Discovery Writing and the Writing of Characters

I’m doing a PhD on discovery writing. I’ve interviewed students and professional fiction writers, and based the interviews on their essay writing and fiction writing. I’ve interviewed 7 people about their fiction writing.

All of my 7 writers have, in one way or another, said that writing characters was a strange experience. 5 of those 7 writers have said that their characters have a life or voices of their own:

The freedom of suddenly hearing voices….  I’d started out of simply voices of characters squabbling to get in, on the page, who have no loyalty to you or anything else, was simply too pleasant as a… and usually if they’re insistent enough to stop you doing something they’re worth… the deal you do with yourself is say OK so I’ll write it in my head, I’ll say I’ll write this up in a rough form but I’m not going to work on it. (Seb – historical novelist and poet)

I haven’t done much writing, and what’s happened then is I can almost hear the characters talking, saying ‘come and write about us’, you know, ‘we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that’.  It’s a strange thing to say to someone because people give you a weird look if you say something like that, but it’s absolutely true.  They’re almost nagging. (Dan – professional crime writer)

I tend to know the characters before I go in, and I know instinctively what they look like, and instinctively how they sound, where they’re from…. They present their own plots sometimes – they kind of speak for themselves.  I find that, like, when I’m writing, I’ll have a plan… whatever… my fingers seem to want to do something totally different…. You get to know your own characters, and as you get to know them, things change, stories change. (Emma – Lit student, dancer, and musician)

Uhm, it’s like I… this sounds really weird, but it’s like the character’s voice, just kind of listening to the character’s voice.  Like, uhm, a monologue in my head, and then writing it down again… writing it down. (Sophie – Lit student, writing for a creative writing module)

No, it wasn’t ‘I wanted Richard to develop’.  It was ‘I want him to change his mind’.  And then, as the story went on, he just sort of – this is going to sound really terrible: he wanted to develop, so I let him.  I know that sounds really really silly, but it’s the way it felt.  It’s almost as though the story took on a life of its own, in a way. (Cate – Lit student, writing a screenplay)

So then I’ll rush to my notebook – which can be awkward if I’m in the bath.  But honestly, I do.  It’s a good thinking time.  And then I would get the actual lines as if I’d heard them.  Without sounding mad or flunky or ridiculous, you know, they seem to just flow out, and then you catch them and put them down in your notebook.  But never could I get it by thinking ‘I know, ooh I better plan in advance, what are they going to say here?!’  That would be death.  In fact, dialogue is the thing, most of all, that you have to wait for.  You have to just wait for it to pop into your head.  Very hard to force it.  It’s an odd thing to be writing all of this dialogue. (Jane – professional short story writer and novelist)

What seems common to many of these accounts is that characters, dialogue, and voices are things that writers find very difficult to explain in, dare I say it, rational terms. By contrast, writers can explain plot very easily and rationally, and will happily relate plot to planning. One of the questions I asked my writers was how much, if at all, they planned their writing. Some writers launched into an answer, and would tend to tell me about the bits that came to them before writing. As I’ve noted previously on my blog, these bits tended to be nuggets, such as a scene they’d thought up, or a rough idea for a story. And they’d quite often explain their story and writing in plot terms, and maybe because this was just a very easy thing to talk about and explain. When I prompted them to talk about characters, there were notably longer pauses, more uhms and ahs, and some slight embarrassment: ‘it’s a strange thing to say…’, ‘this sounds really weird…’, ‘this is going to sound really terrible…’, ‘[w]ithout sounding mad or flunky or ridiculous, you know…’

I think if you ask someone anything to do with planning, there’s a tendency that they’ll explain something in terms that can be visualized or abstracted in some way. They’ll describe a plot summary or an outline for a story. By comparison, ‘voices in my head’ or ‘my characters have a life of their own’ are not so rational.  As ways to describe something, they might be true, experienced, or a way in which to write characters. But as explanations they wouldn’t stand up as evidence in a court of law.

Planning tends to carry with it Classical connotations. People who talk about planning will tend to use logical and rational terms – people such as architects, scientists, teachers. There will often be a purpose to planning, e.g. to make sure the whole building works, to create an overall project, to achieve high marks etc. Discovery, in writing especially, tends to carry more Romantic and passive associations. Writers will ‘listen’ to their characters, they will ‘wait’ for a voice, they will ‘let’ a character act, they will ‘hear’ a voice. Much more passive than active! Planning, by contrast, seems a much more proactive discourse. It’s about what the writer does.

Existing theory has tended to describe writers in terms of orientations. Writers who plan heavily, for example, might be termed ‘planners’, and writers who tend to create their text while writing it might be termed ‘discoverers’.  I think this is a useful shorthand, or heuristic to think think about writing, but also only touches the surface. My writers have tended to talk about plots in a planny way and to talk about characters and dialogue in a more discoverery kind of a way. This leads me to think that the terms planner and discoverer are not just about people’s orientations as writers, but are also about which aspects of their writing we are talking about. That is, someone might be described as a planner overall, and yet they might still discover characters via writing. They might plan a plot, and yet discover characters.

