Building characters

I’ve learned lots of tidbits of wisdom over the years from various novel-writing workshops and other writing seminars. One very important tidbit is this: Do not end up with a cast of characters who are all just like you! You might think, “But of course” when you read that, but be honest. How often have you really been able to write the thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions of someone whose mind and character is totally foreign to you? If you’ve done it, I bet it took a lot of work.

Lego blocksToday’s post is more for next year than for this year, given that after today, you will have only six days left. (Eek!) But this bit of writerly wisdom has stuck with me for years, and it’s very important to get a firm grip on this idea if you plan to continue writing in the future or even if you don’t plan on writing again until next year’s NaNo. Creating plausible characters is not always easy. Even creating characters who are just like you isn’t necessarily easy. Let’s have a look at what you want to know in advance about your character, what you can create on the spur of the moment, and what sorts of tools might be out there to help you get all the details right.


Story first, or character first?

Once upon a timeYou’re usually going to want to know at least the primary details about your character, especially if he or she is one of your main characters. That is, unless you follow the “fly by the seat of your pants” method of writing and you wait for the character to reveal him or herself to you as the story progresses. We’ve discussed the two methods of writing your story before: either having it fairly well plotted out or just letting it meander where it’s going to go until it develops into a real story. But the method you choose by  which to write your story can actually have a considerable impact on how well your characters themselves are constructed and written.

Back in 2011, David Corbett wrote an article for the Writer’s Digest entitled, “How to Craft Compelling Characters.” About a third of the way into the article, he made some interesting observations about what happens to characters if the characters come before the story as opposed to how they appear if the story comes first and the characters are crafted to fit into a role in that story. If the story comes first, and you need to put characters into it in order to enact that particular plot, you may create people with the characteristics required to fill specific roles, but there will be little more to them than that. They can easily end up as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who just fulfill their required function but are hardly real beyond that. On the other hand, if you have some vivid characters in your mind and just decide to let the story go its own way, the story can grow directly out of their hopes, dreams, needs, and secrets. They are people to whom the story happens, rather than functionaries created to step into prescribed slots in a plot.

This is not an argument for winging it, however. You can write good characters for both types of stories, of course, but their creation involves really getting into their heads and knowing them as people. So it helps if you know a lot about them in advance, or if you can sense, when some person just pops up unexpectedly, that there is more to this person than meets the eye.

What do you need to know about him or her?

Flower with words for emotions written on its petalsAccording to Corbett, in that article, you need to make some kind of emotional connection to the character; you need to relate some real-world experiences to her and to recognize what might be an emotional trigger for him. Corbett recommends that you do this by relating the character to your own life, to events you’ve experienced, and even to what other people in your life are like. Do you have a coworker you’re especially fond of? What sorts of qualities does she have that you’d like a character to have? Did you ever experience a moment of deep shame or perhaps of immense courage? What effects would this sort of experience have on a character’s psyche; what would it make him like?

This is, of course, right where you need to be careful that you are not creating a character who is just like you. Even if the person has had a similar experience to what you’ve experienced in the past, that doesn’t mean that the character responded to it in the same way. It’s possible, most of the time, to respond in more than one way to the same experience. A trauma can help you be more compassionate to others in the same boat as you, or it can make you hate everybody and act accordingly. So again, don’t make the character just a carbon copy of yourself, even if you are using things from your own life to create him or her.

To create a character with many layers, it’s not necessarily even that important, at least at first, to know what she or he looks like or other surface details. It’s more important to know what motivates him and what sorts of goals she has. Does this person have emotional scars that motivate him to go after his goals in a way that hurts others? Does she want something so badly, based on even on a strong enjoyment, that she will step on anybody she has to in order to get it? Or has he experienced a deep loss that has made him look upon others with great empathy? Has she discovered such purpose in a particular goal that she inspires everyone around her?

You may occasionally find a character springing full-grown into existence from the slightest or oddest of sources. In one of my novels (eventually to be posted online and then probably self-published), I have a character named Elan. He is golden and alive and optimistic and close to pure, yet he is also capable of a fall into a terrible corruption of his hope and beauty if he is not careful. He has many depths to him, and he is pretty much the favourite character in this story, no matter who reads it.

