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Can authors hear their characters?

By David, 13 May 2020 News

Image of a girl walking into a doorway in a book with butterflies overhead.

Some writers can hear their characters in conversation.
Image: ©iStock.com/fcscafeine

Writing your own stories can be a fascinating experience. Do you ever feel like you’ve heard or seen the characters from your writing, as if you’ve met them in real life? Turns out, many professional authors have these vivid experiences when writing.

Psychology and English studies researchers from Durham University in the United Kingdom worked together to send surveys to a group of writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The writers were asked a series of questions about how they interacted with their characters.

Questions in the survey covered whether writers hear their characters’ voices, if they had conversations with their characters, and whether they see or feel their characters through other senses.

The researchers received responses from 181 writers. Almost two thirds (63%) of the writers said that they’d heard their characters’ voices, and over half said they’d had other sensory experiences. The sorts of experiences they had were wonderfully varied.

Writers speak about their characters

“I hear them in my mind,” says one author in the survey. “They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’.”

“I often don’t see their faces precisely,” says another writer. “Sometimes because I’m the character and I’m looking out, but often because I don’t really need to.”

Sometimes, characters seem to have a will of their own! One author explains it, “to begin with they feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer.”

Characters can even pop up when an author isn’t writing. “I have heard character’s voices when I’ve been under extreme duress as well,” explains a writer. “Once on a mountain, feeling as if I was unable to go forward or back, almost frozen with terror and vertigo, I clearly heard the voice of one of my characters telling me what to do, reassuring me and encouraging me to go on.”

What does this research mean?

An interesting thing about this research is that there’s such a huge range of responses. Although a large proportion of writers could hear, see or even talk with their characters, many writers could not. And all of them still managed to write respected works.

So, if you’re writing a story and you hear your characters talking to you, don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal. And if you don’t hear your characters, that’s normal too!

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