Voices in Your Head(s)

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Voices in Your Head(s)

Post by ryanznock » October 6th, 2010, 8:31 pm

I feel the best inspiration comes from mixing multiple streams of thought together. For instance, I’m reading through the latest novel of my favorite author (Anathem by Neal Stephenson), while simultaneously working through the DVDs of The Wire. I’m loving both, but something struck me when I compared the two.

The Wire, being a TV show, is the product of dozens of writers. Moreover, each character is portrayed by a different actor, who brings a whole unique lifetime to the role. By contrast, a novel, even one by an author who’s sorta nuts like Stephenson, is the work of a single writer, collaborations, crit groups, and editors being a slight exception.

As I worm through both narratives, I can’t help but notice a broader array of characters in the TV show than in the novel. Indeed, I’ve been reading Stephenson for years, and he has a few standard tropes among his characters. They tend either to erudite geniuses or cut-throat badasses. The ideas behind his books still challenge my mind, but I haven’t been surprised by a character for a long while.

I wonder if it’s just that we each can only pull so many characters out of our heads, and so a TV series, with more heads involved, can present a broader rogue’s gallery.

My road to writing detoured through tabletop roleplaying games – Dungeons & Dragons being the iconic example. In those games, each player has his or her own character, and then one ‘game master’ controls the world. The setting and plot are basically his character. I describe it to layfolk as something like group storytelling.

I’ve gotten more than a few ideas from being a game master. I came up with the world and antagonists, so they tend to fall into familiar patterns, but the protagonists are as varied as my friends. I know I couldn’t have on my own come up with a hedonist psychic ship’s navigator, a suicidal computer programmer named Kroger Publix, or a kung fu kid who wants to grow up to be a dictator because his stepmom wouldn’t buy him pants. Nor, for that matter, could I have come up with a gay robber who steals from drug dealers, a quiet detective who can intimidate you with a glare while he carves doll-sized furniture, or a samurai/hacker/pizza delivery guy with a penchant for Sumerian mythology.

(Word of advice. Only steal characters from gamer friends if they aren’t writers themselves. We writers are a possessive lot.)

I figure I've got a couple of voices in my head who deserve people's reading time, and who would be scintillating conversationalists at parties, but I know things get more interesting when I look to the creativity of my friends to expand my character repertoire. The same applies for settings, for emotion, for what sorts of stories you can make resonant. Because they say write what you know, tell tales informed by your own life experiences. And me, my life is so much more interesting because I have my friends around. They get me into the sorts of trouble that makes great stories.

So, what different sources of ideas do you thread together to get inspiration? How do you keep your characters from getting stale?

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Re: Voices in Your Head(s)

Post by MsBrouhaha » October 7th, 2010, 6:23 am

That's a really thoughtful post, I was nodding my head as I was reading it. It must be a tricky balance for successful writers - obviously they want to keep repeating the types of characters they have had success with, but at the same time there's the risk of going stale. I think your question about whether we all have a finite number of characters in our head is a fascinating one - I don't have the answer though!

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