Writing Essentials: Characters Part Six: Bringing Them to Life Part 2

>> Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Another, in my opinion, excellent way to bring characters to life is to have them speak. Good characters or bad characters can be brought to life with surprising ease just by how you have them talk. Dialog can set up relationships, make characters seem real (even with zero physical descriptions) and even provide a setting. Take this passage from the wonderful Robert Heinlein (Time Enough for Love).

As the door of the suite dilated, the man seated staring glumly out the window looked around. "Who the hell are you?"
"I am Ira Weatheral of the Johnson Family, Ancestor, Chairman Pro Tem of the Families."
"Took you long enough. Don't call me 'Ancestor.' And why just the Chairman Pro Tem?" the man in the chair growled. "Is the Chairman too damn busy to see me? Don't I rate even that?" He made no move to stand, nor did he invite his visitor to sit down.
Notice how much is conveyed in these few short paragraphs. Without ever saying "the man seated" is old, we get the distinct impression that he's is, that he's used to people venerating him (as Ira Weatheral clearly does) but doesn't entirely like it, that he is important (and knows it), and that he's a cantankerous old man who probably isn't used to feeling helpless but does at the moment. And doesn't want to show it. When I read this, I had an instant image of "Ancestor" and instantly guessed, rightly, that he was in something similar to a nursing home against his will. And he didn't want to be. And I had his character pegged. But we also know a great deal about Ira. He is clearly in a position of power. He is patient. And he regards the 'Ancestor' with veneration and there is a sense of wanting to please the Ancestor...without necessarily a willingness to give the old man what he wants.

It's almost sacrilege to put my own work in here with Heinlein. But, hey, it's what I got. And you can see the difference between a master and myself. Yes, I can use the humiliation. Again, with short stories, the quicker you can establish characters, the sooner you can get to the story and jump in. Like this:
“I know,” she whispered, wavering under the strength of his desperation, trembling with the depth of his frustration.
“Stay with me!”
“I am a servant. I cannot refuse you.”
His grip tightened and he whipped her around to face him. Her eyes absorbed the glorious riot of his uncombed locks, the sensual fullness of his mouth but, more than anything, the intense gaze from topaz-colored eyes, blazing now with near fury. “That’s not what I want! I want you to feel as I do, to know what it is to be swept away in an inexorable storm. Can you feel nothing?”
There's the obvious; she's a servant and he's in a position of power. Not a modern servant, obviously, but the kind of relationship more in line with slave and master. Yet, despite the power he wields, she is the one in control of this situation. He not only makes it her choice, but she takes it upon herself to refuse from beginning without admitting that she is doing so. She is both compelled and frightened by his passion. This conflict, with the power with her, is the pivot of the story, but it can be expressed quickly and compellingly (at least I hope it is) even though she is unconscious of her power. Actually, power struggles in dialog can not only reveal characters but also increase tension and move the story along. Even the first bit by Heinlein is something of a power struggle.

Here's another from a short story:
The King leaned forward impatiently. "What are those cards, some kind of game?"
"These cards foretell the future, both yours and mine. But they do not speak to everyone."
The King's sage smirked. "I should like to see them speak to you. That would be a trick." The room laughed.
Melan didn't even smile. She spread the cards before her and pulled one from the deck, laying it facedown on the silk robe. "Here is the card for your future," Melan told the sage. The card was The Hanged Man. "There will be great suffering and punishment in your future. You will know pain, will be abandoned and renounced, and die, alone and unloved."
"You can do that to him?" the King asked, interest piqued.
Note the transfer of power. In the beginning, she is doubted and scorned. Within seconds, she has awed and cowed those who would dismiss her. In this case, Melan is shown to be self-confident and proud, also smart and defiant in a situation where she was definitely at a disadvantage.

When it comes to longer works, rather than short stories, dialog is even more important and can do a great deal to set mood, tension and reveal relationships.
Tander ignored her. “So, what you’re saying is that I have a great deal of talent, but no way to use it.”
Cristo’s laughter was as gravelly and grating. “Should have listened to your blasted cats, Tander. A man can’t change course in midstream. You’re a sword-swinger and nothing more. Like as not, you’ll fry us all by accident,” Cristo threw a faggot into the fire, his face stark in the crimson light. “Stick with what you can understand.”
“If I fry you, Cristo, I promise it will be on purpose,” said Tander, unoffended.
Clearly disappointed, Riko asked, “So Tander will never be able to use his magic, except, maybe, to heal? That doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s more complex than that,” said Denra in a gentler voice than she used on the rest of them. Tander had already noted her soft spot for Riko.
Cristo snorted. “Face it, Tander, you’re wasting your time and irritating the rest of us. We are going to be fighting for the lives of our loved ones. That’s no time to play with magical fire.”
Several paragraphs, but we (hopefully) get a sense of several characters and their relationship to each other, which is very important in an ensemble tome like this one was. Tander's good humor. Cristo's disdain for magic. The general state of necessity. The need to take advantage of Tander's newfound ability under adverse conditions. How the characters interact and some key characteristics of several of them.

