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Sea of Voices, or, A Question of Character

At the Cascade Writers Conference in Seattle, over the weekend of July17-20 2014,I gave an hour-long talk entitled “Sea of Voices”. This is not, exactly, a transcript. More of a “retelling”. But this is the gist of what I had to say at the conference, repackaged for a wider audience.


“How many people are in this room?” I asked the audience at my talk, and I saw them start turning around to start counting heads. “No,” I interrupted, “not how many warm bodies. How many people. Let me introduce you to the ones that are currently up here at the front of the room, with me.

And then I spoke, in character, as character, as four of the characters from my own stories. Here’s what I said – here’s what the characters said through me, using my body, my voice:


Coyote (from the Worldweavers series)

She called me Corey, in the books. She had to call me something. But you might know me better as Coyote… or perhaps as someone else altogether. You might never know when I am near you. I have many faces.

I am a spirit; I am a god; I am an avatar. I am chaos.

I am a rock in a stream; I do not block the water flow but I act as a dam and I make the water find a way around me if it wants to move forward in its bed. I am a lesson to be learned.

I am neither good nor bad, but I am balance.

I do not plan, because the future comes anyway, but I live in this moment and in it alone and I do what must be done to help the world – and my people – move forward. I am always early, and I am always late, and I am the world’s most trusting fool as well as its most cunning Trickster. I am neither light nor darkness, I am shadow, and without me neither light nor dark exist.


Rohese Mazarin (from a work as yet unwritten)

When I first came out of the cloud to speak to this one I introduced myself, I gave my name and my city, I gave my lineage, my history, my past, my credentials for becoming the narrator or at the very least a very important part of A Story. I gave far more than would ever be used – but how else could I be real?

I gave the story of the little girl who knew that in her world she would be without power unless it was the power of pillow talk with a man who could make the things she thought and dreamed of come to pass in her name. The little girl who wanted the world anyway.

The little girl who sat on the rim of the fountain in her father’s marble-paved courtyard and saw the reflection of the moon in the still water… and reached out to take it in the full knowledge that it could not fail to be hers… and watched its image shiver and shred into ripples as her touch disturbed the water.

The little girl who knew even then that the lesson was not that she could not have the moon. The lesson was that the moon was an illusion.


Grayson (Gray) Garvin (from “Shifter”, book 3 in the Were Chronicles, Coming Soon!)

I played coy, see. I wandered into the story, late, and stood playing with my hair – I tend to chew on the ends of it, it’s a bad habit I picked up in foster care when I was little – and I wouldn’t give her my name. And so we played Rumpelstiltskin, she and I, and she would ask, are you Jenny? Are you Anna? Are you Vivian? Are you Maggie? And I would shake my head and smile coyly and drop my eyelashes over my eyes and watch her squirm.

Until finally she gave up and posted a poll on her blog asking her readers what my name was – and hey, I couldn’t have that, I couldn’t have her crowdsourcing my name – and so I crept up to her one night as she was just about to fall asleep and wasn’t even thinking about me and I whispered into her ear, “Grayson. My name is Grayson Garvin, But you will probably know me better as Gray.”

She sighed, and slept. But now she knows me. And now we wait for my story to begin. I haven’t told her all of it yet. I am not the kind of girl who gives it all up just like that. I will make her work for it, for every word I say, for every dream I have, for every thing I love or despise – I will make her find out. It’s MUCH more fun that way.


Xaforn (from “Secrets of Jin Shei”)

I lived my life by the code of honor.

When I was just a little girl I brought down three bullies, boys bigger than me, because they were torturing this innocent kitten – not just because the kitten was innocent and helpless, although there was always that, but because the kitten belonged to us, to the Guard, and we had a duty to it. To protect it, to save it, to keep it safe and out of the clutches of these impious hands. So I just did it, what needed to be done, without thinking about it – it was instinct, it was something inside me, it was something I was born with and could not be myself without.

They asked me why I did it and I told them – and it was simple – it was OUR cat. And we had a duty to it.

It was only years later that I understood the true lesson of the kitten, that day in my childhood now long gone – on the night I found myself having to choose between the love and duty that I had always given to the Guard who had been my family since the moment I had been left on the doorstep of their barracks in a basket when I was only days old, and my duty to the sense of honor which was the core of myself… and I faced down the Guard because honor called me to do it, in defense of my friend, of the sister of my soul, of someone who was another part of myself, because it was the right thing to do, because it was the only thing to do… because she was MY cat. She was where my love and my duty lay, in the end, even if it cost me my life.


I could see the dawning of understanding in the audience as the characters stepped on the stage and took the light and the cue and said their piece. I could see eyes beginning to sparkle. And when I asked, after my last character was done, “How many people do you think are in this room now?” – I could see the original number, the original head count, becoming revised upwards. Into dozens. Maybe approaching hundreds.

We all carry it within us, all the writers, we all swim in this sea of voices which whisper into our ears as we work, as we eat, as we sleep, as we dream. We contain multitudes, That person sitting in the back of the bus having a passionate conversation with thin air? He’s probably a writer arguing with a recalcitrant character who will not do what is needful because they know better (the worst thing is that they usually DO…)

One of the things that these conference attendees came here to find out is how to create their characters – how to find them, how to meet them, how to control them – and all I could tell them was that I did not know, because in my case my characters came out of the ether fully formed and proceeded to find/meet/control ME. I – and I think a very high number of other writers – suffer from a case of mild possession, with the character demanding that I sit down and take dictation, that I tell a story that needs to be told and for which I am the only voice. I am not so much a God of this universe as I am its amanuensis.

Good characters, true characters, are self-aware to a degree that would astonish most people if they stopped to think about it – and that goes for the protagonist of any story and the chief villain thereof as much as it applies to the third spear carrier from the left who may or may not have a speaking part. Even when it feels the most like you – the author – are making all the decisions… if you are listening hard enough, it’s the sea of voices which is steering your craft, telling you which way to go in the currents of story.

They may begin nebulous, like any newborn, but those characters who are worth their salt quickly get past that stage into the classic teenage “don’t tell me what to do!” mindset and then they find themselves walking a largely self-chosen path with the writer only there as support, as a source of information, as a confessional, as a curious companion.

The difference is that, to any story that is being told, the author is necessary; the characters are essential. It’s their story. All YOU are doing is telling it.

The most unforgettable characters who can grace any story are not the ones whom you are trying to change – it’s the ones who are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) changing YOU while you are in their company. Because those characters are going to change everyone, by the time they’re done. They’re the ones the readers will remember long after they close the book in which the characters appears, long after the details of the individual stories are forgotten. These are the characters who step out of their books and live as eternal companions to the people into whose minds and hearts they have crept and taken residence there; the characters who are so alive, so real, that those who have made their acquaintance will be able to tell you with absolute certainty how the characters would act in any given situation which is not remotely within the realm of their original tale. They have breath, a beating heart, a real soul – they may not always have salvation but if they are good enough they will always have an afterlife.

A character like this is a gift, more than any author can hope for when they dip their metaphorical pen into the inkwell and start a tale. Listen for their whispers, when they drift near you in the sea of voices. They will frustrate you, they will anger you and annoy you, they will make you weep, they will make you laugh, they will fold their dreams into your hand and close your fingers around them and tell you to treat those dreams with care. And it is a covenant. This is a promise that you must make them, that you will do right by them, as best you know how. THEY will show you the way.

The best way to find your characters… is to listen. The sea of voices is out there. Its message is waiting for you to find it… when you are ready to hear.

Somewhere in those voices there is one that is speaking to you right now. Meet them halfway. And then watch the magic happen.

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