Listening to Your Characters by @mimicross and #GIVEAWAY

“She’s gonna listen to her heart
It’s gonna tell her what to do.”

— Tom Petty

And it’s going to tell you, the writer, what to do. Listening to your main character’s heart—is going to tell you what to write.

But how do you listen to a fictional heart?

CrossM_bookcoverPartway through writing Shining Sea I realized that the voice of my main character, 17-year-old budding singer-songwriter Arion Rush was becoming harder to hear. Her heartbeat was growing faint. Soon I began to understand, it was because I didn’t know her heart.

Whenever there was a ‘musical moment’ in the story, Arion explored her feelings through songwriting, and her lyrics definitely showed what was in her heart. But everywhere else in the novel, her feelings, her wants, her needs—were hidden.

I decided I should speak to her.

But when I tried to interview Arion the first time, I didn’t get very far.

EXCERPT, INTERVIEW 1:

Me: Hey Arion, how are you? And, where are you?

Arion: I’m in my room at the lighthouse.

Me: Cool. So . . . you probably know, I’m having a little trouble figuring out what’s up with you.

Arion: Yeah, I know. I also know you want me to be nicer than I really am.

Me: Okaaay . . . How about I ask you a few questions?

Arion: Sure. Doesn’t mean I’ll answer.

Me: That’s . . . fine. Let’s start with basics. What’s your favorite color?

Arion: Red. That’s the only thing you got right about me.

Me: Huh. Well . . . that’s something. How do you like Maine?

Arion: I love Maine. I feel like, I belong in the woods. There’s a certain kind of wildness here. It makes me—I can’t believe you just stopped to fix a typo, are you even listening?

Was I even listening?

Most of us take listening for granted. We believe we’re good listeners, and that everyone knows how to listen. But many people aren’t accustomed to listening on a deep level, and that’s very often where characters speak to us.

In preparation for a second interview, I practiced specific meditation exercises that encouraged me to listen to my body, and focus awareness on my breath and emotional flow.

The next time I interviewed Arion, I was much more prepared to listen.

I heard about Arion’s relationship with her mother, and learned it was a source of pain. I found out Arion experienced anxiety due to her sister’s accident, but also that her sister had treated Arion badly in the past. As a result, Arion had closed her heart off to others, including me. She worked on her songs alone, and at the start of Shining Sea, she hadn’t sung for many people.

But by the end of the book, Arion is well on her way to becoming a performer, and more. I’m convinced her transformation occurred not only because I started listening on a deeper level, but because I’d spent some time with my own heart.

EXCERPT, INTERVIEW 2:

Me: I’d like to talk a little more about your mom.

Arion: Look at her canvases.

Me: Um . . .

Arion: Look at the brush strokes. The colors. See all that freedom? All that wild self? See her letting go of control, of normal? She’s not worried about what people think—I’m tired of worrying about what people think. It wears on me. When I’m in the woods, or when I feel the salt air on my skin—

Me: Slow down. Wears on you? Isn’t that kind of an adult thing?

Arion: I’ve been taking care of myself for a while, in case you haven’t noticed. Dad’s got his boats, Mom’s got her art, and Lilah—even before the accident, Lilah was mom’s favorite. She sees Lilah’s wildness, that’s part of it. She thinks it’s like her own. She doesn’t get my wildness. Hey, how about a cup of coffee?

Me: ???

Arion: I need caffeine. Arion RUSH—hello?

Me: I’m here.

Arion: Are you?

Me: Yes, I’m listening.

Arion: I’m becoming an artist.

Me: (Stunned) I’m impressed you know that.

Arion: It hurts.

Me: (Floored) Why?

Arion: I’m different.

Me: Every adolescent feels that way. Every person feels that way.

Arion: Different, like—there’s something wrong with them?

Me: Well there is something wrong with you. You’re not afraid of Bo, and he’s a Siren.

Arion: That makes him wild. I am too—inside. I’m wild, in my heart. Can you write that?

Mimi Cross is an author, singer, and songwriter. Grammy award–winning artist Rosanne Cash has described Cross’s writing and singing as “Fusing delicacy and power, heart and gut. Inspiring, evocative, and refreshing.” Cross received a bachelor of music from Ithaca College and an MA from New York University and is the creator of Body of Writing, a practice combining yoga and writing that boosts creativity. Her novels, Before Goodbye, and Shining Sea are published by Skyscape. She resides with her young son in New Jersey. Visit her online at mimicross.com

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Mimi’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area—only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Mimi is kindly giving away a copy of Shining Sea, the paperback or MP3 audiobook version. Winner’s choice! For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

150 comments on “Listening to Your Characters by @mimicross and #GIVEAWAY

  1. Thanks for your insights on how to really hear your character’s voice.

    Like

  2. Mindy says:

    I loved this. I will incorporate interviewing and listening to my characters. Thanks you

    Like

  3. Mary Worley says:

    Listening closely is indeed rare and beautiful. Thanks for reminding us that while we might not like what we hear, we will be rewarded for listening.

    Like

  4. Loved this post! I have listened to characters who completely took over the story I was writing. it was a bit unnerving, but definitely always exciting!

    Like

  5. Terrific tips and examples, Mimi-thank you. Listening is a great tool and I’ve got to get into that groove!

    Like

  6. dbyatt says:

    Fascinating conversation with your character.

    Like

  7. Judy says:

    Great example on how to go deeper with a character. Thank you!

    Like

  8. Linda Crowley says:

    This sounds like a real challenge. I’ve never tried interviewing anyone, much less one of my characters. I can definitely see how it would help, however. And yes, I’ll probably stop and fix a typo during it – unless I write it out by hand, then I rarely stop to correct.