Now, something to note. A book gives you more time than a short story to get to know a character. With a short story, you don't have much time, which means you need to give those key character traits early on and be consistent. That first impression the reader has is important and you may not have time to adjust it much, so make it count.

However, although you can change things, your character can grow and evolve in a novel, that first impression is still important. you need to be careful not to be too off-putting early on unless you're willing to accept that some readers will never give you a chance to change their first impression. Although, of course, even the most bristly character can appeal to some. Like how I like Kat, here.
“Kevin, you’d better still be here! Next time, why don’t you tell me what line Tate is on so I don’t have to waste my time with other idiots?”
“Yes, ma’am. And, to remind you again, you’re not allowed to heat up a soldering iron.”
“Bite me, smart ass! And, if that fool Paul ever calls here again, kindly tell him to take that worthless piece of paper UNLV gave him out of pity and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Then, hang up.”
“Works for me.”
“And call my house, will you?”
“Why? Will you be there? Are you testing your new teleporter? Or checking up on your clone?”
“Aren’t you the clever fellow? I have a friend visiting and I better let him know I’m headed back, so he can get the showgirl out of my bed.”
“That’s a malicious lie,” Corey said sternly from behind the door. “I would never take a showgirl to bed. Those sequins get into everything. You take a showgirl to the shower.”
Kat yanked back the door and regarded her guest with hands on her hips. “Corey! If you destroy my plumbing, I’m sending you the bill.”
“That’s OK, I’m sending the bill for the showgirl to you.”
Alright, I admit it. I love dialog. When it's done right, I can hear it my head. Characters whose voices I can hear are the kind of characters I'm most likely to stick with for the long haul. How about you? Do you like good dialog? And what works for you?

6 comments:

  • Aron Sora
     

    I feel dialog is risky, the reader is free to interpret what the writer makes the character say. For example the line “Yes, ma’am. And, to remind you again, you’re not allowed to heat up a soldering iron.” The "Yes, Mama could either be said by a person on an equal playing field being sarcastic or a servant or employee being sarcastic.

  • Stephanie B
     

    By which perfectly accurate statement, you remind me (and the readers) that taking a snippet of a longer conversation out of context can confuse rather than demonstrate my point.

  • Project Savior
     

    I love using dialog to paint the character, for a couple reasons. I personally like to develop my own image of the characters in a book so a minimal description of them lets me do that. I know others disagree.
    Second, it comes down to the show vs tell. If you have two characters discussing someone or something in their own unique voices it's the best way to show, as opposed to the omnipotent voice that walks in a describes something then leaves.
    As far as how the reader interprets something: Once a book, film, or piece of art is made available to the public it is no longer just the artists piece of work but belongs to the fans as well.

  • The Mother
     

    Implied dialog, too, works well to define a character. Those little asides that actually come as part of narration, but delineate what a character is thinking, do more to capture the essence of a character. People think true to themselves; they don't always speak that way.

  • Stephanie B
     

    All good additions. I love dialog and often give minimal descriptions of my characters, physically in particular, for just that reason. I remember, in one chapter, I was introducing four sets of couples, and, from the dialog, it was clear how the couples felt about each other. One reader complained that all of my characters were "too beautiful" which wasn't realistic. I pointed out to her I didn't have a SINGLE physical description in the entire chapter except to say the female half of youngest couple had a "sweet" face. She'd inferred all the beauty because of the way the men revered their wives. No ages, no weights, no specifics.

    And you're right, Project Savior, one has no control over a reader's intepretation; you do the best you can and leave it to the reader to get what you wanted out of it. Without the reader, it doesn't mean much anyway.

    The Mother, I used implied dialog a great deal too, and, since I was trying to emphasize dialog, I had to discard several potential segments because they were kind of half and half. I also frequently have telepathy of some form or another in my novels, so that can add another dimension. I might talk about that later today.

  • Jeff King
     

    Dialog is the vehicle we the author uses to connect the reader to the characters… Great dialog can make a bad story into a good one. It can take a book that would never be published, to a sellable piece of work.

    Plot can be fixed, grammar mistakes can be fixed, poorly written scenes, slow pace, disappointing climax all can be fixed… But I feel bad dialog can’t – well maybe the only way is by experience; reading a lot and writing a lot. But dialog is something you hear and feel rather than learn.

    Great post, and great information… thx

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