Hearing Voices?

By Michelle Gunnin


I hear voices in my head, and while in some circles this would be a big concern, as a writer it is a sign of creative thought. When I sit down to write a story I begin to feel as if I am IN the story.  The conversations between characters, flow out of my fingers just as if I am part of the dialogue.  I used to find that odd, a bit scary even.  Then I went to a writers’ workshop and heard published authors discuss this same experience.  As novelists, they described how they sometimes have to wait for their characters to tell them what happens next.  The way they talked about them, it sounded like the characters were actual people.  The fact is, in the imagination of the author, they are real people, and writing them down makes them even more so. Have you ever read a story where you felt the characters were your friends?  Or felt so involved with them that when the book was finished you grieved its end?  Those books are the ones where the characters come alive, and they are also the ones which are usually on the best seller list.  How do these authors write in such a way as to draw the reader into the story?

  • They listen to the voices in their heads. When they hear a conversation, they write it down. No matter how far-fetched it seems, they do not discount it.  Instead, they get it out on the paper and worry about rewrites later.  Sometimes they start with one or two statements in a conversation, and suddenly the characters come to life and the simple conversation develops into a new storyline.  Other times they write and the characters stop speaking.  The author doesn’t sweat it because they know the dialogue will pick up again another day.  They have the ability to put the pages in a drawer and work on another project until the voices start again.
  • They develop their characters. Writers rarely just start writing their characters, usually, they get to know them first. Consider what the person looks like? Is she shy?  Is he bold?  Why?  Did he have to fight to survive in his childhood?  Was there a bully in her hometown?  Did she have tons of friends?  Or enemies? Why?  Did the character have siblings?  What were their relationships like?  Was he successful or a failure?  How did that affect who he became? Did she marry young? How did that shape her?   Authors write all of these things down, for each character.  As they do this, the characters take shape.  They rarely share all the details they come up with from these “interviews” in the story, but they use the information in creating a believable character with strengths and weaknesses which are formed from the life he/she lived.  It does not matter that all of that life is imagined in the head of the author because the deeper the character sketch the more authentic the character.
  • They free write their dialogue. Good authors do not over analyze the voices.  They let them flow and speak.  They also do not worry about correct punctuation of dialogue as they are writing.  Revisions happen later on in the writing process for a reason.  Initially, the idea is to let the conversation between the characters flow freely, to capture it on paper. There is no word limit or deadline on a rough draft so the voices can talk up a storm.  Sometimes in this free flow writing, the conversation takes a turn and a whole new conflict is created or a plot twist reveals itself.  If creativity is limited by format issues, it is unlikely that the heart of the characters will present themselves. Free writing is a way to dig deeper into the personas of each character. Authors do not let the fact they will probably cut over half of the dialogue deter them from writing it all down anyway.
  • They are not afraid. Writers who have the courage to follow the voices wherever they lead are the ones who write the classics. They do not back down from the ugly parts of their characters.  They allow the messiness of life to translate into their stories.  Good and evil dwell side by side.  Each interaction pulls the reader in further to the mystery of human connection.  These kinds of writers do not shy away from hard topics, but neither do they force them.  They allow the characters to decide where the story is going.  They give them the freedom to peruse the inner psyche and the complex world in which they live.
  • They are master weavers. Storytellers, who are also writers, can take numerous storylines and a plethora of characters to create a tapestry so rich and intricate the reader is unaware of the beauty until they are in the midst of it. When a plot twist brings an audible gasp from the reader, you know the writer is a master craftsman.  The subtle details, which are rarely noticed until the exact moment the author wills them to be, are not chance occurrences. They are planned in the mind of the writer and fueled by the voices of the characters as if it is a collaborative project between all the colors of the tapestry to tell the story in a way which impacts all who read it.
  • They give characters a place to be heard. If they did not listen to the voices in their heads, the characters would never be heard by the world.  If the writer had silenced them as too arrogant, or too raw, or too controversial many beloved books would never have been written. Composing a story opens a place for characters to express the whole spectrum of human emotion.  It gives space for different viewpoints to be examined and brought forth into public discourse.  A character in a book is less threatening than a flesh and blood person face to face.  To shape thoughts by using characters has been the way of writers for centuries.
  • They develop imagination. To do this, writers allow themselves to practice.  Many of them are artists or musicians.  They create. They play.  They do not stifle themselves or shut down their wild thoughts.  They allow them to run free in their minds because they know, later on, those same ideas will be the fuel for a story.  They value imagination and many surround themselves with other imaginative people.  Understanding and creating a community of like-minded creative minds is a key to their success.

