The Clue to Character
Where would a story be without a character? Character is the engine that drives the narrative, and creating a character is a magical process. Imagine having the omnipotent power to mold a person on the page. Not only do you get to conjure up the character’s physical attributes and such details as a birthdate, but you also have the opportunity to develop his or her personality.
Evil or noble? Intelligent or foolish? Witty or dull? Take a smidgen of this and add a pinch of that, and, voilà, a person starts to emerge. For a character to be believable, the reader must be given intimate insight into the character’s thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes. The reader has to understand the motives behind why a character reacts a certain way. Of course, for a character to be fully formed, the author must imbue her or him with both admirable qualities and flaws. After all, in real life nobody is perfect. So too must it be on the written page. Once the author is satisfied with the character sketch, then the real fun begins: unfurling the imagination to weave the tale.
When writing a mystery series, the essential component is a sleuth to solve the crime. Here, the author is presented with two possibilities: professional detective or amateur sleuth. It all circles back to character and the story that the author has in mind for him or her. For my series, I chose the amateur sleuth. My protagonists are journalist Emmeline Kirby and jewel thief Gregory Longdon.
Why a journalist? A journalist is inherently curious about many subjects. His or her job is to ask questions to uncover the truth and ensure transparency. Naturally, a journalist would be intrigued by crime, especially murder. The determination to find answers and see that justice is served are all important.
Now, how does a jewel thief fit into the model of a sleuth? Aren’t lying and evading the law a thief's modus operandi? Isn't this in stark contrast to a journalist's reverence for the truth and justice? Most definitely. That's exactly the point. A portrait in contrasts. Who better than someone on the wrong side of the law to discern the twisted workings of a fellow criminal's mind? A thief immediately recognizes things that the honest person would never even contemplate. In Gregory’s case, he has a certain code of honor. Murder is an offensive transgression. A line that should never be crossed. Thus, I have two diametrically opposed sleuths who are of one mind when it comes to the taking of a human life: the culprit must pay for the crime, otherwise chaos would reign in the world.
To round out my ensemble, I have Chief Inspector Oliver Burnell and Sergeant Jack Finch of Scotland Yard. They represent the law in all its gravitas. While their job is to hunt down criminals, sometimes the law’s constraints chafe and make their task more difficult. That’s why I have Gregory. He is Burnell’s nemesis. They have an adversarial, cat-and-mouse relationship. As a thief, Gregory has more flexibility to maneuver and never misses an opportunity to needle the chief inspector. Burnell, for his part, has been thwarted in his many attempts at catching Gregory red-handed. Will he ever succeed? The jury is out on that question.
There are myriad things to consider when delving into the essence of what makes a captivating and appealing character. The author must much achieve a delicate balance of shadow and light, intrigue and clarity, to give the story meaty substance and an air of authenticity. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one that you as a writer have to explore in every book as you seek to make readers truly care about your characters. Once readers make an emotional connection, you have them hooked because that means they want to know the story behind the character.
Daniella Bernett is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Lead Me into Danger and Deadly Legacy are the first two books in her Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. From Beyond the Grave, the third book in her series, will be released this month.
Bringing Diversity to Your Characters: A Creative Jump Start
As I launch into my newest book, I am assailed by the usual crucial questions about my protagonist: Is she going to be a writer or an English professor this time? Should I go real wild and make her high school teacher? Educated at the Seven Sisters instead of the Ivy League? Have her take milk in her coffee instead of drinking it black? Maybe she even prefers red wine to white?
But wait! Write what you know, right? So, why, even though I am avowed feminist, am I able to write far more interesting, more complex male characters than female ones? Could it be that getting into a male character’s head requires enough of an imaginative leap that I don’t find myself bound by my own preconceptions, whereas I have a lot of trouble writing from the POV of a woman who is substantially different from me — especially when it comes to first person narration? (This is why I’m so completely in awe of Mark Haddon’s accomplishment in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. But more on that in a later post.) In this post I want to consider how making a self-conscious commitment to diversity in my novels also helped me expand my imagination.
