How to revise your characters' mannerisms
This is part 3 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising mannerisms. As with dialogue, the goal with these is to present characters whose mannerisms are distinctive and consistent. But beyond that, you want to look for opportunities to use mannerisms to show characterization.
Great characters have mannerisms that make them distinct from other characters. Unless, I suppose, you’re writing about an army of clones. Real people hold their heads just-so, or gesture when they speak in specific ways that are distinctive to them. The whole package of mannerisms creates what you might call a “fingerprint of motion” for the character. That person moves like no other. That person uses his or her body differently than everyone else. Not in a strange or bizarre way, necessarily, but just unique to them. Have you ever seen someone from behind, at a bit of a distance, but you knew immediately it was them just by the way they were carrying themselves? As you revise, that’s what you’ll be striving for.
Physical mannerisms, being largely unconscious or else the product of physical factors the character can’t control, should also be consistent. If your character has a limp at the beginning of the book because of an old knee injury, he’ll still have it at the end. The caveat, as always, is that you may have a plot point, such as knee surgery or moving to a part of the world with different customs, that forces a character to change mannerisms.
So how do you do it?
Make lists, flag the manuscript, revise
The mechanical process for revising mannerisms and attributes is pretty similar to what you do for dialogue. I covered that yesterday so I won’t re-hash all that here. In short, you make lists for each character of how they move and how they think. Compare the lists and tweak them until you’re satisfied that everybody is distinctive. Then flag the manuscript using your favorite method so you can easily locate each character’s scenes, and then revise the characters one by one. That part is pretty straightforward.
What I want to talk about instead are strategies for editing those lists to create individual fingerprints of motion for each character, and to make sure those fingerprints work for you on multiple levels.
Reduce over-used mannerisms
If you look at your mannerism lists and find that they’re already distinctive, great. Pat yourself on the back and move on. But more likely you’ll notice that you have lots of characters who sigh to themselves when they’re disappointed, or who roll their eyes to show disdain, or who gesture wildly when they talk or whatever it may happen to be. What then?
If that’s the case, odds are also good that this particular mannerism comes from you. You may well do this yourself. Think about what that mannerism means to you. Do you sigh to yourself because you need to express your disappointment but want to keep it hidden from others? Do you gesture wildly because you get excited about whatever you’re talking about? Ponder the deeper meaning behind those largely unconscious gestures.
Don’t worry too much about whether you’re right or wrong, just think about it until you have a plausible-sounding idea for why you do that thing. If it’s not something you yourself do, don’t worry about that either, but still spend some time thinking about what the mannerism means. Once you know, ask yourself which character in your story is the best fit for that meaning.
For example, if upon reflection you decide that you roll your eyes a lot because you’re smarter than everyone else in the world and so to you everyone else seems like an idiot, then find the most egotistic character in the book and let him or her have that mannerism. Not that this applies to you, of course. Oh no. It’s just an example. Still, when you take the eye-rolling away from everyone else, the gesture becomes a way to show the self-centered arrogance of the one person who does it without you ever having to use the words “self-centered” or “arrogant” anywhere in your manuscript.
This is how you make mannerisms work for you on multiple levels. Used carefully, not only does a mannerism create distinction, it also shows, rather than tells, characterization. Used carelessly, it doesn’t show anything.
Add distinctive mannerisms
When you’re done reducing your over-used mannerisms, odds are your characters’ lists will all be a lot shorter. Which in turn means that the characters are less fully developed; the character’s fingerprint of motion has been wiped away. So, time to add some good stuff back in. My two favorite ways to do this are backstory-based brainstorming, and emulation.
Consider the character’s backstory, the sum-total of that person’s history and personality, and brainstorm ways it may have shaped the character’s mannerisms. You may have a character who is naturally shy, and in groups has trouble getting her turn in the conversation to add her own thoughts and perspectives. What can she do about that? Well, “don’t be shy” isn’t exactly plausible advice, so maybe instead she co-opts a social convention from childhood: raising your hand. Back in gradeschool, we all had to raise our hands before we could speak. So maybe she does that. Not a huge, arm straight up to the sky pose like we did in school, but just a subtle hand raised up maybe to shoulder level. The other people around the table will see this, and on some level they’ll recognize that gesture as a social convention for indicating that you want to speak. They’ll see her hand and quiet down for a moment so she can talk.
