Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing Craft: Character and Dialogue

I am a week behind in telling you what I've been learning in my Writing Craft classes, so you can expect two posts again this week, hopefully, if I can keep on top of things. So here is a recap of my lesson from last week.

Who? Character and Dialogue

Readings for week 9 were The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (pages 1-11), The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (pages 5-10) and People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk by Lorrie Moore (pages 212-250). 

The first thing my lecturer wanted to stress was that dialogue is NOT the same as conversation; it is more structured and less random. Dialogue is action and should either move the story forward or develop a character. The thing is, dialogue is not supposed to be perfectly realistic, because that's boring. So the lecturer gave us some tips: 
- Think of dialogue as a summary of dialogue; capture the essence of what is being communicated and don't fluff around with it. 
- "Attribution is part of the sentence," he said. "Keep attribution simple!"
- Each new speaker should start speaking on a new paragraph. 
- Vary the speech lengths. 
- It's not how people speak in real life; it has the boring bits edited out. 

That was all pretty straight-forward, though it shocks me to realise how many people DON'T know to put a new speaker on a new line. I can sort of understand people who get a little... carried away with the attributions. That was me, once. I have been very guilty of not-so-simple attributions. But I found it almost interesting to consider how unrealistic dialogue could be. It makes perfect sense though, otherwise, every time two characters encountered each other, you'd have a conversation that would run: 
"Hey, how are you?"
"Hi there, I'm good thanks, and yourself?"
"Yeah, pretty great. What's been happening?" 
"Oh you know, just the usual..." 

Moving on, our lecturer discussed 'character' with us. For the more experienced writers out there, I think it's common knowledge that the reader should be able to identify with the characters, especially you protagonist, whether they are the hero or the villain, and with all flaws accounted for. Something that I definitely agree with is that there is - at least, at times - an artificiality to naming character, because they are already fully realised 'beings', which is what can make the task so difficult. I don't know about you guys, but I RARELY know what my characters names are going to be when I think of a story, unless I think of the character before I think of the story, and even then... 

When we create a character, we should try to create a fresh image to describe them, and avoid cliches. Take into consideration how many other people might have already written about the same basic character that you're about to throw into a story of your own. How can you make YOUR character stand out against other similar characters? Find those finer, fresher details. 

Why do we need characters and what do characters do in a story? Basically, you can't write a story without characters. The reader observes characters and observes the rest of the story THROUGH characters (focalisation). Similar to dialogue, we cut out all the parts of what real people do in order to make characters; Shakespeare never writes about Hamlet going to the toilet, and no author would unless it was somehow relevant to the rest of the story. 

Something that we might want to consider when creating our characters is whether, like real people, we speak in different voices depending on who is with us and what the circumstances are. I would NOT speak to my mother the same way I speak to my best friend. Like people, characters are not a fixed point in time; they can be influenced and changed by what happens around them, and should be. Character development, right there. The central character of a story needs to be an agent struggling for his or her own goals, not just a victim, subject to the will of others. Our lecturer said that failure to see that the central character must act, not just be acted upon, is a common mistake, especially in beginners. 

Where do characters come from? The answer has nothing to do with what happens when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much. We discussed this question both in the lecture and in the tutorial, and some of the things we came up with were: 
- Real life (though this can make them hard to manipulate if we try and stay true to the original person)
- What we WISH real life to be like
- Imagination
- Through observing and adding up pieces you notice in people
- Within ourselves
- All of the above.

Our lecturer also explained that a lot of characters we see in writing, including our own though we may not realise it, come from archetypes. Someone else in the lecture theatre used the word 'prototype' to help define what this means. The lecturer described it as an imprint of a pattern of human behaviour; they are characters who are up-front, with no subtext. We give them subtext and make them unique when we take them and built on their original base-form of an archetype. The example we were given was from medieval theatre, where there'd be the rogue, the clown and the fool. 

How do you use dialogue? What's your favourite quote from a book? 

Where do your characters come from? Who is your all-time favourite character, either from something you've read or from your own writing? 

- Bonnee. 


  1. So, after reading all these excerpts for class, do you find your 'Must Finish This Book' list growing huge?

    As far as where characters come from, I'd say, "All of the above." Some of my characters have been based on Real People I Know; some have been total fabrications, and everything in between. I think one of the most fun parts of writing is trying to create a memorable, real, 3-dimensional character. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I am definitely adding a lot of books to my 'to-read' list thanks to this class!

      I think it's always interesting to figure out where each character individually has come from, but creating that well-rounded character is definitely a lot of fun no matter where they've sprung from. Thanks for stopping by :)

  2. Oh boy, an all-time favorite character ... I don't think I can narrow it down to only one! I recently read TEN GIRLS TO WATCH and absolutely loved Dawn, the MC ... she's one of those characters I could relate to from the very first page. Love when that happens!

    1. I love it when that happens! When the writer has the ability to give you such a strong connection with one of their characters, they're definitely doing something right :)

  3. That's a very useful post and I'm going to print it and put beside my computer when I'm rewriting some parts. I was told that my Dialouges are fairly good but now that you mentioned that characters should speak with different voices to different people, I'm going to check if I have this in my novels. Good point.
    A good point you mentioned is that readers should identify with the main character. Many literary agents say that readers should care about the hero/heroine from the first pages, otherwise they lose interest. I'm not sure that they do in my novel and I'm still looking for the Magic how to make readers care about my main characters from the first page.
    I really like the point you mentioned that the main character must act, not be acted upon. I only have this covered in my second novel.
    I don't remember quotes from books. I guess the most memorable quotes I have are from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, like "I'll be back". He has great lines in his movies. My two main characters in my two novel are based or real people I know and then I make many changes.
    Moving to another topic, I read today on Yahoo that Australia was found to be the happiest industrial nation with Sweden and Canada coming behind. The interesting findings was that there is a high level of civic participation and strong sense of community in Australia. Now waiting for the next lecutre ..:)

    1. I'm glad you think this post has been helpful to you Giora :) It's definitely good to keep resources you think are useful handy, just in case you'd like to refer to them. It's really too bad that only students can access the lecture recordings, because I'm sure they'd be more helpful than my recaps.

      I actually haven't seen that many Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but EVERYONE know the "I'll be back" quote. I'll have to look into more of his stuff.

      I hadn't heard about that report, but considering that Australia isn't physically connected to any other countries and has a lot of isolated and rural communities, it doesn't surprise me that there's a high level of civic participation and a strong sense of community.

  4. I love this advice. It's so good to review this type of checklist over and over. Thanks!

    1. Thank you Christina :) I'm glad you think so.


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