I first grew interested in the topic of diversity simply because I was a college instructor trying to develop a balanced syllabus in a course on mystery fiction, but I rapidly grew interested in how diverse viewpoints could offer a post-modernist commentary on classic Golden Age texts. (Much more on that in a later post as well.) Eventually, my teacher self noodged my writer self, and I made a self-conscious decision to ask myself when approaching any given character whether s/he must share my “skin color/social class/gender/sexual ID/religion/ability/region/block association” (in Richie Narvaez’ far more articulate locution than my own).
Sometimes the only answer is yes — especially if you’re writing about a closed society, such as those that characterizes Golden Age fiction. And that’s perfectly fine. (Again, much more on this in a later post.) But making a self-conscious effort to open my fiction to diverse viewpoints opened up my imagination as well as my fiction. My researches on my current historical WIP led me to discover the fascinating history of 19th-century black jockeys, many of whom were former slaves, and were, according to Ed Hotaling, America’s first sports first superstars, despite often being only known by names such as One-Eyed Sewell. At the same time, what was meant to be a minor, throwaway character destined for a comic bromance in my urban fantasy WIP fell in love with his buddy when my back was turned, and the two of them walked off with the entire book.
So is this cultural appropriation, merely to serve my own needs? I don’t know, and I honestly prefer to leave that question to the political arena. When it comes to incorporating diversity into my novels, I am much more concerned about having a leaden ear for people and cultures other than my own. Deeply as I admire — and have successfully taught — Marvel’s Luke Cage, I am well aware I could never recreate the Harlem milieu in the wonderful detail it does. But historical and fantasy novels do not depend on a similar authenticity of lived experience. As Octavia Butler so brilliantly demonstrated in Kindred, African-Americans are in many ways as much bound by their own preconceptions when attempting to understand the lives of slaves as anyone else. As for serving my own needs – well, I’ll plead guilty. It’s a simple enough question to ask yourself: Do these characters need to be exactly like me? But, at least in my experience, it has opened up complex vistas in my work I couldn’t have possibly expected.
Seeing the Blind Spots in Your Manuscript
Whether it’s 75,000 words or 120,000 words, almost a ream of paper or a 1.5-megabyte file, what’s sitting in front of you is more than your novel’s manuscript. It’s actually . . . you. Your mind, your soul, your fears, and your loves.
If it’s not, maybe you should consider non-fiction.
Oh, it also consists of your blind spots.
All but a select few of us have blind spots about ourselves. Therefore, it follows that a manuscript created in your image (i.e., your image of the world and the characters you created to inhabit it and live your plot) is also subject to blind spots.
A professional reader, editor, agent, or fellow writer can often see things you can’t. Not so much the big obvious notes, but the little tidbits and details that are easily glossed over while one is deep in the writing process, seeing only the scene before him, hearing only the dialogue the characters are currently speaking. That state of consciousness when writing is the tactical aspect of the craft.
Strategic analysis requires objectivity, and it is easier for the person who didn’t author the work, someone who is unemotional, unattached, and has no memory of the pleasure and pain of birthing your book.
If the above sounds obvious, imagine how obvious conflicts in story structure, missed opportunities, inconsistent character nuances, and plot peccadilloes are to someone with skills, reading and paying attention to these details.
Can my friend point out these blind spots?
If your friend is an editor, professional writer, or reader, then “yes.” Otherwise, friends are mostly just impressed that you actually finished a book. They don’t want to hurt your feelings or discourage you. And they are right! In most cases, our friends can only criticize but not constructively critique. When a professional spots an issue, she can often make suggestions or propose work-arounds that a friend can not.
What can I do?
I get it. Sometimes professional help is out of financial reach, or it’s an uncomfortable ask. If this is your situation, divorce yourself from the work.
If you are working on a screen, print it out or vice versa. Change the environment you read in. (I go to the beach.) As much as humanly possible, rinse all knowledge of the story from your mind. Some folks even read their work backward or in jumbled chapter pieces. This approach takes you out of the momentum of the structure that you know so well and forces more attention on the words on the page. Under that attention, the smaller arcs and the minor shadings appear more clearly.
Here’s a tip if you are doing this yourself: If at any point you find yourself skimming your own work . . . stop!
Skimming means one of two things, both not good.
1) What you are reading is filler, or inconsequential to the story, and it needs to be cut.
