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Posts Tagged characters
I’m finding it so curious to see how many novelists in this series are inspired by Bruce Springsteen. He’s probably not the kind of artiste people would imagine if you mentioned using music as a muse to write, but he’s behind so many characters and character dilemmas. My guest this week has compiled writing soundtracks ever since he was at school, and still keeps mixtapes from that time. He revisits them occasionally out of amused curiosity, and says that Springsteen gave his characters a gritty humanity he couldn’t otherwise have found. Decades on, he’s using soundtracks just as much as ever – sometimes not to write, but to fill himself with the book’s mood before he sits down at the keyboard. He is Will Overby and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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, subtext and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
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 Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
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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 Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Do you have trouble writing dialogue scenes? How do you approach them?
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One of the deadly sins of writing is the ‘head-hop’ – inconsistency with the narrative point of view. The writer will be following one character’s perspective, then forgets to keep to it, or switches to another in a way that creates a logic hiccup.
The problem is often subtle, which is why it’s hard to spot in your own work. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and you’ll have lost your grip on their imagination.
First-person narratives usually don’t have this problem. The writer is usually extremely aware of what the character can and can’t know. (And often realises they need devices such as letters and diaries to get information across.)
But not all stories are written from one perspective only. Perhaps we have many characters whose experiences count. Or an omniscient narrator who contributes observations from time to time. Once you have these multiple voices, you need to be strict about how you handle them.
Here are my tips for keeping multiple POVs in control.
1 Stick with one POV per scene
Simple is usually best, so write each scene from the experience of just one character, making the POV clear in the scene opening. What if two equally major characters have a dramatic scene? I’ll discuss that below, but let’s get into good habits first.
Some novels with multiple POVs name their chapters according to who is ‘speaking’. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever hops around a large cast in short chapters, each following the experience of one character. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl alternates between the male and the female accounts in different timelines, and the headings allow her to show who’s talking and when the action is happening.
Of course, many other novels use multiple POVs without chapter headings, and that’s fine too. But if you get confused about what you can and can’t show, put them in your draft to focus your mind. Or tint the text in a colour according to whose experience we’re following. Later, remove these props and you should have a logically flowing story.
3 Establish the POV pattern early on
At the beginning of the novel, you need to establish the rules your narrative will follow. If you’re going to circulate through a big cast, give each of them an early chapter, then we’re prepared for the pattern. If you stick with one character for a while and then switch, you might need a more obvious signpost such as a chapter or section heading to ease the gear-change.
Want to narrate some of your book as first person and some as third? No problem. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.
Deborah Moggach presents one of her Tulip Fever characters as first person, and explained on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club that she wanted the reader to understand some of the cruel things she does. Everyone else is close third person.
Moggach’s device of the headings also allows her to slip into omniscient distance – to convey time passing and chaos settling. One chapter is ‘Autumn’; another is ‘After the storm’.
But whatever you do, stick to it. If you begin by narrating one character as first person and change them to third, you risk disorientating the reader unless you have set up a mechanism for them to understand it. (And preferably a reason why they should bother.)
5 Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?
Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:
- Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
- Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up)
- Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
- Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again. Moggach solves this by writing a chapter in one POV, then starting a new chapter from the other character’s angle and winding time back to revisit the episode. (Do you notice something important here? She never breaks her rule. She’s schooled the reader to expect a framework and she never breaks it.)
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Have you seen other ways to handle multiple POVs? How do you do it? Have you seen the rules ‘broken’ to interesting effect? Let’s discuss!
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Okay, that’s not until November, but many serious NaNo-ers will be starting to prepare in the next few weeks. So I’m at Multi-Story, with a plan for creating your NaNo novel – by starting with its people.
Why start with the characters? Because if you know who they are, you’ll want to tell their stories. If you like to plan in detail, you’ll understand who must do what and when. If you like to wing it, the characters will take hold and drag you into an adventure. So if you fancy designing a novel this way, come over to Multi-Story.
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‘Roz from the land of Harry Potter’ – an otherwise serious discussion of writing with John Rakestraw
When Americans interview Brits in sweltering summer heat, their thoughts turn to Harry Potter, the Beatles and the Queen. But we do also get down to serious matters. My host, John Rakestraw, had got his mitts on the characters book and wanted to quiz me about creating fictional people, killing darlings, editing, dialogue and subtext.
John was one of the earliest blogger-podcasters to pick up on Nail Your Novel. He demonstrated this by waving his copy – the primitive edition I made on Lulu when I first published it four years ago! Folks, you may overwrite your early designs and wipe the files, but you can never hide from them. (Watch for the moment when one of the other guests says ‘um, why doesn’t book 2 look like book 1…’)
Anyway, come on over to see us. And if you remember the original coffee-and-blue 6×9 edition of Nail Your Novel, give me a wave here!
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Just why are characters the cornerstone of fiction? I’m discussing this – and tips for creating irresistible story people – in the fourth of my pieces for the Writers & Artists website.
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Today, Jane Friedman has showcased an excerpt from the characters book on her blog, and she chose the tutorial where I explain this tricky balancing act. If you’re curious about the book – or if you simply want to know how much of your carefully crafted background to include – come on over and see.
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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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