Spiral staircaseAnd where did he come from? While riding home on the bus from work one late afternoon, I saw a white van with a spiral staircase painted on its side. Part of the name of the spiral staircase company included the word “Elan,” a word whose dictionary definition talks about being full of zest, lively imagination, and vigor. That’s not quite how “my Elan” turned out (he was more angelic than that definition might suggest), but he sprang into existence the moment I glanced aside and saw that van.

But even then, what made him so real to me and so multilayered was that 1) I knew immediately which kingdom in my fantasy world he came from; 2) because of the characteristics of that kingdom, he already had certain characteristics himself, including the ability to make his body glow brilliantly; 3) I knew immediately how he was going to influence several other major characters; and 4) I knew what personal tragedy had shaped the beauty of his character but also made him vulnerable in ways even he was unaware of. That really gave me something to go on.

So you need to know some basic characteristics, yes, including what the person looks like, what sort of family connections he or she might have, and perhaps some likes and dislikes. But to make the character real or to make her into a real human being to whom the story happens (rather than some type of stereotype who merely fulfills a function), you also need to know what she desires in life and what his goals are and what has made him the man he is. What has she done in her life that has shaped her current actions?


People use various methods of creating characters, often in fact using several different methods for different characters in the same story. Some of their characters pop up like my character, Elan, almost in full existence from the moment they appear. Others, like the “throwaway” characters I mentioned early in the month, who end up taking over the story or making a big contribution to it in ways you never expected, also kind of pop into existence without your planning it. Those characters, you start off knowing virtually nothing about, but every small thing that happens to them in the story reveals something new, and they can become quite nuanced.

List on a clipboardBut another widely used method of creating characters is to create them virtually characteristic by characteristic, one feature at a time, using a character sheet or planner.  These planners can be as detailed as you want them to be, and you might get ideas for your character’s story even while you’re in the midst of filling in these details.

I mentioned a few posts back that I created my own little soap opera, called “Passages,” and that I made a list of the types of characters that every soap opera seems to need in order to work. (For example, the big tycoon, the town bitch, the ingénue, two or three doctors and a nurse, the police chief, the bad boy, the good girl, and so on.) But I also devised a character sheet to fill in with details about these people’s lives. At the time, this was not exactly meant to be a character-creating device; in fact, I already knew a lot about the characters I was going to have. But I had noticed, as a veteran soap opera watcher, that sometimes storylines were created in later years that contradicted stories that had occurred in earlier years. This often happened with a change in writers for the soap; a new writer might know the really big stories that had been written for the show in recent years (was anyone going to forget Luke and Laura?), but they wouldn’t have the details about every character at their fingertips.

So I made my sheet so that in my soap opera, you’d never have a character saying that his favorite color was green one year and then that it was blue the next year. Nobody was going to be allergic to shellfish to serve the purpose of one storyline one year, and then be chowing down on it two years later, as though that earlier storyline had never happened.

So I created my very detailed character sheets. I kept track of birthdays, family members (even the secret half-brother or evil twin that nobody yet knew about), what the person’s phobias might be (so I would know right away whether he or she might be claustrophic during the inevitable “trapped with your secret love in an elevator” scene, and what the person’s hobbies might be. I knew what causes they believed in, what their education had been, whether they liked chocolate or broccoli, where they had lived before they showed up in town, and what skeletons they might have in their closets. All the categories might be augmented as future stories unfolded—you’d expect that—but by golly, once it had been established that she had at one time survived a plane crash or that he was the secret love child of the older woman he despised—those things were never going to be forgotten in later stories, and they were never going to be contradicted in future plots.

You may want to use a character sheet yourself, to fill in some important background details so you’ll know how your character will react or develop as he lives through various situations. One place you might go, not just to plan your characters but to plan your whole story, is Or you can peek at a really, deeply, thoroughly detailed character sheet here. Now, that is a lot of detail.

Lovers on a bridgeYou may not have to get excessively detailed in order to know your character well enough to make her real and alive in your story; some might even argue that by filling out a really detailed character sheet, you can again create characters who are kind of “cardboard.” After all, if every detail about a character is written in stone before he even experiences something in your story, how can he grow like a real human being would grow? How can she surprise you or go in a direction you had not anticipated, if you’ve got her locked rigidly into that prison of detail?

