Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Day My Characters Started Talking to Me

By Brad Parks, guest blogger

Once upon a time, when I was a newspaper reporter living a just-the-facts-ma’am kind of writing existence, I would happen across an interview with an author. Since I harbored this wild dream of someday becoming an author, I would always stop and listen (or read) to see if I could learn anything.

Usually, there was a point in the interview where the esteemed author would be asked how she figured out what happened next in her books, and she would say something along the lines of: “Well, my characters talk to me. They tell me where the story ought to go.”

And I’d always think to myself, “Yeah, lady? Do your characters also tell you you’re a nut bag? Because that’s what you sound like right now.”

I mean, what an absurd idea. Characters – fictional creations – dictating the direction of a story? As if they had some kind of free will? Ridiculous.

Then I started writing fiction.

And suddenly one day my characters… they, uh… they started talking to me.

It didn’t happen during my first manuscript. (Then again, that manuscript is still sitting in a drawer somewhere – and maybe now I know why.)

No, it happened while I was writing Faces of the Gone, my debut novel from St. Martin’s/Minotaur. The protagonist is this investigative newspaper reporter named Carter Ross. Part of his deal is that while he works in Newark, New Jersey – a gritty city which is approximately 95 percent
minority – Carter is this clean-cut WASP from the white bread suburbs.

And while I enjoyed the juxtaposition of character and setting for the first two chapters, Carter didn’t start talking to me – really talking to me – until the beginning of Chapter 3. In this scene, Carter has scored an interview with members of the Brick City Browns, a Newark street gang who might have information about a quadruple homicide Carter is covering. But first, Carter has to prove to them he’s not a cop – by smoking marijuana with them.

So there I had Carter in this room with these gang members, and they’re passing the joint, having a good old time. And I figured everyone would get mellow enough that the Brick City Browns would eventually spill what they knew, and Carter would go on his merry way.

But then Carter started talking to me.

“Psst, Brad, I can’t handle my weed,” he said.

“You can’t?” I asked (in my head).

“Not even a little,” he replied. “C’mon, I’m the whitest man in Newark. I wear pleated pants and drive a Chevy Malibu. Look at how I cut my hair, for God’s sake! I tried pot once or twice in college – just to say I’d done it – and haven’t touched the stuff since.”

“So… uh, what do I do now?” I asked.

“I don’t care what you do,” Carter explained. “I’m baked out of my mind. Just let me chill out for a while.”

But, of course, I couldn’t – the scene would get way too dull. So I had him stand up, and, sure enough, he went toppling over into a wall full of boxes, spilling their contents all over him – to the amusement of the gang members smoking with him. Then I had Carter go back to the newsroom, still stoned, bumping into his executive editor, who gets suspicious when one of his reporters smells like he just came from a Grateful Dead concert. Then Carter bumps into his sometime love interest.

The result is that I got some of the more amusing scenes in my book, scenes I never planned but happened more or less spontaneously simply because I was listening to what my characters had to say. Do your characters talk to you? Come on, don’t be shy. I promise I won’t call you a nut bag.

To learn more about Brad Parks or Faces of the Gone, visit To be pelted with monthly fits of nonsense from his small army of underpaid interns, sign up for his newsletter. To be subjected to such drivel on a more regular basis, become a fan of the Brad Parks Books on Facebook or follow him on Twitter (


Paul Lamb said...

I can't recall any of my characters talking to me, but I have had long periods when my story seemed to be revealing itself to me in my head, as though it existed "out there" somewhere and I was merely the scribe getting it all down. It's moments like those that are a little spooky and a little exciting.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

They absolutely do. And they make me write things that I wouldn't write otherwise! But the point where they come alive is amazing.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Hi, Brad--great post. My characters talk to me all the time. Bruce is way funnier than I am, and Barbara says all the the things I've painstakingly trained myself to keep to myself. Like you, I found it a great relief to know I'm not the only one.

Brad Parks said...

Liz -- I have to tell you, I was writing a note to Hector DeJean at St. Martin's the other day and I said something like, "Hey, would you mind sending your favorite author's book to so-and-so."

His reply: "Yep, I'll send Liz Zelvin's book right out..."

Sunny Frazier said...

Not only does my protagonist, Christy Bristol, "talk" to me (more like complaining), but now she's gone and gotten her own Face Book page. She bad-mouths me to my readers. I'm trying to think of a way to shut her up. Maybe I should get a hit man.

Barbara Schlichting said...

My characters can take on such a life of their own, that my friend has to reel me, or is it, they? in! They want to go in another direction, then I have to tell them no! Stop it!

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