She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful for the way she thought. She was beautiful for the sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loved. She was beautiful for her ability to make other people smile, even if she was sad. No, she wasn’t beautiful for something as temporary as her looks. She was beautiful deep down to her soul. ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve been doing a lot of reading and television watching lately. I think my brain needs a rest from all the chaos that my life has been for the last couple of months. It has not been a good summer. Anyway, even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. So my entertainment choices made me ponder the way I write my characters.
Sometimes, I can read about a character and fall in love with them without even having a detailed description of their appearance. I find them attractive through their actions and dialogue. Or, after a description in the beginning which may not portray them as particularly handsome or beautiful, I will forget as I am drawn in by their personality. Intelligence, kindness, sense of humor, and a well-rounded education (not necessarily formal) are also very appealing. Most recently, I realized this in watching Endeavor on Masterpiece. Shaun Evans, who plays Inspector Morse as a young man, is not a classically handsome man, but I as I grew to love the character, I began to find him very attractive as well.
Over the course of five novels and numerous short stories, I have fallen into the habit of writing all my main characters as physically beautiful. While I have also tried to imbue them with those other fine qualities I mentioned, I haven’t let them stand on their own. To grow and mature as a writer, I need to create characters who are beautiful deep down to their souls.
There are many descriptors that a writer can use to convey the physical act of walking. For example:
You get the idea… However, one of the mistakes I made in my early fiction pieces –fortunately one that I caught before publishing– is to over-describe a character’s movements within a scene. Let’s suppose we are writing a scene in which a couple at home is having a conversation, while cooking together in the kitchen.
Joni walked to the refrigerator and gathered all the ingredients for the salad. Then she walked to the counter and set them in front of Graham before hurrying back to the stove to stir the soup.
That’s just two sentences, but imagine that going on throughout a 300 page novel! Every time a character makes a move, the writer doesn’t need to describe it.
Joni gathered the salad ingredients from the refrigerator and set them in front of Graham, then returned to the stove to stir the soup.
The use of a variety of descriptors for movement helps us to visualize the scene. it is part of the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ in writing. Some scenes will require a lot of movement –a fight scene, or a foot chase, for example. A heated discussion might have a character agitated and pacing or wildly gesturing. In those instances, a detailed description of their moves would be appropriate. But in a routine setting like the one above, the reader doesn’t need to see every little move a character makes.
After reposting my discussion about dialogue, I thought of a few more things to take into consideration when creating conversations between and among our characters.
Their age – older people will use different terms and expressions from younger people. The references they choose will be age appropriate as well. People in their 20’s and 30’s aren’t going to quote The Andy Griffith Show, for instance. They probably don’t even know who that is. Older folks may speak a little more formally, they may not curse or use slang as often. In Three Empty Frames, one of my characters is an elderly gentleman. He says things like “Heavens to Betsy” and “Why, I never!” which is perfectly acceptable for someone in his 80’s. However, if his daughter, in her late 20’s, spoke that way, it would sound ridiculous.
Regional expressions – I touched on this briefly in yesterday’s post. There are local expressions and terminologies that won’t travel to all parts of the country. I’ll give you a regional Philly example. “Jawn” is a term only used in this part of the country that refers to a person, place, event or thing. And while it pretty much defies definition, maybe it’ll make more sense if I use it in a sentence. “I really want the new iPhone but that jawn is too expensive.” “Went to see Roger Waters in concert last month. That jawn was awesome.” No one in Indiana or Florida or Utah is going to say “jawn”.
Cliches – I despise cliches. However, people do use them in their everyday speech. This is really up to the writer, but overusing cliches even in writing dialogue gets really boring. Keep them to a minimum.
Use of names – what I mean is having the speaker constantly say the name of the person to whom he is speaking. Like this:
“Joni, are you ok?”
“Yes, Graham, I’m fine.”
“Thank god, Joni. I was worried.”
“Graham, you are too sweet.”
We know who is talking to whom after the first two lines, the names don’t need to be constantly repeated. We don’t speak like that to each other in the real world, don’t do it in your fictional world, either.
Speech descriptors – while I don’t completely buy into Elmore Leonard’s rule of only using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ to describe speech, I do think it’s usually the best choice. I had read this rule after writing the first draft of my first Bucks County Novel. When I went back and read aloud all the ways I had described what people were saying, I cringed. Shouted, blustered, snapped, laughed, spat, hissed, giggled, sighed, moaned, grumbled, mumbled, murmured, whispered, muttered, shrieked… well, you get the idea. I changed 80% of that back to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. And to be accurate, people don’t ‘laugh’ or ‘sigh’ their words, they ‘say’ them with a sigh. Like this:
Wrong: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she sighed.
Right: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she asked, sighing. (or with a sigh.)
Our fictional conversations have to be natural. It will impact the believability and relate-ability of our characters. Readers need to be invested in those characters to want to keep reading their stories. And we want those stories to be read!