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Writing Great Characters and Dialogue
"Musings" for November 2004

by Margot Finke

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So, you have a killer plot all worked out, and you can't wait to begin writing your middle-grade novel. Hold on a moment! Sure, a killer plot is 50% of what will get you published, but what about the other 50% - the characters and the dialogue? Writing a terrific book is a bit like baking a cake. You might have all the right ingredients, but unless you know the exact amounts to add, when to add them, and how fast or gently to mix them in, your cake will flop. Knowing when to lower or turn up the heat is equally important: for making great cakes or writing great books.

Do You Really Know Your Characters?

Let's assume the plot of your novel is tight and terrific. What do you know about your POV (point of view) character, and the other main players in your book? What are their backgrounds, their temperaments, and their weaknesses? Is your POV rough around the edges, with a heart of gold, or a gentle soul, battling to keep from being swamped by the rush of your killer plot? In other words, have you crafted detail-rich characters?

Diving Inside Your Character's Head:

If the questions I pose above have you scratching your head, spend time getting to know your POV. Fashion him a family tree. Even if you don't use all the information on this tree, it will build personal connections, and an empathy that makes him jump off the page. The same applies to lesser characters. Salting your chapters with tid-bits of personal information and plot clues, ups reader interest. Think kid. You don't need the perfect POV. Make him your child. Endow him with realistic strengths and weaknesses. Kids identify with someone a bit fun, adventuresome, or bratty. This gives you a chance to develop your POV's character, and have him learn from his mistakes. Kids think this is cool. They immediately sense when characters act, talk, or think in an un-kid-like way.

Secrets Of Character Enrichment:

Character enrichment is what you do when you take a simple POV and add layers of personal complexity, to put your reader in touch with the thoughts and feelings of your nine- or ten- or twelve-year-old character. You can do this with snippets of text, phone calls, or in dialogue. Adding terse inner thoughts is also enriching. Note: Beware the dreaded information dump. This is when several paragraphs are used to download a bunch of personal "stuff." Enrichment works best when you take a sneaky, oblique approach. Dialogue, or overheard phone conversations are great ways to accomplish this. OR, throw out the ubiquitous "he said, she said," and use actions and reactions to layer mood, temperament, and affection.

Example: Enriching Dialogue:

"Why aren't you dressed and ready?" Looking at her watch, his mom frowned. "You always make us late."

"I had math to catch up on. You knew that" James slumped in his chair. I hate when she clock watches! My real mom never did that. He sighed. "Fine! Give me ten minutes to wash up and change."

Note: If I had only used "Mom said" or "James said," the tension and frustration between these two would be less evident. The thoughts and actions I included added another layer to each of the characters.

Example: Text and Inner Angst

James stood in the bathroom absently picking his ear. He wondered why his aunt adopted him. Am I that difficult to love? I've tried so hard to please her. After splashing water on his face, James dressed. He glanced in the mirror. On his lanky frame the suit looked like what it was -- his aunt's hasty buy from Goodwill. I can't wait for eighteen and freedom!

Example: An Overheard Phone Conversation:

James heard his new mom speaking to someone, and raced downstairs in his bare feet to see who was there. No one. She was talking on the phone.

"It's not working out like I'd hoped." Her voice was flat. "He's nothing like his real mother. She was loving and outgoing."

James froze at the foot of the stairs.

"Crap! You told me all that before. I know his stepfather abused him, but he should be over that by now." Every word echoed her impatience.

I knew it. . . She doesn't want me! She never wanted me! A sick feeling crept over James as he sat on the bottom stair.


Happy Writing Mates.

Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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