Character development – Ken and Barbie vs. The Seven Deadly Sins

October 25, 2010

While at the FWA, I gave a seminar, “Why Did You Reject Me?” I like this particular talk because authors receive form rejection letters and have no clue as to why they got rejected. My seminar outlines the major causes for rejection.

One of those reasons for rejection is character development. Of course, we want fully developed, three-dimensional characters, but there’s a  lesser known aberration, and that is the tendency to make them too perfect. It’s a natural consequence because we lurve our characters and hate the thought of making them appear unlikeable. It’s an overreaction.

And that’s exactly what can get you into trouble. I call it the Barbie and Ken Syndrome.

Oh, how I loved Barbie when I was a wee bairn. She was perfect in every way. Great hair, great clothes, perfect body, her makeup never smeared, and I’m willing to lay down good money that she never farted or burped. And don’t even get me started on her pink convertible. Le swoon.

And Ken? What a dudemeister. He always had the perfect tan, perfect white teeth, his swimming trunks fit like a glove (hey, I’m a Southern Californian, I notice these things), and he always had plenty of money to take Babs to all the great places in an equally groovy car. I’m certain he never farted or burped either. Well, never in front of Barbie.

And this is what writers tend to do with their characters because they can’t bear the thought of readers seeing their characters in anything other than a good light. The outcome, however, is that the characters are as deep as the beagle’s margarita glass. They’re boring and one-dimensional.

As I grew older, I began to have some serious doubts about Ken and Barbie. C’mon, my devilish side argued, no one is that perfect.  I began to wonder if they ever argued. If they did, what would they argue about? In my mind, Barbie took on the guise of the consummate Valley Girl and spoke only in Valley Speak. Ken morphed into a boor who had too much time on his manicured hands, and Daddy’s money gave him the freedom to cheat on Babs while she was away on her job as an astronaut, doctor, or a flight attendant. Lord knows he never seemed to be burdened with those pesky things like a job. The only thing I ever remember him doing is scuba diving.

I imagine a typical conversation as going something like this:

Babs: Keeennnn <sound all whiny like>, when are you going to take me to that, like, totally awesome new restaurant? I bought the most radical outfit that shows off my perfect body.

Ken: <yawning while checking out his reflection in the window and worrying mightily because he already has reservations for the restaurant – only he’s taking that hot little beach bunny he met last Tuesday> Like, really? I heard they disguise rat droppings for ground pepper. Dad suggest we make more appearances at the country club, since he was just elected president.

So all of a sudden, Ken and Barbie have some human qualities that invite more meat for conflict and juice to the story.OMG! Ken and Babs now have some dimension!

After my seminar, a lovely woman (and I wish I could remember her name so I could give her proper attribution) told me that her crit group had such a problem with the Ken and Barbie Syndrome that they started calling it The Seven Deadly Sins.

I love that.

This isn’t a literal idea where you need to limit yourself to wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust (hello, Ken, you two-timing bastid), envy, and gluttony.

It’s the quick tattoo-to-the-forehead reminder that writers must ensure their characters reflect the qualities of real people. And think about it; the more human your characters are, the more delicious things you can do to them. My original vision of Barbie and Ken was that they were so perfect there wasn’t anything to talk about. And that is what makes agents and editors reach for a form rejection letter.

Don’t be afraid to give your protagonist human failings. Ken may be a rich womanizer right now, but who’s to say he won’t undergo a huge transformation when Babs develops breast cancer and looses her job and health insurance? As long as you have enough positive characteristics to hang our hat on, we’ll forgive human failings because we all got ‘em.

Well, I don’t…

Say, before you develop that character…

September 7, 2010

Make sure your character is actually fictional. It’s a fact that many of us novelists draw inspiration for our characters from people we know/knew. The trick is to not lift so many of their traits and experiences that they become recognizable, lest said author and her publisher end up in court.

And lose.


Off to Alaska today. I’ll report in as to how many bears I see. I’m guaranteed to see at least one shark.

