Monday, July 29, 2013

Writing Believable Characters

At one of our writing group meetings a couple of years ago, a member suggested one of our characters could do a particular action. Larry and I responded at the same time . "Oh, no. She'd never do that." She laughed and said, "You talk about your characters as if they are real," to which I replied," Of course they're real. If they aren't real to us, how can we expect our readers to believe they're living breathing people?"

I've been thinking a lot about how we create realistic and believable characters, and I'll share a few of our methods with you.

When we initially discuss a story we want to write, we create character sketches for the major ones. The protagonist is better defined than the more minor characters, but we need to know some of the following about those folks we'll be spending time with during the writing of the book.

Young people growing up today speak differently than those who grew up in the '60s or '70s or '80s. And those from earlier periods had different speech patterns as well. What was happening in the world during their early years? Was the country at war? In what country is the story set? If in the US, what state, town, city? The life experiences of the characters will be influenced by all of these.

A child raised without parents will have a different world view than one raised by a single parent. And that child will see the world differently than one raised with both parents.

Was the family rich or poor? What was their ethnicity, and what were their family rituals? Was it a happy home or a dysfunctional one? Was the person abused in any way as a child? How large was the family? Were drugs and/or alcohol used to excess in the family? Where in the country did the child grow up? Small towns are different from suburbs are different from large cities.

We are all molded by our early years, and they provide motivation for the rest of our lives.

Lots of studies of the effect of birth order on behavior and personality have been done over the years. The order in which one arrived in the family has a great influence on their overall personality.

This came home to me when we had finished our first romance anthology, Snowflake Secrets. It's the story of four little girls in the years between 1958 and 2007. The novellas in the book were written by four different writers. Yet when I assembled the complete manuscript, I was struck by how accurately each of the four displayed the personality traits most commonly associated with their birth order!

Did they go to college or not? Did they marry young, or older, or not at all. Did they have children, and when? Are they divorced, widowed, single? What was their career choice? How did that affect their lifestyle?

This is very important. Does the heroine twirl her hair or bite her lip? Does the hero raise his eyebrows or frown? Does someone tap their foot or fingers? How do they react to other people? Do they become quiet or do they become aggressive?

You have to know this about each and every main character in the book so you know how they will react when you place them in danger or under stress. And you need to know what they have to lose and how important it is to them.

What is the rhythm of their speech? Their area of origin will dictate this to some extent, but everyone has a different speech pattern. What are their favorite words? Do they have expressions they repeat?

When we get the basics defined, we begin to note other characteristics as we write. The characters may end up very different than we thought they would, but we have a starting point. As we get to know them better, we discover additional minor nuances. Each of them must be distinctly different or the reader won't believe in them.

This past week we had to let several of the major characters in our current project, The Memory Keeper, die. As is our habit, we began to read the finished chapter aloud to each other. And we couldn't get through it. I was sobbing and Larry was choking. In short, we were a mess. We had become so close to these people we felt their loss as acutely as their family members.

When I was writing Ghost Writer, I couldn't figure out why I just couldn't finish the manuscript. It finally dawned on me! I didn't want to let the ghost go! He had no other story to tell, so when this book was completed, I'd never see him again. When I got the edits back from the publisher and reached that chapter, I wept again.

After we finished Snowflake Secrets, we took the final manuscript to the house of the hostess of our writing group to read it through for her. She had only heard it in bits and pieces. When we got to the last chapter, however, none of us could get all the way through. Larry started until he choked up. Then Luanna read a while. I had to finish it, and I wasn't doing too well, either. But Martha, our hostess, was sobbing. And in reality, that was the precise response we wanted our readers to share.

How do you create real characters who step off the page? Have you ever read a book where all the characters spoke with the voice of the author? Did you ever put down a book because you just didn’t care about the characters? I'd like to hear your experiences.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing Believable Dialogue

 People speak differently in person than they do on the page. To understand this, try listening to real folks talk. They hesitate and use 'um' and 'ah'. They don't speak in complete sentences, and they don't use correct English. However, if you write 'real' dialogue in a story, it will slow down the pacing, and it won't read convincingly.

