If Julie’s writing pet peeve is the question “Is this story true…?” then mine is the claim that writers’ characters talk to them. Now, now. I hear your grumbling, but hear me out. I realize this is sacrilege. Everyone knows that for good writers, the really creative writers, characters come sauntering into their heads, fully formed and babbling away, a gift from the muses.
But remember, I don’t really buy that stuff about the muses, so I don’t buy this either.
I call this fully-formed muse gift the Sentient Character, and mention of it almost always makes me cringe.
How could something so harmless cause such a dire reaction? Am I just jealous that my characters don’t talk to me and tell me what’s going to happen next? I mean, that’s always possible (grumble grumble grumble), but much more likely is that this particular myth is dangerous for writers, and here’s why.
Two dangers of the sentient character
There are two (at least two!) dangers of the Sentient Character, and no, one of them is not the threat of mental instability from having fictional characters talk to you on the reg.
The idea that writers sit around waiting for characters to talk to them 1) undermines the hard work that writers put into their craft, and 2) keeps Not Yet Writers from becoming Fully Realized Writers. Here’s how.
First, the Sentient Character creates the fantasy that writing is easy, that it’s a passive process. For me, hard work is a defining characteristic of the writer. But it’s also one that is easily overlooked or misrepresented by many of our writing myths. And, most importantly (or perhaps most horrifically) it’s the public’s misunderstanding about writing as hard work that creates low cultural value for writing and writers. If writing is easy, passive, it’s not important.
Pft. Stupid myths.
The Sentient Character is partly to blame here. When we tell folks that ole’ SC just waltzed in, set up shop, and told us what to write and how to write, that every line of dialogue just dropped from her mouth to our pens, we’re telling them it was easy. We declare ourselves but the humble receptacles for the creative powers that be, for the creative powers that are the ones really doing the work.
The SC not only lies about writing being easy, it also excludes New Writers, telling them that if their characters don’t come charging fully-formed into their imaginations, they’re not Real Writers. I’m just gonna say it. The SC is kind of snobby, creating an image of writing that is exclusive and elitist. And what I want folks with stories who don’t consider themselves writers yet to know is that this is not how character development really works.
Explaining the Sentient Character via The Wizard of Oz
Most of us know that when Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow, the cowardly lion, and Toto first visit the Wizard, they encounter an unbelievable vision. In the book, each character sees a different but magnificent image, and in the Judy Garland film, all characters face a giant flaming head, thundering orders at them. Later, when they return with the dead Wicked Witch’s broom, they discover a man hiding behind a curtain, creating the fabulous and terrifying images that they mistook for the real wizard. They find out that this magnificent wizard is a fiction created by a humbug.
What’s this got to do with ANYTHING?
I think that, when writers talk about their sentient characters, they’re actually saying something else. And The Wizard of Oz can help us understand what that something else is.
Let’s pull back the curtain to the side of the sentient character and reveal the humbug pulling the strings behind the scenes. (See what I did there?)
The incredible images that Dorothy and her companions see when they first talk to the Wizard is the Sentient Character, all powerful and a bit of a jerk. The humble and hard working master of illusion, the humbug behind the magic, is our writer.
What I’m trying to say here is that the Sentient Character is an illusion created by the hard-working writer behind the scenes.
A character can seem sentient when the writer has done enough work developing characters that their dialogue and reactions come naturally. This means the writer has spent drafts getting to know the character, pages writing out character profiles, commutes to and from work asking themselves questions about the character. It takes a lot of time and work to develop a character so that they seem like they can walk and talk on their own.
But here’s the important thing to remember:
The only reason your characters seem so real, the only reason they seem to talk to you, the only reason they seem sentient, is because you put in the work to make them that way.
So next time, instead of giving credit to some muse, take credit for yourself. You did the work to give the character life, so own up to it! Writing is hard work. We know it, so let’s make sure our descriptions of what we do reflect that reality and not a myth. Doing so not only increases our consciousness of what type of work we have to do get the job done successfully–fully develop our characters through any means available–but also allows others who want to be writers to see how they, too, can get the job done.
How do you feel about the Sentient Character? What work do you do to fully develop your characters? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!