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Posts Tagged Character
You’ll have seen the posts here about my blog series the Undercover Soundtrack.
Over the years, the posts consistently repeat certain bare essentials, both for reaching the writing mindset and creating a good story. Here they are, and whether you write with music or not, we all need them.
To enter the zone
In front of us is a keyboard and a screen, or maybe a pad and pen. Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world.
Start the time machine
Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones.
To keep the pace
Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still. There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.
We’re getting more musical now. A song is not unlike a well-told tale. It creates a territory of familiarity – a pattern we recognise of verse and chorus. Then we have the second verse – familiar, but not the same because the background is more dense or the lyric more intense. The second chorus is usually more substantial than the first, and even if it has the same lyric, it packs more punch. And on the song goes, seeking a climax.
For all its variation, a song is tightly disciplined. It develops by adding only what belongs. As story writers we can splash about in ideas, locations, settings, characters and events, but the more they align with the home territory (or exquisitely contrast with it), the more they will seem to belong in one piece.
In a piece of music, there might be a breakdown, where most of the elements are subtracted, perhaps leaving only the drum track or the melody at great distance. Breaks are important for a reader too; perhaps a campfire scene, a time out from the pressure to let the reader breathe before the tension comes flying back.
To calm the inner editor
Novels are huge and often daunting. Getting from beginning to end requires persistence, and we always find our confidence tested. Many of my Undercover Soundtrack guests report that music is an essential companion in this. It helps us believe more in ourselves, our story, our characters, our world – and in our ability to finish.
How about you? What essentials would you add? And if music isn’t your aide of choice, is there something you use to get a novel finished?
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However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.
These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:
The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations
- because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.
In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)
The character has very little history, background or personal preferences
Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.
Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.
So how do we write an effective everyman character?
Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.
And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.
If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.
So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!
NEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?
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In part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.
What is subtext?
Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.
I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.
The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.
Subtext and characters
Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.
Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.
Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.
So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.
When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.
Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions
Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)
How to do it
Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).
For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.
For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.
Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?
By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat. :)
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service
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Last time I discussed ways to make dialogue scenes easier to write. But dialogue is more than just what characters say.
Dialogue is action
Dialogue is a kind of action scene. Although the conversation is the main focus, the characters are more than just mouths.
Make the characters respond to each other
There should be give and take. A good scene will give a sense that something in the story has changed; in a dialogue scene you can make the conversation cause this change. And if so, the characters should respond to each other – listen, be surprised, perhaps refuse to accept. They could change each other’s minds or become more entrenched in their wrongheaded mission. Maybe strengthen their supportive relationships; deepen rifts and conflicts.
Some writers try to make the characters express everything in speech. For a radio play, that’s probably a necessary evil, but for a novel it’s not ideal.
It can also undermine the power of a character’s response. For instance, if a character has been upset, writers often try to put this in words – an understandable urge as they’ve got used to writing lines.
So I’ll see a lot of dialogue that goes: ‘how could you say that, I’m your best friend, I feel very hurt’ as they flail to convey the enormity. But not everyone is articulate and voluble when upset. Characters might react with a moment of silent shock, a gasp, an unguarded facial expression. Or they might stand up and put on their coat.
If you’re struggling to think of the right words in such a scene, consider whether you’re forcing the character to articulate when they would not.
Less drastically, you can build in other actions and reactions. I often see scenes where characters are sitting dummy-still while they’re talking. But most people get quite busy when they’re involved in a conversation. They might betray nervousness by kicking the table leg, or fiddle with their cuffs while they think. Even if the characters are on the phone – and therefore most of the communication is verbal – they are doing a lot more than simply speaking. They’ll be grimacing, smiling, biting their nails, straining to hear through a bad connection.
Once you start adding the non-verbal responses, you usually find you can refine the lines that are said out loud. If a character points across the loch at a monster, they might not need to say ‘look at that monster over there’ (thank you, Dave and Jamie, for the demonstration in the picture). If you edit the gestures so that they work with the spoken words, you make the point better. And you keep all the reader’s sensory channels open.
Don’t forget the setting
In the pressure to get the dialogue flowing, the writer sometimes forgets the environment. Then suddenly the character will stir their coffee. (Hooray for lattes, BTW: with just one prop you can slurp foam, add sugar and twiddle spoons.) But the environment is there all the time. If we don’t have continual low-key reminders, there can be a jolt when it returns to the scene. I often see long exchanges of chit-chat, then a sudden reference to the mahogany desk the character was sitting at – but the environment of the scene had long since disappeared from the prose.
A really vivid scene will keep the setting in the reader’s awareness. And that’s not just visuals, but sounds too – readers need all their senses fed.
