The Day My Characters Staged An Intervention

First, I want to again thank everyone who commented on last Saturday’s post. You really helped me move forward through this morass of self-doubt.

From your comments, I see I’m not the only one dealing with difficulties this winter on the creative front. And 4amWriter’s Monday post brought to mind something the characters from Summer at the Crossroads did. As you can guess from the title, they staged an intervention of sorts. On August 7, 2009, I couldn’t get them out of my head. As I worked on the day job, I could feel them trading barbs with each other, even if I couldn’t make out the words. Finally, that afternoon I switched to a blank file and let them type.

image credit: Microsoft clip art

image credit: Microsoft clip art

Type they did. Under the pretext of expressing concern over events in the life of someone close to me, they told me what I was missing in the book. Here’s part of the exchange, withholding names from “our” universe and simplifying the presentation.

ME: All right folks; let’s try to put the bickering aside for a bit. I know you all want to have your say. But who’s going to start?

KATHRYN: Well, I think I can speak for all of us when we say we hope everything’s going okay for XYZ in your universe.

KATHARINE: Who appointed you spokesperson?

ME: Hey, keep to the subject, Katharine! I’ve about had it with all of you today. Do you know how hard it was to concentrate on PAYING work?

SUZANNE: Well, I’d like to say that I could probably pick up some pointers from XYZ on keeping things quiet. From the e-mails I’ve seen, JMM, they tell you even less than I tell Kathryn. And at least I have a professional reason for that.

KATHRYN: Yeah, thanks, Suzanne – you tell JMM who you’re really working for before me? We’ve known each other for years! And by the way, Spook, I’m not saying anyone appointed me spokesperson. I was just trying to set a polite tone and open with something that I think we can all agree on.

MICHAEL: Ladies, put a lid on it and get back to the discussion, please.

ME: Thanks, Michael.

SUSAN: Look, I know I don’t appear much in the book, but I certainly agree with Kathryn. I hope everything’s okay. But really, JMM, maybe you should ease up on XYZ. They’ve got a lot on their plate right now. Maybe they need some breathing room.

KATHARINE: I’m not so sure about that. XYZ seems to be doing with friends what I do professionally – deflect the interest from me, or them in this case. I do it to get intelligence. I think they’re doing it to avoid talking about a difficult subject.

KATARINA: Well, maybe XYZ tells more to other friends and doesn’t want to bother JMM with the details right now. Maybe XYZ likes the ‘normalness’ of that friendship.

SUSANNA: Good point, Katarina. Maybe XYZ doesn’t want to say much to any friends. Maybe they don’t know any more than JMM does.

MIKHAIL: Well, I don’t claim to understand your American fondness for ‘therapy,’ but isn’t that what good friends are for? You can tell them things and don’t have to worry about what they’ll think? Because they accept you and like you no matter what? Is XYZ worried that somehow the State will get the information and use it against them?

FRANCOIS: You Russians would certainly know a thing or two about that.

MIHAILO: Please, all of you, could we get back to the discussion as Michael suggested? This ‘bickering’ as JMM calls it is unproductive, don’t you think?

ME: Thanks, Mihailo. But maybe Katarina and Susanna are right. Maybe I shouldn’t be on XYZ so much.

KATHARINE: I don’t agree, JMM. XYZ did mention to you that they need someone to keep on them. And isn’t that what your gut instincts tell you to do?

ME: Well, yeah….

The conversation kept going, but you get the gist. I learned a lot about these characters from it.

The forcefulness of Katharine’s comments struck me. They revealed an edginess I had missed in writing her character. Always-diplomatic Kathryn could stand up for herself more than I thought. And Suzanne verified what I suspected, but couldn’t yet prove.

They didn’t provide new scenes or instructions for bridging some gaps in the story flow. But their voices came out, unfiltered. I learned more about their personalities, which let me flesh out the initial draft. It’s an exercise I recommend. I just hope the non-writers in the audience don’t start thinking I might need medical help!