You need to be flexible, so your characters can grow. But you also need to have some idea of what your characters are really like, in their hearts and souls, so they can have real experiences in your story. That’s the way that your story will become a living, breathing thing that draws your readers deeply in.

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So what about adverbs and adjectives?

After today, there’s just One! Week! Left! Are you excited? Are you working hard? I’m sure you are. So how about another day or two of stuff about grammar and plot? It may be a bit late to be talking about this now, at least with respect to your current novella or project, and yet this may relate to some degree to your word count and to the word-adding strategies I mentioned last time. And learning these things will always stand you in good stead in your future writing. It’s never a bad thing to understand grammar, so you can make yourself clearly understood when you write. So let’s talk a bit about words that modify or describe the qualities of verbs and nouns.


She didn't merely "run"

She didn’t merely “run”

Before we get to the controversy, let’s clarify some things. First question, then: what is an adverb? The answer is contained in part of its name, “verb.” A verb, as you know, describes an action. She ran. He sang. We sailed. I thought. You loved. I speculated. All of those words—ran, sang, sailed, thought, loved, and speculated—describe actions. They are either actions you perform physically (ran, sang, sailed) or mentally/emotionally (thought, loved, speculated). And don’t forget the other odd sort of verb, the one where you just exist. That is, I am, you are, we are, they are—yep, all those “to be” things are also verbs, even though you’re not “acting,” as such, but are just “being.”

And whatever form the verbs take, adverbs are words that are added to describe how an action is performed. She ran swiftly. He sang badly.  We sailed poorly. I thought hard. You loved deeply. I speculated thoughtfully. Adverbs tend to end in “ly,” but that’s not always the case, as you can see from my example using the word “hard.”

So. Now that we’ve made it clear what adverbs are, you may wonder why a great many grammarians, writers, and editors say that you should never use them. What?? A whole category of parts of speech that should never be an actual part of speaking or writing? What the heck is going on with adverbs?

Full disclosure: I happen to think that adverbs came into existence for a reason and that they can serve a good purpose in the right circumstances. So I simply don’t go along with the “eliminate all adverbs, ever, anyplace, anytime” approach. Yet the people who don’t like adverbs do have something of a point. Using adverbs can be a substitute for good, solid work at writing strong, vivid descriptions of action.

Let’s take an example from my list of verbs and adverb combinations above: She ran swiftly. Now, obviously, the word “swiftly” was added to show that she didn’t just jog along at a moderate, steady pace. No, she really ran in a major way, because she did it “swiftly.” And if you want to emphasize just how swiftly she ran, you might even say, “She ran very swiftly,” and there you’ve added another adverb, where “very” means “to a high degree.” So you’ve pumped up the verb “ran” with two other words, describing just how she did the running.

But the basic problem, and the reason you need these extra words, is that “ran” just isn’t adequate in describing how this woman moved. It is a mild enough word that if you want it to express a stronger type of running, it just can’t do it; it needs “pumping up” with those extra words. But what if you just chose a verb that was strong enough by itself? How about saying “She raced?” Or “She sped?” Both of those verbs are much stronger than “ran,” and they create the needed impression of speed without any boosters.

That’s the basis of the arguments put forward by the “no adverbs at all” crowd: supposedly, you never need adverbs to “pump up” a verb. What you need, they say, is to choose a strong verb that will express exactly the type of action you want to express. Instead of “He sang badly,” you can say, “He quavered” or “He warbled.” Instead of “I thought hard,” perhaps “I pondered.” And maybe I didn’t “speculate thoughtfully;” since “speculation” is already a particular form of thought, maybe I just “speculated.”

Sailboats with oddly colored sails

Sailing–in some fashion or other

But very occasionally, I still think that adverbs might have uses. After all, what sort of verb is there that describes “sailing poorly” in just one word? Are there that many different verbs for sailing, and do some of them embody particular qualities of sailing? Maybe there are, and I just don’t know the nautical world and haven’t come across them. Or maybe, this time, the subjects of the verb simply “sailed poorly,” and there’s no other way to describe it. Or there’s no other way that wouldn’t require a whole sentenceful of other extra words. If the point is to eliminate unnecessary extra words, well, that would kind of defeat the purpose.

