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Unpack Your Characters

Diana here:

Unpack Your Character and Let Them Be Real

Have you spent hours, days, even weeks filling out questionnaires about your characters? Most writers have done this when we first begin our careers. At some point, you have to stop. Pages and pages of data about your character from the time they started kindergarten, what their favorite color is, and who their favorite Disney princess is won’t move your story forward.

So what can you do?

If you already have the list, keep it, there are some gems there if you ask why.

Let’s unpack the mermaid example.

Why did she pick the mermaid’s name over the princess with enough hair to braid for a prince to climb? Perhaps your heroine has a desire to be a scuba diver.

Why hasn’t she tried?  She’s terrified of water because she once fell off a boat and almost drowned.

Why the desire to be a mermaid?  If she’d had been a mermaid, she wouldn’t have to be afraid to go back out into deep water.

Now, make this count. Your mermaid is up for a promotion at work, the new position will allow her to travel something she’s been dreaming about forever, but what’s this? She has to go with the client on a deep-sea fishing cruise. If she says no, it’s not going to look good, and Pushy Pricilla who’s been one step behind your mermaid since the day she started working at the company will be eager to take the job.

Now your readers have a reason to care, to cheer your mermaid onto that boat, and they'll stick with her as she falls off the boat--you know she has to get in the water right?

What if you don’t have a list?

Start with the why of your character. You probably have a name, a story idea and possibly a career picked out. From there start asking why this idea and job connect or don’t connect.

What’s reason for him/her to continue getting up and going to work every day?

Why is it important to your character to wear a certain item (is it an heirloom? Or a watch with a timer to remind her to take a life-saving medication?

Maybe she’s decided to stream line her life so everything in her closet and jewelry box has to coordinate—wait—if that’s the reason then ask why is that important to her and what happens if she can’t do that one morning?

Look at your best friends. Sure you could fill in a character questionnaire about them, but on paper would you recognize them? No. They’d be flat, could be one of the hundreds of people that like the color blue, have blonde hair, and watch black and white movies. Look closer though, and ask why?

Why do your best friends pick a certain restaurant?
Why does he only drive Chevy trucks?
Why won’t she eat shrimp?

Your friends are complicated; they carry around virtual suitcases filled with the answers to the question why and so do your characters—all of them, even the waitress at the diner who jumps every time a fork hits the floor.

Unpack your characters, and your stories will have readers flipping pages to find out what happens.

Writing Unusual Dialogue

Liz here.

As a reader, an author, and an editor, I've both written and edited books with foreign words or other unusual speech and dialogue. What is the best way to go about writing unusual speech that will get across the idea of some type of accent without alienating your readers?

Foreign words: My WWII books are all set in foreign countries and populated by non-Americans, for the most part. For Snow on the Tulips, in which the characters would be speaking either Dutch or Fries, I had them say yes, no, thank you, good-bye, and other such simple phrases in one of those languages. I'll admit, it was a clunky first attempt. Fortunately, I had an editor ready to help me out. Here are some hints I've learned along the way.
  • Try to use the context to give the meaning of the word or phrase. My publisher had me put in a glossary, but I didn't want readers to have to keep referring to it. For example: My sweet, sweet Anna, my beruško. While I don't give away the meaning of the word beruško, from the context, you can figure that it is a term of endearment. Or this: Schnell, schnell. The Germans wanted them to do everything fast. Even if you don't know that schnell means hurry up, you could figure it out from sentence following it. 
  • Be very sure you are using the foreign words correctly. I wanted to have one of my British characters use the word bloody. To Americans, there's nothing really offensive about that, but there is to the British. I removed it. I always try to have someone who speaks the language look over the manuscript to make sure I'm not using the word incorrectly or using an offensive term. 
  • Use foreign words sparsely. Pick a few words, easy ones for the readers to remember, and use them consistently throughout the book. Don't keep throwing in new terms on every page. The goal is to give the flavor of the foreign language, not make your readers fluent in the language. Tripping them up with tons of foreign words will only frustrate them. That's the last thing you want to do. 
  • Study the language you're trying to imitate. I spend quite a while watching videos of people speaking the languages my characters speak in. I also listen to native speakers of those languages speak English. This gives an idea of the cadence of their speech and how they construct sentences. You can use that to give the reader a flavor of the foreign language. For example, instead of saying, "I had three eggs for breakfast," your character might say, "Three eggs I had for breakfast." 
Accents: Like with characters who speak foreign languages, writing characters with strong accents can be a challenge. I've stopped reading historical books with slaves as main characters because the author felt the need to write the dialogue just as it would have been spoken. The awkward writing, all those contractions and such, drove me crazy. I couldn't slog through it anymore. As with foreign languages, give a flavor of the accent. For example, when I became dear friends with a woman from deep in Georgia, I discovered that Southerners call all women by their first name with a miss in front, regardless of their marital status. So, I would be Miss Liz. In the north, we use Mr. and Mrs. This is one way you could convey the accent, the differences in speech, without sending your readers over the cliff.

