Make your characters leap off the page

April 30, 2012

One of the things I look for in a book – be fiction or nonfiction – are characters that leap off the page. It’s an element of writing that can’t be overlooked. After all, if your characters are dull, one-dimensional- lifeless things, then it’ll be harder to become engaged in the plot. It’s also one of the big reasons I reject a book. I’ve talked a lot about character development over the years, so I thought I’d toss in a few more key elements to the mix.

If you’re worried that your characters aren’t all they could be, maybe they’re missing these:

Backstory – Stuff That Happened Off Camera

I’ve talked about Backstory a few times and how this little lovely can bog down a story with the same effect as the beagle after too many pitchers of margaritas. The same can be said for characters. However, used with care, backstory can give your character a delicious level of page leapage (totally made that up).

Your characters (real or imagined) didn’t just pop into your story. They are there for a reason, and that’s because something happened off camera that brought them to this point – a trigger point. What is it? Let’s take two examples – one fiction, one nonfiction.


I’m noodling around with a story where the protagonist opens a romance publishing company whose authors are five saucy ladies in their 70s and one very reluctant John Grisham-type character who’s working through his issues of writing on auto-pilot after twenty-something bestsellers.

The backstory is that Twist, the protag, was a talented and successful advertising wiz who discovers her partner is stealing her ideas and selling them to the highest bidder. She makes a splashy Custer’s Last Stand by flipping him the bird and exposing him at a woo-hoo advertising banquet in his honor, after which she sells her portion of the business for a hefty profit, sells her apartment in NY, and beats feet for a permanent hiatus from the rat race to Palm Springs, where she plans on writing a book. That’s the trigger point.

Sure, I could just leap in with the current story, but those colorful events that took place off camera add richness and dimension to the main character. Giving some backstory as to what brought my character this point helps the reader understand the decisions she makes and the kind of personality she has. Absent the backstory, the reader would have to just take my word for it. With the backstory, the reader understands and appreciates the decisions – and the trouble – the protagonist makes for herself and her authors.

What are the trigger points to your novel?


Chris Baughman wrote an amazing book, Off the Street, which focuses on a horrific human trafficking case he spearheaded and solved through his unique detective techniques. It would be an understatement to suggest Chris is passionate about saving women, and it would leave readers wondering what fuels that hard-charging drive, had he not gone into some backstory about his own youth.

Chris’ backstory reveals being a kid, living in the projects and having an innocent view of his surroundings where magic was around every corner. It was shattered one day while playing at his friend’s house when a man broke down the door and beat up the friend’s mother, taking all her money and tossing her out into the street – all because she tried to get out of the prostitution world. The man, who was her pimp, had other ideas.

The shock of the incident and helping his friend wipe the blood off his mother’s face and body, tore the blinders from his face, and he never again saw his neighborhood as the magical, ideal home. He saw the ugliness and brutality where women were beaten and killed, and it fueled the man he grew into. It is a hugely powerful backstory that communicates the passion Chris carries in his heart every day. Because you know what happened to Chris’ off camera, his trigger point, you understand what fuels him, and you cheer him on to break the animal that you see “on camera.”

Used with intent and care, Backstory rounds out a character.

How well do you know your character?

I find that many writers don’t know their characters all that well. They don’t know their backstories because they don’t go back far enough to really get to know them as real life people, their trigger points that brought them to the current story. Instead, writers get centered on a plot and stick in the characters in order to project the plot. Characters – real of fictional – aren’t chess pieces that you blithely pick up and move around. There has to be a logical reason for your characters to act the way they do. And that comes from knowing them as well as you know your best friend.

For example, I came up with the publisher story because I needed an example of plot for a seminar I was doing at a writer’s conference, so the idea of knowing my characters wasn’t part of the plan. People kept asking me if it was a real book and where could they buy it. Hah. So it got me to thinking maybe there was something more to this silly plot. First thing I needed to do is get to know my key players better.

  • Who are they?
  • What brought them to this point where the story begins?
  • What kind of personalities do they have?
  • What are their pluses and flaws (no one likes a Barbie or Ken)?

What to use, what to lose

The worry is often, “How far back do I need to go?” My answer would be, as far as you need to in order to fully understand your character as well as you understand your best friend. There is no magic bullet.

After I fully understand and know my protagonist, I have to analyze what parts of the backstory to use and what to lose. There will be elements of my character’s backstory that aren’t relevant to the story, but they’re just as important to me on a writerly level because the more I understand her, the more rounded I can write her.

It’s exactly like research. When I wrote my novel, Donovan’s Paradigm, I researched various aspects of the medical community (and medicine, in general) for nearly a year. I interviewed women surgeons in order to get a feel for their challenges, and I interviewed a chief of surgery in order to understand the decision-making process and how much power that position wields. In the end, I used a fraction of all the compiled research. A fraction. But I had a lot of doc readers ask what kind of medicine I practice. That’s research.

The more I knew, the more I knew what I could leave out. It’s the same with your characters. It may not be important that your character has a weakness for Twinkies, but you can use that little bit to round out a scene and add a measure of banter. If you didn’t know your character well enough, you will have missed that opportunity. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it’s also something the reader will remember. When Donovan’s Paradigm came out, I received a few boxes of Twinkies in the mail, which totally cracked me up.

