Bringing Characters to Life

by Michelle Mills

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I first started writing prose it was like experiencing first-love all over again—the epic kind.  This was not just another creative hobby—one in a long line in which I’d dabbled—I’d found my soul mate in a journal.  I’m going to write a book, I decided after composing my first short story.  My imagination was in over-drive and my determination was fierce, but I’d yet to master some of the critical techniques. I was heavy on the narrative [yawn], and I wasn’t overly skilled at distinguishing my characters through dialogue [dangerous]. I didn’t want to bore and sedate my readers—after all, I quite likemy book club and writing critique group friends!  But I wouldn’t be offended if they ordered take-out instead of cooking dinner, and then stayed up all night because they couldn’t put my book down …  I might not be there yet, but I’ve made some inroads with my dialogue.  Recently, the most positive feedback I’ve been granted relates to my dialogue and character development:  “You have a gift for bringing your characters to life.”  “Your characters are 3D.” These were tremendous compliments, as somehow I’d managed to turn my weakness into what I hope is an entertaining and believable rhythm of dialogue.

How did I transition my writing?  I paid careful attention to the feedback I was getting from my critique group; I read numerous books and articles about my craft, and I continued to write, and write, and rewrite. I am still learning, but I’ve discovered a few things along the way that work well for me:

Get intimate with your characters
In order to express your characters effectively, you need to know them intimately first.  Pretend you are their shrink—go beyond the questions you might ask an interesting new acquaintance, as well as the questions that would get you punched in real life.  The latter is crucial; you need to know what makes them tick, and understand what their motives are.  It is also important to understand the reasoning behind their actions, however delusional it might be.  It could be psychological or circumstantial, or a combination of both.   We all know we should do this, but not everyone does, or we mistakenly focus on character sketches for the protagonist, hero, and villain, and then neglect our supporting characters.

Um, uh …you know what I mean…
Cut this stuff out!  People say these things in real life, but they serve no purpose and will do nothing other than stifle your conversations and bore your reader.  Be realistic, but concise—employ your dialogue to propel your story forward or develop your characters.  Watch out for those “couch potato” words that merely expand the waistline of your novel’s word count, but do little else—they need to go!

Make your reader laugh!
Jeannette Walls, author of the Glass Castle has it right.  Regardless of how serious your topic is, timely injections of humour keep the reader engaged and wanting more.  I like to accomplish this through dialogue.

“For crying out loud—don’t you two have anything better to do than argue over what kind of tea you’re drinking?  It’s EARL GREY for heaven’s sake,” Alice yanked up the label with an arthritic hand—“says so on the tag!”

Fantasize
I envy the writers in my group who put pen to paper and the words flow as delicious and smooth as melted chocolate.  I can only do that if I have solitude, and I’ve played the scene in my mind like a movie first.  I watch the characters, their facial expressions and their movements, and listen to what they are saying—then I write it down.

Strick a balance – Narrative vs. Dialogue
It is important to appeal to the five-senses of the reader, and this is where the narrative plays an important role; dialogue alone cannot accomplish this.  It would be odd—disturbing even—if a character was to say this:

“Claudia, it’s so nice to see you on this exquisite May morning of 2011.  The scent of spring flowers is in the air, tiny birds are chirping a cheerful song and the sky is as lavender as Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes.  Your gold sandals, breezy white sundress and spiraling, raven hair are reminiscent of a Greek goddess—you are beautiful.  I’m guessing you are in your mid-thirties?”

If someone ever said that to me, I would respond like this:

“I have to go …please don’t follow me.”

Having said that, it isn’t a good idea to rely too heavily on the narrative—your prose should not resemble a speech.  There should be a harmonious and effective mixture of dialogue and narrative:

“Hurry, Matt.  My mother’s gonna kill me—I was supposed to be home by nine.”

“I’m coming.”  Matthew assured, springing to her side.  “But no one’s going to kill you,” he chuckled, “at least not today.  These are for you.  Happy Birthday.”  Matthew pressed the flowers into her hand with a shy grin before turning away.

“They’re beautiful, thanks.”  Emily’s cheeks grew warm.

Matthew shrugged his shoulders, “You’re welcome.”

Emily narrowed her eyes mischievously when he wouldn’t meet her gaze.  “Do you always blush this much when you give flowers to a girl?” She smiled at him when he dared to face her once again, her silver braces reflective in the sunlight.

Sources of Inspiration
Dialogue should be interesting and dramatic.  As a writer, I feel as though I’m always collecting tidbits and storing them in my mind or inside a journal.

  • Reminisce:  Dig deep into the attic of your mind.  You’ll find all kinds of characters, anecdotes, sights, sounds and smells.  Why not build that weird uncle or neurotic cousin into your story?
  • Eavesdrop:  I was at Starbucks once and a lady described a baby as “a cottage-cheese factory.”  I thought it was a gem, and her comment made its way into the dialogue of a short story I was writing
  • Dreams:  I feel especially creative in the morning when my mind is fresh from dreams.  A journal and pen are always beside my bed
  • The News:  They say that truth is often stranger than fiction—so true.  The news is also an excellent source of determining how the law deals with crimes in specific regions.
  • Media:  Our world is saturated with media—it’s everywhere.  Take advantage of the inspiration that is available at your fingertips, whether it’s in the form of Google, or a glossy magazine.
  • Pay close attention to your surroundings: I once saw an older man who walking through the streets alone, wearing a gaping hospital gown that revealed his underwear. From this I formed the character of a man with Alzheimer’s and a big secret.
  • Read often:  You will be influenced by what you read, so read books from authors that inspire you in the genre of which you are writing.  Take note of what bores you and what captures your interest.

Michelle Mills resides in South Western Ontario with her family and is a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective.  She is excited to be working on her first romantic suspense novel.

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3 responses to “Bringing Characters to Life

  1. Lee Anne Johnston

    Great piece Michelle, great humour! Your story keeps getting better and better.

  2. Becky Alexander

    Excellent article, Michelle. I read it twice through and thoroughly enjoyed it. You are ‘bang on’ with your observations of how one should approach writing.

    Becky

  3. Thanks Ladies, I’m glad you enjoyed my article!

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