Bringing the Voices in Our Heads to Life

Chinese paintingI often wonder if all writers are borderline schizophrenics who have simply learned to channel the voices in our heads into a creative outlet, thereby saving our sanity. Because, yes, we have people constantly talking to us, telling us stories, insisting that we devote our undivided attention to committing their tales to paper (or computer screen). I am curious how “normal” people go through their lives, day in and day out, all alone in their heads, with no one telling them stories and transporting them elsewhere. How boring that must be.

I first started listening to these voices as a very young child though they initially spoke in my mother’s particular storytelling timber and tone. A warm, mellifluous sound that I would ride into dreams, as she would read me to sleep. I’d inevitably continue the story in that dark, fluid world I created as I slumbered. And I would be surprised when Mom would later read to me the author’s version which hardly ever gelled with the ending my subconscious had invented.

I don’t remember when that multitude of voices escaped into the real world of daylight hours and day-to-day responsibilities. Perhaps, it was a gradual thing, so that I never knew anything else. A case of my imaginary friends surviving adolescence. But are the typical childhood imaginary friends always associated with a story as mine are? In fact, the loudest, most enduring individuals in my head are always born at the exact same time as a specific story. At that moment, I typically know four things: a name, a basic description of the person who wears that name, the first sentence of the story and how the story will end. The rest is negotiation (i.e. scores of rewrites) between me and those voices, as I become obsessed with discovering what comes between the beginning and the end – as well as before and after.

But even as I take control over the story, becoming more author and less recipient of the tale, the voices in my head continue their versions in my subconscious. They fill me in on the details of how they became the people they are now. For instance, one might give me the admittedly one sided viewpoint of an argument with her father when she was 15. She might have almost forgotten that incident, but when she does think about it, she realizes that it was the beginning of her estrangement from her family. Another might share his memories of his grandmother’s nervous laugh that had always embarrassed him. These tidbits of their lives may have nothing to do with the story I’m writing. However, they are part and parcel of who the people in the story are, how they function, what motivates them, why they say and do the things they do. Until and unless I know them completely and intimately, how can I possibly understand and fully realize the story they are telling me?

In a guest blog that I wrote for Writer Unboxed – Creating Living Breathing Dialog – I explained “how my characters are born and live within me, and the relationship I develop with them. I know them as intimately as I know myself, with perhaps a greater clarity than I have about my own history, my emotional tics and personal foibles.” I also included suggestions for fellow authors (and playwrights) on how to develop an intimate relationship their fiction characters.

To read the essay and my suggested guidelines on Creating Living Breathing Dialog, click here .
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