I’m back in one piece from San Diego! Spent the weekend there going to a wedding and hanging out with relatives and reading some books.
While I was gone, I see that several of you kept talking about issues in character creation, and we still have a backlog of questions to deal with.
If a person is dead, can you write about them in a fictional manner? I have a character in a WIP that I knew as a child but he is now dead – he is a minor character.
In another WIP that is mostly in my head right now, the historical characters are well known, related to my family through marriage, and my mother keeps telling me they were not well liked (although I don’t intend to portray them as unlikeable because I personally think they were heros with flaws). Do I need to ask their family permission to write about them? They lived 150 years ago.
Randy sez: Remember my standard caveat that I’m not a lawyer, so nothing I say should be construed as legal advice, yada, yada. My understanding is that you can’t libel a dead person, since the libel laws only apply to living people. However, if you put a dead person into your novel and it reflects badly on a family that still has live people in it, they might still go after you for invasion of privacy.
It’s also my understanding that public figures don’t have the same rights to privacy as ordinary people. For example, it’s probably a lot safer to put Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton in your novel than it is to put your next door neighbor or your mother or your cat.
Actually, amend that last statement. Your cat has no rights to privacy and can’t sue you for libel. So put the malicious little feline in and don’t worry. I put my cat Zephyr in my last novel, and he still likes me, as long as I feed him every 12 minutes.
I have a question that’s not exactly just character related. My WIP is an historical fiction and so I’ve been doing a lot of research on the places in that period, how people lived, what they wore, etc, and I’m wondering how to keep from getting burnt out on it all before I get to really writing the first draft. Being a freshman I sometimes wonder if I didn’t bite off more than I can chew with this story but it won’t leave my head.
For certain genres, such as fantasy, SF, and historical novels, your StoryWorld is essentially a character in your story, because it plays such an important role. In such genres, your StoryWorld has a backstory that you simply can’t expect your reader to know, so you have to supply it. Likewise, your StoryWorld has a personality composed of its politics, geography, religion, climate, and 1000 other things.
If you are writing historical novels, you are almost certainly a research puppy and will stop at nothing to learn every tiny detail. Do so. My rule of thumb is to learn 100 times as much as you need in order to write your novel. Then do your readers a favor and only tell them 1% of what you know. This leaves you room to write another 100 novels using the same research, so you get tremendous bang for your buck.
I used to do a bit of ventriloquism, and one my main methods of creating the character of my “partner” was to really “talk” with the puppet.
I would for example put the puppet on the passenger seat of my car while driving (don’t forget to buckle up!).
We could discuss all kinds of issues, for example how to deliver the punchline of a joke during our upcoming gig.
After the gig we might make fun of the annoying guy in the audience or just ordinary stuff like what we should have for dinner.
During those “conversations” the puppet often revealed new and sometimes unexpected characteristics.
Make sure that nobody sees you talking to a puppet, they might just think you’re a lunatic….
Randy sez: This is a new idea to me, and it sounds great. Just be sure to capture it on tape. This is a lot like the practice many writers follow in writing up journal entries or interviews of their characters.
By the way, don’t worry about people thinking you’re crazy talking to a puppet. Just wear a cell phone headset and they’ll assume you’re on the phone. Of course, if you’re driving, other people might get mad at you for talking on the phone while you drive, which is a hazardous thing to do.
I’m having problems coming up with different voices for my characters. The setting is planet Olim in a time far past. If I give them accents or colloquialisms, it sounds phony. Have I painted myself into a box? Help!
Randy sez: Avoid accents, always. This is true when writing regional dialects also. Many of us have suffered through reading thick dialect, such as in UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. It’s very hard to read. You can achieve the effect you want much more easily by word choices and syntactic constructs that are peculiar to the dialect. But spell the words correctly and save your reader from going crazy.
I guess if I had a question about characters, it would be regarding the difference between internal voice and dialogue voice for any given character. If you have a character that was raised on the streets or in a slum and speaks with a lot of slang and bad grammar and the like, I’m assuming you don’t want to write the narrative that way when you’re in the character’s pov. I’ve also heard not to overdo slang and such, even in dialogue because it’s hard for the reader to pick through. Yet, how do you give such a character a voice if you can’t write the words the way he/she would think/say them? How do you differentiate between the country boy, the kid from the slums and the scholar?
Randy sez: Right, you want to narrate events in normal English, but it’s OK to use word choices typical of your character. When it comes to interior monologue and dialogue, take the advice I gave above.
Here’s an example from my friend Athol Dickson’s book RIVER RISING, set in the deep south in 1927. The dialogue is between Jean Tibbits, (a white Cajun), and a “colored man” who’s just come up the river in his boat:
“Hey!” shouted Tibbits. “You can pull up yonder, you.”
The colored man called softly, “Thank you, sir,” and pushed toward the muddy bar Tibbits had indicated near the wharf.
“What kinda work you lookin’ to do?” hollered Tibbits across the little cove.
“Whatever needs doing.” The pirogue nosed up to the bar.
“Try de infirmary. They always lookin’ for a hand, they is.”
“Yes sir. Thank you kindly.” He was out of the boat now and tying it to a nearby mangrove branch. “Will my pirogue be all right here?”
“It a nickel a week.”
“I don’t have a nickel.”
“What you got?”
Athol has only a very few words misspelled here, but he captures the Cajun’s dialect with the small grammatical anomalies. The dialogue of the “colored man” uses no misspellings at all, nor even wrong grammar. Instead, Athol captures him with the repeated use of “sir” and “thank you kindly.” The reader’s mind fills in the rest and hears him as an African-American, circa 1927.