On the other hand, if you write dialogue in the same style as the narrative in a manuscript, it will sound too wordy and will also slow down the story.
What's a writer to do?

1.      Edit!
Read the dialogue and then delete any unnecessary words. Believable dialogue needs to sound like real dialogue without all the tics and hesitations. People often leave out the subject or the object in a sentence, and characters should as well.

2.      Choose Phrasing and Rhythm Carefully
Observe real speech and listen for distinctive phrases. Write the interesting ones down and give them to a character. But make sure each character has a different sound. Pay attention to the rhythm of speech, and give each character a distinctive one. People sound distinct and different, and characters should as well.

3.      Use Dialect Sparingly
If a character speaks in dialect or a foreign language, the temptation is to write all their dialogue as if every word was in the argot. DON'T DO IT! Making the dialogue too difficult to wade through is just plain frustrating for a reader. Instead, choose several key words or phrases and use these as 'seasoning' to flavor their speech. And if you choose to use foreign words, make sure they are absolutely correct for the location and timeframe. But don't overdo those either.

4.      Read Out Loud
One of the keys to writing believable dialogue is hearing it read out loud. Larry and I have an advantage in that we write together and read all our work aloud to each other. We will often read conversations with each of us assuming the role of a different character. In addition to that, it's even more valuable to have someone other than the author read the dialogue aloud. It's the only way to actually hear where a reader has difficulty, hesitates, is confused, etc. The writer can also hear where dialect or other speech patterns work or fail.

5.      Eliminate Tags and Address
Few things are more annoying to me as a reader to have each line of dialog end with, "he said" or "she said." Another easy trap to fall into is to have each person entering the scene greeted by name: "Hi, Jane," said Sue. GRRR! Instead, add action whenever possible to indicate which character is speaking. For example: Jane entered the room. "Are you ready for tea?" We know who is speaking (Jane) and she is addressing whoever was already in the room ahead of her.

6.      Must Suit Each Character
Make sure each character has a distinctive voice, but it must fit the character in personality and background. A drill sergeant from Texas will sound different from a debutante from Georgia and a valley girl from California. Don't exaggerate the verbal clues, but each should speak using different vocabulary, phrasing, and rhythm.

Dialogue can either make or break a story. If a reader knows exactly who is speaking, it is unnecessary to identify the speaker as often. Learning how to write effective dialogue will go a long way toward making stories enjoyable for readers, and that, after all, is the author's intention.

Do you have any other tricks or advice for writing believable dialogue?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Farewell, Las Vegas

We will head back home today after attending the Public Service Writers Association conference in Las Vegas. The conference was wonderful. We learned a great deal, saw friends, and made some new ones.

However, I was once again reminded of why we don’t visit Las Vegas often.
It's HOT! I don't do well in the heat. I've heard the argument, "But it's dry heat." At over 100 degrees, ANY heat is too much. Admittedly, I find it harder to breathe in humid air, regardless of the temperature, but high temperatures simply sap all my energy.

It's crowded. The traffic in the city is even worse than in Southern California. Last night we met friends for dinner at a restaurant on the same street as our hotel but about ten blocks away. It took us over half an hour to get there in the Sunday evening rush. In addition, the only scenery is the skyline featuring tall buildings vying for attention with their flashing neon signs.

Las Vegas allows smoking and I am extremely sensitive to the smell. My sinuses have been complaining since we arrived. Even in our supposedly non-smoking room, the scent of smoke is noticeable. In the Casino, I find it hard to breathe. Fortunately, the floor where the conference rooms are located was more isolated, and the air seemed a bit cleaner.

The unrelenting noise and lights are overwhelming. The casinos remind me of the pachinko parlors in Japan—all flashing colors and bells and tinkling music. Even the rooms aren't very quiet. Because the city runs on a 24/7 schedule, people slam doors, laugh in the hallways, talk loudly at all times, regardless of the time. I haven't had a good night's sleep since we arrived.

