Where they fail most often is in the words they put in their characters' mouths.
If all of your characters sound alike to you and to your critique partners, rewriting their dialogue may actually save your book.
Here are three steps to take in order to bring your characters to life:
1. Know your characters.
Where are they from, originally? How were they raised? What do they do for a living? What are their fears? How about their desires? As with all of us, these live experiences shape us, and affect the words that come out of our mouths.
Some authors I know actually do character bios: not just for their heroes and main characters, but for every character in the book. It's really a great exercise, and may make the difference in how your characters act– and react — on the page.
Actors do this, too. Michelle Williams (in the photo, above) is proving to be one of the foremost actresses of her generation because, like a Meryl Streep or a Kate Winslet, she is a different person in every film. One of her movies, My Week with Marilyn, is proof that she can lose herself in the iconic Marilyn Monroe: not just with makeup, but in the walk, the voice, and by saying the words written for her character in a way that rings true.
2. Do your “dialogue” homework.
Just as you'd research a moment in time for an historical novel, or a place (say, the Vatican, if were you Dan Brown, and writing The DaVinci Code), you should also research the tone, cadence and slang of your characters.
A female college student from Berkeley in the 1960s won't speak — let alone think — the same way as one who went to school at Wellesley. That is also true about a father raising his children in downtown San Francisco, and one raising his kids in Dunwoody Georgia.
If these characters inhabit your book, it's time to do a little research into their lives, and how it affects the words that come out of their mouths
The most common dialogue mistakes come when an author is (a) writing in the voice of the opposite sex, or (b) writing a character who comes from a different country.
In my very first novel, True Hollywood Lies, the anti-hero, Louis Trollope, was both: male, and from England. Not only did I tap into my male side (the yin and yang/dominant and recessive traits are something we all have, and must use if we are involved in creative writing) and have my husband vet my male dialogue, I also sent the manuscript to a male friend who grew up in England, to check the authenticity of my slang research. It was a great move, as he was able to tweak a few phrases, and to verify much of what I'd written was in fact “spot on.” (Love that term. Used in Britain more than here, but it aptly makes the point.)
3. Read your dialogue out loud to yourself.
Charles Dickens was an actor as well as a novelist. He knew the power of great dialogue. It was part of his writing routine to read his chapters out loud to himself, in order to hear the flow of his prose and gauge the authenticity of his dialogue.
You should do that, too. If it doesn't sound real to your ear, it won't sound right to anyone else, either.
4. Unless your character is Father Knows Best, a super hero, Ghandi, or Mother Teresa, he or she is not perfect–and that's okay.
So write them that way. Let them make mistakes. Let them do, and say, stupid things. Let them do things that will come back and bite them in the but later in your plot.
In other words, let them be real people. Because no one is perfect.
Except for you.
At least, according to your mother.
(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All Rights Reserved
The photo above: from the movie “The Fault with Our Stars”
Question of the day: How many times do you re-read your manuscript before sending it out into the world? And honestly, do you feel it's enough?