Voices in My Head: Part One
Hello, all! My new book is coming out next week! Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds is a compilation of three stories that tie together to form a single narrative. Two of the stories (Legion and Legion: Skin Deep) were available previously, but the third (Lies of the Beholder) is exclusive to this edition.
I’d really appreciate it if you would have a look at it, and maybe give it a preorder if it looks interesting. It’s got a patented Brandon Magic System™, only this time applied to a modern-day setting—and in specific, one person’s very unusual way of seeing the world.
In conjunction with the book’s release, I thought I’d delve into some of the themes I find interesting (both in writing, and in the way I see the world) that made me write the series in the first place. So I present to you a three-part series of blog posts centered around this idea. I’m calling it Voices in My Head.
One of the most common questions I get, as a writer, is some variation on, “Do you ever hear voices, or feel like your characters are real?” People ask it timidly, as they don’t want to be offensive, but there seems to be genuine curiosity about the way a writer’s brain works. (Other variations on this theme are questions such as, “What are your dreams like?” or “Do you ever get so wrapped up in your worlds that you have trouble coming back to our world?”)
They’re legitimate questions, though I’m not convinced that a writer’s brain works in any consistently different way from someone else’s brain. I think you’ll find the same amount of variation in the way writers work as you’ll find in any profession. There are as many ways to approach stories as there are people writing stories.
That said, I have talked to a lot of writers who imply a certain autonomy to their characters. “I had to write their story,” one might say. “They wouldn’t leave me alone until I did.” Or some version of, “I was writing one story, but the characters just didn’t want to go that way, and so took off in another direction.”
To me, these are ways of trying to voice the fact that the way our minds work—and the way we construct art—is in some cases a mystery even to those involved. Human beings have this fascinating mix of instinct and intent, where we train ourselves to do complex tasks quickly through repetition. In this way, writing a book is somewhat similar to driving home from work—you can consciously think about it, and make each decision along the way. Or, more often, you just let your body do the work, interpreting things your brain says should happen without you thinking about it directly.
I spend a lot of time teaching how to write and talking about writing, but I don’t consciously use a lot of the techniques I talk about. I’ve used them so much that I just move forward, without formally saying something like, “Now I’m making sure my chapter ties together the sub-themes it introduced at the beginning.” The truly conscious technique comes during troubleshooting, when a story isn’t coming together for me—and so I have to step back, take apart what I’ve been doing, and find the broken bits.
So again, a mix of intent and instinct is where books come from for me. I don’t generally feel that the characters “want” to do things—but I still write them by gut feeling most of the way, and only look at breaking down their motivations specifically when I’m either working on the outline or trying to fix something in revisions.
On one hand, I know exactly who the character is and what they would do in a situation. So it does feel a little mystical sometimes, and you can have eureka moments during writing where you finally find a method to express this character that will convey the right idea to the reader. In that way, there’s almost this Platonic version of the character that you’re chasing—and trying to explore, figure out, and commit to paper.
On the other hand, it’s likely that these characters feel right to me not because of any mystical connection to the abstract. It’s because I’m unconsciously drawing from tropes, characterizations, and people I’ve known before—and I am putting them together on the page to form something that will feel right because of the backgrounds I’m drawing upon.
It’s an exhilarating process for me, but also can lead to troubles. Which I’ll talk about in Part Two.