(To listen to the audio of this blog post, use the purple play button.)
· Know Your Characters ·
“So, you said you wanted to be a better writer.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Well, I’ll give you some tips. I’ll bet you’ve heard this one before.”
“Just tell me!”
“Practice, practice, practice.”
“Oh, come on now! I know that already! How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”
“Yeah, but knowing it and doing it are two different things.”
“Well, that’s true. I don’t write enough.”
“In writing dialogue you must first know your characters. In order to find out who they are I ask them questions.”
“It works in real conversations and it works in writing fiction. When I’ve got my fictional friends talking to one another and I know them really well, then they seem to spontaneously speak to one another. Often, they won’t shut up!”
“Give me an example.”
“Okay, I just start pretending. When I’m developing a fictional character, I start with an inquiry. I ask standard questions and wait for the answer. Just like in real life, I might introduce myself and ask the characters being developed their names, what they do for a living, or what they do when they’re not working.
“If they have a tattoo I’ll comment on it, or I’ll ask them about their family. Anything, but I make it about them.”
“Alright, so it’s like trying to discover how much you can learn about the other person.”
“Exactly; you can pretend you’re at a party, you’re interviewing someone for a job, or you’re attempting to learn if the person would make a good roommate. This works for anything. Just don’t meet someone and start babbling all about yourself. They may not be interested.”
“Got it! I also look for clues from body language. If a person won’t make eye contact with me then I’m done.”
“I understand that’s your rule, but as an example, in your writing you could introduce a character who won’t make eye contact. You might ask yourself the question: Why won’t they look me in the eye? Your answer could open up an important back story for your readers.
“Is your character’s poor eye contact due to natural shyness, a cultural or ethnic practice, a sign of dishonesty, or the result of a traumatic personal experience?”
“Man, you’ve taken one mannerism and turned it into an important part of a novel!”
“In a pretend conversation you can get to know the other person gradually or quickly. It depends how open they want to be. Most of the time if you ask a parent or grandparent if they have any photos of their offspring, you’re guaranteed a lengthy reply. You’ve hit their soft spot, their response button.
“In your writing, if you asked a character about having children, the answer could be upbeat or it could result in an emotional meltdown. Not all parental experiences result in storybook endings.”
“That’s the truth. I could have a child grow up to be incredibly happy or suffer a painful death.”
“Or somewhere in between. You can do whatever you want when you create your own world. Remember that one question leads to the next. Like a little kid, you can keep asking the same question–why?–until you have answers that help you further develop your characters.”
“It usually doesn’t take me long to decide if I want to spend any more time with a person I’ve just met. I may instantly like them or quickly learn that I’d rather end the conversation, find someone else to talk to, or run screaming to the nearest exit.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Sometimes I meet a person and I feel so comfortable it’s like we’ve known one another forever. Other times it seems like we’re operating on different wave lengths or living in different solar systems. A couple of times I’ve been glad I didn’t give them my business card!”
“I’ll develop characters with different personalities.”
“You’ve got it. Use your experiences and your imagination. Your research can include listening to others having a conversation. If you’re in line and a couple of people are talking, see if you can use some of it in your fictional dialogue. I’ve taken expressions and mannerisms I’ve heard and seen in public and used them in stories.”
“That sounds good; I’ll try it. I’m going to be more curious and start digging into the lives of my characters. I’ll ask them questions and find out who they are and what they want. That will help me determine if they’re prepared to enter my fictional world.”
“Excellent! Knowing what they want is a must. It will drive your story forward.
“Now, you want interesting characters but that doesn’t mean all of them will be finalists in a most congeniality contest. At some point in your writing, especially if you write a novel, you’ll want characters that are difficult to like. You’ll want an antagonist, but that’s another topic for another day.”
“Okay, until then I’m going to ask more questions and write down what I’ve learned in my writing notebook.”
“Keeping track of your characters as they develop is an early step but don’t just take notes or journal. Begin writing. Give your people an opportunity to meet. Like a first date, see if they like one another.”
“That’s what I want to do! I need to spend more time with my characters and have them help me figure some things out, including great dialogue.”
“Yes, give them names. Once you know them better the dialogue will flow. Challenge them with a problem. Their personality and traits will surface. They’ll be forced to work as a team that must communicate in order to succeed. If they don’t rise to the challenge then you can use their failure as fuel in the developing plot.”
“Wow! Thanks for your advice. If I’m going to get my novel published and maybe on the best selling book list of the New York Times, I better get to work!”
“You’ve got it! Just like getting to Carnegie Hall, the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll arrive.”
Happy writing and reading!