An effervescent Callie Hunter is my guest today for Aspiring Voices. I chatted with Callie over breakfast about living inside your fictional characters, letting your characters live their own lives inside your head, the differences between writing screenplays and novels, and why going to nursing school may be just the thing her writing career needs.
Paul: Tell me a little about what made you start writing with the intention of sharing with other people.
Callie: Even as a kid I liked to write stories, but it only became an intention to share when I wanted to build on the foundations of my characters. Sure, I have a character, but how would they interact with others? How would they grow and adapt to new challenges? I really learned that sharing my writing was a good idea when I discovered roleplaying. But that didn’t teach me the correct way to write, and taught me very bad habits. But with that practice, I learned to build a good character and give them elements of realism.
It wasn’t until I turned that character into a novel that I desperately wanted to share with writing workshops, mostly online, as there aren’t many close to where I live, sadly. If I share my writing and other people enjoyed it? That’s what drove me to keep trying, learning from mistakes and producing higher quality work.
Paul: What kind of roleplaying did you do? Was it like roleplaying games or acting coursework?
Callie: It was more of the create a character and write in their perspective, you became them, and you could experience the things they did—while meeting other writers, and your characters could merge. Without this, the foundation of some of stories wouldn’t exist. The first novel I wrote that’s in need of heavy editing at the moment, called In Between Dreams, started from roleplay. I could develop my writing, while meeting other people that allowed me to develop my character from a teenager addicted to drugs, to a grown man and a father. It’s far more intense than it sounds when you’re engulfed in it, however. Everything that happens to your character, also happens to you. It can be tough on your emotions, but it certainly teaches the writer how to identify with, and become your character. How could you expect other people to care for them if you don’t?
Paul: That’s a very immersive way to develop a character.
Is this something you still employ with your writing?
Callie: Unfortunately, no. I haven’t the time, and as my desire for writing increased—to explore the technicalities—the new writers were very vague, and only liked one-liners. I gave up years ago, but through that mental training I can now take the idea of a character and build them on my own, as I write, I can explore those things without needing physical people to help. In that sense, it’s helped me to grow as a writer, but also to associate with my characters. By putting a piece of yourself into them, whether it’s experiences, or the same fears (the fear of abandonment, for example) the writing can really come alive. When the characters feel real to you, they should feel real to the readers. That’s the most important thing for me.
Paul: So when you’re developing a story, do you put the characters together first and build the plots around them or do the situations occur and you find characters that would play off of them in interesting ways?
Callie: From the people I’ve discussed it with, I work in a completely different way. [laughs] I start with a character, but I don’t plan every aspect of their life, I start with one. For example, Hunter in Bruised, a bachelor with his pick of women, discovers he has a daughter, and he has a choice whether he takes care of her after her mother’s death, or he gives her away. That’s all I knew, and as I wrote the story, he wrote himself.
In terms of plot, I plan key events, but not the in between. Over planning kills all spontaneity for me. Getting from A to B is the character’s job. I give them a lot of freedom to write themselves, and I’m even surprised by what comes from their mouths or the things they do!
But this is the fun of writing for me. I start with an idea but by the half way mark, I have a full character history that isn’t forced – it came naturally when the characters choose to reveal it. I’ve read that Stephen King does the same, and it really does work for me. If you trust in your characters to guide the story, you won’t be disappointed.
But then there are instances where the characters refuse to co-operate. I put them in the naughty corner and tend to another project before they are like “Callie, come back to me! Here’s your ending, write this scene! Come back!” [laughs]
Paul: I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about this aspect of writing where characters become like discrete entities unto themseleves. But of course to a certain extent they are all aspects of the writer. How does this sense of being a vessel feel to you? I mean is it ever frightening? [laughs] Or do you pretty much just take it as part of the game?
Callie: You may need to re-word that, I’m not fully grasping it.
Paul: I guess I’m saying that you say you give the characters the freedom to write themselves. Yet the truth is, it’s always you writing them.