But I do agree with the anti-adverb people in saying that you can often—probably usually—get rid of the “booster” adverbs and find a much stronger, more descriptive and lively verb instead. (Remember how that crack “snaked” across the wall, a few posts ago? Now, that was a power verb!)

However. This is NaNoWriMo month, and remember the big goal of this month? WORD COUNT. So for this month—and only for this month, as a very special case—pile on those adverbs, baby! If you are severely short on word count? Adverbs! Every action that your characters take can surely, surely be augmented. (See what I did there? I doubled the adverb “surely!”) So forget the sparse “She raced.” Surely “She ran very swiftly and speedily!” That’s three times the words.

But after the NaNo is over, and you get to editing your story—cut those suckers out! Choose the strong verbs whenever you can. It will ultimately make your story better.


"Toronto" sign at Toronto City Hall

Now, that’s a proper noun!

First, what is an adjective again? It’s a word that modifies a noun. And a noun is an object or a place or a state of being or an idea. (And a proper noun, an important subset of nouns in general, gives the name of something, for example, the names “Barbara” or “Canada” or “Engineering Department.” These nouns are capitalized precisely because they are proper nouns—official names.)

Now that we recall what nouns are, we can go on with adjectives. Being words that modify nouns, they describe the sorts of attributes that the nouns have. An adjective can describe things like the color of an object (e.g., blue or yellow), its weight (e.g., heavy, light, weightless) or width (e.g., wide, broad, widespread), its condition (e.g., rusty, ancient, wooden), or some other inherent quality (e.g., benevolent, enjoyable, detested, delicious, honest). Adjectives can describe the origin of something, so this particular rock might be “lunar,” or that guy over there might be “French,” or that piece of furniture you covet might be “Art Deco.” And adjectives can also describe “how much” of a thing you have: you might have “half” an apple; or you have “much” sugar; or you have “many” books. Or—and this is something people don’t always realize—if you have “ten” fingers,” you’ve got an adjective modifying fingers. Numbers are adjectives too, because they describe a very particular quality (number or amount) of a noun.

Wow. That’s a lot of work being performed by adjectives, isn’t it? So do adjectives suffer the same disregard and disdain that adverbs do in certain quarters? You would certainly cut out a lot of the English language if you couldn’t use adjectives any more than you can use their cousins the adverbs. Are we left with just plain nouns and verbs and little else? That would certainly make the language a little…stark, wouldn’t it?

Circular store rack full of colored shirts

See any puce in there?

Actually, I’m not sure you have that much to worry about, because here I would say you’ve got a lot more leeway. If your character is wearing a green shirt, there’s really no “stronger” word for “shirt” that would include the attribute of greenness along with the fact that the thing is a shirt. If the shirt is green, you pretty much have to say it’s green, or else you give no color adjective and let the reader do the work of imagining in his or her own mind what the color might be. In fact, some writers who feel that even adjectives are used more than they ought to be used might indeed do just that—they might just mention the shirt and let the reader imagine its color. The only time these writers would use the adjective would be if the color of the shirt was important to the story. (For example, say that a character in a story is having a clandestine meeting with a spy, so how would she know which person in that crowded concourse was the spy? Why, he might be wearing a pine green shirt with a red handkerchief in the pocket. Then the color of the shirt would actually be important to the plot.)

But if you’re not into that sort of strict minimalism, then you’re more concerned with which adjectives you should use. The difference here is not merely between a “weak noun plus an adjective” and a “strong noun,” as is the case with “weak verbs plus adverbs” and “strong verbs.” The main difference, really, is just between a weaker adjective and a stronger adjective. So instead of using the ordinary adjective, “green,” which gives so much scope for the color that it doesn’t say anything very specific, you might get more specific, picking a stronger and more explicit adjective, talking instead about a “lime shirt” (but please—no). Or an emerald shirt (oh yes, much better).

