It's Thanksgiving. Hard to believe! Christmas is only five weeks away! And I haven't even begun my shopping . . . except for the copies of Novel Tips on Rice I purchased for some special friends. Consider giving a copy of this fun and useful compilation of some of our favorite recipes to that hard-to-shop-for friend or colleague on your shopping list. The graphics are amazing, and the quality is excellent. But, trust me, you'll want one for yourself as well.
I proofread for a friend who is a court reporter. It's an interesting job most of the time. But since the court proceedings take place in a state I don't live in, and I wouldn't be in the courtroom in any case, I'm a completely objective reader. I have nothing but words to go on. No physical attributes, no endearing or exasperating expressions or behavior. No first impressions as far as looks, clothing, jewelry, hair style, nothing to pull them into favor or disfavor. The result is that at times I'm unsympathetic to a particular person when my friend the court reporter is inclined to be otherwise -- because all I have to go on are the words out of the mouth of the witness, attorney, judge, etc. Nothing but their words.
That got me thinking that a reader who picks up one of my novels -- or yours -- is in the exact position that I am as a proofreader of court transcripts. They know nothing about these people or their stories until they hear them speak. It's my job as a writer to make my characters come alive, and the best and most important way is through the words I put in their mouths. I can pile on the description and attributes, and to a certain extent that's important, but that won't make my characters or story resonate with the reader. So what will?
My daughter Deanne would tell you character affiliation begins with the name. If the name doesn't fit or otherwise isn't right, it jars her out of the story before she even gets into it. I completely agree. I spend a good deal of time selecting names for my characters when I begin writing a novel. I find that I can't get the momentum going if I don't have the names right. I may give a character a name at the start of my WIP, but it will pester me and interfere with the writing if the name is wrong. So I try to get it right from the start. And I always know when it's right. And when it's wrong. One major regret I have is that I allowed my agent and editor to talk me into changing the name of my protagonist in Every Good & Perfect Gift. The name I first gave her was the right name, and I wish I had stuck with it. But it is what it is.
Here's an example I ran into a couple of years ago of a name that just didn't work. A young female writer I knew, early 20s, very attractive, was writing a supernatural suspense novel, kind of a cross between Peretti and Dekker. I knew nothing about the story she was writing as she began to read from a chapter, but it drew me in immediately with its tone and action until I realized the protagonist, who I perceived was a young woman much like the author, was named Mabel. Mabel. For a 20-something, cutting-edge protagonist in a supernatural suspense novel.
I talked to her about it on several occasions. I told her the name jarred me out of the story. I had visions of a woman my grandmother's age the moment I heard it, and I was confused. Wait, Mabel? Then who's the protag, because I thought . . . ? I said it was completely wrong for the character she had created, particularly given the genre, but for some reason she was married to the name. I told her about the prejudice of my daughter, who would put the book right back on the shelf and that would be that. To no avail.
A more important element that will cause our characters to resonate with readers is the depth with which we write them. Superficial doesn't cut it. Neither does white hat/black hat. By that I mean, good guys are not all good, all the time; and bad guys are not all bad, all the time. Characters and stories written with a white hat/black hat mentality fall into the category of melodrama. It's our job to plumb the depths of the characters we create, and present them to our readers as fully formed and three-dimensional as possible. They have foibles and failings and we have to let them show. We have to know them as well as we know ourselves. We must know what they'd say or do in any given situation, and why they'd say or do it. They can surprise us in many ways, but they must stay true to the nature we've given them.
And the most important element of all is dialogue. Words and how they're spoken mean everything. I can forgive less-than-stellar elements in the novels I read, but if the dialogue is forced, shallow, unnatural, uncharacteristic of the speaker, or doesn't measure up in any number of ways, that's usually what will cause me to give up on a novel. And believe me, it takes a lot for me to put down a book that I've begun.
Let's try an exercise. I'm going to write a scene using nothing but dialogue. No dialogue tags, no speaker attributes, no description, no setting, nothing but dialogue. Can I draw you into the scene? Can I cause you to be sympathetic to one party or the other, and the right party at that? Let's see.
"I said I don't want to go."
"That's what you said, but I know what you meant."
"No. That's what I meant. I don't want to go."
"I can change your mind, you know."
"I wouldn't count on it."
"He'll be there."
"I, I don't know who you mean."
"Really? Just how many guys do you know who'd subject themselves to that kind of torture, all in the hopes of seeing you, even from a distance? Besides me, of course."
"You're twisted, you know that?"
"Yeah, I'm twisted. Right around your finger."
Now it's your turn. Write a brief scene using nothing but dialogue.