I think there may be this kind of metaphysical separation that happens where you kind of assume the role of the character’s transcriptionist, rather than their creator. It’s an artificial construct in the writer’s mind, though; these aren’t genuine entities, right? Does it ever feel weird to think or say things like “Oh, my character told me….”?
Callie: Sometimes it is strange to think that the characters have a life of their own, but you’re right, it all comes from the writer. There are many aspects of my personality that I don’t associate with daily, or interests I don’t actively practice, so when the characters have the freedom to explore my mind, the suppressed emotions and experience I have, it certainly makes it overwhelming at times.
Most people find my themes strange or ‘too much’ sometimes, but they’re all different things I find interesting. To me all of the characters seem perfectly real, because they’ve got many different layers to them. And sometimes, if I’m stuck on something as I writer, I find I’m pressuring myself too much.
I had huge problems with a scene at the end of Bruised, as I did with In Between Dreams. The key was too much pressure. I was trying to script it rather than it flow naturally. They have different parts of my personality, my fears, my hopes and my dreams.
There are many times I woke up with a genius idea in my head because I stopped agonising over it and, what I like to call the characters—but is probably just my subconscious de-tangling my ideas that merged into one—come to me with ideas of how to get from A to B. It is strange, and I sound mental whenever I tell people, “Hunter told me to do this,” but it’s honestly the way it feels to me. They may just be characters, words on a page but they carry aspects of me in them, and I can’t bring myself to believe they are “just characters.”
Paul: I guess it is that aspect of sounding mental when you talk about it this way, but internally it feels perfectly natural. Like, “Of course my character told me how she wanted to get out of those handcuffs,” or whatever. But you say that out loud too many times and people who don’t write or who don’t internalize their characters back away slowly and make sure to retain eye contact.
So it sounds like you do a lot of discovery writing. Do you ever find that causes problems when it comes to ending a book or a story?
Callie: Endings are my downfall. I get through 3/4 and think “la la la this is great! Wow my little story is coming along” and I always get stumped for the end. I think the real problem for me is finding a natural end. Especially when it came to Bruised, I had two directions I could go. But obviously because I’m head over heels in love with Hunter, I wanted one ending but I knew in my bottom of my heart he didn’t deserve it. It was a very painful process to think: do I follow my heart of my head? Do people like happy endings? Or would shattering his world at the of the novel fit?
Because I’m so emotionally invested in my character, I tend to cry with them whenever I shatter their worlds, or break their hearts, or put them into a difficult situation that can only end in one of the two ways: bad or disastrous. Endings are the real trouble for me. How do you find a natural end? The story never ends, their life continues but how do I know when I should stop sharing it with my readers? That’s the real trouble. I could continue writing forever, but I think Hunter may be a little bit frustrated with me. I’m very attached to his character, and even at the end of the story, my brain can’t grasp “it’s time to stop loving him, let it go.” I will never. [laughs]
Paul: So how do you work around that? Do you end up writing both directions and see which flows better or do you have to just pick a path and forge down that road?
Callie: In this instance (Bruised), I asked several people who knew my story what was the best thing. With feedback, I got different variations. Have him lose everything, then earn it back or lose everything and have to move on with his life, suffering from yet another abandonment. I could have written both endings, and then a choice, but I know that would make my job even harder. I’m quite an emotional reader and writer, if you haven’t already guessed. [laughs]
I find time always helps. Before I write the ending, I lead up to it, I leave clues and hints to could make either ending fit, and then at the pivotal moments I make an impulse decision. Who knows if its the right one? I’ll see when readers give them feedback. If it’s wrong, then I’ve learned something but it’s its the right ending? It’s a wonderful feeling.
I’m lucky with my third piece, Tiptoe, because I have the piece written in screenplay format. So my ending is sorted! But I’m 100% happy with it. It’s bittersweet. Which is quite perfect. I can sob and then feel triumphant. Win/win.
Paul: So is Tiptoe a screenplay or is that a technique you used to create a framework for a novel using that story?