    Like

  9. jodimckay says:

    I’ve interviewed my characters, but you make a good point regarding not knowing how to listen. I think there may be so much more to my characters if I listen at a different level. Thanks for that advice, Mimi!

    Like

  10. I love your conversation with the character. I will have to try it.

    Like

  11. Good advice! I think I need to have a conversation with a character or two and “really” listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for a great post. Asking good questions and “active listening” are two different skill sets. Thanks for encouraging us to do both.

    Like

  13. hmmmmm says:

    Thanks Mimi. Another reason to add to the list of why I should add mindfulness practices to my life. Sigh.
    In the meantime I find writing RIGHT when I wake up to be a passable substitute (I think).

    Like

  14. JEN says:

    I think I’m not listening… Going to prepare before I go into that next interview with my character. 🙂

    Like

  15. yangmommy says:

    Wow, wow, wow, I really LOVED that interview technique. The entire blog spoke to me because I too try and get to know my characters at the onset, but often I’m also listening for when the laundry’s done, or my kiddo’s voice, or the neighbor’s dogs, and yes, I’m always editing as I go, instead of just listening. I feel a zen moment approaching.

    Dang…there goes the laundry buzzer…I’m not kidding!! ;0!!

    Like

  16. Michelle Leonard says:

    Ah-ha! Maybe I didn’t get all the info I needed in my first MC interview. I just assumed she’d reveal all. But teen/tween girls are so secretive…Thanks for a great post Mimi, and thanks for being part of KLSS!

    Like

  17. Val McCammon says:

    What a fresh way to get into our character through listening via a direct interview — thanks, Mimi.

    Like

  18. Megan Cason says:

    Interview them! Great advice Mimi!

    Like

  19. I loved reading this post, Mimi. What you say is so true! We do need to listen to our characters and know their hearts. First draft of a PB, I had only a vague idea of the age of my MC. Once I spent time getting to know her and listening to her, the emotional heart of the ms opened wide up.

    Like

  20. Cathy Ogren says:

    Wonderful advice to discover the true inner feelings of your main character. Thank you!

    Like

  21. Claire Bobrow says:

    I find it hard to slow down and actually listen without my brain jumping ahead to the next comment I’m going to make. Thanks for this post, Mimi, and the great tips (and meditation exercise) to help us focus and tune in at a deep level.

    Like

  22. Anita Banks says:

    Thank you for the lesson.

    Like

  23. Susan Schade says:

    Interesting take on getting to know your own characters. Thank you!

    Like

  24. Interviewing your character! What a great idea. Love it.

    Like

  25. Kate Giard says:

    The difference between hearing and listening, between just perceiving the sounds and being consciously engaged and invested. Thank you.

    Like

  26. Hi Mimi, My husband practices meditation but I haven’t as of yet. Looks like it would benefit me as a writer and as an individual. Thanks for your post.

    Like

  27. Maria Marshall says:

    Thank you for this helpful post.

    Like

  28. topangamaria says:

    WOW! How timely and useful and insightful and delightful.

    Like

  29. Great technique…thanks for sharing!

    Like

  30. Deborah Allmand says:

    Wonderful insights on how to interview and LISTEN to your characters. Thank you.

    Like

  31. Diane Nizlek says:

    Loved reading your “interview” with Arion. She came alive with those few questions.
    Great post, Mimi!

    Like

  32. DebbieLubbert says:

    This is a great post. I agree, interviewing your characters is very important.

    Like

  33. JAMES ARTHUR says:

    This post has heart! I love this idea!

    Like

  34. Such a great idea! I often feel as though I don’t quite know my characters, and this is a way to help learn about them! Thanks!

    Like

  35. hmmmmm says:

    Thanks Mimi. Another reason to add to the list of why I should add mindfulness practices to my life. Sigh.
    In the meantime I find writing RIGHT when I wake up to be a passable substitute (or so I convince myself).

    Like

  36. Laura Rackham says:

    no better way to stay honest with your character

    Like

  37. gweddle says:

    Thanks for your Incredible insight on listening to your MC!

    Like

  38. Keila Dawson says:

    That was powerful. Listening deeply is hard. Thanks for the example of how you do it.

    Like

  39. I love this example–I loved Arion by the end. Thanks for that.

    Like

  40. Kathy Levy says:

    Great idea to listen to your character. Thank you!

    Like

  41. knespoli says:

    Great advice! Having a conversation and really listening is a great way to add more heart!
    Thanks

    Like

  42. Sandy Perlic says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggles with really listening to my character. Thanks for the exercise – I’ll try it and see if I can’t “tune in” a bit better.

    Like

  43. laurielyoung says:

    Wow. Never underestimate your characters. What a great technique for getting to know them better. Thanks!

    Like

  44. I love your conversations with your character!

    Like

  45. I love how you wrote this post. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of listening to our characters.

    Like

  46. Mavis Penney says:

    Whoops! If my characters call me out for not listening and fixing typos while I’m suposed to be concentrating on them, what are the REAL LIVE people thinking when I do the equivalent with them? Thanks for the heads-up!

    Like

  47. lmainnc says:

    This is what I’m struggling with right now– knowing my main character and what she really wants. Thanks for sharing the interview idea. I’m going to try it now.

    Like

  48. Jill says:

    Glad to have some YA perspective today.

    Like

  49. Martin Segal says:

    Thanks for the great post, Mimi! Realizing how important it is to know my characters even better (and have also been meaning to get back into yoga!)

    Like

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