Character tug-o-war

March 3, 2010

Nathan Bransford has a good post about runaway characters and their authors who let them do it. Nathan makes a lot of sense – like, duhh, doesn’t he always?

I hear this comment all the time: “Well, I had my story all figured out until my character decided it should go in another direction.”

Ok, I’m willing to play along with this notion – to a point. This is where character tug-o-war comes into play. First thing you should ask yourself is, “who’s in charge of this insane asylum?” Ostensibly, it’s you.

Nathan suggests that it’s a danger to allow the character too much of a voice in the decision-making. As a writer, I think this is murky territory. I have a very strong vision of my story’s structure, the conflicts, and eventual resolution. But when I get into the nitty gritty of actually writing the chapter/story, it does seem as though my characters gently take me by the hand and offer up other solutions. Or twists. Lawdy, I love it when they come up with plot twists.

Yah, I know how schizoid this makes me sound. But you’re all writers, so you’re just as crazy as I am. Right? Um…right, guys?

Where I tend to part ways with the whole character tug-o-war thing is when the story veers off the literary railroad tracks. I remember critting a piece last year and then seeing it again at another writer’s conference. “What gives?” I asked, “Didn’t Sophie kill her aunt for stealing her boyfriend? So why is the auntie now a major part of the story and is Sophie’s best friend?”

“Oh, heh heh, Sophie suggested that the story wasn’t as strong that way.”

Um. Ok, this is when I double-check to make sure we’re not alone ‘cos I find this a wee bit creepy. As Nathan said, our characters are as “alive” in our heads, and most of us react to the logic of those characters. To go completely off the reservation because a “character told me to” is a serious case of character tug-o-war.

You’re the captain of your literary ship, and you have first, middle, and final say over how the story unfolds. You thought up the plot, the foundation, the characters, the conflict, and the resolution. If your story is being held hostage by your characters, then I recommend a good literary exorcist.

Otherwise, it’s like allowing the beagle a voice during contract negotiations. Utterly illogical and downright crazy. but what can I expect when my executive assistant is paid in expensive tequila and designer chewie bones…

Is your main character vanilla?

February 26, 2010

I’m not a fan of vanilla. To me, it’s the “safe” flavor, the flavor that gets picked because all the other choices seem too “out there.” Me? I’m a Bavarian chocolate mocha peppermint rocky road and pralines kinda gal. I like lots of flavor because it’s more interesting to me. Either that or I have unusual taste buds.

Like my food, I like equally flavorful characters. I just finished reading a novel [pubbed by Simon & Schuster] whose main character was about as vanilla as they get. While she is going through some heady issues of feeling abandoned by her mother and realizing how this has shaped her life, her personality was as dry as my meatloaf.

The author surrounded her Ms. Vanilla with rich, colorful characters, whom I found far more interesting. I kept wondering why on earth Mr. Hunky Doood – and all the other Hunky Dooods – would fall for her since she displayed as much personality as our Homecoming Queen in high school – an empty vessel of beauty and zero brains. I got to the point where I just wished for the book to end.

Why her/him?

Your main character is your main character for a reason, right? Presumably you love this character because they display some kind of trait that’s worthy of exploration. For instance, this MC went to another country for one reason and ended up reconciling her past. Cool, heady stuff. But the author forgot to make her endearing. I kept wondering what it was about this character that the author felt worth focusing on.

It was like the author gave her all the right conflicts and a great setup, but she forgot to give her a personality. Because her supporting cast is so vibrant, the MC blends into the wall. Had she not occupied Lead Dog status, she would have stayed there.

Main character status does not mean he/she gets a free pass to likeability any more than a cheeseball of a boss can demand respect. It must be earned. Why do we like your main character? Her/his internal dilemmas aren’t enough to engage us.