Fellow writers, have your characters ever done anything like this to you? Non-writers, would you now move away from a writer if you met one at a party? 🙂

52 thoughts on “The Day My Characters Staged An Intervention

  1. Fun post, JM. Thanks for mentioning my post. Things have improved on the writing front since that time, thankfully.

    I have never recorded a conversation with my characters, although we have had round table discussions. I know that my characters are the most forthcoming when I don’t try to direct the plot too much.

    When I look at all of my rewrites, I see the different layers that have revealed themselves, information that I was never aware of when I first dreamed up the story. I think I am the kind of writer who will always have to do more than 3 or 5 drafts, because I am a slow writer, and I treat all the information that my characters give me as necessary until proven otherwise.

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    • Hey, Kate, glad to hear the writing front is better. That does so much to help the outlook, doesn’t it?

      I can’t keep track of how many drafts I’ve really done. Sometimes the rewrites have focused on a particular area. Others have been broader in scope. From what I’ve read of Story Engineering so far, Larry Brooks wouldn’t think much of our writing process. He’d say that by structuring the story first, we’d avoid so many drafts. If that works for some writers, great. But I don’t believe we can all create that way.

      Our characters probably treat us differently, too. Some may be less “hands on” than mine. 😉 This particular group definitely has their own ideas, which sometimes led me down a path that might not have worked. We’ll see if I’m on track with this draft.

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  2. I haven’t experienced anything like that myself, but we all have different ways of allowing our characters’ characters (!) to come through. Maybe I need to try and stop being the boss of my characters all the time and let them take over for a bit…

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    • I’ve had no say in the matter. 🙂 Mine let me know when they’re not happy or just drop in to chat sometimes. At one point when I was reading an early beta reader’s suggestion about Kat, I could feel her reaction. I heard her say, “So help me, Michael, if she does that, I’ll throw up a brick wall so high she’ll never get over it!”

      I think it’s a handy exercise when facing writer’s block or uncertainty about where a story, character, or scene is going. What comes out likely won’t go directly into the story. But I bet you’ll find it gives you some backstory or psychological traits for your characters!

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  3. I haven’t had this experience either (yet) but it would be fun and enlightening! I visualize more than hear my characters and scenes but I would like to experience hearing their voices so loud and clear, “unfiltered” as you say. I am opening myself up to this to see if they will open themselves up to me. Thanks JM!

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    • Your characters may be better behaved than mine or trust you more. 😉 Or they’ve chosen a visual way to make themselves known over verbal. There are so many techniques we can use to get fuller ideas of our characters and plots, and this is another one to have in the toolbox. Distracting as this group was on that particular day, I learned so much about them from letting them simply talk to me. And I can hear them better than I did before.

      *nonwriters are now stepping away because I hear voices in my head* 😉

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  4. Haha. I liked your last question. Writers CAN be an odd bunch sometimes. 🙂 But what a creative exercise. I’ve never thought to do that. Character Therapy of sorts. Hmm, not so sure I want to have a tete-a-tete with my killer though. 😉

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    • Oh, serial killers. No, I don’t think I’d want to talk with one of them too much! In this story, I’m just dealing with archaeologists, diplomats, bureaucrats, students, intelligence agents…. All fairly tame and normal folks—sort of. 😉

      I really benefited from the insights they gave me. And the exercise helped me hear them more clearly afterward. As I said, you might not get “usable” material from them in the form of scenes or dialogue. But I’ll bet you get a better handle on their personalities. 😉 Although, if someone’s a serial killer, you may not need too many details about how that happened!

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  5. LOVE this JM! It’s interesting to see how the characters express themselves and what they focus on. I couldn’t help but think of a lovely faceted gem with each character being another facet. Great fun! xoxoM

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  6. That is an interesting way of looking at it, and a good way of feeling it out a bit more.

    During my time away recently I was on a creative lull, but I’m finding more and more that a little break from time to time, brings it all back again. It’s a bit like the break when an athlete / sports person finishes their season. Time to recharge and repair the body before going again. We just need the same thing for our mind.

