Come play inside a writer's brain, scary!

It’s First Monday again, when I open this blog to your thoughts and questions to do with any aspect of writing and publishing. With Halloween just over and even the Australian shops still full of treat-sized chocolate and witchy products, I’m looking at our characters, the weird things they do to us – and why it’s okay.

1. Characters spring surprises

Long ago, I learned that a good character takes on a life of their own. I’ll do all the preparatory work, know their hair and eye colour, and what they want from life. Then I’ll be writing a draft and that same character will quietly let drop that they have a sister, a pet dog or an unusual hobby I didn’t know about.

Experience has shown me that this is part of my mind telling me what the story will need later on. The sibling or the hobby will turn out to be a vital part of that character’s story. I leave it in place with a side notation to check it again at the editing stage, and keep writing. Almost always, that detail will be essential to the story development.

2. Characters talk to you
A fully realised character will have their own thoughts on their world. How do you find this out? By asking them.
I learned this method from Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek universe. He took a sheet of paper – it doesn’t work as well on a screen – and drew a vertical line down the middle, creating two blank columns. On the left-hand one he wrote a question he wanted to ask the character, then wrote the character’s answer in the right-hand column.

At first this will feel forced and you’ll be aware of playing both roles, but if you persist over however many pages it takes, a spooky thing happens. The character starts to answer in their own voice, giving you insights that you hadn’t considered. Or more accurately, weren’t aware of knowing.

This process isn’t metaphysical. It’s your own subconscious revealing itself through the character, but it feels as if you really are in touch with this person, and you’ll find out far more than their physical description. Sometimes “their” insights will astonish you.

Gene Roddenberry said he used this process to create the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock, so it’s definitely worth a try.

One caveat – writing is hard work. It’s common for a minor character to insist that you write their story as well, and you may start to imagine a series featuring all these people. Whether or not this ever happens doesn’t matter. The competing ideas are your brain’s way of dodging the work ahead. Make notes on whatever comes up, then finish the current book.


3. Characters know what they want
Woe betide the author who doesn’t listen. You’ll end up with cardboard-cut-out people who do your bidding but have no life of their own.

In my Beacons science-fiction series, my three main characters are all aliens living on Earth. Elaine Lovell is a Watcher who can see whatever she chooses, wherever it may be. Her day job is media psychic. Garrett Luken is the beacon’s Listener, a former US Air Force pilot, now a best-selling sci-fi writer. Adam Desai is the team’s Messenger, a scientific genius who doesn’t know his alien history until he meets the other two.

My romantic side wanted them all partnered by series end. Elaine was the easiest, and found herself a Hawai’ian multimillionaire. Adam could only ever love the capable governor Shana Akers, who is more than his match mentally and physically.

My problem child was Garrett, gorgeous, talented and single. In three books and two novellas, I tried matching him with several other characters and he’d have none of them. Naturally, the only woman he fell for was the one I’d considered the least likely.

No spoilers, but when Garrett did let this person into his life, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of her. He knew who he wanted; I just had to take notes.

There it is, three spooky ways your characters will – like Pinocchio – become real, if you let them. Now it’s over to you to share your experiences.

Comments are moderated to avoid spam, but if you want your post to appear right away, click on “sign me up” to subscribe. I don’t share your details with anyone. How do you develop characters? Do they talk back to you? How does it affect your writing?

on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook
See the new cover of Valerie’s Beacons book, Birthright, at

Check out Valerie’s online course, Free the Writer in You


Comments on: "First Monday Mentoring for November – 3 spooky things characters do that smart writers allow" (10)

  1. Yes! As usual, you have caught it exactly! I’ve often advocated interviewing characters, but I never drew a line on the paper a la Roddenberry. 🙂 I think I need to sit my current characters down and let them tell me more about them. They’ve been getting off track, but now that I know something more about the villain, things should start to go more smoothly—for the villain. 😀

    • Thanks, Marion. One of the aims of this blog is to identify not only what works, but why. All the tools I advocate here have worked and continue to work in my own professional life. I consider myself very lucky to have had some wonderful writing mentors like Gene Roddenberry. Good for you exploring your villain as thoroughly as your other main characters. Too often the villain only comes on stage when needed to do evil things, but to themselves they are as righteous as the so-called good guys. Happy exploring.

  2. Excellent post, Valerie!

    I’ve had similiar experiences while writing: characters that reveal things mid-stream, for instance. A secondary character in my Sentinels series suddenly told me she had five brothers — a shock for me and I wasn’t sure why it mattered. But it was a bit of information that helps mold her personality on so many levels, especially now that I’m writing her story. 🙂

    Another character, the hero for DREAM WALK, wouldn’t ‘talk’ to me no matter how hard I tried to get into his head. Then I realized the problem: I was calling him by the wrong name. Once I changed it, he let me in.

    No wonder writers seem so eccentric to the rest of the world. 😉

    • LOL at eccentric writers. When you consider that we spend our working lives making things up about people and worlds that don’t exist, and hopefully getting paid for it, it’s no wonder we seem a little odd to those in the “muggle” world.

  3. Great post! Definitely need to fight against cardboard-cut-out characters and give them all those traits that give them life.

  4. janne hardy said:

    This is like automatic writing. …very interesting to think where the answers are coming from

    • My thoughts go the opposite way – is automatic writing a similar process to the one I describe here, allowing the automatic writer to access previously hidden parts of themselves and their experiences?

  5. Amelia Elias said:

    The very best feeling for me as a writer is when the characters start talking like this. That’s when I know I’ve really got them right. They come alive and that’s when magic happens! In the very best moments, it’s like taking dictation.

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