Give ‘em a personality

I had a friend back in college who, for years, I tried to like. She was a Steady Eddie type – dependable, caring, kind , and…just…there. She was so bland, so vanilla that, as nice as she was, I began to avoid her and bugger off to the library when I saw her coming. I felt like going to the Science Dept. and ordering up a freeze-dried personality that I could slip into her coffee. She had an interesting backstory, but geez, have a little spice. Please.

What kind of personality do they have? Are they outgoing? Funny? Shy? Do they have a great quip to ease tense situations, or do they curl up into the fetal position? Are they angry? Aggressive? Think of the people who populate your dance card. Write down their personality traits and think about how you can paint your character’s blank canvas.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy, do not make them flat, dull pieces of talking cardboard where all they do is react off their much richer counterparts. They MUST stand out.

Think logically - cause and effect

There is absolutely no excuse for your MC being devoid of a personality. You are the creator – you are your own Literary Cosmic Muffin. Oh, the power! Think logically – heh, my dad would laugh himself into a coma seeing me say that, since logic used to elude me much as the beagle eludes work. But I digress.

If your main character is popular, or sought after, then there must be a logical reason why. Making them flat and lifeless isn’t logical because readers are hideously smart. First thing they’ll ask is why this MC is so…fill in the blank.

It’s a case of cause and effect. If a character is respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who says, “yanno” a lot. Likewise, if a character is seen by his peers as dim bulb, then he can’t be Ivy League magna cum laude.

In the book I just finished, the main character had all these lovely characters who love her and consider her a member of their family. I couldn’t help but wonder why. She had done nothing to deserve this honor. Her vanilla personality wasn’t endearing, exciting, or anyone I’d want to meet. So what did they see in her? There was no cause and effect going on, so it was an illogical disconnect.

Readers will not go from Point A to Point B unless you lead them there.

Avoid cliche

Oboy. Is there anything we hate reading more than a cliche character? Why is it that every detective story is populated with a burnt out ex-cop, divorced, struggling with smoking or booze, down on his luck – or some flavor of this? Are there no happily married, well-adjusted detectives out there? I realize that we need to give the character some sort of inner conflict that usually coincides with whatever case he’s trying to solve, but geez, folks. We’re writers, so can’t we puhleeeze break the mold?

And why is it that women’s fiction or romance invariably have a main character who’s a clutz? Oh yes, we use that affectation in order to meet Dreamy McHunky, and it’s supposed to make us laugh and love her all the more. “Oh look, isn’t she cute?” we all mutter. Bleh. Enough already. I’m tired of clumsy characters. Does no one know how to walk in romance or women’s fiction, or is this anomaly only appropriate in other genres?

Ok, I’ll admit that I did manage to have my MC dump her dinner on my other MC’s leg, but that was the only clutzy thing she ever did, and it was only because she’d had too much champagne. This, I forgive. But to make her a Clumsy Clara throughout? It’s overdone. Move on, please.

Good supporting cast - Literary Newtonian Law of Motion

A good character needs an equally good supporting cast. Your characters are the vehicle which moves the plot. The more colorful your cast, the more engaged readers will become because they have dimension.

I always harken back to John Lescroart – because I adore his books – and how he surrounds Dismas Hardy with a rich supporting cast. They allow Diz  “bounce-ability.” The supporting cast is his Literary Newtonian Law of Motion where every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s through his supporting cast that Diz’s personality shines through.

That action/reaction comes through good interaction. The supporting cast is helpful in propping up the MC, while also helping to propel the plot. So much information and pertinent backstory can be divulged seamlessly and effortlessly through the supporting cast, so use them liberally and wisely. But don’t let them overpower your MC.

I have no idea whether the author’s editor was asleep at the wheel or what, but remember: if we don’t like ‘em, we don’t care. You can have a rich inner conflict or the most amazing plot in the world, but if the characters are vanilla, we’ll throw the book across the room and order up a Bavarian chocolate mocha peppermint rocky road and pralines ice cream.

Are you wearing your character?

