Top nine character development tips of 2009
If you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing a “best of” post to cap off my blog, I’d have said “What blog?”
What a difference a year makes. Without further ado, here are my top nine character development tips from the past year. Enjoy, and raise a glass to 2010. May all your characters come to life, and your books to unimagined success!
*9. Do you know the right way to use backstory?* Because a lot of writers don’t. It’s easy to get seduced by your excitement over the characters you’ve created, and in your zeal to share with the reader, dump a lot of plodding backstory into the novel in ways that kill the pacing and the intrigue. This article talks about using backstory to support and build your novel’s mysteries.
*8. Drive a stake through your character’s heart.* If you’re writing a vampire novel, you may or may not want to take that literally. In this article, I don’t mean it literally, but rather, I show a technique for raising the stakes in your novel by challenging a character’s assumptions about who they are: an identity crisis may suck in real life, but it can do wonders to elevate a novel.
*7. Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?* The typical outer character arc is all about characters changing and growing by learning from the events of a novel. But there’s another kind of character arc, the inner kind, which stems from resolving differences in the perceptions that characters have about each other.
*6. Do your characters’ flaws work on more than one level?* The tragically flawed hero or heroine is a workhorse element of much fiction. As readers, we like to see characters who aren’t too perfect, because we can empathize with them better. But as a writer, are you taking advantage of your characters’ flaws to enhance the drama in your plot as well?
*5. Don’t forget to revise your characters too* After National Novel Writing Month wrapped up, I wrote about a series of techniques you can apply while revising your novel to strengthen your characters. This series covers everything from speech patterns and mannerisms to deep issues of motivation and goals. Characters are the soul of fiction, so it pays to make them as vivid and lifelike as you can.
*4. Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?* Most of us have our first, formative writing experiences in school, where we learn to use the passive voice to put the emphasis on the facts we’re conveying rather than on ourselves. But when we begin to write fiction, passive voice becomes the kiss of death. Not because it hides the author from the reader, but because it hides your characters from the reader.
*3. Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?* Nearly everything in a novel reflects in some way on the characters. In this article, I show how characters can be damaged quite unintentionally by the gaps between scenes and chapters in a novel, and teach you how to build bridges over those gaps for your characters to cross.
*2. Hook ‘em with character* Every novel needs a good hook. You have to grab the reader’s attention and get them interested in what happens next. Plot-oriented hooks can be quite effective, but they’re not the whole story. Character-oriented hooks are quite powerful as well. In this article, I explain how a great hook shows character through conflict.
*1. The five stages of grief* Number one for the year is this article about the five stages of grief model of emotional response. Nothing makes a character come across as wooden and unbelievable faster than when their emotional responses aren’t believable, and nothing kills a novel faster than when this happens at a moment of high drama. You can fix both by getting the emotions right, and in this article I show a template for creating believable, compelling emotional responses for the most dramatic moments in a novel: when bad things happen.
Happy new year, and I’ll see you all in 2010.
December 29, 2009 17:15 UTC
How to revise your character arcs
This is the final installment, part 6, in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. This is the big one. Today, we talk about character arcs.
The goal of a character arc is to present believable personal growth for your main characters, and to provide a feeling of emotional closure. Yes, successful books can and have been written without any meaningful growth in the character, or with no emotional closure at the end. Thrillers are the typical example of this type of book.
But to omit the character arc, even in a gripping, page-turning thriller, is a lost opportunity. As I’ve said before, a character arc is a way to elevate your novel to another level above and beyond run-of-the-mill books in your genre. The emotional closure provided by leaving your characters wiser at the end of the book than the beginning also leaves the reader wiser. It leaves the reader with the feeling that reading the book was a valuable use of their time, above and beyond the simple enjoyment they were expecting when they bought it.
Have you got any character arc already?
If you do, great. If the arc was intentional, even better. Skip ahead to the next section.
But what if you don’t? If you haven’t considered your protagonist’s personal growth before, where do you look for inspiration? You look to the plot, and look to yourself.
In the plot, look for obstacles of a similar nature that the protagonist faces at various points. For example, let’s say the protagonist gets in a lot of arguments in the course of the book, which is a problem because she’s constantly turning people into minor enemies who no longer want to be helpful to her. Possibilities for character arc include learning some better negotiation and conflict resolution skills, or some introspection. Maybe she could ponder, since arguments always seem to be happening to her, whether she’s the problem. Maybe she can figure out what she’s saying or thinking that tends to trigger these arguments. Revise the early dialogue scenes to more clearly portray her problematic interaction style. Likewise, revise dialogue scenes that take place later in the book to show her practicing not getting in arguments and having better outcomes with people. If she can learn that she was her own worst enemy, even in that one small aspect of her whole life, then you can leave her a better person at the end of the book.
