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.
Very interesting blog entry.
BTW, Lois, thanks for your reply to my last question. Yes, it is completely true. We all want to live in a perfect world, where we are perfect (or at least I do…) but I’m gonna try and make it a little different. I like writing character journals, btw. They usually capture the way the character uses It is a language, as well as their life and thoughts.
Accents are EXTREMELY hard to read. So our dialects. IF you really want to make a charachter which is foreign, get him/her to speak the language without contractions. Like perhaps: “I do not know where to go from here. Please can I be helped by you?” Passive voice doesn’t hurt, but it would be better not to overuse it. I always ignore books which have dialects, because I find them too difficult to read, and too long.
Thank you for answering my question.
And thanks for talking about dialects and such – good stuff and very encouraging.
Research is my favorite part of writing and I can’t begin to imagine ever being burned out on it. If anything my weakness in teaching is wanting to give my students too much information! I LOVE research!
And talking to a puppet in the car is a hilarious idea! I don’t know if I could do it! I would feel sooooo silly! But I think it’s awesome.
But as I said before, I do call myself on my cell phone and talk to my voice mail, so who is really the strange one here, eh?
The creative process fascinates me. The fact that we are created in the image of God and He is the ultimate Creator of all of us creative geniuses fascinates me even more! I would love to know what He was thinking when He created the platypus and well, all of us! 🙂
Barb Haley says
This has nothing to do with writing, but it’s funny. If you use a life-size dummy instead of a puppet, you can pass for the HOV lane. (That’s a speedy lane just for vehicles with two or more riders.) But be careful, a guy in Austin got caught doing that and was fined heavily.
Thank you for answering my question!! I breathed a sigh of relief until I got to “Likewise, your StoryWorld has a personality composed of its politics, geography, religion, climate, and 1000 other things.”, then I felt a pang of panic again. Well, not panic but…
I’m not a research puppy, that’s my problem. I hate doing for more than just a few details, but I’m worried about not making it accurate enough in obvious details. I have a few British friends that are very keen in their history and not looking forward to taking slack from them if things aren’t correct.
I think I will take the advice of working on the writing of it, now that I think I have basic things of the time period down, and looking up more as I go along. If I’m lucky, I might actually have it done by the time I’m 80.
I am proud of myself that my characters are developing themselves fairly nicely with the helpful things posted here. I’m glad I’m not the only one that ‘talks’ to my characters (my kids think I’m bonkers for talking to myself). I just need to start taking a recorder with me as I can never remember all the conversations and details when I get back to the comp. My best thoughts come as I’m driving or outside away from distractions. (I don’t think I even want to hear about doing character journals. I think that might blow my mind completely.)
bonne friesen says
Hate to do it, but I have to disagree with Randy on writing accents. It doesn’t have to be as incomprehensible as Uncle Remus, but if it’s written phonetically it’s easy to “hear” it in your head. My kids 8,9 and 12 (and thousands of other kids too)love the Redwall series, and delight in speaking “Mole” or “Hare” dialects. These are in the dialogue, not the narrative parts of the books, so it’s not like you’re fighting to get every word. Accent and mode of speech can also be a huge part of character development.
I’ve recently been very disappointed in an historical novel (set in Ireland, 1800’s) that DIDN’T have even slightly accented voices for the characters. Part of the P.E.E. is in the escape, and the whole thing was just so hard to believe, and so far less charming than it could have been with the occasional bit of colloquialism. It really fell flat for me.
Up with accents!
Lois Hudson says
Interesting Bonne. I will be interested in hearing Randy’s response. I’ve heard that if you use some dialect in the first sentence or two of a character’s
speech and then drop it, the reader will “hear” it in dialect. Obviously constant repetition gets old and distracting.
One of my characters is an uneducated “colored” (1925)
teenage girl, who will be taken under the wing of another character who teaches her proper English, thereby affecting the next generation as well.
I’ve used some dialect to set the scene, but I’m going to go back and see if I can pare it down.
The man in the Athol Dickson example cited by Randy seemed very, very formal. I get the point that his subservient forms of address do depict his respect,
but I’m not sure I’d have caught it without Randy’s pointing it out. Perhaps after reading farther into the story.
I think reading our work aloud section by section gives us a sense of how it flows. If it’s hard to pronounce aloud, it will be hard for the reader as well.
Terry Heath says
Thanks for the interesting article. One thing about the StoryWorld character. Having just finished a month of studying Utopian literature, I can say beware “telling” about your StoryWorld, and “show” it to your reader. If your book becomes a novel of ideas, it can be very boring . . . let the reader discover the world from little hints you leave here and there.
Bonne, English is not my native language and I do find it difficult reading weird accents, and writing it phonetically doesn’t really help me, since I’ve never heard those accents irl. Sure, add a few characteristics of the accent, but please stick to the King’s English for the rest.
Also, remember that everyone speaks a dialect, and a reader from, say Ireland, will maybe find it disappointing if you don’t give your American hero an accented voice. And vice versa. What is foreign is a matter of perspective, huh?
On dialect: Can we all just get along?
I wanted to stay away from heavy dialect in my Scottish characters for two reasons: 1. laziness — it would take nearly learning a whole language to use the phonetically written Scots if I were to do it right and be consistent, which is the only way I’d attempt it. 2. Speaking for myself, wading through heavy dialect/slang is tedious — constantly stopping to translate if you’re not a proficient.
So I asked smart folks (waving at Mary DeMuth) who suggested using a subtle approach. As Randy said, you could limit use of weird spelling and depend more on grammatical anomalies and syntactic constructs (and I don’t even know what the heck that means—is that Swedish?).
I also think we can be a little hypocritical when it comes to accentuating unique pronunciation. Don’t tell my family or friends I said this, but they think we Oregonians talk normal and everyone else has an accent. The truth is, if I were to spell OUR speech the way it sounds, it would look like this: “If yer gunna head over the mountn, don’t fergit ta take sumpm fer the kids dadoo, cuz there’s nuthn wersna buncha whinin wallyer tryinda drive.” I think they suffered tragic vowel deprivation on the Oregon Trail.
There’s also the risk of prejudice: it seems like speech that strays from proper English sounds automatically dumb.
I’m shootin for words and phrases that are unique to the speaker’s culture. (‘aye’ instead of yes, etc) and a wee bit of phonetics for flavor, but I’m leaving heavy dialect and hard spellings out, at least for the main characters who we have to listen to the most.
bonne friesen says
Lois and Camille, thanks for the responses.
I think at the end of the day it’s balance we’re after. A constant heavy Scottish dialect is clearly too much. Camille, I really like what you say in your last paragraph about including unique cultural bits. This can include sentence structure and the other more subtle tools to create accent in voice. Like Yoda saying “Impatient you are!” He just wouldn’t be as neat a character without it, but it’s not too difficult. What I’m against is reading a novel set in Australia and no one says “G’day”.
I also think it’s worth it for a memorable character to have more than a distinct mode of speaking, but an actual accent. This doesn’t have to be written in every word, but if the ending “er” sound of words is an “ah” sound in the accent, I say write it like that. If this character’s dialogue is the only place it shows up, (and it’s an interesting character) the reader will find it worth the effort.
Another writer who does dialects really effectively (and similes that make me pee my pants) is Terry Pratchett.
And Camille is right, we all do have accents of one kind or another. For example, I’m Canadian eh?