Elsewhere on this website we looked at inner speech and the various roles it may play in reading and creative writing. But where does inner speech come from? One of the main ideas is that it first develops from outer speech (so, speech), which we start off using as very small children. After a certain point, that ‘goes underground’ when we stop doing all our verbal thinking out loud, there being some fairly obvious advantages to being able to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Essentially, in terms of how inner speech develops, it’s outside-in rather than inside-out. Since the way we learn language and ‘outer’ speech is through dialogue, there’s also an extent to which it keeps that dialogic structure as it becomes internalised. Think of it like having a conversation with yourself – that entails having a part of you that speaks, and a part of you that also listens. (For more information on this process, see this article.)

Research into inner speech suggests that people vary in terms of what features of their own inner speech they’re consciously aware of. For some, the dialogic structure is often very conspicuous, and for some their inner speech contains the voices of other people (for instance, there will be certain thoughts which will ‘sound’ like their mother, or their boss). However, there are also some people who experience their inner speech as monologic, and who only ever hear what sounds like their own voice – and there are some who report not experiencing any inner speech at all. Yet the whole question of whose voice is speaking in our thoughts can get even more complicated as it starts edging towards things like memory and imagination. If you’re remembering or imagining someone else’s speech, how is it really ‘their’ voice if you’re the one producing it? And how can you tell it’s not ‘yours’?

EXERCISE 3: A little more conversation…

Choose one postcard from this set to be your character for this exercise.

Part A

As the character depicted in your postcard, have a go at answering these questions.

If you’re doing this exercise with a partner or group, one person can take on the role of the character, while the partner or other group members ask the questions. Once you’ve finished, swap over.

Part B

Choose a scenario from this collection of ‘prompts’. Your character is now in this situation.

If you’re working on this exercise by yourself, ask your character about the scenario or situation they are in (Nb. You are not taking on the role of the character any more, but talking to them.)

If you’re in a group, take on the role of your character and have a conversation with someone else, while that person takes on the role of their character in the chosen scenario.

It’s possible that different people will feel more or less comfortable with different parts of this exercise, since the writers we surveyed tended to engage with their characters very differently. Approximately a third said that they could enter into dialogue with their characters, although they varied a great deal in terms of how ‘separate’ their characters felt. For some, the experience was much like having an imaginary conversation with another person:

‘When I’m trying to “put words in their mouth” instead of listening they often talk back. And then we discuss things until I find what they would say.’

For others, the dialogue always involved taking on the role of whoever was speaking – ‘like a ventriloquist playing all the parts’ – so that they would jump back and forth between the characters:

‘Writing dialogue involves “being” each character who speaks. For the time they speak, I inhabit that person, and say what I believe they would say.’

There were also some writers who said that although they could not talk to their characters, the characters might still feel separate from them. However, because the characters were in a separate world, it was more like watching them on a screen:

‘Sometimes it’s as if I am watching a scene in a play or film before I have written the scene, and while I’m writing it.’

Of course, a great deal depends on how you understand ‘dialogue’ with people who aren’t actually present. We don’t necessarily tend to think of our inner speech as being a dialogue, or having more than one person in it, but in a sense, perhaps it is, and perhaps we do. It might just be that for some writers, and for some people, this is more pronounced, and more obvious.

Ultimately, it’s possible that characters aren’t all that different from any of the other ‘people’ that might populate our inner speech – it’s just that because they’re fictional creations, they highlight certain parts of experience that we might not otherwise notice. They can slide between being ‘you’, a view or perspective or ‘part of yourself’, and ‘someone else’ that you might feel like you have come to know.