February 11, 2010

I’m on a character kick these days. Yesterday I wrote how I like to be properly introduced to characters in a story, no matter how small, because I need a frame of reference in which to appreciate their existence in your story. After all, you felt it important enough to write ‘em, so let me know ‘em.

But the rejections don’t happen due to lack of proper introduction. There’s more, so let the beagle fire up the blender. Margaritas for all, beagle! Yes, yes, you may use my stash of tequila. Piker.

Lately I’ve been issuing a lot of rejections because the characters just aren’t developed enough, so it’s laborious to read the story. As I bleat like a goat on crack, characters are the vehicle in which the sequence events move along in a logical manner. They are the jam in your jelly doughnut, the the cream in your Twinkie, the steak to your baked potato.

Things I see going wrong have to do with flatness of the characters. No dimension, no color, no flavor. Their reactions to situations don’t make sense. This bores me and irritates the beagle.

This tells me that they aren’t “wearing” their character. If you’re going to write a character, you have to know who they are, how they feel about certain issues, what they like, what they drink. You have to know them as well as you do your spouse [no silly jokes here, thankyouverymuch] or your best friend. And it’s not just one character, but all of the main characters.

Very often in workshops I have authors who ask for help in writing a scene. “I need to get feedback on others’ memories of what it was like to be a teenager, fighting with their parents because I don’t know to write this emotional scene between son and mother.” My question is, “Why? This is your story.”

I can understand hearing stories from men about their teenaged angst with their parents and how they felt. If you’re a woman writing the scene, it’s important to have male reactions. It’s research. However, there comes a time when you need to wear your characters like a coat and dig deep to assume their personalities. Only in that place can you find the magic of dimension to make your characters come to life.

A lot of writers I’ve met are afraid to go to the closet and put on that character’s coat – or don’t know to go there. I can’t stress it enough – if you don’t “go there,” you will never know what your characters are capable of doing, saying, feeling, and thinking. I’ve been amazed at some of the things my main characters have said and done – things that I never would have thought possible had I not worn their coats.

Wearing your characters keeps you connected. So go to your literary closet and try on your characters’ clothes and shoes. Heck, the beagle does this on a regular basis. All last week she was Lassie. Geez.

Have we been properly introduced?

February 10, 2010

Have you ever gone to lunch with someone and they regale you with all the humorous antics of someone you don’t know? Your friend  pats your arm in between guffaws and says, “Oh, you just have to know how typical this is of him! blah, blah, blah…” You want to laugh, but it’s hard. In order to really get it, you’d have to know him. That’s when I usually have my friend give me more background. Ohhhh, so he’s an airline attendant with a lisp and oversized buck teeth….now I get it.

If you don’t know this character, it’s hard to fully understand or appreciate the impact of the story. Well I see a lot of submissions that do the same thing. If chapter 2 is a party scene with a ton of characters who are all saying witty things, I won’t be fully engaged with any of it – regardless of the clever banter – because it has no meaning for me.

They’re little more than clever talking heads with no dimension and no frame of reference. I’ll  scratch my melon wondering who are all these people and why did the author not think it a good idea to make the introductions? If I don’t know them, I won’t care. If I don’t care, I quit reading – and we all know what that means. Hello Ms. Rejection letter. Now that’s an introduction no one likes, right?

Before you include a bunch of characters in your scene, you must ask yourself whether the reader has been properly introduced. If not, your book may be tossed across the room. This is a bad thing.

Characters are the vehicles that drive the plot. They drive the plot because we care about them. We care about them because you, the writer, gave us a proper howdy-do. We have a good feel for who they are, their personalities, and how they are likely to react. Without these markers, the plot is as dry as the beagle’s designer dog food. We don’t gotta love them, but we sure do gotta know them. Otherwise it’s a whole lot of one dimensional blah, blah, blah.

Even if you’re including a minor character, some sort of introduction is important. It’s putting a face to the name so whatever they say leaves an impact. After all it’s one thing to have someone named Joe utter, “Fahbulous to meet you, dahling, love the dress,” and quite another to mention that Joe is a transgender entertainer who is never seen without his pink ostrich feather boa and green Farrah Fawcett wig. A simple sentence suddently takes on reference.