2) You know where the story is going, and you are impatient to get there. In that haste, much is missed.
One last note, don’t even think of doing this until the second or third draft. My simple rule for beginning writers is true for us all:
The first draft is you telling YOU the story!
Your first draft is not meant for any other eyes. This school of thought offers some freedom: namely, you don’t have to sweat the small stuff, grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc. What matters is getting the story on the page.
In the next pass, you can address all those issues and get character names right and check facts and add color, location, furniture, drapes, weather, and maybe a sub-plot or two. But first get the story down.
I can’t tell you how many shiny, well-polished manuscripts have been excellently edited, painstakingly researched, and excruciatingly detailed but still don’t hold together as a readable story. And that is purely a first draft problem, a malady that all the gloss of publishing can’t fix.
Tom Avitabile is a senior v.p. in advertising, as well as a writer, director, and producer with numerous film and television credits. His recent trilogy of novels chronicle the exploits of Science Advisor to the President “Wild” Bill Hiccock. The first of this series, The Eighth Day, became a Barnes and Noble #1 bestseller. His latest hardcover novel, Give Us This Day, also became a number-one bestseller.
Five Things Your Dialogue Can and Should Do for You
“You talkin’ to me?”
In one of the most memorable examples of dialogue in film history, Robert DeNiro looks in the mirror and tells us who Travis Bickle is in four simple words. Four words and we knew that Travis Bickle was paranoid and insecure. To be pitied and to be feared.
Unfortunately for most writers, Robert DeNiro — or Meryl Streep — will probably never speak the words we write for our characters. Breathing life into them. So our words had better not just lie there on the page.
Probably the best tip anyone has ever given me on dialogue was to just read the words out loud. Act them out — okay maybe not if you're writing in a coffee shop — but do it at home. That may be the quickest way to get a sense of whether or not they sound real — or fake and awkward. Nobody knows your characters as well as you do and you'll be able to tell if their words ring true.
Good dialogue. Like the famous Supreme Court justice line about obscenity — "I know it when I see it." Memorable dialogue is easy to identify. We know it when we hear it.
"I made him an offer he couldn't refuse."
"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
“Fasten your seatbelts — it's going to be a bumpy night.”
From a lesser-known screenplay, but a great line, and one of my personal faves: "You're not that smart. I like that in a man." — Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. (Script by Lawrence Kasdan.)
But good dialogue is not just coming up with a memorable one-liner or catchy phrase. In fact, sometimes we can get too fond of our catchy lines.
Good dialogue should support the prose. It generally drives home a point or punctuates the narrative.
One of the things all dialogue does is give the reader a break. Their brains and their eyeballs. Long stretches of prose can be beautiful. Powerful. But none of us is James Joyce. And it's not 1918. Stream-of-consciousness narrative can be exhausting to read. Chances are, Ulysses wouldn't even get published today. Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy wrote long passages without dialogue — but very few contemporary novelists even try.
Kate Atkinson is one who does. In her book Case Histories — one of the best books, mystery or otherwise that I've read in the last 10 years — she goes 25 pages before having a character say even one word. And when she does, it's just one word — "Olivia." But most of us can't get away with that.
Our readers need to come up for air. They expect a visual relief as well as a mental one.
That doesn't mean you can fill the page with such pithy lines as “Hi, my name is” “Please, let me introduce” “I am fine. How are you?” Unless you are intentionally trying to depict an extremely boring character
Which tells us something else we know about dialogue — it should feel like real speech — but not BE real speech.
At the risk of getting political, it is the way one of our recently elected officials speaks— it's not pretty. And it's not the most effective way to communicate. Believe me — you don't want real speech, right?
Dialogue is not the literary equivalent of Hamburger Helper. Stuff that comes in between the good stuff. It needs to work every bit as hard as every other word in your manuscript.
So here are five things your dialogue can and should do for you:
▪ Illuminate character
▪ Reveal information
▪ Advance plot
▪ Increase tension and conflict, and
▪Add to a sense of place and time.
If your dialogue doesn't do any of those things maybe you should, reconsider why it's on the page.
Rosemary Harris is a former president of MWA-NY and of Sisters in Crime New England. She is the author of the Dirty Business mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday.