Way back somewhere and some-when I had a teacher named Kristin, though I didn’t call her by her first name until a few years later. We didn’t hit it off well, but after nearly four full school years of fairly close association, whether she was my English teacher or my faculty advisor for the school newspaper, we eventually reached a point of mutual respect. At some point I told her I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, not realizing that the whole point of becoming a writer is never needing to grow up. I asked for her advice and with pity in her eyes she told me if I develop characters that feel real to the reader then I might succeed.
A lot of time was spent in college pursuing secrets insights. In the process I worked on writing, attempting to find my author’s voice and toying around with methods of storytelling. You see – I figured out that it’s better to be a good storyteller than a good writer, especially if you plan to make a living as an author – not that I have arrived there quite yet. Still, all along the way I kept focusing on my characters and making them as realistic as possible. Basically, what makes them real for a reader is not the author’s narrative descriptions but how the character is portrayed through dialogue. If the spoken words sound right, more than half the battle of selling the character to the reader is won. And so, that has always been how I have approached characters. I start with a few the main characters, at least two, and have them converse. Pretty much they tell me the story while introducing me to the other characters that populate their fictional universe. They clue me in on what’s bothering them lately (the conflicts). From there the plot (the storytelling) takes care of itself.
It is not easily accomplished. Sometimes characters misbehave and their dialogue must be tweaked for it to sound real. Also driving plot through dialogue takes a good deal of practice. You also need to pay attention to real world conversations and how people talk – not stuff you hear on TV but exchanges between family members, friends and strangers. In this I benefitted from spending so many years in retail dealing with the general public and a number of fairly diverse employees. Over my nearly thirty-year career I probably have a few thousand stories to tell just from my associations.
For dialogue to be effective in helping to create a character’s realism the writer must sell it without drawing undue attention to the written words. What I mean is this: at some point within the first two exchanges of dialogue the reader must be immersed in the scene along with the characters. Suspension of disbelief takes place almost immediately if the reader fully embraces the characters as human beings (or in the case of my fantasies, just beings). The reader cannot be cognizant of the plot elements entering into the dialogue. A test to see if you’ve gone to far as a writer is to read what you have written and actually hear the voices of the characters as if they were talking. Would they say those things you wrote? There is an art to achieving this and it is why some writers succeed at capturing a reader’s imagination while others don’t. I call it being sneaky.
One of the best examples I can think of for realism in dialogue and character development is Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked. Her characters feel as real as the guy sitting down at the end of the bar or your aunt that no one in the family wants to invite to social gatherings. Her novel is filled with characters you can avoid noticing even though you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to talk to them. It is dialogue driven in a way that probably should be studied in school because it is done that well.
When properly written dialogue-driven plot enhances the quality of the story as well as the experience of reading. A good deal of narrative, which is inherently more boring than dialogue to a reader, can be eliminated. The story will take on a blocked format where narrative is used to frame interactions between characters, primarily setting a scene and directing a reader’s attention to characters’ actions. The result is that the author will invite the reader into the story instead of just showing or telling what happens.
In preparing to write, the more detail an author puts into a character profile the better. Think of it as writing a short biography of someone you, as the author, know extremely well. It should include the basics like date of birth, place of birth, where the character grew up, family, friends, schools and the like, but deviate from a traditional biography in giving a complete description of the character’s height, weight, skin tone, eye color, hair color, and interesting features like a mole or a proportionately large nose. You may or may not use all the information you put into the profile but you must know those details including backstories. What crushes did he or she have growing up? What became of those people – if the character knows? Such information creates depth of the character and lends realism to the person created on paper.
Some authors pattern characters after people they know. It is best to create composites of several real world people, though. You don’t want opinions of living persons to enter into a piece of fiction. However, taking four or five people and using them as a pattern to create a character that shares their attributes and background will often make for a realistic subject in a work of fiction. For The Wolfcat Chronicles I patterned many of the characters based on profiles from a role playing game in which I was involved for a time in early 2000. The character Ela’na is based on a real person with whom I became close friends. She served as a muse throughout the creative process for composing all ten books.
For The Attributes, a science fiction environmental piece set in a colonial world in the future, the characters are based on musicians in a rock band whose work I follow. I composed the novel over the course of a summer as sort of a birthday gift for the lead singer. Although the book has not been promoted that much I consider the story one of the best science fiction pieces I’ve done. The dialogue flows very well and it was one of the first stories that I used dialogue extensively in driving the plot.
Occasionally the main character of a book is an alter ego of the author. In my books, for example, Brent Woods, who appears in Fried Windows, serves that role to a large extent. Although he does things I would never do and is more outgoing than I ever was he shares a good deal of my background. We attended the same schools and, of course, knew some of the same people. Since Brent has some amazing abilities and visits other worlds some people have questioned just how much he is like me. I suppose that as a writer I do visit other worlds and I have special powers while there as the creator of the alternate universe.
Part of the process of making characters feel real is believing they are real. A fellow fiction writer once told me that in order to make a contrived world believable an author becomes a part of the fictional world he or she creates. While writers tend to live in the story while we write, it may seem to others that we have lost touch with reality from time to time. We may pop our heads in and out of the real world to carry on the business of being alive like eating, sleeping, paying bills, attending mandatory family things like birthdays and such, but mainly we are immersed in our creations while we are composing them.
Editing and revising the draft becomes a painful revisiting of the overall creative experience, much like reliving the events of real life – the good along with the bad. It is a necessary evil in the writing processes but much less fun that conjuring substance from nothingness. The objective of a revision is not creating as much modifying and sometimes deleting. If a writer spends too much time immersed in a story its hair grows too long, shaggy and unkempt. Think of a good revision as basic personal grooming for the story. Professional editing is more like seeing a barber or going to a hair solon to fix a bad hair do before being seen in public.
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