If your plot doesn’t offer any obvious character arc material, then look to yourself. Ask yourself what you know now that you didn’t know when you were younger. What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to give your younger-self one piece of advice? Or, as literary agent Donald Maass put it in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
I do not believe you have no opinions. It is simply not possible that you have never observed a fact of human nature or uncovered a social irony. You are an aware, observant and discerning person. You are a novelist.
So take your observations of human nature, and find a way to show them through your protagonist’s experiences. Take care, though. It’s easy to be very clumsy in adding a message of this type to a book, which only leaves the reader feeling like you’ve hit them over the head with it. You don’t want to do that. To be subtle about it, you never want to tell the message. You want to show it so the reader sees it for themselves. Show it so the reader leaves the book feeling like the message is their own observation about life, not yours. Consider what your message is, then find a series of events that create a character arc which conveys that message without you ever having to spell it out explicitly.
Is your character arc well portrayed?
Remember, being believable is an important part of a character arc. You can’t just toss one into the mix and expect it to magically integrate with everything else in the novel. You want to look at a couple of things with respect to believability.
One is whether the character’s other attributes, the ones the rest of this revision series has talked about, track the character arc. Use the character’s visible attributes, everything the rest of this revision series has talked about, to show the otherwise invisible process of personal growth.
So ask yourself, is the arc reflected appropriately in the character’s dialogue? In their mannerisms? In their attitudes? Depending on the arc, it may even be reflected in the character’s body. For example, if your book starts out with an out-of-shape protagonist having a heart attack, then you can use physical health, strength, and stamina as external reflections of the character’s inner growth.
The other is whether the arc is too clean, too neat-and-tidy, to be believable. Real people, much as they strive to better themselves in earnest, have setbacks. People who are trying to quit smoking sometimes sneak a cigarette in a moment of stress, knowing they really shouldn’t. Recovering alcoholics sometimes fall off the wagon. Parents who are doing their best to raise their kids with love and compassion sometimes get pushed too far and yell anyway.
To be believable, a character arc needs to show believable progress, which usually means including the occasional setback. Certainly it includes initial stages where the character is trying to change but still isn’t doing very well with it. There’s nothing worse than a character arc that is really more of a stair-step: when the character goes from realizing they have a problem to immediately being cured of it. People are creatures of habit , and habits are hard to change. Don’t forget to show the struggle to change along with the change itself.
Although writers can spend a lifetime refining the techniques of portraying believable characters, in everything from dialogue to character arcs, that’s going to do it for this character revision series. If you’ve read the whole thing, thank you! I hope it has helped trigger some new ideas, give you some new tools to work with, and expose you to some strategies for thinking about character portrayal that will help elevate your novels above the run-of-the-mill.
After all, the only way out of the slushpile is up.
December 09, 2009 19:26 UTC
How to revise your characters attitudes
This is part 5 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. So far in this series we’ve covered most of the superficial and mid-level aspects of your character, their dialogue, their mannerisms, and their bodies.
Today, we’re moving deeper to talk about attitudes: the opinions and beliefs your characters hold that shape the choices they make and the way they interact with other people.
There are three important goals you should strive for when revising attitudes: One, creating complexity. Do your characters hold complex views about life, just like real people? This is the time to take one-dimensional characters and flesh them out into believable human beings. Two, ensuring consistency. Real people’s attitudes tend to cluster into well established groups according to social, cultural, economic, political, and religious lines. This is the time to make sure that your characters’ beliefs fit together into a unified whole. Three, differentiating characters from one another both to create drama and believability in the whole work. After all, no two people hold the same attitudes about everything, and those differences are the source of much excellent drama.
Consider the individual
The first two goals, complexity and consistency, are ones you can tackle by considering your characters one at a time.
If you’re the sort of writer who does extensive character development before writing the book, you likely already have copious notes about what everyone in your book believes. Review these notes and make sure that your characters don’t sound like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Especially if you have used shortcuts like “slick used car salesman” to create a quick mental picture of a character, now is the time to dig deeper. Sure, maybe your used car salesman will do or say anything to close the deal, but ask yourself, is that really true? Would he really sell a lemon to a single mother who he knows won’t be able to afford the car’s inevitable repair bills? Does he consider all customers equally, or is he biased against low-income or minority buyers who walk onto his lot? It’s all up to you, but ask yourself whether particular answers to questions like that will give you opportunities to align or clash with other characters.