And instead of saying “a dark red yellow-tinged shirt,” which sounds like you are really fumbling around in the dark for a description of the right color, you might just use the stronger color adjective, “puce.” If, that is, you (or your potential reader!) have any idea what puce even looks like. (That’s one danger of getting just a wee bit too exotic with your “strong adjectives.”) But of course, during the NaNo exercise (word count, baby!), you might actually prefer to go with the “dark red yellow-tinged shirt” and add the three extra words. You can go with puce later, during your editing.

To summarize all this: In your writing in general, you will want to pick the strongest verbs, because these will bring your story very much to life and will save it from being unpalatably bland. You can use adverbs, but use them sparingly, primarily when your verb absolutely does need amplification or elaboration in some way, but also when there just isn’t a verb that encapsulates the qualities you need it to. (Remember “sailing poorly.”) For adjectives, you’ve got a bit more room to maneuver, because you’re never likely to be able to eliminate them all, unless you want a stark, plain, unadorned black-and-white sort of story. (Except you can’t use “black-and-white” in that kind of story either; sorry.) Even with adjectives, though, there is scope for choosing a “stronger” or more descriptive adjective instead of a “weaker” or too general one.

But that’s all for December 1. It’s November 23 now, and for the next seven days—it’s adverb upon adverb and extra adjectives all the way to fifty thousand words!

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Week three checkup

And here we are, either three quarters of the way through, if we are thinking in terms of a four-week writing schedule, or else into the final third of the NaNo, counting today and the next nine days. Either way, if you are trying to do anything resembling the pacing that we spoke about in an early post this month, there are certain things you should have achieved by the end of week three. Let’s do another checkup, shall we?


A  huge maze

Well, there had better have been complications! Because according to our four-week pacing of the story, this was supposed to be the week where things just went to hell in a handbasket. The problem that your characters had clarified and were starting to work through in the second week was really supposed to boil up this week. Your characters might even have thought they had a workable solution last week, but you know how these things go. Nothing ever goes that well in a story, even a novella, and no characters ever just go, “Hey, I’ve figured it all out!” and then start working and everything goes right. What kind of boring story would that be?

Perhaps their ideas for a solution were going along fine and then, pow! Those solutions were suddenly revealed to be dead wrong. Or maybe the solutions were even working well—they were finding the clues—he or she seemed to be making a little headway with the love interest—witnesses had seen the kidnapped heir to the throne being taken thataway, and a troupe of valiant knights on magnificent chargers had just begun galloping down the road, hot on the kidnappers’ trail and very hot in all that metal armor—and then, as I say, POW! It all went horribly wrong.

This week, those clues your characters were finding started pointing to the wrong solution. Or they had learned at the end of last week that their first solution was wrong, and this week they were delving even deeper to find and enact the right one. They might wonder why they had been so wrong—was somebody actively working against them? Was there a traitor in their midst? Was that the subplot, discovering a traitor whom they had thought was a friend? Or is the subplot actually one of the complications facing their solution to the main problem? If they solve the problem one way, it could cause damage to someone completely innocent and uninvolved. How can they resolve this?

SolutionPerhaps the love interest’s husband turned up, not dead after all, and your main character has spent this past week working at trying to forget the love interest—yet has discovered things about the husband that may change everything. Should your character speak? Will it cause more harm than good? And what about all those knights riding along? Were they ambushed? Did they get diverted, and have some of them been lost to the company? Were there a couple of knights who had to find a way to get to the enemy castle and infiltrate it, trying still to rescue the heir? Can the heir take care of himself or herself, thank you very much, having managed to escape already? Or was the heir in on the whole plan from the beginning, and this treachery has finally been revealed?

If you have been planning to introduce any major plot twists, this was probably the week to do it. You don’t have a lot of time to veer your plot off into an entirely new direction unless you are sure that you’ll have quite a bit of time to write during the upcoming week. This may be quite possible for NaNo writers who are not living in the United States. But for Americans, from at least Thursday onward, finding time to do a lot of writing and introduce (and manage and complete!) a whole new plot direction could be iffy, to say the least. If they are involved with a lot of family activity for what amounts to a four-day weekend, they’ll suddenly find themselves facing just one single day, the Monday after that weekend, to finish everything.

