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Creating Characters I Don’t Hate (and Hopefully You Won’t Either) Part 2

July 28, 2011

In part 1, I talked about the need for characters to fulfill a role in the story, and how I replaced one character who was holding the story back with another who had the right qualities to move things forward. Character role is important, but what happens when characters who are necessary to the story and are doing their jobs to propel the story still don’t make you want to keep turning the page?

Voice

Yes, that’s right, the dreaded character voice. I’ll be honest here; this has never been one of my strong suits, and I’ve had a particularly tough time of it with Threads. I gave all of my important characters goals, fears, histories, and secrets to be discovered, but most of them were still dead boring and difficult to relate to or sympathize with. And if I didn’t enjoy reading about them, how could I expect anyone else to?

One thing I realized as I read through the first draft was that the character with the strongest, most interesting voice was also the character who was the least like me. The problem I had with the rest of the cast was that they all sounded too similar to each other and too similar to my own voice that I’m developing as an author. You couldn’t distinguish any one from all the rest.

My first step with these characters was to determine what it was about them, whether in terms of personality, background, or situation, that made them different from the other characters. Now that I’m clearer on the things that make each character unique, I can use dialogue to play up the contrast between them to make each character interesting in their own way.

  1. Personality. My protagonist is raising her younger sister, who is opposite to her in many ways. Where the protagonist is pessimistic, wary, and reserved, her sister is optimistic, trusting, and open. To show these traits, I have to make sure that the sister speaks more and uses straightforward language, while the protagonist is slower to say anything and tends to talk around what she really means.
  2. Background. Profession, socio-economic status, and place of birth all play into how my characters speak and interact with each other, especially as these factors are relevant to the story itself. The high-class, urban aristocrat is going to speak more formally than the country-born, struggling tradeswoman. The educated historical scholar is going to be more precise and exacting in his word choice than the young refugee who has worked all her life and never went to school. And, as much as I surround myself with people who talk like this in real life, only one of my characters has any excuse to talk like a book.
  3. Situation. This one’s a little more nebulous, since it can mean so many different things, but I mean it as how the characters are involved in what relationships, especially conflict. My protagonist is more likely to let her walls down and speak openly to someone who she thinks can help her protect her sister. The aristocrat becomes sharper and less polite when she feels she’s losing control of a situation. The scholar, who normally loves to talk and explain things, grows aloof and reticent in the company of someone he considers a rival. Each character will speak a little differently in different situations.

The thing that has held me back and led to stilted, uninteresting dialogue is not that I didn’t know these things about my characters. I already had a pretty good grasp on their histories, personalities, wants and fears, and other aspects of character. The problem was that I wasn’t using dialogue effectively to show the things that make my characters interesting. Especially since I have only one point of view character and won’t be dipping into the heads of the other characters, my job now is to use dialogue to show what kind of people they are.

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