And that’s what you want to do: leave an impression.

Fully researching your character will leave readers with a lasting impression.


I love dialog (inner dialog included) because it’s the only way the reader can see the character clearly. You can narrate ’til the cows come home, but unless you hear them speak, they remain one-dimensional.  It’s all about communication, and it’s gotta be real. Too often, I see the exact opposite.

Dialog is the writer’s opportunity to reveal the soul and guts of their characters, and so many don’t take advantage of this. I hear all the time, “I suck at writing dialog,” and I don’t understand this. Ostensibly, we all interact with people, so what’s not to get? Even I escape my batcave to walk among the living, and I’m forced to actually speak.

If you speak, then how is it so hard to do this for your characters? And yet, I see this all the time. If your dialog is mundane and wooden, your characters won’t be memorable.

What makes you sit up and take interest:

“I’m going to the beach.”

“I’m going to hit the beach and french fry my skin into something the Golden Arches would envy.”

“I’m so sad.”

“Every crevice of my soul aches.”

Dialog is a valuable tool to expose your character’s soul.

So if you’re having trouble making your characters leap off the page, maybe you will find help with getting to know your characters, creating a backstory, and working on their dialog. Now go out and be brilliant!

Mmmm, yes, good dialog must you have

May 5, 2011

I’ve decided that today is Speak Like Yoda Day.

Bereft I am when lousy dialog do I see. Boring it is and throw away the manuscript do I want.

Okay, it really isn’t Speak Like Yoda Day. But there are times when I wonder if Yoda didn’t get his grimy little paws on authors’ manuscripts and wreak havoc. There I am, reading away, loving every word, thrilling in the author’s use of her language skills, when screeeeech! I bang up against the wall over the dialog. Those vibrant, three dimensional, living, breathing people now sound like robots in dire need of engine grease.

I know many authors who quiver at the thought of writing dialog, and I’m always quick to remind them that dialog is as much a writer’s tool as a computer and Thesaurus, so they better learn how to do it – and do it right.

There are any number of things that can take a reader out of a story, and dialog is one of them. I’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating.

Believable Dialog

By believable, I mean is this something that would really come out of a character’s pie hole. Contractions. Use them. People don’t say, “I do not think it will matter if the beagle drinks too much tequila.” Well, unless they’re Martians, foreigners, or Star Trek’s Commander Data. They’d say, “I don’t think the beagle will blow her cerebral cortex if she drinks too much tequila.”

Character Development

I love books where I learn more about the character through their dialog than through developmental narrative. So much can be revealed through dialog that reveals the specialness of your character. Your narrative can get across the idea that your character is wry, silly, casual, but those are sort of elusive characteristics. How to show that true essence of their core personality? Hello, Dialog.  If, for example, you’re in the middle of a tense scene and your character says, “All things considered, I’d rather be shaving my eyebrows,” that communicates far more than any description you could come up with because it’s show, not tell.

How Would Your Character Talk?

I’ll never forget reading a spy novel. The main character was your typical gritty, tough talking, swearing, swaggery type. Yet he asked his fiance, “Are we going to be having relations tonight?”


After seven years, I still remember that line. And I’ve never forgiven the author or his editor. It was so pathetically pathetic because there is NO WAY the character would have ever talked like that. And really…who does talk like that? “Relations”? I’m not saying that everyone gets down and dirty when they’re discussing the horizontal mambo, but geez, they’re going to speak in the manner that’s comfortable.

You have to know your characters very well in order to understand the things that would come out of their mouth and the way they’d say it.

I know this seems simplistic, but I see a ton of dialog where I think the character would never talk like that. And I use my bloody red editing pen all the time. Dialog is vital to your book, and you have to respect it and your characters to get it right.


Consider the conversations you have with your friends, co-workers, family. If you stop to analyze those conversations, you’ll notice how informally we speak. Mimic that. Make it realistic. If you do, then you’re creating a smooth transition between your narrative and your conversations.

You’ll also note that much of what we say is duller than the beagle’s eyes after a weekend bender. I see a lot of dialog that mirrors this fluff, nonessential stuff, and my bloody red editing pen gets a serious workout. If your readers have to wade through the “Hello, are you?” “I’m fine, how ’bout you?” “Doing well, though my back is acting up.” “Have you tried good bourbon and radishes before bed?” Blah, blah, blah. By this time, your readers are looking for rope and high ceiling beams.

You need to keep your dialog tight, taut, interesting, and important. Have something to say. Otherwise, why say it? Why write it? Just like your chapters, your dialog has to have a reason for being there, so treat it with the proper respect. Dialog is the backbone of your story. It’s what keeps readers engaged. Too much narrative, and most readers get weary. They need it to be broken up with white space and dialog.

If you follow these simple guidelines, better dialog will you have. Go Yoda…

Do you have a hard time with dialog? Do you feel it’s because you don’t know your characters well enough?

