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