I want to learn to write like this.  I want to listen to the voices in my head and allow them the freedom to speak. How can I do it?

  • Watch. Read and learn from the masters.  See how they weave and craft and create.
  • Listen. Pay attention to the voices in your head. Don’t ignore them.
  • Practice. No one ever gets it right the first time, or the second, or the third. None of the greats did and neither will I. Practicing and learning is as much a part of the writer’s journey as imagination is.
  • Write it down. Nothing is too insignificant.  Write what the voices are saying and you might be surprised.

Michelle Gunnin

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Michell is an everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at michellesmosaic.wordpress.com

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  1. Wow! Your first sentence says it all Michelle! Well, not quite all 🙂 You went on to describe the process and the advantages of listening to those “voices” inside our creative minds as well as giving us a peek inside yours, along with some amazing tips on how to use those voices to our advantage.
    Thank you!

  2. Hi, Michelle. I wrote a post about two years ago for From Addict 2 Advocate titled, Inside Voices: Insane or Intuition, so I completely understand the inner voices. Sometimes it a character clamoring to be heard, other times, it that inner guidance. I also referenced that not everyone was willing to acknowledge the voices, nor did it necessarily attest to a mental health diagnosis.

    Interesting, informative, and good read. Thanks.

  3. John, I agree that imagination is a gift, and those voices are part of it. WE ARE NOT CRAZY! haha…I think most creative types have voices or inklings or nudges of some type or another. That, together with brainstorming, free writing, scattered thinking…or whatever you call it can create some pretty amazing stories. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Thanks for the post, Michelle! I think you did a very good job of detailing how the Muse visits us! Very motivating and encouraging stuff

  5. Ahh, yes! In my head…the voices, images, prompts, suggestions, memory recall. the people, places, things…the sounds, touch, taste, smell, and emotions. I revel in the enormity, complexity, minutiae, and surprising discoveries! I’m overloaded with those facets all the time. Freewriting is absolutely invaluable for me!
    Now, as you suggest, Michelle, I must write, write, write! And read, read, read – study the pro’s, dissect, understand how they handle every aspect of story creation. I compare this to the numerous songs I finally mastered on the piano and guitar – the amount of practice over the years is immeasurable. And, until I became unable to play, the learning and surprises never stopped. What does remain active is the imagination, the desire to create.
    Writing is something I can still do. Learning how to write? Well, I’ve traveled similar roads in the past. However, then there was my lifetime still ahead of me!
    Michelle, thank you for posting this perfect guide re productive writing. Superb writing! A top-notch article for reference that I, and I’m sure others, will certainly review many times in the future

    • Practice, practice, practice…the fuel of creativity. I think all art forms are similar in the magic of the imagination…and the reinforcement of practice. I always say practice make permanent to my students…there is no such thing as perfect..thank God for that! Your kind words are an encouragement to me..thanks!

  6. That’s why I never outline a story I let the voices take me into their life and lead me down the path they are following as in real life because they are real for me.

  7. Thanks so much Michelle for this post!!! As a writer, I love those voices!!! To me, those voices are important to the creative process. When I don’t listen or they are silent, I am creatively impotent. I truly love this post!!!

  8. Michelle, powerful! This post gave me chills. I’ve always been somewhat timid about sharing how I think and what I hear. Imagination is a gift. It should always be nurtured, not squashed. You opening up gives me a sense normalcy.

    The free writing intrigues me, because for myself personally, I referred to it as scattered thinking before I ever heard of the term free writing.

    This post will be an excellent resource to refer back to, because everything on this site has value.

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