March 31 – April 6: “Do characters speak to you?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5In a recent article in the Huffington Post, author Karen Dionne elaborated about how characters speak to some authors, to the point that it is almost like taking a dictation. Does this happen to you? What kind of characters do this and describe the process? This week ITW Members Connie Di Marco, Colin Campbell and Paige Dearth will weigh in on whether characters speak to them.


Montecito Heights (2)Ex-policeman. Ex-soldier. International tennis player. And full-time crime novelist.   Colin Campbell is a retired police officer in West Yorkshire, having tackled crime in one of the UK’s busiest cities for 30 years.  He is the author of UK crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain and Montecito Heights featuring rogue Yorkshire cop Jim Grant. He counts Lee Child and Matt Hilton among his fans.

Cover.A_Roux_of_RevengeConnie di Marco, writing as Connie Archer, is the national bestselling author of the soup lover’s mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime: A Spoonful of Murder, A Broth of Betrayal and A Roux of Revenge.  She has appeared in numerous television and film roles under her professional name, and has been a mystery and thriller devotée for as long as she can remember.  She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

When Smiles Fade by Paige DearthPaige Dearth was a victim of child rape and spent her early years yearning desperately for a better life. Living through the fear and isolation that marked her youth, she found a way of coping with the trauma of her past and the angst that scarred her present: she developed the ability to dream up stories grounded in reality that would prove cathartic for her and provide her with a creative outlet. Paige’s novels are a fine balance between what lives on in her imagination and the evil that lurks in the real world.





  1. I am a very visual learner so I have to see my characters clearly to get inside their heads. Whenever I introduce a new character to my story that has a sustained or impactful role in the plot, I let my imagination run wild as I create them.

    After I have an image of my character locked into my mind I begin to breathe life into them. I have to put myself into the characters life. How do they act and speak? What are their mannerisms? What is their dominate emotion? What motivates them?

    I would describe the creative process as living the characters story to understand them better. I put myself into their shoes to provide me with perspective and insight. I become them. This technique allows my readers to understand them as I do. Often, I feel like an actor rather than a writer.

  2. That’s a wonderful way to explain the creation of characters, Paige. It’s impossible to imagine a character without seeing how that (imaginary) person walks, talks, uses their hands or eyes as they speak. I subscribe to the theory that we all have hundreds of people talking to us from the gallery of our minds. And sometimes one of them steps forward fully formed and “tells” us what to say, as Karen Dionne described in her article.

  3. I don’t really hold with the, “My characters speak to me and write their own story,” thing. That sounds a bit like somebody needs medication. You know, like the guy with his hand up a glove puppet’s ass saying, “The puppet made me do it.” Not gonna happen. What is true, for me, is that the characters come out of my head and therefore they are part of me. So when I get into character really I’m just channeling my inner self and that inner self sometimes starts a dialogue that becomes the character’s dialogue. Most noticeably with the protagonist and sometimes with his friends. Not so much with the bad guys, although I do like to give them some fruity words that are not entirely dissimilar to my own. The good thing is, they say the things I can only think of after the fact but they say it at the time. And they say it better than me. So if my characters really are talking to me they’re doing a better job than I am. And they usually sound like Timothy Olyphant.

  4. This topic reminded me of a book I stumbled across years ago while standing in line at a store. The book itself had rather a cheesy title and cover art, but out of curiosity I leafed through. It was written by a past life regression hypnotist and consisted of actual transcripts of regression sessions. This book was one of the most riveting things I have ever read. Recently, this same author advanced the theory in a blog that we live more than one life at a time. We may be neurologically tuned into a particular field of actuality, but we exist as multi-dimensional bodies in different realities at the same time. Who’s to say? Reality may be stranger than we could ever perceive. Is it inner self or alternate realities? Just musing here . . .

  5. Another theory is that authors live vicariously through the activities of their characters. That is certainly true of me. Jim Grant does everything better than I ever did so by extension, when I’m writing his stories, it’s as if I’m reliving something that actually happened. Like writing in a diary. “Today I had sex in the shower and was blown up at the police station.” Ian Fleming once had James Bond pondering life, suggesting that we can remember exactly what pleasure feels like but can’t recall pain. That sounds like a good tradeoff.

