Saturday, September 25, 2010

Special Guest Saturday: Joseph Bentz

Voices in Your Head: When Characters Won’t Leave You Alone
by Joseph Bentz

Do characters take on a life of their own beyond the page? As a writer, do you find yourself taking on their worries, their pain, their triumphs? Recently a friend who is writing her first novel emailed me to say that she had been feeling sad at the end of her writing time because she’s writing a portion of the novel in which her characters are sad. Was that normal, she wondered?

My response is yes, it is not only normal, but it was probably a sign that her story is working. If her characters were so flat that she never thought about them or identified with them at any time other than when she was writing, I would be far more worried. One of the joys of writing fiction is the creation of an alternate reality filled with people and places and events that become almost as real to us as the everyday reality in which we live.

At the university where I teach, some of my colleagues invite me to speak to their classes when they teach my novel, A Son Comes Home. The students talk to me about the people in the story as if they’re real. We probe their motives and their actions. Some students demand to know what happens to the characters after the novel ends, as if the characters are real people whose history I must have kept track of. When I say that I have no idea what happens to any of these people beyond the pages of the novel, some students look at me skeptically, as if I’m deliberately concealing information from them.

As a literature teacher, I also experience this same sense of “reality” of my favorite novels that I teach year after year. Huckleberrry Finn is not a real person? To me he is. Atticus Finish is made up? Hard to believe. Hamlet is not a flesh-and-blood person? He is only words that Shakespeare wrote on the page? You’ve got to be kidding.

I have worlds of people and dramatic moments swirling in my brain, some created by writers hundreds of years ago who could scarcely have imagined me experiencing their vision here in the twenty-first century. Now, as a novelist, I have the opportunity to create a few people and dramas of my own, and those visions now float around in the heads of readers I’ve never met. What a joy! That thought alone makes all the hassles and rejections and insecurities involved in writing fiction worth every minute.

I told my friend to be grateful that her characters keep invading her mind even when she’s not writing about them. She should do nothing to squelch them. Let them grieve and worry and conspire all they want to. That’s where their depth comes from. The more they show up when they’re not supposed to, the better she’ll get to know them. She may need to keep pads of paper around the house to record these characters’ ideas and moods and words. Before long, they’ll begin to seem just as real as her husband or her children. She won’t be making them up. She’ll be listening to what they have to say. She’ll look forward to their next surprise. They’ll become increasingly complex and multi-dimensional, just like the real people in her life. She’ll want to spend more and more time with them. Even better, her readers will want to spend time with them too.

Joseph Bentz is the author of four novels and three non-fiction Christian living books. His most recent book is God in Pursuit: The Tipping Points from Doubt to Faith (Beacon Hill Press, 2010). Among his novels are A Son Comes Home (Randall House, 2007), contemporary novels published by Bethany House, and a fantasy novel, Song of Fire, published by Thomas Nelson. Bentz is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, where he teaches courses in American literature and writing. More information about his books and speaking is available at his website,


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh, this was an excellent post for me today! I've been mulling over some characters I have in mind for my next book project and wondered why I was having a hard time keeping them in my thoughts throughout the day. I realized I don't really know them yet, so today, I sat down and have been working up some character sketches. Like your friend, I want to really know them and have them show up to tell me things. That is so exciting!

Thanks for sharing today!

Casey said...

Thanks so much for being on the Alley Joseph! We appreciate you so very much!