Callie: My writing started with screenplays when I studied Film Studies. I was always told, “You’re not writing a novel, you’re writing a script, cut this down,” so I got used to screenplays. Then one day I thought, “Hey I’ll write a novel!” You can imagine the comments I first had: “Don’t tell me this, show me,” “Very vague,” and, “Give me more description.” It was painful to teach myself habits I’d stamped out from screenwriting, but it also taught me a lot about dialogue. Rather than ramble, get to the point. I’d like to think my dialogue is my strongest point, because that comes naturally to me.
When I plan a scene, I write the dialogue then build around that. The screenplay version of my work gives me the basis for my novels. Scene order, key events, and dialogue and when it’s turned to a novel, I can pad it out, characterise and the trouble begins there. It’s a screenplay at the moment, and 33,600 words into my novel at the 1/3 point. It’s not as painful and writing completely new material just tweaking old writing. But then writing workshops help me to identify my problems, so I can read old work and think “POV swap,” or, “I could show that,” or, “What the hell did I even mean when I wrote that?” [laughs]
Callie: I’ve been told at times, “You could extend your dialogue,” but I act against that advice. If the dialogue is a ramble? Get to the point.
Paul: Yeah I’m rarely sure what use padding dialogue is, unless the conversation is so short and choppy it doesn’t convey anything.
Callie: I totally agree with you on that. I’m very anal about bad dialogue, and from studying film and media, I can’t watch or read anything if the dialogue is wooden. It makes me cry inside, and it’s one of the few things that drives me away from books or films.
Paul: Let’s talk a bit about the future. What would you like to see happen with your writing? Do you have a specific plan in place, or are you just focusing right now on completing your works in progress?
Callie: In the future, I’m sure a lot of young authors have the same dream! I’d love to publish my work one day, but not for money. Though it would be nice! [laughs] If only five people read my book and love it, then I am a happy woman.
For the immediate future I plan to finish my third novel, and learn from my current problems. Once I can learn the proper use of tenses, and master sentence variation—though my main concern with a first draft is the “Finish it!!” and worry about technical errors later—I will edit my work to perfection, and hopefully people will enjoy my work.
I have three more weeks of days completely dedicated to writing and finishing my novels before I start an Adult Nursing course that will take all my time, so my writing needs to take a backseat while I learn to save lives. [sighs] But when I come back to editing the pieces, with each detachment to read as a reader, and not as creator, I can really bring them to the standard of writing that I love.
I’m a huge fan of Tess Gerritsen and it’s my dream to write medical drama novels when I have the education and the work experience to create something realistic and grabbing. That’s my ultimate goal: to have readers enjoy my work, and want more! A girl can dream.
Paul: I think that’s the core of every writer’s dream.
Okay, last question, the one I’m asking everyone: Describe the best or most memorable book you’ve read recently.
Callie: Recently or ever? I will have to say, hands down, every time, Impulse by Ellen Hopkins. It’s absolutely fantastic. While her story is memorable, and laid out in creative ways—it can be read to the punctuation or read as a poem—but the themes she uses are fascinating. What I love the most is how she deals with the problems. For example, Impulse isn’t about Tony, Connor, and Vanessa’s suicide but how they handle it, and their emotional recovery. I aim to do the same, and I hope I succeed.
Callie Hunter is a 21 year-old aspiring author, who has taken inspiration from playwright Sarah Kane, YA author Ellen Hopkins, and Korean film director Kim Ki-Duk. She has been writing with intention to be published from the age of 16. With a degree in Film Studies from the University of Surrey, England, her first area of writing is screenwriting, she has expanded to convert her screenplays into novel form. She is moving on to a degree in Adult Nursing at LSBU, in Havering, England. To date, she has two complete novels ready for editing (In Between Dreams, Bruised, and a work-in-progress called Tiptoe). She’s an avid cat lover, and everything animal related, as is clear from the starring roles the animals in her work perform!