If you didn’t do any particular character development , that’s ok too. This is a great occasion to discover your characters’ beliefs by interviewing them. Browse around online to find one of those “lists of 100 questions to answer about your characters” that pop up on so many writing websites. Find one you like, and write a scene at a cafe or something where you, the author, literally have a conversation with the character. Now that you’ve finished the novel, you probably have a gut feel for the character’s attitudes even if you can’t name them specifically. Conducting an interview is a great way to discover the specifics behind that gut feel. Again, look at the results and ask whether they are complex enough, and whether there are opportunities for change that will create drama later.
Whichever method you used, consider whether any of a character’s attitudes clash with the rest of what that person feels and believes. Are any particular beliefs against-type for the character’s social, ethnic, or economic background? If not, that’s fine. If so you can either change it to enhance that character’s portrayal as a representative of their background, or leave the clash but work to find a justification for it.
For example, if you have a teenager who is a devout fundamentalist Christian but who also believes that pre-marital sex is ok, you’ve got a clash. You can make the character fall in line with his peers, or else come up with a reason for it. Maybe he was himself the product of a pre-marital affair. He knows he wouldn’t exist without pre-marital sex. On a certain level, he owes his life to it. And since he can also feel God’s love personally in how own life regardless of his parents’ marital status, he has trouble getting too worked up about that particular issue.
Consistency in attitudes should also apply across the whole book, except to the degree that the character grows or changes over the course of the book. The overall character arc (which I’ll cover at the end of this series) may well be structured around changing one or more of a character’s attitudes through the events of the plot. That’s a good thing, but that’s something I’ll cover more in the next installment.
Consider the cast
Before you go jumping into your manuscript to adjust all your individual characters, spend some time considering the attitudes of your cast as a whole. In this, you are looking for ways to heighten the drama, create opportunities for conflict and obstacles, and create the sort of moral ambiguity that so often occurs in real life.
Allies. Look at who in your book is allied with who else, and find ways to differentiate their attitudes from one another. This is a great way to create internal tension within the group. If you can do this for one or more beliefs which guide the group’s decision at key points in the book, you also immediately elevate the drama surrounding those decisions. Will the group go one person’s way, or another’s, or will the group split up? You can have some great arguments and confrontations around what the best thing to do is, when allied characters differ in their core beliefs.
Adversaries. The other way to do is to look at pairs of characters who are adversaries, and find ways to give them similar attitudes to each other. You can leave your protagonists with some terribly difficult decisions to make if they discover that they are not so very different from their antagonists. It can also work tremendously well to give adversaries the same core belief, but have them interpret it in radically different ways.
You might, for example, have adversaries who were once allies in the environmental movement, except one of them decided that the best way to fight climate change is to promote renewable energy while the other decided that the best way was mass murder. One is attacking the supply-side of the energy economy, while the other is attacking the demand side. Literally. If the FBI calls your hero to help stop the eco-terrorist before he wipes Los Angeles off the map, your hero may have some tricky moral questions to resolve: yes, murder is wrong, but climate change itself stands to kill a lot more people so maybe the villain’s brutally expedient strategy isn’t so wrong in the big picture. At any rate, the hero can certainly empathize with the villain’s point of view, which can give you some great drama.
You can mix-and-match those strategies, of course, but even when applied exactly as I’ve described they both work just fine.
Attitudes and beliefs start to get into who your characters are on a deep, personal level. I don’t encourage you to change their attitudes willy-nilly. Be thoughtful about it. But undeniably, conflicts and unexpected alignments in attitudes are both opportunities for strengthening your characters and your plot at the same time. So many novels suffer from flat characterization and the dreaded “sagging middle.” Making strategic choices about your characters attitudes and beliefs offers you the opportunity to fix both at the same time.
December 09, 2009 00:03 UTC
How to revise your characters' physical attributes
This is part 4 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Last time I talked about mannerisms, the “fingerprint of motion” of the character. Today, I’m going to talk about the working with the character’s actual fingerprint. Or more broadly, ways you can link the character’s physical body to everything else: beliefs, attitudes, fears, goals, and obstacles.