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    • I agree—we need the occasional break to recharge our energy and creativity. Of course, I always worry about taking too much of a break—I don’t want my Muse thinking I’m ignoring her. 😉 But if she gets to sit on a beach and drink tropical cocktails, I think I can rest my fingers and brain from time to time.

      If nothing else, I think this type of exercise can help flesh out the internal view of characters that we need to write them well. It’s a great complement to developing backstory and actually can be a way to get at that background.

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    • I’m trying to convince Mikhail to write a character guest post for the blog. He is sooooo interesting! He keeps putting me off, though, saying in such a charming way that there’s really nothing interesting about him at all. I can almost believe him when he says it. 😉 Of course, he knows it doesn’t work on me because I do know there’s more to him than he’d like you to believe.

      I should add that hearing what the characters have to say outside of the book can be a blast as well as enlightening. 🙂

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  7. I love this, JM. My characters confront me in my dreams so it can be hard to tell them all just to shut up. They get very pedantic about their roles and if I slip-up at any stage on their reactions or actions in a story they’re very quick to jump into my head while I’m asleep and let me know! 😉

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    • Oh, I hope you haven’t just given this gang an idea! “Hey, let’s hit her at night, too. Then she can’t ignore us!” 🙂

      Some characters are more “in my face” than others. This group is definitely there. Those from Death Out of Time, not so much. Meghan sneaks in and out. But they keep my life interesting, and I never want to lose that. 🙂

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  8. LOL. One of my betas used to do this for me. Say character x wouldn’t act that way or say that. Sometimes he got them better than I did in the early stages.

    Later, my characters would revolt when I tried to make them fit a plot. They always hijacked the story.

    I’ve had conversations with them about who they are during meditations–I found it remarkably useful. Even the things they refuse to talk about. It tells me what they hide. 🙂 Great exercise JM!

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    • Those silences can be so revealing, can’t they? What dark secrets don’t they want readers to know? My characters are quick to tell me what they’re good at and confident about. They don’t, however, like to talk about flaws of any kind, even something as simple as never remembering where they left a particular item. This is an area we struggle with—readers need to be able to relate to them more realistically if the books are going to be interesting. Hopefully it gets easier as I get more stories under my belt. 🙂

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  9. Non-writers don’t have voices in their heads? Huh. ; )

    I mull over my characters quite a bit when I’m in the writing process (I’ve taken January off.). That way, when I sit back down in front of my screen, the characters start doing things and saying things through my fingers that I didn’t plan out. One time, in my last book, I had a great couple of scenes written where one of my characters had left town to visit her mother in another state. I mean… they were really great scenes. But the longer I stayed away from the manuscript, and the more I “listened” to that character and her friends, the more I realized that that character needed to stay in town. The out-of-town scenes didn’t make the final cut.

    I do think that we sometimes force the action when the true “character” of our characters means that they would actually do something very different. We need to heed these warnings from our characters so that our story stays pure.

    P.S. I’ll still be your friend, even while knowing that a whole tribe of characters that I can’t see is speaking to you. ; )

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    • I knew at least some fellow writers would recognize those voices in the head. 🙂 I know some writers feel like we’re simply taking dictation, and the characters are telling the story. I think that works to a point for some of us. But sometimes the story they tell needs “tweaking” to work as a written book. I’ll sometimes get detailed conversations, but if I wrote them verbatim, everyone would rightly point out that “real” conversations don’t work in writing. Other times, they’ll present scenes that don’t move the story along, even though they “show” something about the character. So I often need to work out compromises with my gang. 😉

      Even the most analytical outliner should heed those warnings from the characters that something isn’t working, be it dialogue, a scene, or an action the character is doing that isn’t true to them. Now, if I could just convince mine to be more forthcoming with their flaws…. 🙂

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  10. Sounds like a fun experiment. I’ve been editing so hard for the last couple months that voices aren’t speaking as loudly to me as commas, adverbs, and useless filler words are. I will have to change that soon.

