It felt off to you when you wrote it. I really liked it, but I can understand what you’re saying, too. I’ve had the same problem over and over and over and over…

    *chinhands* Soooo…would you want to send the revised version to me? :’3

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    • *nervous laughter* It’s much longer, now, and MUCH sappier. XD I like the rewrite, though. Some of the original did stay in, but – you’re right – even then, I didn’t quite feel that it was all there. Now, it feels much more “them.” πŸ™‚ I’m loathe to keep sending you my stuff, though, because I really don’t want you to feel pressure to like or even read it.

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  2. I had a similar experience not too long ago. I wrote out this scene where my MC solves a customer’s issue with a cell phone with minimal effort. Then, after reading it and getting feedback from fellow writers, I realized the scene was all wrong. Reading it, I felt like my MC was telling me there are so many holes in this story. On top of that, he “told” me he didn’t like his name. So, I changed it and rewrote the scene. It’s not finished, but I think he will be pleased at the results.

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  3. I like that connection you made with writing being like listening. It reminds me of what you told me before, about how characters would go off track from my plans and do their own thing, and it would feel more right than what I had intended. It’s funny how we can love our characters so much that we don’t want to force them to do our will, but want them to be happy with their own actions. Keep it up!

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  4. Ooooh myyyyy πŸ™‚
    I definitely know what you mean about letting the characters ‘speak’ for themselves and not interfering with how they would normally act. On the one hand, I dare say it’s easier to do with one’s own characters because they are yours. You made them how you wanted, so to bend them backwards feels even more unsettling than some OOC fan-work can.
    On the other hand, sometimes it can leave one in a corner with nowhere to go. I’m happy that wasn’t the case for you.

    Personally, I think you write sex very well and very naturally. Even with the original draft of this one, I thought it was good. Now I’m curious how the revised edition looks

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    • Some voices are certainly trickier than others, but I think it’s important to trust our characters when they speak up. Your characters have great voices. Even when I don’t know the source material, they have personality that shows through. Especially your pilots! I hope you write more fighter pilots in the future, because you’ve got their lingo, camaraderie, and personalities down, and it really soars off the page. πŸ™‚

      You’re the second person to ask to see the rewrite. It’s still quite adult, which is the only reason I hesitate. I guess I could just put it up as a PDF, and if people want to click, they can make the choice themselves….. Hm.

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  5. I think it’s a good sign when we recognize we’re not “in synch” with our characters. I view it as maturing as a writer. πŸ˜‰ Yet even then, we can still trip up and not immediately recognize we took a wrong turn. Where I can really get into trouble is when I try to “tweak” the characters into acting in a way that I think readers want them to do. Sometimes readers are right that a character should or shouldn’t be acting or thinking a certain way. But we have to learn when to trust our own instincts and our characters’ inputβ€”especially, I think, when it comes to their private lives!

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    • Yes, JM, the tweaking can be dangerous! Tweak too much, and I think our characters can grow away from us and even their own voices. Sometimes, that can work to everyone’s advantage, and we can find a new character lurking under the skin surface. Most times, though, I find the characters resentful of the tweak, as these did. I’m much happier with the new result, just because of its truth. I think one of our jobs as storytellers is to highlight the truth, especially in people. Without that truth to them, characters are just words on a page.

      Thanks for stopping by! I hope your own characters are speaking well with you!

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  6. I often run into problems when I revise because I start to second-guess myself. I’ve lost count how many times I end up going back to what I originally wrote!

    I have started to get into the habit of understanding/knowing/learning my characters before writing detailed scenes. If I do enough experimenting with different actions and dialogue in my head, I have a better chance at figuring out which scene or exchange is most in tune with what the characters would credibly say or do.

    It’s so important to not be afraid to critique ourselves during our process. As long as we’re not beating ourselves up, our honesty with our work is our best chance at getting the job done right. I’m glad you gave yourself that chance, Mayumi, to find the best scene for your characters. πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you, Kate! You’ve always got such mature insight into writing and stories, it’s always good to hear from you that I’m on the right track.

      I love when characters speak through us. Even when they change a scene or situation, listening to them with a closer ear always makes that scene better, for me. I learned that while editing the last story, too – being able to step away from a story and look at it/read it more objectively strangely enough tends to invite deeper intimacy to the project. Seeing the work as a whole always gives broader perspective. It’s one of the reasons why I always push myself to finish before I start revising, because I inevitably learn more from those character voices by the time I write “The End.” πŸ™‚

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  7. I have something similar happen. If I’m trying to lead the characters where I want them, it comes out wrong. I might enjoy the scene but on the second read it feels forced. That’s when I need to sit back and channel them and keep the author intrusion from the story. πŸ˜‰

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    • That’s a good phrase, Kourtney: Author Intrusion. I’ll have to remember to keep my inner author quiet sometimes…just like my inner critic and inner editor! πŸ˜€

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. My characters “talk” to me, too. They influence every scene. I’m still learning to listen, haha. When I do, though, it’s just like you said; the scene flows much more naturally.

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    • Listening is one of the hardest bits, both in writing and life! πŸ™‚ Glad to hear we’re all learning it together, and I’m not alone.

      Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth!

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