Films in my head

I was recently doing one of those memes for my personal (friends-locked) blog – one of those lists of questions that attempts to explore aspects of your life that you weren’t keeping secret but had never thought to share with anyone.

In the course of it, I mentioned that my fictional characters arrive in my head and talk to me.

It would appear, from the reactions of my friends list (a lot of whom are writers) that there are two kinds of people. One sort give a relieved sigh and say something like ‘yes, me too’ or ‘thank goodness it’s not just me’ and the other sort are fascinated but bewildered.

I thought I’d go into more detail here to see what other have to say.
Whenever I write, my characters spring fully formed into my head, just as if they were people I’d met and talked to. But like those people, it takes time to get to know them and I have to question them to get details. I also ‘overhear’ them talking to each other and sometimes they are quite critical of the way their story is progressing. I usually let them take over. Obviously there are limits. If I’m writing a detective story I have to start with some idea of what the crime was, how it was committed and how the investigation proceeded. I don’t always know who the villain was.

The voices and images in my head are quite clear. I know, if I think about it, that they have to be aspects of my subconscious, but at the moment of hearing and seeing them, they seem quite real, like actual friends. I am never tempted to blur fiction and reality and know perfectly well that they are ‘just’ characters, but they are often loud, and very assertive. They tell me all kinds of things that don’t necessarily pertain to the current story, and often have strong political opinions. I remember reading advice from Diana Wynne Jones that a writer should interrogate their characters to find out all kinds of things about them, such as their favourite socks, to build up a mental picture that would make the character in the story more three dimensional. Well, there are all kinds of things I can and do ask them, but as for the socks, I just need to look.

I can see them in motion, too, and when they tell me how a specific scene plays out, I can watch it like a film rolling in my mind’s eye. I also retain detailed images of all kinds of places I have visited and can play with these mentally to provide settings for my stories.

I was very surprised as I grew up to learn that not everyone has that kind of visual imagination and that some people, including very imaginative creators in all spheres, think largely in words, not pictures.

I think I would get quite distressed if my internal films disappeared. This is, incidentally, also the way I think about everything, from a planned shopping trip or meal to a conversation I need to have with e.g. family or friends or, at one time, lesson plans for teaching.

All this results in something I have mentioned previously. My stories are planned in my head, and the ‘notes’ are in my head ready to be referred to so any writing is a kind of copy-typing though of course I edit too. For example, I won’t let my characters use too much repetition, or tell each other things they should already know. I also encourage my betas to tell me when things that are obvious to my characters (and to me) need clarification for my readers.
When I have finished a book, the characters take a back seat, but they don’t disappear (apart, of course, for the ones like the murder victims). They allow the characters for the next work I am embarking on to take centre stage. Usually. There are one or two who feel they should comment on everything I do which is interesting but can be distracting.

Getting to know my characters is part of the pleasure of writing. It can feel as though I have a lot of friends. Well, I do have a lot of friends, but most of them have their own schedules and can’t always be contacted at times of my choosing. My fictional friends can.

4 thoughts on “Films in my head

  1. Definitely on the ‘fascinated but bewildered’ side of things – as you know!

    This was fascinating though, it’s not my experience at all. Although, as you say, you are not alone.

    It’s all the more fascinating because I do see the ‘film in one’s head’ you describe. You commented on one of my fic about detail – and that’s where it comes from, because I can ‘see’ the film. But in my case it’s silent, like an old home movie.

    I often have eps or fan vids playing when I write to keep me in the groove, and to help my ear for dialogue – the rhythms and patterns of the characters speech. But if I write original fic, and I haven’t for many years, it’s essentially a non auditory experience – as you say, ‘words’.

    As for what else you say, I tend to write in a linear fashion, having plotted things out first – although, the one exception to this, is endings. Even if I don’t end up using them as written, I do sometimes write the ending out of sequence.

    Having said that though, my plots are a bare scaffold, I don’t put detail in them – I even label them ‘plot points’ – because they are more of an irrational dot to dot. The story has to pass through them, but how it gets there is something which develops organically as I write. Bit like Dr Who’s fixed points in time. I have no idea what the characters are going to get up to between those dots until they get up to it!

  2. I’ve already had a couple of my DW f’list say they share my experience. I like your silent movie description! I rarely listen to anything when I’m writing – maybe beforehand to get speech patterns etc. but not during, because it would distract me from the internal soundtrack. I’ll occasionally add very quiet music as a background a bit like a film score. Unlike the average cinema, I turn the volume down. I also write in a linear fashion, but sometimes I know what future scenes are going to be like because the characters have already played them out for me, so I’m working towards them. I never actually write them ‘in advance’ because I know they’ll still be there when I need them. And scaffolding, yes. I do like to give characters a chance to deviate from whatever path I’ve chosen, particularly to have their own conversations which are usually more interesting than the words I might have tried to put in their mouths. I write more original fic than fanfic but everything is similar for both ‘genres’ except that my major original characters are a lot more assertive.

  3. I’m not bewildered, although it does highlight how very differently our minds work! The only time I have had something similar to this happen was when I was completely immersed in fandom, almost living and breathing my favourite shows, and role playing on a daily basis with others. Shep, in particular, was almost as you describe your characters, although less vocal – I gained impressions from him, more than having actual conversations. He particularly liked driving along with me in the car, with his head out the window. Other characters were even vaguer, but I still get the occasional tweak of ‘life’ from the strongest (Shep and Dean, mostly). I’ve certainly never had it with original characters, there I’m constructing everything – mostly in words – exactly as I want it. It’s clearly a different and striking expression of creativity from the understood ‘norm’, although I wonder how many writers, if completely frank, would admit to the same phenomenon if they thought it wouldn’t get them funny looks? I am pretty sure that it improves the writing, as it will help characters to maintain consistency, much like actors who complain to script writers (usually in shows with multiple writers) that ‘this doesn’t fit the way I’ve been playing X’. It’s worthy of study, I think, but I wouldn’t know where/whom to turn! Something that occurs to me is that I really pity your murder victims – at least anyone I kill off wasn’t really alive to begin with. Doesn’t it make you feel terrible to do this to them? I’ve done some horrible things to characters in the name of a story, but never killed off anyone who had even the slightest sentient presence. I should think it – or they – would haunt me! Or do they come in with a fatalistic acceptance of their lot? Still seems a bit grim..!

    • I agree it’s worthy of study!! Some of my DW f’list have the same experiences as me, and others are more like you. I suspect the whole phenomenon has links to synaesthesia which is perhaps where any research should start. Remember it isn’t just my writing that’s affected. I ‘see’ the route to places as I follow it, I ‘read’ my shopping list, etc. etc. Everything is so visual that I have quite a hard job following instructions that are just verbal. We can talk through more examples some time!

      I have actually had my characters have a board meeting in my head (while I was shopping) deciding who was going to tell me what to write next. Harlequin wins hands down every time though why my subconscious should fixate on a young bisexual male fairy is anybody’s guess. The character was only, originally, a by-product of Moth’s letters to Emily!! But of course I did role play him on LJ for a while. Fandom characters aren’t nearly as assertive.

      As for the murder victims. Hmmm. I think maybe they live on in the minds of the detectives, and of their families? Or maybe they are just actors who go home live and well when the show’s over?? I created Genef’s old nurse, for example, to provide Genef’s scroll, a background for the twins, and a murder case for Genef to solve to get the series rolling. She never spoke to me so maybe she never ‘lived’??

      I do sometimes try to construct text without help but they usually brush it aside…

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