Using writing to develop your character
When you meet two similar people in real life, you might make friends of both of them, but you might entrust one with secrets over the other. Why is that? Is it because of their looks? Their tone? Their own experiences? Maybe, they confided in you so you feel comfortable. Maybe, the other person is slightly more judgmental. The number of reasons is seemingly infinite, but the point is that there’s a reason. Everyone is different no matter how alike they seem at first glance or meeting. Every writer wants unique characters, though sometimes, that’s a bit more difficult than expected. But, it’s not just the background that matters. It’s not even just their initial attitude.
Step One: Who is your character?
Boy or girl? Tall or short? Race? Ethnicity? Basic stuff. Who is your character? If you don’t know how to begin, try interviewing your character and checking out my post on it here.
You need to know who they are as if they were your best friend. That’s your first goal. That will make your characters diverse and give them some depth. But, there’s a technical part to it, too. And, that’s where it gets a little harder.
Step Two: Writing with the character’s voice
It’s not about you anymore. If you’re writing in first person, it’s not about you at all. If you’re writing in third person, you have your narrator, but you also have your character’s voice to identify. This can be broken down into three parts: narrative, dialogue, and internal dialogue.
Narrative (First Person POV)
If your character is the narrator, narrative, dialogue, and internal dialogue are all coming from the same person. So, you have to identify who your character is and truly understand how they narrate their story, as well as how they speak to others. If you read Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks, you’ll realize that there are fewer commas than there are paragraphs. There are more run-on sentences and broken writing rules than there are of those followed. This is because it fits the tone of the character. It makes him real. His name is Chappie, by the way, and then it becomes Bone. It’s about a kid who smokes and sells drugs all his life and experiences a lot at a young age. He’s uneducated and tough, but he only seeks contentment in his life and escape from his troubles. The author chose a proper dialect and tone to write in. He considered the syntax and structure he wanted for his character.
I guarantee the author didn’t use bad syntax/structure because he didn’t feel like paying an editor. He didn’t disregard the comma when needed because he hates thinking about grammar. Read his other books.
It simply fit his character’s state of mind. It fit. It worked, and guess what? He broke a rule for a good reason.
Do this for your character. After you figure out who they are, consider how they’d speak. How they’d think. Would they use big words? Small words? Think about judgmental people you know. Narcissistic people. Listen to how different types of people talk. There are certain characteristics that can identify who someone might be. What they might be like. Not everyone speaks complete thoughts and few use complete sentences. For another good example, read Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Read. Analyze. Look and notice how they altered their personal voice to fit their character’s narrative voice.
Narrative (Third person)
I had to separate the two because this is different. Your character might not be the narrator. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a good example of this. His characters are rough and uneducated, so their speech is, too. The narrator, however, is eloquent and visual. If your characters don’t look at the simple things in the world or offer much insight, your narrator might. While your characters are arguing, the narrator will properly describe the argument whether through one set of eyes or both, or objectively. The narrator has his/her own voice and when you’re in a specific character’s perspective, you can dig into their head with the power of the narrator. You can choose where your sentences start and end, but you won’t necessarily have a dialect or specific word choice like your characters will. Not unless your narrator is the one telling the story in second person. “I’m going to tell you a story, sir, about a man in a pink coat.”
Diction. Syntax. Dialect. Tone. I’ve used these terms several times already, but I’ll use them again. If all your characters sound the same, how can anyone tell the difference? This doesn’t mean one must have an accent. In fact, you should avoid writing accents if you can because the reader might not understand them. But word choice can be applied regarding dialect. In south U.S., soda is “coke.” In the north, it’s referred to as “pop.” In other places, it might even be referred to as “soda water.” It’s known as soda everywhere, and, you can use that term if you like. However, placement is a form of identification and if you can, take advantage of that.
Attitude is another essential piece of your character’s verbal puzzle. What cliches do they use? How often? Idioms? Insults? Compliments? How do they react to things? What would they say? It’s not fair to have a man and woman who both get angry when a child says a curse word because you, as the author, hate it when a child says curse words. If you have a mother and father together, and their four-year-old says “crap,” you might have a father who chuckles sheepishly and tries to defend himself while the mother starts an argument about his cursing in front of their child. Now, if we turn the situation around and the child calls his dad a “no-good father,” it’s likely the father will have something else to say. But, how will he react? If the boy got this phrase from his mother, is the dad the type to confront her? We now know the mother won’t hesitate, but although it’s ideal for the father to confront a similar situation, is it in his character? This is important. And, it can also transition into internal dialogue.
If I’ve decided, as the writer, to have a bossy, loudmouth mother who finds blame in everything, I could have a father who takes the hits when they’re dealt and plays the joking, uplifting role since his wife is the hard one. He’s fun, but he’s also ultimately loving and compassionate, and he finds excuses for his wife’s rage. So, instead of confronting his wife, he lets the comment go and tells his son not to listen to everything his mother says. “When she’s angry at me, it’s not because of me. It’s because of something I did. And, we can’t let our actions tell us who we are, can we?”
You know, the sweet guy who sees everything as a life lesson. He’s wise. He’s gentle. He loves his wife and adores his son. But, there’s still that part of him that will think his own thoughts. It will provide the justification to his reactions. Maybe, he’s a hypocrite and he just speaks great words but his own thoughts betray him. Use the internal dialogue to decide that. How he thinks will help him decide how he acts and what he says. Your characters cannot all act the same, and they can’t think the same either.
Put two guys together. One might look at a woman’s figure, and the other might look at her clothes. One might be superficial while the other wonders more about the woman’s intelligence. Everyone has different thoughts, and it’s your job to unveil them and use them in your internal dialogue or thought. Use your strong, developed character to find it. Use them to help you. And they will. But, you have to look for it because when you do, you’ll only come out with better writing.
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