Emulation is just another facet of that old adage “great writers steal.” In this case, you’re not stealing other people’s words, but rather, borrowing bits of other people’s fingerprints of motion. I like to pick famous people for this, because it’s really easy to find visual references for them on YouTube or elsewhere. Take three politicians: George Bush had that signature way he would grip the sides of the podium with both hands when he spoke, with his shoulders hunched up just a little bit. John McCain has that stiffness to his body from the indignities he suffered when he was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. Barack Obama tends to gesture with a flat hand, an open palm, when he talks. And when he speaks from a podium, his head turns right-to-left-to-right with almost clockwork regularity about every two seconds.
So think about famous people, or just people you know well, and find little pieces of motion you can borrow for the betterment of your characters. Again, think about what those pieces of motion might mean, and make sure to hand them out in ways that best allow you to show each character.
Use these strategies to make sure every character has a fingerprint of motion that is unique to them, that is believable given their history, and that is also useful for showing that character’s personality. Once you have a solid list for each character, use the revision processes I discussed in yesterday’s article to apply them across your manuscript. It is, as someone on yesterday’s article commented, a lot of work. There’s no getting around that. If it helps:
“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. I rewrote the first part of Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.” —Ernest Hemingway
“I’m not a great writer, I’m a great rewriter.” —Paddy Chayefsky
December 04, 2009 19:38 UTC
How to revise your dialogue
This is part 2 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising dialogue. The goal with dialogue, aside from advancing the plot, should be to show your characters’ inner selves through how they speak.
Great dialog is distinctive; each character sounds only like himself and no other. The rule of thumb is that when the reader can tell immediately who said a line of dialogue without looking at the surrounding narrative, you’ve done your job.
Great dialogue is also consistent; characters should end the book still sounding like they did in the beginning. The caveat here, of course, is that elements of the character arc and plot may well influence how the character speaks. For example, you might have a character who undergoes a character arc in which he stops being so much of an insensitive jerk, which you show by changing the way he speaks. Or you may have a plot point in which the character suffers a stroke with partial paralysis, and physically cannot speak the same as before. But barring those types of effects, great dialogue is consistent.
So how do you do it?
Start by realizing that having finished the manuscript, you now know each character much better than you did at the beginning of the book. Much as you may have wanted to make each character sound distinctive from the beginning, you may simply not have known them well enough to do so. But now you do.
Start by making a list of each character in the book—the major ones and the minor ones too. While you should spend more energy making sure your major characters’ dialogue is flawless, dialogue is about the only opportunity that minor characters have to pop off the page as real people. Then for each character, write down some descriptions of how that character speaks. List their verbal tics. Flip through the manuscript, looking for lines of their dialogue to remind yourself of the details of each character’s voice, and summarize it all.
Revise the lists
Now take a look across these lists. Look for similarities between characters, or characters where you didn’t know what to write besides “speaks normally.” Similarities indicate places where you may want to change one or the other character to make them more distinctive.
For example, you might notice that all your characters use “really” quite often as an intensifier. You could change one character to use “very” instead, and change another character not to do that at all. That character might resort to more round-about ways of emphasizing his or her points, such as by saying “I’m quite sure that...” instead.
Conversely, characters whose lists indicate a generic voice are opportunities to create verbal tics specifically for the purpose of making the characters come alive. If the character comes from a place with a distinctive accent or dialect, make use of that. You might even change the character’s background to provide that opportunity. Or you might think about people you know who talk in distinctive ways and make the character emulate them.
Work the lists over until you’re satisfied that each character’s list is sufficiently distinctive from the others. Make use of the techniques I gave in this earlier article to make sure each character’s list of verbal tics also fits his or her personality. Yes, the list should be distinctive from the others, but the items on it should also help you show the character traits you’ll want to show.
