How Pieces of You and People You Know End Up in Your Characters

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Luckily, for some people I know, I don’t write a lot of villains into my novels. As I do in real life, I try to not let nasty, uncaring, judgmental, ridiculously competitive and fake people seep into my world too often. However, in the short stories I write, I let them in because I don’t have to deal with them for too long, as short stories are just that—short. However, writers have to allow what we learn about people to grace the pages of our stories and illuminate our characters; these sketches of folks should glide into our stories seamlessly. As well, the same is true with the goodness and quirkiness and loveliness of people.

For example, in my recent novel Inn Significant, I texted my friend Charles and told him that Miles was based on him and my husband—kind of a conglomeration of the two. He had no idea, and was flattered by the depiction of Miles in the book. There are people in real life who can bring liveliness and charisma and charm to the characters you are writing—so let that unfold as the characters are made up of characteristics that you see in people.

As for us as writers, how much of ourselves do we let into our stories? I have a wild imagination, so I tend to consider the character and what he or she likes and what would make them that way. For example, in Inn Signficiant, the main character is Milly, and she narrates the book. How much of Milly is in me? Well, let’s see. We both love living near the water. We both are writers and like to read. We both love cruiser bikes, though hers is pink and mine is seafoam green. We both love our families. We both know what true love feels like. We both know what heartbreak feels like. We both value a pretty simple life. We both have a sense of humor.

What we don’t share is that she has felt tragedy, as she has lost her husband in a horrific accident, and goes through a bout of depression. And while I haven’t felt loss like Milly (thankfully), I can imagine its intensity, devastation, and profoundness. I also understand what feeling depressed is like, as I bumped up against that a few years ago during a trying time in my life, and one in which I learned a few lessons about good friendships vs. yucky ones.

As writers, we have to allow these things we know and understand to help develop our characters. We do allow bits of ourselves to show up in our characters, and if it’s not a bit of us, then it’s a collection of bits of others that we know, have interacted with, have been friends with, or maybe even have had a falling out with along the way.

The main point to writing character is to believe that they are real, and then make others believe that they are real. Make them so authentic that people completely understand them. That’s not to say that the characters might not drive readers crazy at times or make them shake their heads and say “what?,” but we need to put realism into our writing.

Plot is wonderful, but people have to be able to identify with the characters.

Years ago, I read the book The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbaugh. I read this book because I was writing Baseball Girl, and I wanted to read as much baseball fiction as I could before I published anything. While Harbaugh’s writing is absolutely beautiful—a true work of literary splendor—the characters were, to me, wholly unbelievable. I couldn’t relate to any of them, and truthfully, only finished the book because I was so deep in at that point, that I needed to see how it ended. But I didn’t enjoy it that much, if I’m being truthful. I desperately wanted to connect with any one of the five main characters in the story. I wanted to find some of their actions redeemable, and yet, I came up just feeling this way about it: meh.

My goal is not to have anyone say meh about my characters. I keep that in the back of my mind the entire time I’m writing.

So don’t leave yourself out of the equation when writing strong, memorable, and relatable characters. You have the potential to bring so much to the story.

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Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

 

Writing Tip: Making Your Characters and Dialogue Realistic

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Yesterday on Instagram, a fellow writer I follow who follows me back asked for input from other writers. Her question was this: How do you write authentic characters, and then how do you make them sound convincing in dialogue?

As someone who has written three fiction books and teaches the subject of writing, I have some advice I can offer. I may not be perfect, and I may be an indie author, but I think I have some ideas to share that may be helpful. I enjoy offering tips to beginning writers because we’ve all been there. These tips are from experience and encompass the best advice I can give from my own perspective.

First, let’s tackle making characters authentic and believable. To begin, you have to have a pretty good sketch of your character. To illustrate my points, I’m going to use John, a main character from my newest book, Inn Significant. Milly, the other main character, is the narrator, so it’s up to me as the writer to showcase John as Milly sees him throughout the book through her eyes. Let’s begin.