A word of caution, though; it’s very easy to overdo. Details like this can get intrusive and irritating, so it’s better to use the setting to create natural pauses as the characters are talking, or when they need a beat to think. And don’t write ‘she thought’, try: ‘a police siren wailed in the street outside’, which will create the pause in the reader’s mind. It’s even better if you can make the environmental action echo an emotional point of the scene – for instance, a customer at the till who is arguing about his change.
These are ways to make a dialogue scene more fully rounded. And of course, there’s a whole other level under the words: the subtext. We’ll look at that next time.
For now, though, give me your thoughts: do you have to do separate passes to add these elements to dialogue scenes?
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
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This weekend I guested on John Rakestraw’s Google writing hangout. He sent me a bunch of questions about dialogue, and I wrote so much in preparation that I got an epic post. Then when we got nattering on air with his co-conspirators, we delved off into other questions anyway. So I thought I’d run a dialogue special in the next few weeks. If you’d like to watch the hangout the link is at the end of this post.
(That pic is not Mr Rakestraw and friends, BTW. Tis Husband Dave at the BBC, pretending to read the news with his writing partner Jamie Thomson.)
Meanwhile, here’s today’s topic -
How do we get the characters talking?
Some manuscripts I see have no dialogue, or very little. There will be plenty of description, back story and even action, but the writer won’t have allowed the characters to step out of the narration and express themselves and interact with others. If there are conversations, they will mostly be reported instead of shown ‘live’ -
‘he told her that the best thing he’d ever done was to buy that log cabin in the woods – especially now they needed somewhere to hide until the stalker stopped watching the house’
Of course, sometimes there are good reasons to report a conversation. It’s by no means forbidden. But if all or most conversations are reported it can feel like the characters are being shepherded by the book and never acting independently – and so they don’t seem as real.
Dialogue makes characters real
Dialogue scenes let characters come to life. We see them acting, responding to other humans, experiencing events. For the reader, it’s like the difference between reading a report and being an eyewitness. They feel a personal, vivid connection with the moment.
And it’s a rich connection. Dialogue scenes allow you to demonstrate human complexity – what the people feel about each other, what their innate responses are according to their personality. (This can often create trouble for the writer, as I’ll discuss in a moment.)
What about first-person narration?
First-person narratives might need less dialogue because we already feel the character. Every piece of description, back story or other prose will be seen through the filter of that person’s psyche. So will their encounters with other people. But it will seem odd if there are no scenes where other characters are allowed to breathe, act, emote and be real.
Readers often look for dialogue before they decide to buy
Some readers flick through a book and are put off if there isn’t a good proportion of dialogue. Dialogue is easier to read than screeds of prose. But that’s not just because the paragraphs are more spaced – it’s because good dialogue is vivid.
So why do writers find it hard?
Some don’t of course. And if you’ve been reading this with a halo of confidence, could I ask if you find non-dialogue prose difficult?
This difference is usually where the problem lies.
Writing dialogue requires a specific frame of mind. When you’re in the flow of setup, action, back story or description, it’s tricky to switch to dialogue. In every other kind of narration, you control the camera, the voice of all the in-between stuff. For dialogue you have to let other minds in. That’s quite a gear-change. Especially if you have to inhabit several people, with different agendas and personalities.
Sometimes you realise, as you put yourself in their shoes, that they don’t see things the way you do. The lines you want to give them feel false. Or they run away with the story because of their responses. You have to let them find their own way, and maybe adapt what you wanted them to do. You realise a plot event is impossible because the characters won’t do it and you can’t work around it. This sense of frustration rarely happens with other types of scenes.
How to get your dialogue scenes running smoothly
Write dialogue scenes on different days from narration. Give your brain time to adjust.
Don’t put too many characters in the scene. In novels, it’s hard to manage more than three people who are all talking and responding. In fact, three’s a crowd because someone usually has to take a back seat. I’ve often seen writers try to emulate the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs where seven characters are sitting around a table. In the movie it works, but in prose it usually becomes an unmanageable mess.
Be prepared to rework a dialogue scene over and over. I’ve often had to spend several days on a dialogue scene, trying to get it truthful and authentic (not to mention interesting). Some characters can be particularly stubborn; Gene Winter in My Memories of a Future Life was exciting to use because he was unknowable and unpredictable – but this made him a devil to handle. He sounded wrong until I found something he’d agree to do. This struggle, of course, made me write better scenes.
This is the great challenge and reward of dialogue. Because you’re taking a step into the characters’ psyches, you find out what they’re really made of.
Next post: dialogue is more than talking. Watch the full discussion with John Rakestraw here.
Thanks to Budd Margolis for the pics of Dave and Jamie
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Do you have trouble writing dialogue scenes? How do you approach them?
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The rock star had a seizure in his hotel room. He recalled little of it; just a long fight to breathe. As he came to, the other band members were telling the paramedics he’d be fine for the night’s gig, a doctor would take care of him. He didn’t want to let them down, of course, but he felt like death.
