Letting Your Characters Talk

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Written by A.J. Hartley

“The surest way for me to hit my desired daily word count is to get 2 characters I know in the same room and let them talk.” Me. On Twitter.

And it’s both true and awesome, because that’s when I know a story is cooking and the characters are coming alive. I don’t have to think about how they would phrase what they want to say. I can hear it in my head before it hits the screen or, somehow, my fingers know what it should sound like and I just wait for the words to appear and nod happily along to the music of the voices.

I know this sounds like a lot of mystificatory nonsense but this really is how it feels to me when the work is going well. When you read Firebrand, you’ll hear it—I hope—as my heroine, Anglet Sutonga—talks to anyone, but especially to the upper class socialite Dahria Willinghouse with whom she cobbled a kind of friendship in book one, Steeplejack. Then she was halting and awkward, easily intimidated by high, white society and always, understandably, on her guard and quick to take refuge in taciturn politeness. Now that she’s been working as a kind of spy/detective for one of the city’s most powerful political families, she’s grown in confidence and self possession. You can hear it in her voice, particularly as she spars playfully with her employer’s sister, Dahria.

One of the great things about writing a series is that you get to live with the characters you created in book one, get to know them, and watch them evolve. I like the closure you get with a stand-alone novel, but a series is like meeting old friends and picking right up where you left off. (Oh, and I should add that I’m careful to make sure there’s a lot of closure in each of the books within the series too. As a reader I know what it’s like to finish a book and find that it doesn’t actually finish at all.). This seems right to me. The longer the characters are around, the more they experience, and the more those experiences shape them. They grow and change of necessity, particularly in terms of how they think of themselves and how they deal with others.

When I’m writing a new character they start off as little more than a plot function. Sometimes I won’t even give them a real name and will call them something like YYY whenever they appear. When I figure out who they are and what name suits them, I’ll do a quick search/replace and assign them a proper name. Often that process involves finding out what they sound like. It’s not always possible, but I like to get my characters to a point that I could take all the names out of the dialogue tags (the “said YYY” stuff) and still know who is speaking all the time because I can hear it in their word choice, their dialect, the rhythms of their speech and so on. When I get to that point I find myself working back over dialogue I wrote earlier and muttering “she would never say that” as I do some hasty edits. On the page, in dialogue, voice is character and vice versa.

And part of why I love doing this is that when I do get to that point, there’s nothing easier. I’m barely even thinking as I write. I have a sense of where the scene has to go, what will be revealed, what the moment contributes to the book in terms of tone and plot, but the characters are in control now, and it’s my job to get out of the way and let them talk.

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