I Hear Fictional People Talking…

Now that THE POMEGRANATE is up and running, the time has come to turn my attention to what’s next. Truth be told, there’s a little red dot folder on my desktop labeled consider. In there, one can find all manner of things and thinks that just might have potential. First lines, poems that go nowhere, and other sub-folders that contain beginnings and maybe a few chapters. Ziggy, my late husband, used to refer to that folder as the character graveyard since the characters in there had either stopped talking to me completely, or never really started.

And that’s where this problem starts. Petey and Rico have taken up residency in my head and right now, they are annoyingly noisy. They’re not new; in fact, they’ve been around for a while. They were the distraction when The Pom became a bit overwhelming. Most of their research is done, the first draft writing is about 3/4 done, and I’m shooting to begin heavy editing in late spring. Right now, these two are yelling at each other and, by extension, me. Let me attempt to explain.

Every novel is fundamentally a play with exposition. I cannot abide a novel where characters talk like idiots…unless they are supposed to be idiots. For example, I’m reading a book right now where the antagonist is a very wealthy man, old money, raised with very posh tastes. He says to the woman he’s trying to seduce, “my luxury car is outside. I’ll drive you home.” Really????? I went nuts when I read that. Has anyone ever referred to an Aston Martin as my luxury car ? NOT.

Interactions originate in the mind’s eye of the author, but the written word obviously replaces the visual film frame. Maybe it’s because I started life in the theater…as both director and playwright… that I put a premium on needing to hear a character’s voice emanating from the page. After all, isn’t going from page to stage the whole point of theater? I find myself not-so-subconsciously directing the characters as though they are ultimately actors. Interactions are framed by delivery, patter, pattern of speech, and body position. Do the words match the action? Will a line be convincingly delivered?

Is that asking so much? In my head, when I’m writing, the answer is No. It’s not too much to ask. In fact, that’s the whole point.

In THE POMEGRANATE,  the language is intentionally old fashioned sounding and a bit stiff to highlight a more formal speech pattern. I’m hoping the stiffness of the language conveys a sense of another time. I view this as a creative tool to aid the audience in recognizing time period differences. One only needs to hear Shakespeare spoken as dialogue to know why modern audiences have to work to understand an older version of English.

One of my favorite 12th century/modern language exchanges takes place between Queen Eleanor and King Henry…obviously before he died. It’s not the stiffer, more formal version I used, but the cadence and the patter are there.

Henry II:   Eleanor, I hope you die!

Eleanor:    His arms were rough, with scars here.

Henry II:    No!

Eleanor:     I can feel his arms! I feel them! I feel it!

Henry II:    AAH! AAH!

Eleanor:     Have I hurt you?

(hurling it after him as he exits) 

We did it! You were in the next room when he did it!

(Henry exits. Eleanor is alone.)

Eleanor:   Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?

THE LION IN WINTER , JAMES GOLDMAN 1966

If you’re interested, the whole scene can be seen here: Ups and Downs

The audience sees Henry leave the room. Eleanor is lying across the threshold. There is a pause, a moment of suspense, before she delivers her line. Whether or not the viewer realizes it, this is the heart of this play. Goldman builds that pause into the stage direction because he knows that’s how the audience has to see it to ultimately grasp it.

In a book, you don’t have that marvelous luxury. As author, you get to provide the clues that let the reader see and hear the scene rising from the page. The dialogue you write must enthrall the reader. The reader, in turn, ideally allows the dialogue to have voice.

Which brings me back to fictional people talking to me.

Like the kid who saw dead people in The Sixth Sense, I hear fictional people. Non-stop. They invade my head space, often clamoring for attention, and become such a part of my internal dialogue that I argue with them in real time. More than once, I’ve had a character pop up on my shoulder to say, “No. I would never say that.” Truth be told, once a character has a voice of its own, I must listen to it. Characters never lie to the author; they will never steer you wrong. Deep in the throes of writing, they are as real to me as my family…and often just as annoying. (Don’t tell the kids I said that…although they kinda already know.)

Petey and Rico, the main characters in the next book, never shut up. They are two of the most vocal characters I’ve ever written and frankly, they spend as much time arguing between themselves as they do arguing with me. This depth of conversation makes these two more complex than any I’ve written, and their constant presence suggests the process becomes more intense with each new book. On the other hand, I can and do tell them to go away. You must understand,of course, that does not mean their issues dissipate; their voices in my ear are basically stimuli advising me that something is amiss in their world. As their author, it’s my job to fix it.

I was recently asked how I manage to keep it all straight while writing. How do you keep all your family members straight? My people become increasingly real as I write. I confess, I often have scrap paper and index cards to sort out family trees and minor details, but I know who is whom as soon as a character has a name. With the name comes the D.O.B, the education level, the personal data, all the stuff you find on Facebook. Each character must be fully formed; they must theoretically be capable of living outside my pages. No character is perfect even if they like to think they are (I don’t listen to that nonsense.) Every one of them has flaws, foibles, and assumptions, all of which require delicate handling lest they be offended and desert me. [Grin.]

Folks, characters have to be real enough in my head to set them down on paper; they are the heart and soul of every story. I cannot imagine any author writing at any time in history who did not hear their people yakking it up. There have been moments in my life when that chatter is so real that I answer those denizens of my head aloud. Ziggy called that Literary Schizophrenia. These days, I live alone and can talk to them all I want.

Next time you read a book, pay attention to the people inside. Hear their speech patterns in your head. Get to know them the way you might want to know a friend…or even a potential enemy. Figure out if they like Oreos or Devil Dogs with their glass of milk. You get to make those choices based on what you know about these people. My version is merely an opinion.

I cannot wait for you to meet Petey and Rico. You’re just gonna love ’em as much as I do no matter what kind of crazy they’re spouting at any given moment.

PS: If you’re reading THE POMEGRANATE, Batsheva is definitely a Milano kinda girl, but Gilbert is your basic oatmeal cookie. Khalil doesn’t like cookies at all; he’s a halvah kinda guy…like me.

Published by SJSchwaidelson@The Author Is In

New York born and bred, living in Minnesota, I am a widow, mother, grandmother, and writer. These are the things I do well.

3 thoughts on “I Hear Fictional People Talking…

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post, S.J. I think I’ll borrow your idea of thinking about which cookie each of my characters would like best. Simple characteristic, yet very telling!

  2. SJ, this is a great post. It gives those lacking your talent an inkling of your (and likely others’) creative process. Have already shared it with close friends — mere mortals like me who don’t do what you do — and their comments such as “Really? Her characters ‘talk to her?'” is their common reaction.

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