I am looking forward to being back at home in Dana Point where the daytime temperature is expected to be about seventy degrees. I can't wait to sleep in my own bed. I want to work on my PC with the dual screens in our office where I can hear the waterfall instead of slamming doors.

Yes, I'm spoiled—and I love it.

Lots of people pay a great deal to travel long distances just to visit Las Vegas. Since we don't drink or gamble, the charms of this city are rather lost on both of us. Maybe someone can explain to me why they enjoy coming here.

Will we return again? If the conference is held here again next year, probably. The rooms are inexpensive and the conference is worth the discomfort. Would we come for a vacation? Unlikely. Highly unlikely.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Preparing for Writers Conferences

We'll be off again for another writing conference next week. We attend several each year. It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in what we do to prepare for conferences.

Just like any other trip, we make our travel arrangements well in advance, starting with registration. Some conferences have a limit on the number of attendees. We register as soon as we decide to go. (We are already registered for two for next year.)
We like to arrive the day before the conference starts so we're not rushed. It allows us to meet a few people and offer to help. This strategy takes some of the awkwardness out of the experience. It's a win-win for everyone.
Conferences get special rates if you stay at the conference hotel, and you can usually extend your trip at the same rate. If we have friends in the area, we often attempt to spend a little time with them while we're in town. So once we've decided how long we're staying, we put those dates on the calendar.
When our schedule is set, we make our hotel reservations. Then we decide how we're going to get there. Will we fly, drive, take the train? Will we rent a car or use public transportation? Once we know that, we shop for the best deals.

We print and save a copy of each of the confirmation emails and put them into a dedicated folder for the conference. Once we get the conference schedule and our assignments, if any, copies of those are added to the folder.

This is normal, particularly when attending a new conference. For an extrovert like me, sitting down next to a total stranger is the opportunity to learn something new. But to an introvert like Larry, it can be painful. Over the years, he's learned to join in and has found his experience richer for it.
We remind ourselves we'll be spending our time with other people who also love books. What could be better?

As soon as we get the conference schedule, we determine what workshops and presentations we will attend. It seems very foolish to go to a conference and then not hear any of the speakers. We have not yet failed to bring home useful and helpful information. In fact, at a recent conference, one of the speakers offered a chance at a free edit on the first 100 pages of our WIP. I won! And the comments made a world of difference. (Yes, I am an editor. Yes, I also need a fresh set of eyes on my work!)

During presentations, I always ask questions to get more information or to have ideas clarified. The give and take is all part of the experience.

If invited to take part in a panel or to give a presentation on a subject with which we are familiar, we grab it! We have spoken at quite a number of conferences and will take part in panels again next week. Those appearances, along with our published works, have helped us to establish our expertise on the subject of writing. We get name recognition, and people become interested in our books.
What do we speak about? Over the years, we've learned a great deal about the intricacies of writing as well as the publishing industry. We have also figured out how to present the material in a way that others can understand. Larry and I speak much the same as we write. We begin with our subject, then each of us chooses the areas we wish to cover. Somehow it works. (The list of our speaking topics is on our website

If the conference provides for pitch sessions and we have a new project, we take advantage of them. Editors and publishers want to find the next great talent, so we try not to miss the chance to share our latest project. But we go prepared! We write and practice our 'elevator pitch' of twenty-five words or less. We polish it to make it interesting enough to grab and keep the person's interest. If they ask for more, then we elaborate. But we keep our initial pitch brief.

We also pitch only to agents, editors or publishers who work with our genre. We study each of the people and their imprints ahead of time to be sure they're good matches. Otherwise, we set ourselves up for rejection.

These are the periods when we may have the opportunity to sit with industry professionals and peers to learn from them. And we don't miss the chance!

Most conference presenters, including the big name folks, are there to meet others who appreciate the art and craft of writing. Being able to talk to them one-on-one can be a real thrill.

The best approach we have found is to have few expectations before we go. We're always surprised by the wealth of information available. So we pack our bags, get to our destination, check in, begin meeting people, and take part in the event. We've never been disappointed.