As with the earlier articles in this series, one of the goals is consistency. You can’t describe a character as blonde in chapter one but redhead in chapter seven unless you’ve also shown us a hair dye scene. I’ve covered techniques for achieving consistency earlier, so I won’t rehash those here. They work for this as well as for dialogue and mannerisms.
Going deeper, the goal is to sculpt a character’s body to serve the story’s ends. The characters you’ve put in your novel have their wants and desires, they have their quirks and foibles. If you’ve followed any of my past advice or your own good storytelling instincts, you’ll have found ways to link those things to your plot. But your character needs a body, too. Don’t just give them any random body. Take some time to think about what body best helps you link their desires and foibles to that plot.
After all, the body is the means by which the character does everything they ever do (with the possible exception of paranormal stories). The body is also the means through with the character experiences the entire world. After all, mind and body come in the same package, and the two do affect one another.
Bodies through time
Characters have history. So do their bodies. The two should be tightly linked. Consider your characters’ personality traits, and whether those fit with their bodies. Not just their bodies as they are now, but as they were in the past, too. From decade to decade, our bodies change in both major and minor ways. You can use that to strengthen the portrayal of personality traits.
For example, let’s say you have a character who is timid. Maybe this is an important part of the character’s arc; overcoming his fear of confrontation is central to the story, so you can’t change it without turning your story into something entirely different. But maybe you also need the character to be a total slab of beefcake. That’s bound to jar the reader. It’s a little odd to imagine a big buff dude who is timid. After all, who’s going to pick on him? Who’s going to look at him and say “I want to pick a fight with that guy.” Nobody. So what’s he got to be timid about?
Well, bodies change over time. Maybe he wasn’t always so big. Maybe he was a scrawny kid during his formative years, constantly teased, picked on, beat up, and given wedgies throughout grade school and high school. Maybe he didn’t really fill out and gain his adult stature until he was in college. His body changed, but by that point he had internalized that self-image of weakness, of being the victim. Timidity doesn’t clash with being big and strong, if you give it the right backstory.
Alternately, you might decide it was a mistake to go with a big beefy body. You may have had some reason for doing that initially, but as so often happens, the story took a different turn than you expected and now that choice doesn’t quite play out like you thought. No problem. Change the body. Leave him scrawny as an adult, too.
As you revise, ask yourself whether you have any surface-level clashes that readers might wonder about, ones you can fix with backstory. And don’t freak out if you find a clash. Yes, it’s something you have to fix, but in a good way: it’s a wonderful opportunity to create a mystery for the reader to wonder about, to hook them further into your story by making them curious about your characters. Make the reader wonder why the big beefy guy is so timid.
Bodies to enhance or create obstacles
We all know that a good story is driven by an ongoing series of obstacles characters must overcome. Take a look at the obstacles in your story, and ask yourself whether any of these can be enhanced by changing something about your character’s body. Similarly, look for places in your novel where the pace seems to slow down—the dreaded “sagging middle” syndrome—and ask whether you can create an obstacle by changing something about your character’s body.
If the answer is “yes,” then figure out whether you want to go big or go small with the change. On the big side, these are typically permanent conditions. Disabilities, congenital conditions, or major illnesses that you can work to the story’s advantage. This is a good time to brainstorm: what would happen if your character were in a wheelchair? What if the character were missing a thumb or an entire hand? What about achondroplastic dwarfism or maybe some kind of palsy? How about a joint disease, like rheumatoid arthritis? Or gout, which doesn’t change one’s appearance but which can be debilitatingly painful?
It can be easy to go over-the-top with permanent conditions and into the land of melodrama. Try not to do that. Adding a permanent physical ailment to a character shouldn’t be done lightly, by any stretch, because it means you will have to re-think a great many scenes in the book. You’ll have to re-evaluate whether the character can actually do literally everything he or she does in the novel. You also don’t want the condition to seem like a cheap trick to score pity points with the reader. Be careful and tasteful about it, and be absolutely sure to find a credible backstory for it. The upside is that the possibility for drama in ordinary scenes is greatly enhanced. For a character with rheumatoid arthritis, just replying to a piece of e-mail can be a big deal.
Going small means something temporary, usually a recoverable injury, but also a chronic condition that can come and go. For example, maybe your sagging middle includes a scene where your hero helps his bookie move into a new apartment as partial repayment of a gambling debt. In your first draft, maybe he does the job, the bookie lays off, and all is well. But what fun is that? It would, after all, be a pretty inopportune time for the character’s bad back to start acting up. Faced with the choice of hefting couches and recliner chairs for an afternoon or having the bookie’s goons break his kneecaps, he may well simply down a bunch of Tylenol and hope for the best.