As you face each new chapter, weigh how important the introductions are. Will their dialog – no matter how minor – have more meaning if we know a smidge about them, or they not worth knowing? Think about the time your mom got all in your business for not introducing her to your boyfriend. And let’s face it, you didn’t introduce him because you were getting ready to break up with him, so why bother investing the breath so Mom can smile and be all nice-like?

Or was that just me?

The tale of two stories: character vs. plot

January 21, 2010

It goes without saying that the biggest sphincter pucker in a writer’s life is the query letter. “Argh!! I  have a fabo story, but how do I get that across to the agent/editor?”

You pucker because you know that we decide whether to ask for pages based  on the strength of that query. So it has to rock. Far be it for me to tell anyone what the quintessential query letter looks like because there is no one right answer. There guidelines that have been discussed here and a gajillion other places. And yet, I’ve seen query letters that I loved and broke all the rules. What was the difference?

The authors knew how to pitch their stories. They had a great voice and understood that their stories were either character driven or plot driven, and closed in for the kill.

Plot driven

A plot driven story is about the movement of events within a story and how the characters influence those events. Obviously one still needs engaging characters, but the story doesn’t center solely on their emotions, desires, and personalities.

If you have a plot driven story, then make sure that you focus on that plot. But be mindful; plot driven queries have a tendency to get lost in trying to tell too much detail. A query is supposed to be short – 1 page. So keep it to the big picture. We understand there will be plot twists and such, but we need to see the main story.

There’s a great example of a plot driven query over on Kristin Nelson’s blog.

Character driven

Unlike plot driven stories, character driven stories are all about the characters. It is they who are the main dish in your personal banquet. Their personalities, motives, and desires are the yin and yang to the plot, and their actions are a driving force to influencing the story. The plot can be on the thin side because it’s secondary to the character(s).

So if you have a character driven story, that is where you must put your focus in your query letter. This is where voice plays a big role because you need to make them come to life and make us care about them.

Here’s an example that I lifted from one of our authors, CBS journalist Barry Petersen, author of the upcoming book Jan’s Story:

Even today, if you met her, you would be struck by her charm and beauty. Is it any wonder I am so in love with her?

And that is why this is a story not just about Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, but also of our love for each other. People said we were an unusual couple. I only knew that we were lucky to find and to have each other.

And because of this disease there came the day when truly loving Jan meant saying goodbye and leaving her behind at an assisted care facility. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I had to — for her.

There is no medicine and certainly no book that can help Jan as she drifts deeper into her Alzheimer’s Disease. And no book can help me as I lose her. That time has passed.

But this book will help others beginning or in the midst of this horrifying journey.

That is the heart of Jan’s Story…when we came together, celebrating how we lived and what we did. And then together battling this disease and, as it moves towards its end, how I fight on alone, without her but for her.

I couldn’t call his agent fast enough to order pages – through a used Kleenex. Barry instantly sucked me  into his world, his heart. And even though this is nonfiction, the same rules apply. This could have just as easily been a fictional query.

Just for giggles, let’s pretend that Barry had missed the mark and focused on the plot. It boils down to, “TV newsie goes through the agony of watching his wife sink into the depths of Early Onset Alzheimer’s.” This is a good tag line, but it’s not really much of a hook for an editor because there are a gajillion Alzheimer’s books crowding the shelves.

What is going to suck me in? What makes this unique? Ok, there are precious few books on Early Onset Alzeheimer’s, which really is a totally different set of books compared to Alzheimer’s. So there’s that. But what else?

I have no emotional link to the characters involved in the story, and the plot is too thin. Since I have no character references, I’ll be looking for the twists, the tension, the conflict, the choices that the character is given and what happens depending upon those choices. In short, you can’t sell this story based on plot. It must come from the heart.