Flag the manuscript or make a spreadsheet
The idea here is to find a way to work on your characters one at a time, rather than trying to fix each character’s dialogue simultaneously. I mean, you could just go through the manuscript line by line, fixing each bit of dialogue as you encounter it. But it’s difficult to keep a firm grip on all your character’s speech patterns at the same time, and since the whole point of revising is to increase the overall quality, I’m going to give you two methods for revising each character in isolation.
The first method, and often the most practical, is to use peel-off flags and highlighters. Start by printing out the manuscript. The whole thing. You might even do it double-spaced to give yourself room to revise on the page. Then read through it, using highlighters to mark each character’s dialogue with a different color. Don’t worry about changing anything, just mark everything. Similarly, use those little colored tape flag thingies to mark the beginnings of scenes where each character occurs.
Your manuscript will end up looking like a paint store exploded all over it. That’s ok, because now you’ll be able to easily scan through the manuscript, looking for colors rather than reading the words, to locate each character’s dialogue. Oh, and one other tip: you may be tempted to use those new colored sharpie markers to highlight with. Don’t. They stink, and once it soaks into the paper, that sharpie smell doesn’t go away. You’d think it would, but it doesn’t. Stick with the old-fashioned wide-tip highlighters. Your nose will thank you.
The second method, if you’re the techie type, is to make a spreadsheet. Literally extract every line of dialogue onto separate worksheets, one for each character. You may also want to track the chapter number and/or page number, to make putting everything back easier. This is a ton of cut-and-paste work, but it does offer the benefit of allowing you to see all of a character’s dialogue together without anything else getting in the way. It will make revising the dialogue later much faster, and give you more consistent results. If you can stand the work involved, I’d recommend it.
Revise the manuscript
Now you’re ready to revise. Pick a character. Re-read that character’s list of dialogue attributes you made earlier. Get it firmly in your head, and once you’re ready to channel that character’s soul out onto the page, begin.
If you went with the highlighter method, start flipping through the pages. Don’t read, just let your eyes glaze over watching for green spots or whatever the character’s color is. When you find one, read the line and see if it fits the list. If not, revise on the page or in your work processor, whichever you prefer. I find it easier to revise on the page, rather than having to flip back and forth between paper and screen to do the edits. I save those all for one final pass after I’ve fixed everything.
If you went with the spreadsheet commando method, here’s where you get to feel smug and superior to everyone else. Hit each character’s worksheet, look for lines that don’t fit, and fix them. You’re in the enviable position of being easily able to glance at lines from the beginning and end of the manuscript, looking for shifts in tone that don’t belong. You can even track which lines you have changed and which you haven’t, to minimize what comes next: Re-copy the new lines back into the manuscript.
However you do it, keep those two goals in mind: distinctiveness and consistency. Remember, too, that these same techniques work equally well for inner monologue, which is the direct presentation of a character’s thoughts to the reader. It’s almost like the character speaking to the reader, but without explicitly breaking that “fourth wall.” Use these techniques to make your inner monologue every bit as distinctive and consistent as your outer dialogue.
Dialogue is a very powerful tool for showing character. It pays to get it right. Dialogue that really sparkles is a joy to write and a thrill to read. But wooden dialogue that clanks like tin in the ear only shows the reader that your characters weren’t real enough to you. In which case, why should they be to the reader?
December 03, 2009 21:08 UTC
Character Corner: "Return Policy" by Michael Snyder
First, let’s keep the FTC’s new blogger disclosure monitor people happy: I got a free copy of Return Policy from a book giveaway on K.M. Weiland’s blog. Neither of these fine folks expected me to review it at all. (But note, you can find them as “@snydermanwrites” and “@KMWeiland” on Twitter.)
Ok. I finished reading Return Policy a couple of weeks ago. It was a solid midlist novel. Entertaining. Very funny in spots, very moving and compelling in others, but here and there I felt the plot was weak. At a couple of critical spots, characters both major and minor fail to do obvious things that, had they done them, would have avoided a lot of trouble that Snyder obviously wanted create for his poor characters. Snyder may be an author to watch, but this isn’t likely to be his breakout book. I give it three stars.
