Many Famous Writers Hear their Characters’ Voices: Survey
Sun, April 11, 2021

Many Famous Writers Hear their Characters’ Voices: Survey


Most writers cannot articulate exactly where their ideas come from. When English author Neil Gaiman, for instance, was asked where he got his ideas in writing novels, he admits not knowing it himself nor what makes them come or whether the ideas will one day stop. Stephen King too said that while he can share about 50% of where he got the idea, the rest is “totally like getting an idea in a dream” and he can’t remember where they came from.

Melissa Burkley Ph.D., who is frequently sought after by film companies who need a psychological analysis of their movies and characters, suggests the reason why writers cannot exactly pinpoint where they draw their ideas from is that it comes from their unconscious mind. Perhaps they were also reading a book or watching the news and it fired up the engine to write. We all get bored, daydream, and at times find our mind wandering but the difference with writers is that they have trained themselves to listen to their unconscious mind instead of ignoring it.

How famous writers experienced their characters

In a survey conducted by John Foxwell from the Department of English Studies in Durham University and the team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in years 2014 and 2018, they found that many famous writers say it is their characters who actually create the dialogue or the plot and they just “do their own thing” in the novels.

When asked how they experienced their characters, more than 60% of the 181 professional writers said they heard their characters’ voices or that these characters acted of their own accord. Some writers even said that they can enter into dialogue with their characters and these fictional entities could sometimes argue or “talk back” with them although these writers were fairly clear that all of their experiences were imaginary.

On the other hand, other writers (33%) shared that their characters’ voices were separate from their inner speech. One participant said that his or her characters have an urgency and “otherness”, which he or she can sense rather than explain. Another said, “I find that whole thing of ‘my character just took over’ a bit cringy, to be honest.”

However, to the writers who said they can hear their characters’ voices, they admit being “surprised” by what their fictional characters did and said. Sometimes, these authors can even laugh at the jokes that their characters said to them. Since these writers did not always feel that they were conscious in deciding the plot of their work, Foxwell believes it brings the concept of control and agency. In social science, the agency is referred to as the capacity of people to act independently and make their free choices.

The professional writers who participated in the survey provided detailed descriptions of their experience and also reported on hallucination-proneness, inner speech, and imaginary companions. This is probably why some suggest that writers are somehow different or special as their imaginations are more “powerful” and “vivid.” Yet, the Durham University researchers show that there are also a significant minority of writers who do not experience their characters having agency. Thus, there’s a degree of variation in the said theories.



Professional writers and authors

In 2011, there were over 40.93 thousand writers and authors working in the US and it grew to 45.86 thousand in 2019. This is according to database company Statista. Several changes occurred for employees in the sector over the last few years. The survey, though, did not include self-employed workers. The majority of the professional US writers also said they pursue other writing-related activities on top of their book writing work to earn money.

Meanwhile, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, indicates that the median pay for writers and authors in the US is $63,200 per year or $30.39 per hour and their typical entry-level education is Bachelor’s degree. In the same year, JK Rowling topped the ranking of the world’s highest-earning authors with an income of $92 million. Rowling is best known for her literary series the Harry Potter. On her official website, Joanne Rowling said she grew up surrounded by books and she conceived the idea of Harry Potter while sitting on a delayed train to London King’s Cross.



Inner speech and agency of characters

Foxwell believes that inner speech - inner dialogue or monologue that most people have when they think verbally- may help explain why writers experience their characters. When people are strong visual thinkers, they think by seeing the pictures in their head, like watching a movie. Verbal thinkers, on the other hand, process information like talking to oneself. They think with words and their thoughts are like sentences they hear.

Some people are barely conscious of their inner speech but some are aware of it most of the time. This is why others can imagine the voices of other people. For example, they can think of how one will likely respond to the news they are about to give and it’s often intuitive or immediate when they know that person well, such as a family member or a friend.

The researchers added that most of us, even nonwriters, can have agentive or independent “characters” and we can hear these characters’ voices. The difference is that their identities are the same as that of the people that we know in the real world. “It’s like when you see a dress in a shop window and you hear your mum’s voice saying ‘it won’t wash [well]’ in your mind.” In the writer’s inner speech, they compare hearing their fictional characters to other people.

So, perhaps the question should not be how writers have these experiences of independent fictional characters but why the agency of characters is more noticeable in them.



Imaginings of real people vs. how characters develop over time

On the contrary, the researchers see a contrast that arises based on how fictional characters develop. During the initial stages, for instance, the writer consciously decides what the characters say and do but after a certain point of the writing process, the authors’ familiarity with the character offers them an intuitive or immediate sense of what the characters would say or do.

Nevertheless, the writers who reported that their fictional characters exhibit agency also often explicitly or implicitly affirmed that they knew their characters were imaginary, aside from non-fiction writers. It’s just that such awareness did not prevent them from experiencing the character’s agency from happening.

Character development is important in fiction writing. To others, it may sound both exciting and a bit cringy to write a content where characters can emerge and take over the story development but regardless of what kind of writers the authors are, their characters can make or break a novel.