It’s Barry’s personality, his motives, and desires that are the cause and effect to the plot, and his actions are a driving force to influencing the story.

I see too many queries that miss the mark between character vs. plot, and all I usually see is an incredibly thin plot populated with flat, dry characters. Little wonder I send out a rejection letter.

In short, define your story. Is it plot or character driven?

If it’s plot driven, concentrate on the movement of events that drive and define the story, and be mindful of sticking to the big picture.

If it’s character driven, let me see, feel, empathize, and understand your characters because it’s the difference between “send me pages,” and “no thanks.”

Mary Sue and Marty Stu, meet Ken and Barbie

September 10, 2009

Mary Sue and her male counterpart Marty Stu are the terms assigned to characters who are so perfect and act so predictably that they lack dimension. Readers can’t get fully engaged with these characters because they don’t exhibit real characteristics. They’re above it all to the point of being a cliche. It’s fine for comic books, fanfic, and even some romance, but these characters aren’t a welcome addition to mainstream writing. We want to see characters who are real, three-dimensional, and plausible. They have to be like us.

Mary Sue and Marty Stu remind me of a couple who lived up the street from us years ago. Everyone in the neighborhood called them Ken and Barbie because they were so perfect. Every hair was in place, their teeth were perfect and brilliantly white, their designer clothes fit them beautifully over their perfect bodies. They had the perfect jobs and the latest groovy cars. Their kids were equally perfect. Hell, even their dog never pooped on anyone else’s lawn, never barked, and sat on command – ideals the beagle finds ridiculously entertaining. They were always nice and friendly; but never too much. In short no one really knew them.

And that made them boring, Stepford-like.

The same goes for our characters. If Mary and Marty aren’t human, then how can we make an emotional investment in them? We pretty much already know how the story will end because the characters are predictable. I mean, no one kills Mr. and Mrs. Perfect unless that perfectness is all part of the plot. With unintentional predictability comes indifference and apathy – no matter how intriguing your plot.

It’s one thing to have that political thriller where the reader wonders if reformed drinker and CIA agent Zack Dambo will fall off the wagon and go on a weekend bender just as terrorists take over the White House, or Mr. Perfect CIA Agent who calls his mother every other day, flosses, never drinks, never farts, and helps old ladies across the street. One has character, and the other is a cardboard cliche.

The characters propel the plot and create the tension because they are the ones facing the conflict.

Remember our buddy, Mr. Plot?

  • Who’s your main character?
  • What’s their conflict?
  • What choices do they face?

If you have Mary or Marty starring in your book, you’ve removed the main elements to your plot because Mr. or Ms. Perfect don’t have any conflict they can’t overcome. Yawn. Instant form rejection.

Face it; no one is:
That clever
That cute
That smart
That witty
That chiseled
That sexy
That compassionate
That understanding
That even tempered…

…all the time. Everyone farts once in a while. It’s a tough writing world out there. Keep ‘em real.

I not talking about the cliche things like eating too much chocolate during times of stress or screaming at the sight of a spider. Those are character traits, surface stuff, and very different from Mary and Marty.

I’m talking ab out making them human. As writers, we are [or should be] very good at observation. If you’re stuck on how to humanize your too-perfect character, look at your friends, family, resident beagle [or is that just me?] and write down the elements of who they are, what defines them.

Do they fear success?
Have they always regretted not get that college degree?
Does fear motivate their need to over-achieve?
Is their significant other so overbearing that they’ve become a shadow of their former self?
Do they drink too much and make out with all the men/ladies at the party/bar?

These are characteristics that go to defining who they are and they actually become part of the plot. Because of their particular foible, it is responsible for creating the tension in the plot. Sure, they could eat that Hershey bar when things get hinkey, but readers will be far more concerned that the recovering alcoholic will drink themselves into a coma when things get hinkey.