On to the characters. Snyder has three principal characters in this book, and each one is told from the first person POV. That’s a bold choice, because it demands a very high level of craft to keep the characters distinct. It’s the right choice for this book, because first person POV allows him to clearly convey each character’s different opinions and attitudes towards one another and their different interpretations of the book’s plot events. Much of the story’s nuance hinges on the types of miscommunications that can arise from people’s different opinions and interpretations, so going with first person was effective for that.
Snyder structured the book as a sequence of scenes that switch round-robin among the POV characters. But judging by the number of times I found myself confused in the middle of dialogue as to who was saying what, or having to backtrack to remember which character ‘owned’ the scene, I’d say Snyder has some work to do in making the characters distinctive in their details. Their broad strokes are clearly different, but down in the nitty-gritty of words on the page, at times I found them running together.
Wally Finneran is the book’s central character. He’s a divorced guy with a pretty bleak outlook on life, but given his backstory (which I won’t spoil) you can hardly blame him. One thing I found interesting about Wally is that he’s a writer. I know, cliche alert, right? How many times have we seen writers take “write what you know” a little too seriously and write about characters who are writers? But in this case Snyder makes it work because Wally is not exactly a fan of his own stuff. In fact, he thinks he’s crap, which ends up being pretty amusing. [Update: having recently re-read something I wrote 3 years, ago, I know exactly how Wally feels.]
My main problem with Wally is that overall, he’s too passive. Wally spends way too much of the book letting events push him around, before he finally grows a pair and exerts some sort of influence over his destiny. While his backstory makes this believable, I still ended up feeling sorry for him more than I actually rooted for him. To be fair, I think much of the point of the book was to force Wally not to be so passive. There’s nothing wrong with that as a character arc. This may be a matter of my own tastes as much as anything, it didn’t really grab me.
Shaq is a mentally ill dude who lives at a homeless shelter. For my money, Shaq was the most interesting character in the book, and he’s where Snyder really shines. Snyder did a great job of portraying Shaq’s particular variety of crazy-slash-incapacitated in a way that was both believable and at the same time didn’t reduce him to another pitiable wretch of a character. For all of Shaq’s problems and hardships, he left the man with his share of dignity.
But here’s the twist: Snyder also used Shaq’s mental problems to drive some of the book’s central and most compelling mysteries. And he did it really, really well. Read Return Policy for that if nothing else, and pay attention. It’s a marvelous example of using character flaws to drive mystery.
Ozena is a telephone service representative for an espresso machine company. She is in many ways the book’s emotional heart, its source of warmth and compassion. She is perhaps the character I empathized with the most, because Snyder did a very nice job conveying her mixture of unfailing love for her very high-maintenance, special needs son. I know how hard it is raising normal kids; they’re high maintenance enough. I can’t even imagine the toll that year after year of caring for her little Leroy Jr. would take, knowing that he’ll never grow up like other kids. But she loves him anyway, and Snyder’s portrayal of this whole package—the emotional and logistical complications of Ozena’s life—was very genuine and tender. I liked Ozena.
As I said, I got a free copy of the book, which probably biases me in some inevitable fashion towards it. But despite the book’s plot weaknesses, I wouldn’t have been sorry had I paid list price for it. In the end, it is a portrait of three people, each in their own ways coping with tragedy. Snyder does yeoman work in making three people’s very different reactions to tragedy all feel believable. I like books about characters (no surprise there), and this book has three good ones. If you’re like me in that regard, give it a try.
November 13, 2009 00:30 UTC
Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits
We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.
Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.
I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).
Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.
Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.
First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.
A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.
Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:
Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.
Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:
Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?
With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.
Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.
But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.
Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.
August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC
Un-Clone your characters with distinctive dialogue
In yesterday’s post, I wanted to cover everything about using dialogue effectively to show character, as well as warning of some of the pitfalls. Oh, naive blogger, ye! That’s a whole book, not a blog post, so I’m taking it in smaller bites. Today I’m covering some tips and tricks for creating distinctive dialogue for your characters.
