I supposed I was primed to enjoy this year’s Readercon because I found the very first panel so interesting. The official title was “The Origin of Character in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” and James Patrick Kelly led off with a quick precis of Julian Jaynes’s thesis that ancient people had a divided mind that communicated internally as voices, which they thought were the voices of gods. Nowadays, writers just call them characters.
Everyone had a story that began as a voice speaking. Elizabeth Hand told of a voice so compelling she spent the next ten hours typing until she had a complete story. Eileen Gunn told of Richard Nixon speaking from an alternate world where he became a game show host. Ellen Kushner noted that everyone talks about voices. For her the people come first.
Daryl Gregory offered the explanation that we’re social animals modeling the other people. That’s why your subconscious spits out characters. Peter Straub said for writers the unconscious speaks. The voice is never wrong. The lesson is to listen to it. Kelly added that you can trust “the little guy,” the subconsious, precisely because he speaks so rarely.
So how do you hear the voice? Here’s where the advice came tumbling out. Straub and Kushner said, Walk! Stop thinking about it. Allow yourself to be receptive. Gregory said to touch the story every day, to keep it in mind. Kelly likes swimming. Gunn and Kushner like driving. Just make sure you have a way to write it down or someone to talk to. Sleep can help, Straub said, if you remember the dream. Pay attention to what you’re thinking when you get up.
This is where I started thinking, considering how much we have learned about how the mind works, how your subconscious is always looking around you, trying to gauge what other people are up to, and filled with everything you’ve seen or heard or read, it’s always working on problems that we’re not consciously aware. When the audience got our chance, I asked if they ever get the feeling that “little guy” speaks up only when he’s finally ready to let go of a problem, because he can’t do anything more with it. Is he saying, Here’s an idea. Your turn.
The answer, in short, no. My takeaway: your subconscious isn’t that mean.
And while I was musing and formulating for a later question, Kushner suggested having someone interview you as the character. Answer quickly. Don’t think about what the outline says. After Gregory, Gunn, and Kushner all confessed to straying from outlines, Straub said he too outlines and leaves it. You should allow yourself to experience fear, ignorance, and darkness, he said. “Self-doubt is a besetting problem that you overcome only by writing a lot.”