Maybe he gets through the afternoon, and the bookie lays off like you need to have happen for the rest of the plot, but the hero really messes up his back. He ends up with an addiction to prescription painkillers just so he can go to work every day. Suddenly, the boring scene in the sagging middle becomes a tragic moment, leaving the hero with a problem that makes the entire rest of the plot more challenging (thus, more dramatic and less sagging) than before.
Now that you’ve finished the first draft of the novel, you know the character’s personality traits a lot better than you did at the beginning of the book. But the beginning of the book is probably where you picked the character’s body type. Revision is a perfect time to think about whether your original choice works like you thought it would, and whether a different choice could work even better.
Similarly, now that you’ve finished the first draft, you know the outer plot a whole lot better than you did when you started. Revision is the perfect time to look for issues there too, and ask whether you can revise your character’s physical body to help fix them.
December 07, 2009 19:20 UTC
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
Don't forget to revise your characters too
To everyone who completed NaNoWriMo, and to everyone who has finished a manuscript in any timeframe, congratulations!
Now begins revision, strengthening the parts of your book you weren’t happy with when you wrote them, or that readers have told you don’t work very well. But as you revise your story’s weak plot points, as you iron out geographic inconsistencies in street names, historical details of clothing and social customs, don’t forget to revise your characters, too.
Plots are important, sure, but the heart of any story is its characters. They deserve to be every bit as polished and well-crafted as your plot. There are plenty of great writing blogs with advice on fixing plot issues, building tension, raising the stakes, and all of that. I won’t cover any of that.
Instead, this article is the first in series on techniques for strengthening your characters during revision. Over the next several days, I’ll cover these areas where revision can greatly improve your characters:
I’ve said it before on this blog, but dialogue is a marvelously powerful tool for exhibiting your characters’ inner workings to the reader. But with that power comes danger: get the dialogue wrong, and the characters fall flat. In revision, your goal is to create consistent, distinctive voices for each character. Each character should be immediately recognizable through the way they speak. What they say and how they say it should reveal a lot about them. Click here to read how to revise your dialogue
I touched on these a little bit in an earlier article about habits. Much as with dialogue, mannerisms are also wonderful windows into your characters’ souls. In revision, your goal is to display consistent patterns of mannerisms, but also to find ways to use those behaviors to display your characters’ mental states. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ mannerisms
This isn’t an area I have covered in much depth on this blog—not yet, anyway—except possibly for this article about stealing a character’s shoes. I apologize for that; it would be helpful to have some good background reading to point you at before talking about revision techniques, but it’ll have to wait. Suffice it to say that a character’s mind and body come in a single package, and I’ll be talking about ways to link physical traits to the attitudes you need the character to have as well as to the personal growth they may undergo. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ physical attributes
Attitudes—our complete sets of opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and values—govern how we interact with others and guide the choices we make in any given situation. The same is true for your characters. In this installment, I’ll be covering ways to ensure that your characters’ attitudes are as complex as a real person’s (not cardboard-cutout characters), as well as strategies for using the attitudes of individual characters and your whole cast to enhance the drama in your story. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ attitudes
Last of all is the big one: character arc. Mainstream thrillers can, and often do, get away with plots in which the protagonists don’t learn and grow at all over the course of the book. They leave the final chapter no wiser about life or about themselves than they were on page one. That’s an enormous missed opportunity to elevate a book from merely entertaining to moving and meaningful. You may still elect to have a laser-straight character arc in your book, but I at least aim to give you some tools you can use to put some juicy bends in that arc. Click here to read how to revise your character arcs
Don’t think of these as four discrete items to add to your must-fix-in-editing list. They don’t work in pure isolation from each other. Physical attributes, for example, can have a bearing on a character’s mannerisms and attitudes. Rather, treat these areas and the techniques I’ll be covering as a mental framework for evaluating your characters, for teaching yourself how to see what needs to be fixed. Expect to go back and forth with them, moving from one area to another as you see opportunities where they can build on one another.
I hope you’ll stay tuned to the rest of this series, in which I’ll give you practical, in-depth and hands-on tips for addressing those four areas. If you apply them diligently, then when you are done revising you will have characters who are every bit the equal of your plot.
December 02, 2009 19:14 UTC
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