Saturday, 9 July 2011

Memorable Characters Part 3

This is my third blog on writing memorable characters, and deals with dialogue.

Dialogue is the voice of your characters, and along with their actions and thoughts, tell the story of who they are and what they want. So it’s important to make every word of their dialogue count. 

In real life, day to day conversations can be monotonous. Here is a sample of 4 lines of dialogue between 2 characters:

“You’re late.”
“I know.”
“What happened?”
“My car broke down.”

Everyone has conversations like these. But they don’t belong in your book. 

Not only is this passage mind-numbingly boring, but the reader has no idea who’s talking. Two women? Two men? What is their relationship? How old are they? 

But it’s only 4 lines of dialogue, you could argue. The writer needs more time.  

You don’t have time, and neither does the reader. He could throw your book against the wall because it’s taking too long to get into, and open someone else’s book. He could watch television, listen to his Ipod, go to the movies, etc.  The competition for the reader’s time is fierce. You want the reader to connect to your characters as soon as possible, so they can form an emotional bond. And remember, every word of your character’s dialogue counts, since it tells the story of who they are, and what they want. Your characters need to leap off the page, and entertain. 

Okay, then just add speech tags. He said, she said. Then at least we’ll know who’s talking.

Yes, you could do that, but this is an exercise in dialogue, and a wise editor once told me that your dialogue should be so powerful, it should be able to reveal personality and character without using speech tags. Huh? 

So let’s try again. Same basic conversation, but with more powerful dialogue. And still no speech tags.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Sure, I can tell time.”
“Your father’s going to freak. Did you run out of gas again?”
“Cool your jets, Ma. My wheels broke down, so I hitched a ride.”

Ah ha. Now we have emotion, and a lot more information about who these characters are. A mother and son (you could argue a daughter, but the fact that he’s hitchhiking implies he’s male). The mother sounds upset. The son sounds disrespectful. He drives a car, which makes him a teenager or young adult. He has a habit of running out of gas, which means he’s not terribly responsible or organized. This isn’t the first time he’s been late, and he’s in trouble with a character who isn’t even in the scene – his father. 

Now this is a story going somewhere.

Try writing a few dialogue passages without speech tags or action beats. It's a great way to power up your dialogue and reveal character.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Memorable Characters - Part Two

This is my second blog on writing memorable characters, and it deals with character actions. 
As writers, we are the puppeteers. We can make our characters do whatever we want. We also know that conflict is the fuel that drives every story. Conflict is so important, it deserves its own blog, so more on that later. 

To create conflict, we make our characters run around and do things that will create tension. Right? 

Wrong. We shouldn't just push our characters aimlessly into circumstances designed to create conflict for conflict's sake. If our characters aren't properly motivated, any tension coming from plot situations won't ring true. It will feel hollow and false to the reader. And our characters will look stupid stumbling about the story with no real reason to act. 

If we don't properly motivate our characters' behaviour, they will seem like wooden puppets being pulled on a string, and acting on a whim. In other words, they won't seem like real people. 

Your characters must act like living, breathing people, filled with emotions, doubts, and conflicts. If they don't, the reader won't care about them. And the reader must care about your characters, or they won't finish your book. 

Motivation is what drives your characters. A properly motivated character will be believable to the reader. Motivation is the magic that allows your readers to empathize with your characters. Strong motivation will make characters face any challenge you throw at them. 

Take The Wizard of Oz, for example. Why did Dorothy stand up to the Wicked Witch of the West, one of the scariest villains ever created? Why didn't she just throw her hands up, grab Toto and live in Munchkinland? She could have, easily. 

But she didn't. Why not? Because she was a properly motivated character. 

She wanted to go home. Why? Because Auntie Em was sick, and might die. They'd had a horrible argument just before she left, and she felt guilty about it. She loved her Auntie Em.

Facing up to a wicked witch and hundreds of evil flying monkeys is a lot to ask of a teenager. But Dorothy never once backed away from the challenges facing her. She faced every action-packed moment because she had a strong motivation to do it. She was prepared to move heaven and earth to get home.  Behind every decision she made and every action she took, there was a strong motivation. Not just an author dreaming up exciting, tension filled scenes. 

If you provide a strong enough motivation for your characters, your readers will follow them anywhere. 

Are your characters properly motivated to face the wolves growling at their door? Or will they back out of the story and say ,"No, thanks. I think I'll pass."

Next blog - Dialogue

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Memorable Characters – Part 1

Readers remember characters, not plots. If they remember the plot, it’s usually because of the characters. In fact, strong characters can carry a weak plot, but weak characters can’t hide behind strong plots. 

Memorable characters should jump off the page, into your reader’s hearts and minds. The reader should connect to the character on an emotional level. It’s emotion that gives your character the breath of life. 

How does a writer create a memorable character? 
There are only 4 ways to present our characters to readers, since all we have is the written word: Physical description, character actions, dialogue and thoughts. 

Would you know what your characters looked like if you met them on the street? I must confess, I like to pin up photos of celebrities who I think resemble my characters. That way, at a moment’s notice, I have a good sense of their appearance, and it gives me a visual. 

It’s a good idea not to choose perfect, cookie-cutter cutouts of perfection. Remember, we don’t want perfection, we want memorable, and sometimes that means giving our characters flaws. I don’t mean a hunchback like Quasimodo--something more subtle, like a small overbite, a tattoo or a piercing. Something that distinguishes them from other characters, and makes them more real. 

And don’t forget your character’s closet. You should know exactly what you would find in there. Does your character dress for success? Or maybe they don’t pay much attention to clothes. Are their clothes hung in neat, color-coordinated rows, or are they lying in a messy, unwashed heap? Closets say a lot about a person. 