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    • Don’t you love the feeling when you can get back to writing something new after a grueling round of edits? When I send Summer at the Crossroads out for beta reading, I may take some time to write something new before diving into the revisions for Death Out of Time. My Muse might like the chance to play again. 🙂

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  11. For the first time in months, my main character had a conversation with me today. She came out of the blue and told me to write down some ideas for her story. With all the distractions of late, she has kept herself in the shadows. I wonder what prompted her to come out of the closet today. Lucky for me, she didn’t bicker with me. I love how your characters duke it out.

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    • I’d bet she saw an opportunity to catch your attention and jumped on it. Characters must hate it when our “real” lives have to take precedence over theirs. This group from “Crossroads” is particularly edgy. I think it’s because some of the characters are, in a sense, the same person. I wonder how I would interact with a me from another universe? I suspect we could get on each others’ nerves….

      I’m hoping your daily life is settling back down so that you can get back to your writing and getting your first novel published. You’ve got more than a few blog buddies looking forward to reading it!

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      • Yes, she came to me when I was driving for about 45 minutes. She thought, “Oh good. She isn’t distracted. Now I can have a chat with her.” What my main character failed to notice was I was driving through Los Angeles traffic!

        I hate to whine, but I think my life is finally settling down. Phew.

        As I said . . . I loved the banter, read testy, exchange between you all.

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  12. You have a really unique way of interacting with your creative process. It’s fascinating – and I have to say, whatever works for you, go with it.
    Personally, I don’t think my characters know I’m here. (There?) I do have the sense of watching them. And sometimes they go in a direction I don’t expect – in which case I figure I had better follow. But they’re not aware of me. After all, what would they think I was?

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    • I think the creative process for every artist is as unique as the individual. We may share some “general” similarities with other writers, such as being “pansters” or “outliners,” but we’ll still have our personal traits or quirks that set us apart.

      For me, the characters are “out there” somewhere and find a way into my brain, maybe through quantum-level means. Maybe you exhibit the “flip side” of that—your brain finds a way to tap into the characters’ worlds without them knowing. If your characters did become aware of you? Hmm, they might think you were a disembodied spirit, or ghost, or some other sort of supernatural being. That might be a fun writing exercise in itself. 😉

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  13. There’s a lot of good insight here, JM. Thanks for sharing!

    I absolutely believe in letting your characters speak for themselves, not just when you hit snags but just to let them tell a bit more of their own story. (It’s likely why my “scrapped” and “unused” documents are nearly as large as my manuscripts!) This open dialogue between you and your characters – or even just between the characters themselves – opens up their personalities, so we start to see them as people and not just words on a page or descriptions in a notes file.

    Other writers or editors may say that any detail or idea that does not pertain directly to the story at hand is unnecessary and should be cut. Maybe they’re right. But, I think those character tidbits (like figuring out their favorite song 😉 ) help create a fuller world for both you and your readers. It’s a good practice to write such dialogues regularly, even if they would end up in a scrap file for publication.

    Thanks again! It sounds like you’re well on your way to sorting through this latest conundrum, but I wish you all the best all the same. 😀

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    • Hey, Mayumi, your comment fits perfectly with my view that no writing is wasted. Even if we can’t use it in a final draft, you’re so right—it helped us better understand the characters and their story. If we don’t have that fuller view of them as people, then they end up as “flat” on the page. And the story won’t be as good as it could be.

      Some writers have a methodical creative process with no wasted steps that works for them. And that’s wonderful. But others, like me, are more “organic” or free-form. And that’s wonderful, too. I think all successful (however you wish to define that) writers find the way that works for them. And what works isn’t wrong. It’s just different and particular to that writer.

      If carrying out interventions helps my characters get me on the right track, I won’t argue with them. 🙂

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  14. Great idea. I have a couple of characters whom I need to understand better. Perhaps if I invite them to a conversation on the page about how they see themselves in the novel, I’ll gain new insights about how to better differentiate between them. Thanks for sharing–a fun read.

