Do You Hear Voices?


One of the most vexing questions I’ve seen asked by aspiring writers is this one:

What is “voice” and how do you find it?

Damned if I know.


Of all the “writing tips” that I’ve read during the past decade, the one that’s the hardest to explain is this damn voice thing. Some writers seem to have it naturally. I suspect I fall into that category, because I insist that I really don’t know what I’m doing – consciously, anyway.

In order to find an answer to this mystery, I’ve examined what I do subconsciously. This is what I would defined as the period of time variously between 2:00 am and 6:00 am when sleep is elusive but the mind struggles in semi-consciousness to get me the hell back to a dream state.

It is said by writing luminaries that in order to write convincing characters, we must learn to live in their heads. We must get to know them as well as ourselves (hopefully better, in some cases). We must be able to predict what they would say and how they would say it, like they were our lifelong pals or high school sweethearts.

I am a pantser through and through, which means –especially as I approach the climax and ending of my second novel – that I must rely on the feedback of my characters to help me get them out of the jam I put them in. I mean, it’s only fair, right?

Often this time in semi-consciousness is spent running through a conference call with these characters, brainstorming, noodling, arguing about where they’d go next. By this point, I need to trust them, and they need to trust me. How did we get to this point?

James N. Frey recommends in his How To Write A Damn Good Novel series that before we ever put pen to paper, we need to write out finely detailed character sketches of every character in the novel. I appreciate that, I understand it, and it’s a great idea. I can’t do it. It’s like figuring out before you go to a bar exactly who the person you’re going to meet is. It doesn’t work for me.

I need to get to the bar, meet the person, and discover him or her from there. I know generally whom I’m going to be looking for (e.g., I’m looking for a male member of the District Attorney’s office who is ignorant of the corruption of his colleagues), but I don’t know his style, his mannerisms. So I might be lying awake, envisioning the scene in the bar, and Jackie Callahan is going to come wobbling in and start arguing with me. He’s going to waggle his finger in my face, call me a “bastid” for what I’m doing to his boss, accept my offer of another Guinness and have trouble getting the rim of the glass to his lips without spilling.

On torturous nights, I will be semi-awake for two or three hours, turning over and over in my head where the plot goes from here. These debates with the characters can be cooperative or acrimonious. They involve many intricate plot points that must be resolved. Someone’s going to lose. Callahan’s boss, the D.A. His career is going to be ruined by the discovery that he’s caught on tape having sex with an under-aged girl, even though he was lured into the situation with liquor and the girl was imposed upon him to concoct extortionate evidence. Is he going to kill himself, or is he going to be able to suck it up and hold his chin in the air? Callahan’s a loyal man. He wants to believe his boss will be a hero. I think he’s too weak, he’s a drunk, and his life is passing before his eyes as he sees the disgrace ahead. Callahan’s going to hate me for his boss putting a gun in his mouth. He’s going to sneer and call me a “fuckah,” but he’s going to lose, and it’s going to put him further into the pit of an alcoholic funk.

This sort of exercise does nothing for your long-term health. Sleep is important. But I have it on good authority that no man in his mid-50’s gets a solid night’s sleep. At least I don’t have to get out of bed for these arguments.

Voice is about hearing these characters in your ear. It’s about smelling their B.O. and noticing little things about their odd socks or scuffed shoes. It’s about having an intimate feel for the environment you’re in, and finding a simple, convincing way to convey it. It’s about talking like they talk to you at 3:37 am.

When you hear from them, tell them I’m taking a few days off.

I need the sleep.


8 Responses to “Do You Hear Voices?”

  1. It’s about the voice taking over your life to where you almost become them. Think, feel see what they see.
    And yeah, I wish thry’d leave me alone when I want tog et to sleep at night

  2. 2 Peter

    Isn’t that amazing ! The same characteristics are needed for a good crime scene investigator. Trouble is, once they know you can hear the voice, those in power, they try to keep you away. They do not want to end up swimming with the fish. Keep listening to the voice, it will lead you to what you are looking for.

  3. 3 Michael

    Exactly right.

    I’m one of those types of writers who actually does both – I write out advanced and very detailed character notes and I ‘feel’ out my character’s nuances. Sometimes, I’ll have my characters do or say something completely random, just so that I can ask, “Why the hell did they do that?”

    The answer is pretty obvious, every single time. Because they had a reason to. Finding out the exact reason is the fun part.

    That’s the exploration of character. The ten novels that you write worth of material, when you know that you’re only going to put out one. And that’s good. I’d rather one write out one good novel rather than ten exceedingly draggy ones. This is essence de la novelle – concentrated plot and character development, laced together and lain into the sinew of the story. Season it with the right editting and serve… it’ll feed however many you need it to.

    And I’m with you on the sleep matter – more often than not, it’s an argument between characters that keeps me up and either won’t let me sleep or wakes me up way too early. Plus, I’m only in my twenties! I can’t wait till my fifties…

  4. I really liked this, Pete. Keep it up. Rick

  5. In my younger days, I took classes in “improv” theater, and hung out a lot with the company (free classes in exchange for taking tickets). People would marvel at how the actors could spontaneously create a scene based on audience suggestions, but seeing the show frequently, I saw how it was done. Each actor developed several characters and it was really just a question of using the audience suggestion for a situation, a setting, a time period etc. to explore what the character would do in it or how he or she would interact with other “types.” I’m a strong believer that no matter what plot we may think up, our characters will outsmart us. Character determines plot. As for Voice (capital V) which you started with, that’s something else. The writer may hear a cacophony of characters’ voices in his head, but the reader hears the writer’s distinctive Voice somehow leading him or her through the chaos.

  6. I love this post, I’m the same.
    Characters live in my head, I laugh and cry with them. Yep, I got used to that, too bad if it makes sound and look like a mad woman 🙂
    And I too am kept awake at night.
    A friend once told me I’m not mad but creative. Yep, happy with that.
    Best wishes,

  1. 1 Blog interview no.202 with author Pete Morin « Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog

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