Monday, October 18, 2010

When Your Characters Aren't Talking

What I'm reading: Play Dead, by Harlan Coben

And, once again, because this is my blog and because I can, I want to share an email I got from my friend. I'd visited her after the Emerald City Conference, and she was kind enough to buy a few of my books to give as gifts to her friends. This is what she wrote about a friend she'd given NOWHERE TO HIDE:

My friend was falling asleep while we were out to dinner tonight. Seems she was up until 3:30am last night. Why? That damn book of yours! Her spouse kept trying to get her to come to bed, but she couldn't put it down.

OK, back to your regularly scheduled blog.

Working on my WIP, trying to come up with those brilliant similes, from Margie Lawson's workshop on writing gripping emotions, brought to mind the importance of a consistent character voice.

We've discussed voice here several times. Voice is that 'intangible' that makes readers recognize your writing. It's why nobody would confuse Suzanne Brockmann with Allison Brennan or Nora Roberts. It's also interesting that even though Nora Roberts also writes as JD Robb, her own voice is there. But that's your author's voice. What about character voice?

I've been judging contest entries and one of the areas we have to score is dialogue—does each character have a distinct 'voice' – could you tell who's speaking even if someone stripped the dialogue tags?

Going beyond that, however, are all the parts that aren't dialogue. Your character thinks on the page in your narrative. Interior monologue gives the reader that peek into the character's head.

As I was working on my manuscript, of course I was trying to follow the suggestions from Margie Lawson's workshop. Who wouldn't take such great advice. A couple of things I discovered about my writing method. First, if I try to put in all those great similes to evoke visceral reactions as I'm writing, I lose momentum. They're not easy, and stopping to find the perfect expression makes the writing like slogging through mud. So, I give myself permission to use lame language. I simply note the spot with ^^ symbols which are easy to search for.

And although from this point forward, I hope to be able to punch up the day's work when I review it the next day, I know I'll be going through the manuscript in a lot more detail to make sure I've kicked things up properly.

Next, and this is really what I intended to talk about today—it's just taking me longer to get here than I thought it would—is making sure it's your character who's thinking in those gripping similes.

For example, Margie Lawson gave the example of "her stomach shifted like a Buick on black ice." While that's a fantastic image, what if your character lives in Florida and would never have any contact with black ice? Is that an image that would come to mind?

In my current WIP, the hero is a pilot, a covert ops specialist, and someone who's spent his early years in a small rural town.

In reviewing my manuscript, I've found a few 'not too awful' similes to use as examples. When my hero, Grinch, (the one raised in the country) first sees the heroine, she's not sure she wants him around. She gives him permission to hook up her gas line. We're in his POV.

"I'll leave you to it." She disappeared into the house like a prairie dog into its den.

In another spot, the hero, who has just become sole guardian to his young son, Dylan, who he hasn't seen since the boy was 18 months old, is dealing with the boy being not only ill, but still recovering from the trauma of losing his mother.

Two hours later, the television turned low, Dylan slept, clinging to Grinch like a limpet mine on the hull of a battleship.

Or this one, where Grinch meets up with the heroine? She's on the run from an abusive husband, but he doesn't know it. This is what he notices:

Although she was following the conversation, there was a distracted air about her. Like a rabbit, making sure there were no coyotes around.

What if he weren't a country-born, covert ops specialist? What if he was a professional golfer? Or an artist? Or a lawyer. I challenge you to come up with some 'internal monologue' for any one of those characters meeting someone at a cocktail party. If you're willing to share, leave your example in the comment thread.

In summary: Know your character. Know their backgrounds, their likes, their experiences. Make sure that voice comes through even when they're not talking.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Pamela Loewy. Her topic: Brave New (Virtual) World. Don't miss it.


Carol Kilgore said...

What a great, unprompted blurb to receive on your book!

I have a problem coming up with appropriate similes. My critique partners often say 'huh?' So I find myself working really hard to make them work.

Terry Odell said...

One of my editors cut a whole bunch of my carefully crafted similes, saying they were distracting. I tend to agree, because the reader now has two images to deal with. One of early crit partners loved them -- many per page, and I had to agree that too many can be distracting.

But used in the 'right' moment, to create an emotional reaction in the reader rather than a conscious one -- then they're golden.

Anonymous said...

I agree that when I'm initially creating, trying to think of appropriate similes slows down my creativity. I think also give myself permission to just write down any old thing and later come back to fix it. However, if it's all right with you, I'm going to borrow you ^^. It never occurred to me to mark my place. LOL!!!


Alexa Bourne said...

Wonderful compliment on your book!

Linda Leszczuk said...

Terry, your blogs always give me something valuable to take back to my own writing. Thanks.

Terry Odell said...

Angelyn - help yourself. I'm all for sharing.

Alexa, thanks --

Linda - so glad my meanderings prove useful to others.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Terry, Margie's classes are awesome, aren't they? She presented a workshop to one of my RWA chapters. Thanks for sharing your take on her classes and continued success in your career.

Debra St. John said...

Great advice, Terry. I guess I never really thought that much about staying in character while in my characters' heads.

Congrats on keeping people up at night! What a great compliment!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good point, Terry! And that's something that's really easy to overlook, too. I think that when I'm coming up with similes, I'm probably so deep in my OWN head that I can forget I'm supposed to be in my character's!

Terry Odell said...

Caroline - no problem. I don't mind sharing (as long as everyone knows I have a faulty memory)

Debra - yep, if your readers are making connections, they should be with the characters--so stick with them all the way.

Elizabeth - I had my first "lesson" when I had a teenage boy character searching for a method of egress when he was locked in a basement. Not a word likely to be in his vocabulary, even though it was in narrative.

Brandy said...

Great post! Further identifying my characters by their thoughts and staying in character within a narrative is something I've been working on. I love the way you talk about it here. The idea of being able to determine who is speaking based on thought/action is intriguing. I've had such a hard time just writing my wip because I keep editing as I work. I've taken up just highlighting in red what I need to come back to. Of course, now it looks like I murdered someone on my PC screen. Oh well, no sacrifice, no reward...
Thanks for the post!

Terry Odell said...

Brandy, I edit as I go, but usually not until the next day. However, I do like to try to at least make sure the flow seems right, even if the words might not be the best ones--yet. I'll print out the day's work and read it at bedtime, marking up things that need work. That's my starting point the next morning. It might take longer to finish the draft, but when it's done, it needs fewer revisions than if I wrote straight through (which is why NaNoWriMo doesn't appeal to me)

Patricia Stoltey said...

There was a local acting class I wish I could have taken -- it was billed as a great way for writers to practice getting into their characters' heads. I've tried to do that with one of my wips since I have several male bad guy characters and write from their POV. It's a fun exercise, making each voice distinct.