You Americans will probably want your plot twist, if any, to be pretty mild. And your characters will need, by now, to be pretty close to the end game, to the solutions they’ve been working toward.



If you are writing a nonfiction NaNo, and you’re doing something that still involves keeping up with the word count (rather than doing one of the things we discussed recently, like creating a graphic novel or writing poetry), you also need to be getting close to winding things down. You don’t have to be writing your concluding section tomorrow, or anything, but you should now be able to see the conclusion in the distance.

If you followed the basic pattern of discussing your topic under three main points, today should roughly have been when you started on the third section. Now that you’ve covered the history of cats and the care and feeding of cats, you can really get into the quirks and idiosyncrasies of cats. Oh, the anecdotes! Or perhaps you’ve covered elliptical and spiral galaxies, and it’s time to get going on irregular galaxies. These will take some work, because, well, they’re irregular, so there’s more variation with them than there is with the elliptical and spiral types. And all that dust! So you’ve got a lot to work on.

But of course, if you are, again, an American who will be spending time with family (and maybe shopping or watching football) during the upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend, you had better be making a lot of immediate progress—now—getting down that information about irregular galaxies or cats’ quirks or whatever your third subtopic is under your main topic. On that last Monday, the day after that long weekend, you have to be finishing your conclusion and telling your readers what it’s all for and why it’s important or significant. And you need to do it early enough so you have time to upload and validate your finished project to the NaNo site, so you can get all your “Winner” badges and goodies.


You also will need to take thought for your word count if you want to keep on pace and finish on time. For the first couple of weeks of the NaNo, it’s easy to say, “I’m a bit behind, but I’ll catch up later.” Do that too often, though, and you find yourself behind by five or ten thousand words with eight days to go.

Word cloudBut you do not necessarily need to despair about catching up yet. If you can manage it, try to set aside an hour, two or three times in the next week, where you just bash stuff out as quickly as you can manage, to build up the word count. Remember that you can edit later, if you realize that you’re not writing the very best prose. And it’s not “cheating” to keep on writing and reminding yourself of that. Remember that every writer who ever writes a novel has to edit their stuff later. And edit again. And edit again. You’re just adding a few more words than they would normally have, to edit and work on later. So don’t be shy—just get your ideas down.

You can add words in other ways as well. Perhaps take another hour at some point soon just to read through what you’ve already written. Don’t edit, unless something occurs to you that you can do fairly quickly. Editing often results in a paring-down of words, but the purpose of this read-through is to discover what you might be able to add to what’s already written. Remember the advice we started with: don’t use one word when four will do. If you see someone saying, “That’s how things stand now,” change it to “That’s how things stand at the present time.” Or better still, “Given all the facts, that’s how we see things standing at the present time.” Instead of five words, you’ve now got fourteen. Woo!

The word additions don’t have to be that blatant, of course. You may realize that for your character to have had that particular response to someone’s comment, she probably should have just seen a specific event or person before entering the room or the building and hearing that comment. So you can add a sentence to that effect. Or you might see a really simple description that you can enrich, not even trying to build up words but trying to build up a more vivid scene. Rather than, “The sun slowly rose,” you might decide you should say, “The deep fuchsia band of color along the horizon brightened slowly to become a brilliant pink, then a pale rose, and then a rich gold, until finally the sun itself inched up into sight, burning away all the colors in a blaze of light.” You’ve added forty words there, and you haven’t even “officially” started your NaNo writing for the day.

And of course, don’t forget the exercise of writing with the five senses. This time, though, that does not mean that you spend several hours going over and over what’s already been written, concentrating on writing descriptions relating to a different sense with each pass. You can do that thorough job later. But as you’re rereading—either reading the entire manuscript or just reading over what you wrote the day before (that’s my usual practice)—if you see a short descriptive passage where you think, “I could add something related to taste into that part,” do it. Don’t take a lot of time, but make the additions. Even just by rereading the previous day’s work, to recall where you were when you left off yesterday, you can easily add one hundred words with these small additions. That only leaves 1,567 words to get through when you get to the day’s writing. Every little bit helps.

Finish line on a roadSo that’s your third-week checkup. Make tomorrow and the first few days of this coming week count in a big way. The end is in sight! Here’s hoping you can make this final blitz and finish the NaNo in a fifty thousand-word blaze of glory!