Dialog; you got personality, baby

August 15, 2009

This morning I awoke to the beagle hogging the entire middle of our bed while The Hubby and I resorted to hugging the east and west borders and scrambling for covers. Why on earth would any supposedly intelligent couple allow a small 25 pound beagle to hog an entire king-sized bed? I’ll make allowances for the cuteness factor because – damn – she is adorable. When she’s asleep. Or sober.

See what I mean? How does one compete with that?


But the main reason she gets away with murder is, well, she makes great margaritas – but she has personality. She doesn’t just enter a room; she whooshes in and sucks the air out of everyone’s lungs with her insistent baying (anyone who has a beagle knows they don’t bark; they bay) and demands that someone pay attention to her. She usually has someone’s sock or underwear stuffed in her mouth and really wants a rousing game of keepaway.

She’s hard – no – impossible to forget because she has a larger-than-life personality, which I exploit to the fullest. And that’s what your characters should do. I’ve read a spate of submissions lately where the characters are dry and flat, and I can’t even make it past the first few pages. The plots, oddly enough, have great promise, but the characters don’t rise to the occasion. It’s like entering my old ’63 VW Bug in the Indie 500. It was a great little car, but no way was it up to the challenge of a race. It could barely make it to the local hamburger joint without a cough and a sputter. And this is what I’ve seen of late; characters who cough and sputter before they make it halfway through the story.

Characters need personality because they are the gas to your car, and you, the author, are the gas pedal, the master of your story. Give your characters distinct personalities. Many times I see characters who have very few degrees of separation from each other, so it’s hard to distinguish between them. Was Mary Jo the dullard who wore braces, or was that Mary Jane? The clearer the lines of demarcation between your characters, the more engaged we are.

I noticed this particular element while reading this manuscript that I (still) love. Of course the story is fabulous, but it’s the characters who make it come to life. The author has done a marvelous job of showing us the distinct personalities of her characters in a most delightful way. How’d she do it?


I love dialog because of the freedom it gives the author to develop a character in a unique and engaging manner. With dialog, the author is forced to show, not tell. Example:

Overworked and Underpaid Editor had a love/hate relationship with the beagle, and they often sparred in the late afternoon when the Editor saw what little work the beagle had done.

Use of dialog to convey the same idea:

Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked around the office. “Beagle, are you kidding me? I come back from an editorial meeting and see your dirty laundry on the floor – and – holy cow, is that a Victoria Secrets push-up bra on the floor? And what’s with the empty tequilla bottle? Has Janet Reid been here again? The last time you did this, I found you and Janet laying in the middle of the floor singing old Three Dog Night songs.”

The beagle looked up from the corner and hiccupped. “Bite me, Price. You don’t pay me enough to work. And if you’d like to remember, I warned you I had a substance abuse problem.”

Dialog gives characters their voice. Well, obviously they have a voice, but I’m talking about voice – that unique manner which makes the character(s) memorable. I didn’t have to go into narrative detail about who and what they are because the reader can discern that from the dialog.

It’s much like this with this manuscript I’m currently reading. The author doesn’t have huge chunks of development of her husband, but I can tell by the things he says that he has a great sense of humor and loves his wife and kids more than life. I like the guy instantly. Their interaction is charming and endearing. Her deft use of dialog has made me laugh out loud and reach for a box of Kleenex. What power!

Sadly, I see many authors who underutilize this marvelous tool. Their dialog is lifeless, as if they feel obligated to write it only so their characters can interact with each other on  some level. Their dialog conveys information between the characters rather than laying out a rich banquet of words that delight, inform, engage, and make us care.

Make it real

I hear many writers complain about hard it is to write engaging dialog. This is when I suggest they get their Sarah Bernhardt hat on (or as Dad used to say, Sarah Heartburn) and act out their scenes. It’s not like we don’t have conversations with other people, right? The trick to dialog is to make it real. Stand up; act it out. Walk across the room, wave your hands; you are your characters in this scene. How would they say it? How would they react? Write it down.