Dan, the crime writer, is an interesting case in point here. I would happily describe Dan as a planner by orientation. He is an advocate of planning, and felt that planning was a very important aspect of his crime writing. And yet when thinking and writing about characters, he also felt that they could have a life of their own and that they could do unexpected things:

I think if you’re writing in the crime genre, you need a plan.  It’s not like a stream of consciousness where you can just let it flow, because people know what they’re getting there and they’ll accept that.  In a crime book… it’s a popular genre, I think probably because it’s a simple idea.  People know that they’re going to get a battle between good and bad.  They know there’s going to be a bit of violence and there’s going to be a bit of death.  And at the end they know they’re going to reach some form of resolution.  So in order for that to happen adequately, for people to come out at the end feeling satisfied and not as though they’ve been cheated and that they didn’t really know what had happened and why, I think you need a good plan so you can know where your plot’s going.  And you know where it starts, how it develops, and then where it ends, whether it’s that classic whodunit moment or a little bit more subtle, or what really happened.  So I think when you’re writing in the crime genre you do need a fairly sharp plan.  And that’s not to say you don’t divert from it occasionally, because things will occur to you as you go through, or characters will do things that surprise you, or you feel that should be the way it’s going.  But really the skeleton of it is that whodunit, that ‘what’s happening?’….

Dan is a very interesting case in relation to planning. The previous theory on planning and discovery had lead me to expect people to have basic orientations in terms of being planners or discoverers. Dan thinks up a story and then plans it. He might spend 3 months thinking up a story and then creating an outline. He feels he needs an outline in place before writing, so that he can lay ‘hooks’ and stuff along the way. He kind of has to know where his story ends, and what its key events are, before writing, so that he can then lay hooks and foreshadow, and do other such things that anticipate what is to follow. His planning, thus, seems very plot related. Dan advocates planning, and he plans his plot heavily. So he would seem to be a planner.

And yet when writing characters, he seems Romantic:

Characters can take you by surprise, and do things.  The one of my lot who always takes me by surprise, more than anyone else, is Adam.  He will sometimes do things that I don’t expect.  Because he was set up originally… he was kind of based on a guy I sort of knew, and he’s a sort of upright committed, a gentleman detective – powerful belief in the law and justice.  But so powerful that one day he was put under so much stress by someone that he thumped them, and I didn’t expect him to do that.  I never planned that to happen, but I just thought that was what Adam would do – in the end he would actually thump them, and he did.  Wow, I didn’t expect that.  And I went back and I thought ‘no, that’s absolutely right.  That’s Adam, that’s what he would do.’  So I didn’t plan it.  It was something in me took it to happen, and I thought that was right, let it go!  So yeah, you can let them go……………

There is still the more classical sense of control underneath (‘… you can let them go…’), but his discourse here is predominantly Romantic. It’s about a lack of control: ‘takes me by surprise’, ‘he thumped them’, ‘I just thought that’s what Adam would do‘, ‘I didn’t expect that’, ‘something in me took it to happen’, ‘you can let them go’.  Just like his and the other writers’ sense of the characters having a life of their own, there is a lack of agency here, coupled with a lack of control and volition. It’s more about letting stuff happen than forcing it to happen.

From reading previous theory, I had assumed that Romantic and Classical referred to people’s general orientations, and that these groups indicated quite solid identities or persuasions, e.g. you are a planner, or you are a discoverer. But I’m now seeing this theory in more of a flexible light, and thinking that Romantic and Classical are ways of thinking, that people use quite flexibly. These ways of thinking relate to certain aspects (such as plot and characters), and are also ways of thinking embedded within certain discourses – a language or way of speaking that belongs to a certain way of thinking.

Now that my PhD project is progressing, I’m seeing that people can have certain orientations, certain self perceptions, talk about aspects of their writing in different ways, and also use a language or discourse that expresses a certain way of thinking. I’ll list these 4 things just so we can reference them more easily:

  1. Orientations (generally tending towards certain processes or strategies)
  2. Self perception, or idealized perception (how you see yourself, and how you like to see yourself)
  3. Aspect of writing (plot or characters)
  4. Discourse (language used, and how this way of speaking conceptualises a way of thinking)

What is very interesting is when these 4 things either work in harmony or clash with one another.  For example, if you see yourself as being a planner, talk in ways that advocate planning, and yet you then discover other aspects, this could create an awkward dissonance overall.

I’ll leave it there for now……………

A good link here is a 20 minute bit of audio from a group of fiction writers. They discuss planning and discovery in relation to plot and characters. Their experiences seems very similar to my findings.

I’ll come back to this asap, because I think this needs explaining more. What is it about characters and dialogue that makes their writing so much different to a story or plot writing processes?


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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2 Responses to Discovery Writing and the Writing of Characters

  1. anthophore says:

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