They say the characters are what drive the story. The characters are the ones you fall in love with, who you know so well you can finish their sentences for them. They say the characters are the things that keep you coming back, yearning for more.
But what happens when the characters just don’t comply? They don’t become that little voice in your head, like a second part of you, urging you on, begging you to write. Their voices are totally silent, or nonexistent. Are they real, just like every other character? Or are they something forced, something I pushed life into with a sledgehammer? The characters should have voices, they say. But what if mine do not? What if mine are lifeless and flat, and boring? What if my characters are just long streaks of nothing? They can’t be, because if they were, what would happen to my novel? It would be flat.
What I didn’t realize is that they had always been there, quiet voices, soft voices, but people in their own right nonetheless. From my first-ever main characters, Lily Gonestar and Talim Kryer, the characters had told the stories themselves. Lily whispered in my ear, telling me just what she would like to say, every word, ever syllable, passing between her perfect teeth before they poured out through my inky expression. I could have told you what she would have said for anything. Lily was optimistic and perfect. Talim was indecisive, grief-stricken, and overwhelmed. He was seventeen years old, and to him, nothing in life was worth living for. Except his sister.
And then there came Breeze. After two years, she was the first one in a long time. Soft, too, and quiet, softer than both Lily and Talim had been. My previous characters had grown loud. I was used to it. I could see Breeze, but I could not hear her voice.
To me, she had no voice. She was that character. That long streak of nothing that ruined the perfect novel. But I pushed through, pounded it into her like a sledgehammer, made her tell her story for me. And by the end, her voice was loud. I went back, and I reread, and awful though the plot was, I could sense her. I could tell when she was writing words, even when she didn’t mention her name, or when she was speaking. Breeze was a person, unloved and cynical because of it.
And then there’s Mel. I can feel her. She’s a loud, strong voice. She wasn’t soft, not ever. And I hope she will never have to be.
Looking back, I wonder if I can still write Talim, or Lily, or even Breeze, for the most part. Have all moved on? Perhaps. But if our paths cross again, it will be because their voices are loud again. And if they ask me, I will make sure their voices will never, ever be silent again.
Don’t fear. Your characters will speak to you. You just have to learn how to listen.