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Obscure ideas about dialogue

Balloons2I mentioned in an earlier NaNo post that while descriptions of scenes, characters, and actions is not my strong suit, dialogue is. I can write dialogue like nobody’s business. I may forget to have that young woman push that stray lock of black hair behind her ear when she says something, but I tell you what, I can make her talk in a way that reveals all of the emotions behind her words. I can bring that conversation to life and usually capture all the nuances. It’s  just something I’m good at.

People have sometimes asked me how I do it, and unfortunately, my usual answer is, “I don’t know.” Which is not remotely helpful, but it’s true. This is one area where I’m not sure I can give a lot of advice.

Yet there are a couple of things that I have gleaned over the years that might be useful. I’ll start with the most useful (and probably somewhat surprising) one first, because it comes from an author who not only published several novels but who also taught English at university.


I’m sure you did a double-take when you saw that heading, because it probably has to be the weirdest piece of advice you’ve ever heard, especially since people usually try so hard to make their plots seem plausible and make their characters valid and realistic. But this really struck me when I read it. I got this from a book called The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by an author named Oakley Hall. I gather that he wrote several westerns and mysteries, so he had some authority in the novel writing department. I really enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it, but what he said about dialogue struck me more than almost anything else.


“Hi thee hence, after yon miscreant!” “What?”

Too authentic?

Have you ever read a book where someone is writing a story, say, about knights in armour and ye olde kynges and qweyns? And everybody’s speech is full of “forsooths” and “prithees” and that sort of authentic talk? Or how about some kind, seafarin’ fisherperson who speaks a dialect of English that you can barely understand, yet the writer tries to repeat his quaint dialogue faithfully, word by word, with every line of speech full of apostrophes and dropped consonants and half-words until it looks like someone dropped a bunch of broken branches along the line?

I know that some people actually enjoy climbing over and around those piles of cracked branches. I even like some of it myself, when I’m in a certain mood. But Oakley Hall made a good point when he mentioned that it’s a lot of work to read, decipher, and interpret difficult and unfamiliar speech, no matter how authentic and true to a period or location it is. It might be amusing to speak of “ye olde kynges and qweyns” for a line or two, but imagine trying to plow through that for paragraphs and paragraphs and pages and pages. For some readers, there really can be too much of a good thing, especially if it requires them to work really hard just to get through your novel.


Don’t bog your reader down

Two questions result from this issue. The first is: do you really write a novel so a reader has to work to read it? With some philosophical or modernist novels, that may be exactly why the writers write them, and if that’s the case with your story, that’s cool. You are writing for a very particular audience, and as long as that audience is content to read writing of that nature, you are doing exactly what you should be doing. But that’s not necessarily the audience that most NaNo writers (or even most writers) are aiming for. Most writers are going for a more general audience, and the story itself is somewhat more important than the clever crafting of the narrative itself.

So the second question becomes this: do you really want to write a novel that’s so “authentic” that your reader may simply decide not to do all that work and decides instead to put the story down and search for one that he or she finds more readable? It all comes down to why you’re writing the story you’re writing. If there’s any danger that your reader might find all this “authentic dialogue” just too damn authentic to deal with, you may unfortunately need to give up on all that authenticity.

Just a sprinkling

WordsSo what does that mean, then? You give up on trying to make your characters sound like they really belong in the era you’re writing in, and instead, you make them talk exactly like we do?

Yes and, actually, no. What Mr. Hall suggests is that you do use a bit of authentic language, at least at first. Don’t use too much, but sprinkle just enough words and idioms from that era into your dialogue that you create the atmosphere of the era you’re writing in. That will establish that atmosphere in your readers’ minds, and everything they read after that will be read with that atmosphere as a backdrop. Your readers themselves will supply the “authenticity.” But they’ll keep reading too.

Rather than saying, “I prithee, fair lady, attend to my speech,” you might say, “I pray thee, fair lady, to listen to what I have to say.” That sort of thing. And as you continue writing the dialogue, throw in a few “authentic” words or phrasings along the way, just a very light sprinkling here and there, rather than pouring out a thick, unreadable soup of them. You will maintain the exact atmosphere you’re looking for, but you will also keep your readers with you and save them from having to wrestle and struggle with your text.

