Stymied in Your Fiction? Talk to Your Characters!

#HNS2021 Conference Preview by Trish MacEnulty –

A famous writer once said that writers are the only people who can admit they hear voices and no one thinks they’re crazy. The problem for us is when we don’t hear those voices.

Every writer gets stalled sometimes. Call it being blocked, call it the silent treatment of the muses, call it whatever. The words won’t flow anymore. It’s frustrating, at best, and can be downright depressing.

When that happens to me, I make a cup of tea and find some place private to have a conversation with one of my characters. Not a spoken conversation, mind you, but written down with a smooth-flowing pen on paper. This is not a conversation for the keyboard. It’s one for the hand.

I start by asking the character, what’s going on? What is she worried about? How does she feel about the situation she finds herself in? And most importantly, what’s she going to do about it? Usually I’ll get some kind of response. Sometimes the answer is a complete surprise.

In addition to jump-starting your writing, an exercise like this can reveal to you the tones and nuances of a crucial element of your story: the Voice.

You don’t have to write your story in the first person for voice to matter. Even in a close third person, the character’s voice makes itself known whether through dialogue or through internal monologue, and omniscient narrators will also demonstrate a voice of their own. Narrators may be hard-boiled, or they may be lyrical, or somewhere in between.

Conversing with your characters (or narrator) is basically research: taking notes, listening to what they have to say, and then translating that to the mode of your story. The beauty of this technique is that it gives your characters or your narrator a chance to speak in their own authentic voices. Simply put: be the ideal listener.

The books I love to read often have a unique, idiosyncratic voice — a voice with authority. “Listen to me,” it commands. “I have a story to tell that you’ll never forget.”

Here’s an example of a first-person voice that swept me off my feet from the first sentence. It’s from The Strange Case Of Eliza Doolittle by Timothy Miller (Seventh Street Books, 2021): “I have perhaps left the impression among my readers (such stalwarts as remain) that, when Sherlock Holmes retired to his villa in Sussex to pursue his avocation as a beekeeper, his extraordinary career as the world’s first consulting detective came to a lamentable end.” So much personality is packed into that sentence that, as a reader, I can’t help but think, take me where you will.

For a writer, finding a powerful, evocative voice — whether it belongs to one of the characters or to the narrator — is like finding gold.

Join me for my workshop at the HNS convention this June to further explore this extraordinary tool, the Power of Voice.

Sign up for the 2021 Historical Novel Society Conference to attend this exciting panel and more!

Thursday, June 24, 2:45-3:45PM (CT)


Patricia MacEnulty

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