We hear it all the time. Listen to you characters. Let them tell your story for you. But what does that really mean?
Nancy Hansen: When I get deep enough into a writing project that I can hear the character voices, feel what that individual's reactions would be, and my mind can walk around in their world, that's when the character is telling at least part of the story. I'm still in the driver's seat, because I'm making the decisions, but I'm not afraid to take directions from that unconscious part of my mind that knows better where this thing has to go. I think the idea of letting the character tell her/his own story is just kind of an awkward way of saying, let yourself dig deep and pretend to be someone else for a while. Writers are about the only people in this world who can follow the promptings of the voices in their heads without getting locked up.
Paul Bishop: Saying the characters tell the story is simply a writer's creative flare in expressing the more mundane statement that your subconscious wanting to take the story in another direction...When I'm struggling with a story, it's usually my subconscious (labeled 'my characteristics') letting me know I'm not being true to the characters I've created and I need to back up and find the right direction for the story...
Rebekah McAuliffe: You may feel like the story is heading in one direction, but suddenly, the "wild girls will take you," as my high school English teacher once put it. It's just this feeling in your gut that leads you to where the story is supposed to go.
Bill Craig: I put my characters into a situation, and then they kind of take over, reacting and acting on the situation. I have a rough idea of where I want to go, but the journey to get there is largely through the characters and how they deal with not only the initial situation but with the ripples that their actions create and then they have to deal with those and whatever other rocks I drop into the creative pond. I do my best to make my characters as real as possible and have them react in a real and human fashion. Sometimes they stumble and fall, other times they rise and overcome. Not all my endings are happy ones, just like real life. A good example is in Marlow: Mango Run, sure Marlow solves the case, but another character that he is emotionally attached too takes her own life, leaving him devastated when he learns of it. When I had started that particular book, I had no idea that event was going to happen, but her mental and emotional decline began about the middle of the book and just picked up momentum and it turned into a major event that had repercussions not only for Marlow but for several other characters as well. It was totally a character driven moment, but it became a crucial event in that book and for the next two that followed it.
Charles Hearn: I always felt that it means you need to get into each character's head and try to see how they would perceive and handle the situations you've presented them with.
However, if your characters are actually talking to you, then you need to up your meds.
Aaron Smith: A writer's mind never stops working. I write all the time even if my fingers aren't tapping on the keyboard at that moment. We're considering our ideas 24/7, often when we're not even consciously thinking about it. Of course our characters don't write themselves. We, as writers, do all the work, but we're not always intentionally producing the details of a story. Important plot points or bits of dialogue come to us in dreams or seemingly out of nowhere, not just when we're intentionally considering what's going to happen next. They don't write themselves, but it sometimes seems they do.
Rose Streif: I look at it like this: even though my characters are created by me, filtered through me, and on a level even *are* me, I think of them as actual separate people living in a world, persons who are completely different. And so they become their own people, and behave less like toys that are being knocked together, or puppets mouthing my personal beliefs. They take on a life of their own, even though it's illusory. And I let that illusion carry me forward to the end of the tale.
Robert Krog: Because I'm not crazy, like some fiction writers I know, I don't believe that my characters take over and write the book, or have conversations with me, argue with me, or what have you. That being said, I do write them as consistent individuals basing their actions upon their characteristics. I don't find any conflict between a story being plot driven or character driven. If I start out with a specific plot in mind, I write characters who make that plot come true. If I should come to a point at which I find that I have made a character inconsistent, it is no problem to rework the character or throw him out and replace him with one better suited to make the plot work. There have been occasions in which I have found that I liked what the character did to the plot more than I liked the original plot, and that is fine too. I don't marry plots, either. If I start out with a specific character in mind for whom I have to find a story, I throw that character into an interesting situation and extrapolate. Listening to a character, I think, is writing the character with a consistent personality and not having that character, for the sake of the plot, perform actions inconsistent with that personality. Of course, sometimes, the character has to listen to the author and get rewritten to stay consistent. None of these options is a biggie. I write to tell a good story, sometimes one option is better than the other(s). That is all. It is very important to note that one is unlikely to find a story to be good unless it contains good characters, people we might like to meet in real life, or admire, fear, love, love to hate, what have you. Good characters are true to life, exhibiting consistent and believable personalities, making decisions that people we know of the same types might make, growing in ways that are believable as well. They don't suddenly, for the sake of filling a plot hole, develop powers, personality traits, knowledge, that the reader would find improbable. In that regard, I "listen to my characters" and write them in such a way that they stay as real as possible, sometimes that involves writing them out, sometimes it involves changing the plot, and sometimes it involves finding a plot in which to place them.