Sure, it’s all a bit schizo, but we writers aren’t known for being entirely normal anyway, right? My dog (not the beagle) was convinced I’d taken leave of my senses when I wrote Donovan’s Paradigm. There I was, in the middle of the dining room, pacing about, speaking in a man’s voice, then a woman’s voice, then rushing to my laptop to get it all down. Because of that, I’d like to think that my dialog is real and engaging; that readers get a true sense of my MCs, genuinely like them, and view them as three dimensional people.

I learned my love of dialog from John Lescroart. Hardly the classics, but I like lawyer-type books. So sue me. I adore the way his two main characters interact. Again, John uses just the bare bones to desribe their relationship. Intead, he relies on his dialog to convey the deep friendship and respect these two men have for each other. I can forget the plots of his many books, but I always remember Diz and Abe. And it keeps me buying every one of his books. And isn’t that our goal with our writing? To engage, to make agents, editors, and readers fall in love with the characters?

So when you sit down to write, think about how best to make readers love your characters. Narrative? Or do you let them open up their mouths a bit more and let them speak for themselves so we can see their unique personalities?

As for the beagle, her voice is entirely too big – as well as her personality. I’m thinking a glittery muzzle could be fun…

Protagonist – you like me! You really, really like me!

August 10, 2009

There are many times I reject a manuscript because I simply don’t like the characters, and sadly there is no Sally Fields moment. The reasons for my not liking them vary. Could be they have no redeeming qualities to them. Bad guy main characters require a delicate balance. Characters like Dexter strike what I think is a marvelous balance of bad but likable. He kills people, but they’re all bad, and he lives by an honorable code.

Other reasons that I might not like a character is because I don’t know enough about them. They’re flat little pancakes on dry toast. I don’t know what they drink, or what they like to do after work. Do they take long walks at midnight and look for loose change on the sidewalk? Do they check the expiration date on every bit of food they buy at the grocery store? Does their significant other yell at them for drinking out of the orange juice carton? Do they only buy Italian leather shoes and silk ties? Do they speak goo-goo talk to their cats?

This requires observing your character and getting to know them on a deeper level so you learn their quirks. It’s not enough to dump your characters into your story; you need to infuse them. See, characters and the plot can be a lot  like oil and vinegar – they don’t necessarily combine together in an artful, interesting manner. You need a good whisk to combine the ingredients so I am aligned with your characters and willing to take the literary journey with you. In short, you need to create empathy for them. The dictionary defines empathy as:

the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

This means that we empathize with characters because we identify with them. We see something of that character in ourselves, so we have compassion for them.

As many will attest, empathy is subjective because, of course, you adore your characters. You know who they are, how they behave, how they think, what they like and don’t like. The idea is to make us like them and know them, too. That’s what keeps us turning the pages. That means you gotta show us.

In seminars I give, I often instruct writers to make a list of their characters’ characteristics; likes, dislikes, foibles, habits, obsessions, fears. Example:

The beagle:

  • growls like a banshee when she finds out the tequila is gone
  • loves to drink margaritas and chocolate martinis after a hard day of not working, or early in the morning. She’s a teetotaler during the day.
  • hired on as a secretary to answer phones and file – does neither because she’s too busy hanging out with a pack of troublesome German Shepherds who smoke and talk dirty
  • Closet softie for wayward socks; she rescues and hides every one she finds into the couch cushions
  • known to shred rejected manuscripts when she’s in her Angry Time Out corner – a punishment she carries out at least twice a week because she’s cheeky to her boss
  • climbs on boss’ desk and offers kisses when her boss is upset
  • tells lies like a cheap rug, but will eat the face off of anyone abusing her boss

Now that you have some dimensional characteristics that people can “see,” you can build on that and add these tidbits into your story. Hopefully readers can see something of themselves in these characteristics – or at least have them explained so clearly – that they stay fully engaged and entertained.

Like everything else in writing, there is no magic bullet that guarantees empathy or likability other than the quality of the writing and whether you know your characters well enough to make them real.


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