When your story's characters start to speak to you, how do you respond?
Do you keep on typing anyway, muttering, "Not now! Not now! I'm in the middle of an important scene!" Do you get up and call a friend on the phone? Do you get up and turn on the TV?
When a main character in a story first began to tell me about her life, I was shocked. I didn't believe what was happening to me. It's not that I heard a voice in my ear or a whisper over my shoulder. I did not feel her actual presence with me in the room. But my fingers began to fly with an intense focus that I hadn't experienced before, and her story poured out of me through the ends of my hands. I felt electricity rush through my shoulders and neck as I typed madly to keep up with what seemed to come from the air around me, stopping briefly in my brain, and rushing quickly out to be recorded via keyboard.
I do believe in magic, and this felt magical. I'm a spiritual person, and this felt spiritual. I live thinking that the Universe is conspiring in our favor, somehow, and I felt like a gift given from someplace alien and kind was unwrapping itself before me.
And at first, I tried to ignore it. To have a character speak so strongly as I wrote felt overwhelming. It felt extremely overwhelming because I didn't have to think my story anymore at that point. I didn't have to force it or worry over it. And I was very used to thinking about it, and forcing an awkward scene, and worrying that it didn't work. I wasn't used to writing in flow.
This character helped me experience "flow," which feels almost like a rushing river of nothingness. It is fast moving yet surprisingly empty, except for all the words — the words that appear as mysterious phrases, or that describe strong flashes of images, or that can be a simple narrative tale or song or poem that is supposed to somehow fit into the story. It often doesn't make sense, but its presence cannot be denied. It has to be accepted in the moment. Some may call it inspiration, or some think that muses or creative faeries set up a tent and start telling their campfire stories under endless stars until the sun rises. I call it "being in flow." For me, it happens occasionally, and I've learned to ride with this flow whenever I'm treated to a visit.
This brings me to my primary point. When a character begins to speak to you, stop what you are doing and listen. (If you're driving a car, pull over to the side of the road. If you're operating heavy machinery, safely empty your load and turn off the motor. If you're in a boring meeting, slip out quietly for a moment. Stop safely — you get my drift.)
After you've safely stopped, listen and get ready to take notes. You can even ask your character questions, but only if you're really going to listen — and hear — the answers.
Much like a real interview with a living, breathing person — but who's not to say that your characters don't live and breath? — a successful one is about listening. If you love telling stories or writing stories or creating music or making art, then you definitely enjoy the expressing part. I recommend enjoying equally, if not more, the taking-it-all-in part. Drop any agendas you have, let all preconceived notions go, and, with complete, rapt attention, listen.
After I first listened to my character, and I listened well, she returned every time I sat down and continued the tale. A main narrative of this novel draft began to appear consistently, and other characters chimed in. It's as if she told her friends, "Hey! Go to her! She'll actually listen to you." And I did. I listened to all of them. At the end of the novel, it looked completely unlike what I thought it should be. I didn't recognize about 80% of my original plan or outline in it. But it felt so strongly "right" and real. This was it.
At the final wrap-up of this storytelling, when I punctuated that last sentence, ending this draft, my character had a question for me. "Did you get all that?" she asked with a laugh, acknowledging that I had to let a lot go within myself to keep up with her light-speed pace.
"Oh, yes," I replied, nodding my head. "Thank you for this." I closed my eyes and exhaled.