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.
10 Clichés and Misconceptions about the FBI
This is an an excerpt of an original article. For the full post or podcast episode, click here.
On my podcast — FBI Retired Case File Review — I've conducted more than 50 interviews with my former FBI colleagues about the high-profiled cases they worked while on the job. In almost every interview, one of us comments about some aspect of the case or an investigative method that has been portrayed in books, TV and movies as a cliché or inaccuracy. With the recent major hit on the FBI’s reputation because of issues related to the election, a transparent look at the real FBI is needed more than ever, don’t you think?
1. There Are Teams of FBI Profilers Hunting Serial Killers. Currently, there are approximately 13,500 FBI agents, and I can assure you that 99.9% of them are not hunting serial killers. There is a team of profilers in the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico. But at any given time, there are only 15 to 20 full-time special agent profilers assigned to the BAU, and they work on developing criminal profiles for people accused of all of kinds of violations. The primary goal of criminal investigative analysis is to examine the behavioral information submitted to the unit and provide advice to the requesting agency, rather than actual investigative process.
2. The FBI Doesn't Play Well with Others. How many books have you read where a local detective or sheriff is working on a case and the FBI shows up and is rude and condescending? That storyline has been portrayed for so long that it’s self-perpetuating. In real life, FBI agents meeting local law enforcement for the first time often have to deal with those stereotypes and the resulting resentment and suspicion. Agents respect and value the contributions other agencies bring to the table and strive to maintain collaborative relationships with all law enforcement partners.
3. There is One Central Database. Believe me, it is impossible to type in a person’s name into a database and have everything ever known about that person pop up a few minutes later. The National Computer Information Center is an electronic clearinghouse of crime data, but its records are only as up-to-date as the numerous agencies responsible for making submissions. An endless number of databases must be searched to get a somewhat full and complete profile on an individual. It could take an analyst days if not weeks to gather a comprehensive file on a subject.
4. FBI Agents Work for Federal Prosecutors. The FBI is its own entity. In some, local municipalities, detectives are assigned to the district attorney’s office and work under the direction of an assistant DA. But in the federal system, the FBI investigates and the United States Attorney’s Office prosecutes. Now, before an agent goes too far into a complicated matter, he may consult the USAO for an opinion on the prosecutorial merit of a case.
5. All FBI Agents Work on Task Forces. To the contrary, for most violations, agents work alone. They’ll team up with a squad mate for corroboration or safety concerns; however, the FBI requires agents to assume an almost entrepreneurial ownership of their cases. Agents must figure out the manpower and resources needed, and there’s no one standing over them checking on their daily progress. Every 90 days the squad supervisor reviews the agents’ case files, looking for documentation that they are pulling their weight.
6. FBI Senior Executives Are Out in the Field. FBI management does not go out in the field to participate in searches or arrests. The last place the Director of the FBI, an ADIC (assistant director in charge), a SAC (special agent in charge), or an assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) wants to be is in the field. What if something goes wrong? The name of the game in moving up the ladder in the FBI is plausible deniability.
7. Agents Use Intimidation and Threats during Interrogations. The appropriate FBI term is "interview," not "interrogation," and agents prefer to rely on their charm and skills of persuasion, not force, to convince subjects and witnesses to cooperate. In most instances, adversarial confrontations are avoided, because in addition to conducting interviews, agents are always looking to develop informants.
8. FBI Agents Are Perfect and Never Get in Trouble. This one is kind of true. For the most part, we leave bad behavior to the Secret Service (just joking). Unfortunately, a few FBI agents have made some serious mistakes and boneheaded transgressions. But, there is a saying in the FBI – “Don’t embarrass the Bureau” and the core belief that behavior of each special agent is a direct reflection of the agency. It’s expected that everything an FBI agent says and does will project a positive image and mirror the viewpoint of the “front office.”
9. Agents Have No Sense of Humor. FBI agents are assigned to squads based on related violations. Because of the often-dangerous mission and the long hours, squad members develop close personal relationships. Practical jokes are pulled on a frequent basis. A common prank is when an agent leaves his credentials out on his desk and his official ID photo is covered with a photo of, say, Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson. FBI agents take their jobs seriously, but not necessarily themselves.
10. All FBI Agents Are White Males. While recent books, TV shows, and movies portray the FBI as a highly diverse organization, approximately 70 percent of special agents are white males. However, the FBI agents workforce does include women (20%), minorities (17%), and individuals of different religions and sexual orientations. All law enforcement agencies should reflect the population they serve, and the FBI is actively recruiting more minorities to apply. Black women account for only 1 percent of the special agent workforce, so I’m always in recruitment mode. If you or someone you know meets the qualifications, please consider applying for the Special Agent position.
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, attempts to relive her glory days by writing crime fiction and hosting FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast available for subscription on iTunes and Stitcher. Her debut novel—Pay to Play—about a female agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry is available now.