His girlfriend had witnessed the unremembered time: 10 minutes of jerking, clawing and choking, pleading for help; the brutal rescue where paramedics only just got him back. She saw the other band members playing down the dangers, arguing with the medics. She wanted to tell them how bad he was before any of them arrived, and how long it went on for; except he was so fragile that might trip another attack. And none of them would listen.
Who is in the worse situation? The rock star or the girlfriend?
If it was real life the answer is a no-brainer. But in story terms, it’s worse to be the girlfriend. So she’s the character we’re more interested in, the more natural focus for our curiosity. But many novice writers would make the rock star the central character.
Why is the girlfriend more fascinating to readers?
She has the heavier burden. She knows that if she could muster enough guts, wits and nous, she could stand up to the band and save her lover. Her conscience is telling her so. But she is outnumbered, has no clout, and even the boyfriend will listen to them rather than her. She is trapped and isolated with her problem. And even if he gets through this show, what about the next and the next? She is burdened with guilt and responsibility. He is burdened only with biology.
When writers want to make us concerned for a character they often try to enlist our sympathy with a trauma or a timebomb. But the reader knows the writer can use a timebomb as the whim takes them; either the rock star dies or doesn’t. Choices and decisions, though, exploit what stories do best; they pit characters against each other, against their own failings, fears and weaknesses. In the above scenario, although the reader might be concerned for the rock star as a fellow human being, they’ll really feel for the girlfriend.
Great stories make us walk in a character’s emotions. A terrific way to do that is to give characters difficult choices. Can she stand up to these people? Does she have the courage to do the right thing? What would it kick off? Will she muster the ability to convince people? We can follow this struggle. If she does the wrong thing, she carries it like a wound herself, but one that was made by the story and her own actions.
Thanks for the dilemma pic Unkreative.
In other news, I just got the ‘Top website for Self-Publishers’ award from the Alliance of Independent Authors. This badge is, according to their email, a benchmark to signify ‘excellence, integrity, creativity and helpfulness in the indie self-publishing world’. If anyone reading this helped it along – thank you. And if you liked this post, there is plenty more advice on getting the reader on your MC’s side in the Nail Your Novel characters book.
Okay, back to the subject. Let’s talk about stories where the writers get us rooting for the characters by the dilemmas they face. Indeed, have you done this in one of your stories?
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Why is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?
In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary, download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.
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204 pages. Yes, much bigger than the first Nail Your Novel. Fully indexed. Pages to dog-ear, scribble on, receive coffee stains and the sweat of your genius brow. Contains discussions of all the books it’s leaning on in the photos, and many more besides.
Back with a proper post tomorrow!
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When to trust the reader’s intuition – and when to spell out what a character feels: post at KM Weiland’s Wordplay
Readers don’t have to be told everything. Sometimes they will intuit how a character feels about a plot development or another character. Or they know what’s unsaid. Or they understand that the quiet character who rarely says anything is vibrating with mysterious depths.
Good storytellers are masters of the reader’s curiosity and emotions. They know what they can plant between the lines and how to make readers fill the blanks. So how do they do this? And how might it go wrong?
Today KM Weiland has invited me to her fabulous blog Wordplay, where I’m discussing this tricky – and exciting – balance. Do come over.
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It’s live! New Nail Your Novel book shows you how to create characters who keep readers hooked and make you want to tell stories
Three guesses what it’s about … but here’s the formal blurb…
How do you create characters who keep readers hooked? How do you write the opposite sex? Teenagers? Believable relationships? Historical characters? Enigmatic characters? Plausible antagonists and chilling villains? How do you understand a character whose life is totally unlike your own?
How do you write characters for dystopias? How do you make dialogue sing? When can you let the reader intuit what the characters are feeling and when should you spell it out?
I’ve mined 20 years’ worth of writing and critiquing experience to create this book. It contains all the pitfalls and sticky points for writers, laid out as a set of discussions that are easy to dip into. And it wouldn’t be a Nail Your Novel book without a good dose of games, exercises and questionnaires to help you populate a novel from scratch.
Whether you write a straightforward story-based genre or literary fiction, Bring Characters to Life will show you how to create people who enthrall readers – and make you want to tell stories.
If you like more heft in your hand, the 200+-page paperback is in progress, and will proceed as fast as an index can be built and proofs can fly the Atlantic.
Ebook price GBP £3.56 USD $5.50 (rough conversion estimate)
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Self-editing masterclass snapshots: endings and epilogues July 28, 2014
- Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots July 27, 2014
- ‘The music of exile’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathleen Jones July 23, 2014
- Ghostwriting FAQs: should you get a ghostwriter, do you want to become one? July 20, 2014
- ‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman July 16, 2014
- How to fix a plot hole July 13, 2014
- ‘Music of raw power, pulling back from chaos and feedback’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Penny July 9, 2014
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