Dialog schmialog – hand me a drink

April 11, 2011

I love dialog. It’s the stuff that grabs my interest and breaks up the long narratives that can sometimes make a book feel top heavy. As an avowed dialoger, I look for realistic dialog, and this means that unless your characters are family members of Commander Data and can’t use contractions, I expect to see characters speaking with contractions. “I do not think the beagle is a helpful employee.”

Who talks like that? Really. And yet I see this all the time. It’s one thing to avoid contractions in your narrative exposition, and quite another to avoid it in dialog.

The same can be said for your character’s voice. If they’re talking to a partner in their office, or a wife talking to a husband, it’s a gimme that their dialog will be informal. They know each other, so I don’t expect to see anything formal and stilted like, “Roger, I do not feel like attending the ball tonight.”


More realistically, the dialog would be, “Honey, I feel like crap tonight. Can we bag on the ball? Besides, your Aunt Bertie will be there and she always drinks too much.”

Realistic dialog really is the difference between a so-so manuscript and one that pops to life. It’s also a delicious way enhance character development without the author shouting, “Hey, I’m developing my author here…pay attention!” Dialog removes the temptation to tell, not show because the character trait comes through in how she speaks.

Which feels more compelling to you?

The beagle saw herself in the mirror for the first time. Giving herself a long, slow once-over, she decided that she hated her freckles and wished she were born with better markings. But, saucy character that she was, she told everyone she was a new breed borne of royalty.


The beagle saw herself in the mirror for the first time.”Oh for crying out loud,” she groaned while giving herself a long, slow once-over, “why didn’t anyone tell me I look like Picasso painted me while fuzzed up on crack?” She looked at her employer and bared her teeth. “All this time you let me think I looked like all the other beagles. No problem,” she sniffed, “I’ll simply tell everyone I’m a new breed – borne from royalty. They’ll totally buy it, especially after I ply them with a double batch of margaritas.”

It’s a lot more fun to see a character’s personality rather than be told they’re saucy, or plucky, or shy, or whatever. Our readers are far from stupid, and they’ll catch the drift of a character simply by the way they talk. But they’ll never get that chance if you don’t make your characters come to life and have them talk the way a real person – or beagle – would talk.

Sometimes I get the feeling writers don’t know their characters well enough, and don’t realize their character would never talk like Commander Data. Instead, I see lots of cases where the writer uses dialog only because they’re at a crossroads and their characters really need to say something. So their dialog ends up doing little more than imparting information. There is no differentiation between the characters’ dialog – they’re equally flat and flavorless. The only reason we know Jane Character said something is because the dialog tag said so.

Dialog should be as unique as snowflakes, and readers should be able to tell who’s doing the talking based on how they speak. This takes knowing and understanding your characters so that they’re real people. The way you articulate is far different from your best friend. So analyze why that is. How does your BFF speak – what is that “something” that makes you shake your head and smile, while thinking “Only my BFF would say that.”

Never waste the opportunity to inject brilliant dialog because it’s what makes your characters memorable. How many of you have a hard time with dialog? Why do you think that is? Do you feel you know your characters as if they were real, three dimensional people? More importantly, how do you think you could improve your dialog?

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…

Are you too clever?

March 17, 2009


So hubby put his finished book down with a sigh. Good book, I ask. Yeah, sez he, but the dialog…he snapped his fingers – he always does that when he’s looking for the right words – the dialog was too witty. I mean, no one is that verbose and clever all the time. Sometimes you don’t need five paragraphs filled with twenty-five dollar words to answer someone’s question about how they’re feeling.

Ah, now I’m thinking he’s referring to my brother, who has a penchant for this sort of thing. I think it’s either a result or collateral damage from being a lawyer. Either way, he can make our eyes glaze over while waxing poetic on the most mundane of topics, making us all want to slit our throats.

I then began to wonder about the dialog in my own book. Nearly all the reviews commented that my dialog was the best part of the book since it unfolded the plot while establishing a great rapport between my two main characters. But was I too witty – totally new territory for me – had I gone too far in making their conversation convoluted? The reviews said no. Personally, I feel that it’s borderline, and my subsequent works have much better, real, dialog.

But the conversation got me to thinking about dialog because this is one of the most important vehicles a writer has to make the story come to life, establish rapport between characters, and keep the reader engaged. But ya gotta keep it real.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get up in the morning, I’m far from clever. If someone asks how I feel, I’m unlikely to say (unless I’m chemically altered), “Ah, the morning is my time to breathe in fresh life, newness, and hope. The sunshine kissing my face makes me believe there really is a higher power that is insisting I take the day off and make merry with Antonio Banderas.” Instead, I’m going to say I feel like shit, where the hell is my coffee, and I’m taking the effing day off to stalk Antonio Banderas. Now that’s real dialog.

Yet I see verbose, overly clever dialog in submissions and in very well-pubbed books – like the one hubby was complaining about. No one is that linguistically adroit all the time, and I believe writers fall in love with their own wit to the detriment of realistic dialog. Writers would be wise to evaluate their dialog. Is it believable? Unless you’re my brother and can command a room for twenty minutes on why we shouldn’t call UC Berkeley “Beserkly,” keep it simple, keep it real, and leave the clever pontification to my brother.

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