Historical speech: When you write historical fiction, it's great to be able to throw in some historically accurate speech. In my WWII novella set on the home front,

it was fun have the character talk about her father flipping his wig. And when she got frustrated, she said, "Oh, applesauce." I searched for 1940s slang, double checked that these were indeed terms used at the time, and picked out a couple of my favorites. It lends a great sense of the time period when you can do that. Watch out that the terms your characters are using aren't too modern. While it would be hard to read a book about the Pilgrims with dialogue written just the way they speak, you also shouldn't have them using terms like, "That's groovy."

How do you go about writing unusual dialogue?

Create Tension with Dialouge

Jen here:

Dialogue is not only a way to learn about our characters, it also is a way to create tension.

Dialogue is NOT supposed to be “just like real conversation.” Most “real conversation” is boring! Dialogue should not be boring.

•       Should create an illusion of a conversation
•       Must advance the Plot
•       Should reveal the Characters by:
o       Word choices. “Good day, sir” is different from “G’day, mate!”
o       Syntax. “I’m doing excellently, thank you” is different from “I be fine.”
o       What. “Let’s look for a win-win situation, shall we?” is different from “I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
o       Your characters should sound different from each other.
•       Can explain the StoryWorld, but be careful. Avoid, “As you know, Bob…”
•       Can reveal backstory, but be very careful! Don’t tell her life story.
•       May even expound the Theme, but be very, very careful. Don’t preach.
•       Isn’t always the truth. Characters lie, say what they think others want to hear, or say what they’d really like to believe is true.

Pre-write your dialogue
As you sketch out your scene, think about what kind of dialogue would happen.

•       What is the point of the scene? What’s the Disaster or Dilemma? What are you showing or trying to prove in this scene? Why does it exist?
•       What is the agenda of each person in the conversation?
•       Do they get what they want out of it?
•       Does the other person believe what they are saying? Why or why not?
•       What is the body language of each person conveying, and is it different than what the words are conveying?

Basic dialogue Rules

•       Every time a new person speaks (or thinks or reacts), they get a new paragraph.
•       Use quotation marks to set off the things people say.
•       Be very judicious in the use of adverbs and adjectives (she said longingly, she said compassionately) in dialogue tags. They can be extremely distracting. Use body language, internal thought, and context to let the reader know what’s going on in the scene. If all else fails, use “said,” which is invisible to readers.
•       Know the rules about which punctuation goes in or out of quotation marks
•       Put thoughts in italics but not in quotation marks. If someone says, “I’m so happy to see you!” but they are thinking You dirty rat while they say it, that would look like this:
“I’m so happy to see you!” I said. You dirty rat. In Deep POV, the italics will be limited because we are already in the character’s head. Use italics only for a direct thought.
•       Example: “I’m so happy to see you!” You dirty rat!
•       Or “I’m so happy to see you!” But really, he was a dirty rat.

Action beats: beyond he said, she said.
Action tags reveal Character.
•       “No way!” Jack slammed his fist into the wall. “I can’t believe he asked you to the prom.”
•       “No way!” Ashley hugged her best friend Sarah and squealed. “I can’t believe he asked you to the prom!”
They tell us who is talking.
•       “This has conk rot,” a logger yelled from the top of a tree. “It’s no good. Check the others.” (We see who’s talking, where he’s at, and his yelling injects emotion.)
•       “I’ve been away at school for some time.” Becca glanced out the window.
They give us information on the setting.
•       “Soon as I get the horses and stage put away,” Josh replied, climbing back in the driver’s seat.
•       Maggie pulled out a chair for her at the kitchen table. “I have some biscuits from breakfast and some of last year’s strawberry preserves left still. There’s coffee, or I could make you tea if that’d sit better.”

Whenever you can, make your action beats do double or triple duty. Go beyond who’s talking. Let the action show us where we are, the character’s emotions and state of mind.

Final Tip
Read your dialogue out loud. Even though it’s not “real,” it should still sound real and flow well.

•       Go to the above scenes and rewrite from another character’s POV. How does that change the scene? Does it make it more emotionally compelling? Or less?
•       Write a scene with interior monologue. Then rewrite it as dialogue. Which works better? Or is it a combination of both?
•       Go back to any exercise above and look at your dialogue tags. Can you make them do double or triple duty?