Writing dialogue is hard for a lot of reasons. One, as I said yesterday, is that all readers are experts in dialogue. But another is that we are each so deeply steeped in our own patterns of speech that we have trouble thinking in different patterns of speech for the characters we create.
If we don’t work to avoid it, all of our characters end up sounding like us. And thus, they all sound like clones.
There are a lot of strategies for avoiding this bland fate, and you’ll have to experiment with what works for you.
Strategy #1: Imitate people you know.
Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and Caribbean English. America and the United Kingdom have many linguistically distinct regions within them, and I imagine the same is true for Australia and the rest. So think about people you know who didn’t grow up where you grew up, and try to imitate them.
If you have a character that comes from a place with a distinctive patois, you should take particular pains to learn enough so you can imitate it. Just think about the immediate difference between “Good morning,” “G’day, mate,” and “Good mawnin’, braddah.” Even an otherwise throw-away line of dialogue can be made to show character if it is distinctive.
Strategy #2: Create mannerisms
Most people have at least a few verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy once who sounded entirely normal to me, except he used “whenever” in places everyone else would simply use “when.” Myself, when I was about 12 years old, I developed this habit of inserting the word “basically” into nearly every sentence that came out of my mouth. Fortunately I got over it but you get the idea: for each of your characters, create some particular phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately understandable. And make sure to keep straight which characters have which particular tics.
Strategy #3: Formal vs. informal vs. slang
Some people are very formal in their speech. Some are more casual. Some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality you can draw from, and you should. Degrees of formality are excellent tools for showing a character’s level of education and social background. Yes, it’s stereotypical that upper-class people with more education tend to speak more formally, while lower-class people with little education speak in a streetwise vernacular. I know, we shouldn’t stereotype people, but then again the stereotype wouldn’t exist if it weren’t more or less true. Again, consider the immediate difference between “Would you be so kind as to get me a drink,” and “Yo, my man, grab me a beer!”
If you play it right, you can create some very distinctive characters by explicitly manipulating the character’s level of formality in different scenes. For example, if you have a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard to put himself through college and become an upper-middle class professional, this person may well use different speech patterns at work versus hanging out with his old pals on the weekend. It’s a great device for showing the character’s dilemma of trying to fit into two different worlds.
Ok, so how do I actually do that?
Obviously, it’s best if you can work out each character’s manner of speech before you write the novel. That way, you can get it right from the beginning. If you’re one of those writers who creates extensive character biographies beforehand, this is something you could easily incorporate into your pre-novel-writing preparation. Write some sample scenes for your characters so you can practice their voices.
But not everyone works that way. Some writers only come to know their characters in the process of writing the books, so what then? That’s fine, so long as you’re willing to accept that you’ll need to do an edit pass specifically to address these questions of distinctive voice. Just write the first draft, do your best as you go along, but don’t stress about it.
When you’ve finished the first draft, make a list for each character of the verbal patterns you have discovered for them. These could consist of notes like “sounds like my friend Elwyn,” or “says ‘very very’ instead of ‘really’ or ‘a lot’.” Stuff like that. Now compare your lists to make sure they aren’t too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have a good handle on each character’s voice, do an edit pass on the whole book and adjust every line of dialogue to fit with the speaker’s verbal patterns.
Finally, a word of caution:
There is a difference between how people sound when they talk, and the words they choose to say. The physical sound—how they shape their vowels, whether they roll their Rs—that’s accent. The patterns of words they use, that’s dialect. As an author, you have to learn to control both.
Dialect is straightforward, because it’s just words, but accent is harder. To represent accent on the silent page, you must often resort to intentional misspellings. When done well that can be very effective, but it is all too easy to take the business of accenting way too far, turning it into an ugly caricature that borders on a racist portrayal. Few things will turn a reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.
Also, it is just plain hard to invent accent-oriented misspellings that give the sound you’re after but are also easy for the reader to understand. Some writers have a flair for this, but most don’t. For this reason I encourage most of my clients to stick with word-pattern distinctions but shun the accents.
July 15, 2009 18:17 UTC
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