And of course, while you’re doing that “sprinkling,” be sure not to use any modern-day words that are not part of standard English language. If your characters live in some kind of medieval era, I can guarantee that your authentic atmosphere will be totally shot if any of your characters ever says “duuude!”


This is my own particular secret, and I realize that it may simply not be as straightforward to others as it feels to me. The reason I seem to be able to write genuine and real-sounding dialogue is that I don’t actually think of it as “dialogue” at all. I never “work on dialogue,” as some writers describe it. And I wonder if perhaps that’s not the key to things. It seems to work in my own stories, anyway.

What happens is that I live quite a bit in the minds of my characters. While I’m contemplating the story, even if I’ve only just thought of a scene for tomorrow and I’m mulling it over the evening before, I have usually lived through that scene several times by the time I actually write it. And if it’s spur of the moment, I still usually know at least my main characters well enough that I know perfectly well how they would react and what they would say in certain situations or if they were experiencing certain emotions.


Be in your characters’ minds

So I just write down what they would say, and I write it down the way they would say it if they were real people. I’ve never really been able to understand when someone writes kind of stilted or unnatural dialogue. (And don’t worry; my apologies if that sounds like a criticism of anybody who has a hard time writing dialogue. This is just my own mind and how it works.) To me, it’s pretty glaringly obvious when someone is talking the way a real human being wouldn’t talk. What I do is just imagine how real people would be saying these things to each other in an actual situation, and I kind of transcribe the conversation. I never feel like I’ve actually “created” or even “written” a conversation; what it feels like is that I’ve sort of eavesdropped and recorded the conversation, and now I’m jotting down what I heard. Or else, being in my characters’ minds, I’m having the actual conversation myself. With myself as each character in turn.

If you know what your character needs to express, try to imagine how you would say it if you were her or him. If you were in a really emotional situation, would you stutter as you tried to get the important words out? What if you had to admit something that was excruciatingly embarrassing? You’d probably stumble over your words then, too, wouldn’t you? And I bet you’d say “um” a few times, while you tried to get up your nerve to keep going. (Except, of course—don’t throw in too many “ums.” They can grate on a reader’s nerves as much as a bunch of “prithees.” Again, there is such a thing as a bit too much “authenticity.” Throw in one “um” in a sentence and perhaps another one two paragraphs later, and after that, let the character’s body language continue conveying the embarrassment. The reader will supply all the “ums” where they’re needed, after that.)

I’m probably repeating this rather too often, but the basic trick, for me, anyway, is to write like people actually talk. If “the way people talk” is not something you’ve ever actually thought about, so you feel kind of lost and aren’t sure you can imagine it, just start listening to people for a while. Not in the sense of eavesdropping around corners or listening in on private conversations. Just hear the way people say things when they talk to you or around you. Where do they hesitate? How does it sound when they are rushing their words? How does their language and attitude change when they are speaking more intimately or more formally?

Here’s a week experiment. Of the two following choices, which statement do you think sounds most like something you would say, 1) “Please excuse me, but I have a most urgent message that Chris requested me to convey” or 2) “Hey, Chris really wanted me to tell you this”? You’d probably pick the second one, wouldn’t you? Doesn’t that sound a lot like something a real person would say? The first version sounds very stilted and stiff. It’s kind of textbook English, but few people would be likely to talk that way.

Meanwhile, if you (or a character) were in a somewhat more formal situation, you still probably wouldn’t pick the first choice. Instead, you’d probably say something more like, 3) “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Chris really hoped I could tell you this. He seemed to think it was important.” That’s a little less casual than the second choice, and it conveys some deference and a tone of formality, but it’s nowhere near as stiff as the first one.

How should you write dialogue? I could say “I don’t know,” and it wouldn’t help you much. Yet all I can really suggest is that you write things down the way a real person would say them, either to a casual friend or to a boss or a parent. And for gods’ sake, don’t make your reader swim through an ocean of “authentic language” that will get him or her concentrating on trying to decipher and grasp it. It’s your story you want the person to read, so do not let your dialogue get in the way of that.

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