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    • Of course, it could open a Pandora’s box of sorts. 😉 The characters might want to talk more frequently once they get the opportunity. I do find it’s a good way for me to better understand them. And it’s helped me with writing their dialogue and internal thoughts. When I turned over the computer to them, I honestly felt like I had no conscious knowledge of what would be typed. It was a very strange feeling!

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  15. I worry about the people that don’t have invisible friends! It’s probably better to encourage them to chat than to have them wake you up with their chatter – I’ll try getting my invisible friends to talk at a reasonable hour!

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    • Given how hard it can be to get a good night’s sleep sometimes, I’m grateful my characters don’t often show up in my dreams or wake me up with ideas! I’ll take the chatting in my head during the day every time. 😉

      We’re never really alone with those friends in our heads, are we? Such interesting stories they share!

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  16. Obviously you sleep too soundly to hear your characters at night, so they had no choice but to intrude during work time….but at least you were able to catch all their thoughts – and you don’t suffer sleep deprivation. Enjoyed their dialogue.

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    • The funny thing is—I often don’t sleep that soundly. It doesn’t take much to wake me most of the time. I’m surprised my characters aren’t keeping me awake with their whispering during the night. All I can figure is that they’re sleeping at the same time. 🙂 And I hope they never stop talking with me. I think my head would be a lonely place without them.

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  17. My characters tell me what to do and when I decide to digress they leave which makes writing their scenes hard. Now, I just let them have their way.
    At least they kept you entertained.

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    • I think mine are coming to understand that sometimes we can’t stick with their version of events. Their reality may not translate directly into a good book in ours. 😉 Still, some characters who don’t make the cut will try to make my work harder! So as much as possible, I give them free rein in my head. 🙂

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  18. Very, very interesting exercise! Having a mental conference call with your characters is a great way to get at their inner workings. It’s what I imagine actors do before taking on a tv or movie role, too.
    In the interest of time, I’d like to comment here on your “Am I good at this or not?” post of a few weeks ago.
    Unequivocally, YES! You are SO good at every facet of this, from story researching through pacing and development (and of course, dialogue.) I think you’ve got a knack for top notch storytelling and any loss of creativity you’re feeling is due to the greyness of the weather. File it under “this too, shall pass.”

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    • I so hope you’re right about the weather. I do think that’s a big chunk of it. Another part is probably the growing nervousness about sending the manuscript out to betas soon. I’ve made significant changes since it last went out, and I’m hoping they’re for the better. 😉 My “voice” in Summer at the Crossroads is different from that in Death Out of Time, and they’re both different from Meghan’s stories. Some of that might stem from growing as a writer, but it can’t explain all the differences. Honestly, I think a lot of it stems from the characters and the way they present their stories to me. Some people might think I’m just a bit “not right” for thinking that way. 😉 But when I can see and hear them so clearly sometimes (as can other writers), I think there might be something going on in our brains at the quantum level…. 🙂

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  19. JM – I have missed reading your blog! This is such a great post and what a wonderful idea for generating inspiration and renewing your creative buzz! I think I should get my characters to converse with me and with one another! 🙂 Love it, glad your readers helped you overcome your self doubt. It happens to us all, but believe in yourself, you are a talented lady! 🙂

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    • Well, you’ve got quite a bit on your plate just now! 😉 Don’t worry about keeping up with me or other bloggers—we understand!

      This really is a great exercise, although I should have added a caution. Your characters might decide they want the chance to speak out like this more often. 😀 That makes for a very interesting experience!

      The support and encouragement of fellow bloggers/writers/readers is amazing. I really felt recharged after that post, and the writing and revising are flowing more smoothly again. Ahhh. What a relief! 🙂

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      • Thanks, JM! 🙂

        That is an interesting caveat – I shall give my characters a shot, it will be a welcome distraction from the craziness in my everyday life! Ha!

        Glad you’re out of your funk. It’s horrible to feel like you’ve lost your creativity. Because, if you’re anything like me, you may have the fear that it won’t return – but of course it does. Everything needs a break every so often, eh? 😉

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