Finally, some writers write up a complete outline of their character’s physical appearance, and others find it unnecessary. What is your preference? As a reader, do you like to know every detail about the character’s looks, or would you rather imagine what they look like yourself? 

Next blog – I’ll discuss character actions.

Sunday, 26 June 2011


brain·storm (br n stôrm ). n. 1. A sudden clever plan or idea. 2. A sudden, violent disturbance of the mind. v. brain·stormed, brain·storm·ing, brain·storms ...

I don't believe I've ever had a 'sudden, violent disturbance of the mind', unless it was the time my hubby accidentally chopped off my favorite ivy at the side of the house, or maybe when the driver in front of me stops suddenly or doesn't signal. But I have had clever ideas on occasion, mostly when I least expect them--just before I go to sleep or standing in a lineup at the grocery store. Good reasons to always have a notebook and pen on you.

Brainstorming helps writers take advantage of their natural thinking processes by gathering their brain energy into a storm that hopefully transforms into words that lead to vibrant writing. It can help when you're devoid of plot ideas, inspiration, or too tired or anxious to write. In this case, brainstorming can stir up the dust, whip some air into our stilled pools of thought, and get the breeze of inspiration moving again.

There are also times when you have too much chaos in your brain and you need to bring it to some conscious order. Brainstorming can force the mental chaos onto the page, getting rid of the 'junk', so your thoughts will have more clarity.

If I can't brainstorm with my critique partner, my favorite method is freewriting: writing whatever comes into my mind. I turn off my internal editor and my inner critic and just write. I set a time limit (15 minutes) or a space limit (two pages) and write until I reach that goal.

There will be a lot of filler and unusable thoughts, but there are usually some gems in with the junk. Even if the gems are sparse, I've quieted the noisy chaos or greased my writing gears so I can begin to write about an idea.

Freewriting is just one example of a brainstorming technique. Does anyone else have any techniques that work for them?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Worry-free Gardening

I enjoy gardening, but I’m not the sort of gardener who nurtures each delicate rose bush and tender shrub.  I’m too busy. I do enough nurturing in my life – I take care of my family, my house, my dogs, my job and my writing. The plants in my garden need to fend for themselves. They have one season to prove they’re worth keeping or they’re gone.
That’s right. If they don’t thrive on their own, without my help, I yank them up by the roots and toss them in the compost. 

I’m sure I sound like a heartless monster, but I have no patience with plants that need coddling. Or people, for that matter. It’s not so easy to weed out the high maintenance people in your life, but in the garden, it’s easy. One sharp tug, and it’s over.

There are two bushes at the front of my house that take first prize for being the toughest plant. Situated under the eaves trough, they get no rain. They face north, so they get no sun, either. But year after year, they bloom as though they were spoiled and coddled every day. They’re called Annabelle Hydrangeas, and I recommend them for anyone without a green thumb. One winter I ran over them with the snow blower and they came up the following spring just as always. They’re difficult to kill. 

What I know about gardening I learned from my mother, who taught me that the more ruthless you are with plants, the more they love it. I hacked my wild rose bushes mercilessly one day in early March, and I swear they had twice the number of blossoms on them that summer.  We had a weigelia bush in front of our cottage that my father loved to chop right to the ground. It grew faithfully every year, and was never attacked by any bugs. 

My kind of plants. Tough as nails, without any need of pampering.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Make Me Care

I usually try to blog twice a week, but I was under a 'book spell': I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Thursday. It's over 800 pages long. I finished it on Friday. I literally couldn't put it down. That rarely happens to me, and it's why I love to read.

My sister-in-law lent me the book, along with the second in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire. I had planned to take them to the beach this summer, but I'll probably have the second one finished by the end of the week.

Suspense thrillers are not a genre I usually read, but I had heard the hype about the Larsson trilogy, so I decided to give the first one a try. And lately I've been discouraged by the number of amateur sleuth mysteries -- the genre I write -- that haven't held my interest. The stories are okay, the writing is professional, but the characters bored me, the story bored me, and I didn't care.

I need to care. An editor once gave me that advice at a writing conference. "Make me care," she said. "It's up to you to decide how to make that happen. But I need to care, or I'll toss the book against the wall."

My walls are starting to get pock marks from all the tossing. 

I know some readers who will finish every book even though they hate it. Strange. I have no problem reading a few chapters and giving up if it doesn't captivate me. 

Why does one book grab us and the other bore us to death? Now there's a question. I like books with characters who are out of the ordinary. Whose problems seem insurmountable and keep piling up. Who have unusual hangups. Who I feel sorry for. Who I care about. 

Ordinary characters with ordinary plots just don't grab me enough to want to read until the last page. I recently read a mystery where the heroine mostly made breakfast. That's correct. Every chapter, she made breakfast and thought about the events of the plot. She made blueberry pancakes, sausage frittatta, cranberry muffins and banana bread. My stomach growled a lot, but my curiosity wasn't peaked. 

Her love interest was the neighbour next door. A nice, handsome man who dropped by whenever she needed him. There was no tension between them, no problems that made me wonder, Are these two going to be a couple at the end? Honestly, I couldn't care less if they did or not. I might as well watch paint dry. 

If I want to see ordinary people acting ordinary, I can sit on my deck and spy on my neighbours. 

I didn't throw that book against the wall, since it was on my Nook, and I love my Nook. But I regret the money I spent on it. So my search continues for a riveting amateur sleuth mystery that captivates me. I'll keep you posted.