  6. How true! There’s certainly nothing glamorous about sitting at a keyboard suffering from ‘mouse shoulder’ but the journeys we can take in our minds are priceless. Nancy Drew never had a day job and Jack Reacher doesn’t seem to have a mortgage to worry about.

  7. I have a character in my current series — Jack is male, elderly, eccentric and opinionated. He’s also a Navy vet who tells time by the bells. I’m very conscious of how he came to be. He’s an amalgam of my father, his spirit, his sense of humor and my ex-father-in-law, a very difficult man who really did tell time by the bells and referred to the floor as the deck and the walls as the bulkhead. But Jack took on a life of his own giving me his observations of life, his sometimes peculiar point of view and attitudes. I’m not sure where he came from, born of people I’ve known? but I’m definitely glad he arrived.

  8. I feel like a newsreader doing the midnight shift, not sure if anyone’s listening or if I’m talking to dead air. So if any readers are following this conversation drop us a line. All comments are welcome. At least we’ll know the world is still turning out there.

  9. Great conversation! Since my Huffington Post essay was referenced in the intro to this discussion, I thought I’d pop over and weigh in.

    Previously, I felt the same as Colin – when authors said their characters talked to them, I always thought they were a little woo-woo. My novels began with plot, and then I created the characters that served the needs of the story. I was always and firmly in control.

    But my new book is different. I was searching for a backstory for a character in another story, but was coming up dry. Everything I I suggested to my agent was too obvious and cliched. He urged me to dig deeper, but to be honest, nothing was coming.

    Then one night I woke up with three or four first-person sentences in my head — a character telling me who they were and their history.

    I don’t know where those sentences came from. I wasn’t dreaming. I hadn’t been reading books on the subject – this character just arrived out of nowhere – poof – fully formed, and yes – talking to me.

    In the morning, the sentences still looked good, so I wrote them down and rounded them out a little and sent them to my agent. Long story short, these very sentences are now the opening paragraphs of a new novel with this character front and center that my agent absolutely LOVES.

    I honestly never thought I’d be one of those “woo-woo” authors whose characters talk to them, but here I am!

  10. While my characters do not speak to me I find myself looking at the story through the eyes of the people I write about.I also test conversations with my own voice on occasion, since I prefer my characters to be as natural as I can make them. Creating real people is something I think is important. A thrill is better expressed through a a person who could be your neighbor, and horror better felt against a normal background.
    So the answer is no, but I accept that it is one way of creating a real background against which events can be portrayed.

  11. Reading this a bit late but thought I’d put in two cents. Those of us who are more pantsers than plotters may find characters “speaking” to them. We’ve developed characters and fallen in love with them and then realized with sadness that they were the victims and had to kill them. I wouldn’t describe it as “woo woo” but there is a bit of imaginary magic at work, and certainly each character, hero or villain, has a piece of us in them. I’m intrigued by the idea of parallel universes, but even if I’m channeling a writer in my other life, I still have to do the hard work here.

  12. Often my characters are based on a combination of two or three real people I’ve worked with and know, so I would say, ‘yes’ my characters do speak to me. They say things like, ‘Hey, remember the time this happened? Wouldn’t that make an interesting plot twist?’ And often times, they’re right.

  13. The other night I thought my characters were talking to me. A bit quiet and muffled. Turns out I’d left the TV on downstairs. But seriously, I had the most vivid dream that is turning into a new story. So maybe the voices are just our subconscious trying to tell us something. Like a second heart attack tells us to cut out the sugar.

  14. I’m glad you found it was the TV, Colin! But speaking of the tube, I remember a series years ago in which a cartoonist’s imaginary superhero broke through to this reality. The cartoonist thought it was an earthquake shaking the house until he was confronted with a large man in spandex in his bedroom. I thought the concept was brilliant, and loved it. Wish the series had continued. I think I’m safe — as long as none of my characters actually appear to me!

  15. Frightening thought, isn’t it? A man in spandex, but let’s not go there! Writers talk a lot about plotting vs. pantsing but I don’t think those seemingly diverse approaches to writing can or should be viewed as separate methods. Both are needed. Perhaps we engage different sides of our brain for each method. Without plot, a logical, linear timeline, structure can fall apart. Without pantsing, there can be no creative flow and magical moments that allow our characters to “speak” to us.

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