John’s Character Sketch

John is 38 years old. He was in the military and had a couple of heartbreaking and powerfully disturbing experiences when he was overseas flying military aircraft. These experiences haunt John, and while I never come out and say he has PTSD, he has PTSD.  As the writer, I know this about him. This is the makeup of John that leads him to want to live a simple life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland working at an Inn in a small town (where he is from). He wants nothing complicated. He works for Milly’s parents at the Inn and has his own cottage on the grounds. From this point, I made a list of other things John likes in order to “see” him as a character—and to keep me on track as I wrote him. What are some other characteristics about John? He’s kind. He’s helpful. He likes doing things to please others. He likes to sneak into the Inn’s kitchen at night and whip up his grandmother’s muffins for the guests. He is an artist, which is how he relieves his stress. He runs every day. He’s in shape. He has high cheekbones and is tanned from working outside in the gardens. He drinks Gatorade. He listens to James Taylor. He’s close with his family, and he adores his grandmother. He’s respectful. He’s loyal. And he’s always been incredibly fond of Milly, even when she was married (before her husband suddenly passed away). He likes to read, but isn’t a writer. He owns a boat and likes to kayak.

That’s my basic character sketch of John. These were the things I knew about him as I began to write.

Knowing all these things about him helped me write dialogue that works. So how can you write dialogue that works? To me, you know the characters so well that you can picture exchanges happening as if you are watching a movie. You almost have to pretend they are real. How would you like to see things unfold? How would the characters relate to one another? What would a realistic scene sound like?

Keeping these questions in mind will help you write your dialogue scenes in a way that you should write them. And my other big tip on writing dialogue that works is to read it out loud many times to yourself, and if possible, read it aloud to someone you trust to get feedback.

kitchen-at-is
This is how I imagine the kitchen looks where the muffin-making scene below takes place.

As an example of this, I will share an exchange between John and Milly from my book; this exchange takes place the first night John asks Milly to hang out with him in the Inn’s kitchen and only her second day working at the Inn (she’s filling in for her parents who have gone away for a year). Milly has not been alone with a man since her husband’s death two and a half years prior, so she’s a little awkward and nervous, but trying to relax as he’s baking.

The Excerpt from Inn Significant

I watched John move around with ease, almost ambidextrous in nature, gliding around effortlessly, pulling items and food from cabinets and pantries. He opened the oven to check the temperature. He mixed up a gooey batter in a sturdy, red mixing bowl with a matching red Williams-Sonoma spatula.

“I’m sorry. I already started the process when I decided to knock on your door,” he said. “This batch is mixed.”

He filled the muffin cups with the batter, letting it pour into each cup, and when they were all filled, he slid the entire tin of what looked like perfection into the oven.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” he asked, attempting to conjure up a British accent. It didn’t go too well, and we both smiled.

“Yes. Decaf, please,” I said, attempting to produce a similar accent in response, but failing miserably at it.

“Got it,” he said as he began making it.

“I feel silly just sitting here not helping.”

“Don’t. It’s my grandma’s recipe, and because a little birdie told me you didn’t try one this morning, I’m going to make you try one as it comes out of the oven. Your mother told me that your writing career began with food reviews. I’m looking forward to your verdict.”

“That was a long time ago, when I actually was a writer and it meant something.”

“I understand,” he said. “But I’d still like to hear your review of Grandma’s muffins.”

“I’m feeling extraordinary pressure to like them,” I said.

“The word ‘like’ shouldn’t be a part of your vocabulary when you’re describing treats you will salivate over,” he said with a wink. “That’s something you do on Facebook. As a writer and former food critic, I expect a far more elaborate and eloquent dissection and analysis of the food from you.”

“I’m better on paper,” I teased.

When the timer went off, he pulled the first batch out of the oven, steam rising off the tops ever so slightly, and then sat across from me at the table.

“Have one of these,” he said, and he placed a hearty, substantial treat onto my delicate plate adorned with roses.

“A crunchy muffin?” I asked. It appeared to be hard on the bottom with some sort of loose, sugary topping that resembled a crumb bun on top.

“Grandma will want to know if you like her recipe.”

—From Inn Significant

 

I remember distinctly when I wrote my first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and I read a passage back to my husband. I was writing from a 32-year-old man’s point of view, and I needed to know if Michael would say what I had written. I read the passage aloud to my husband, and when I was done, I stopped.

“Is that what Michael would say?” I asked my husband.

“No,” he said. “Michael would not say that.”

“What would he say, then?” I asked my husband, seeking help with the paragraph, especially because my husband happens to be A MAN.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but he wouldn’t say that.”

I reworked that paragraph at least ten times until finally, I read it aloud once more, and my husband said, “That’s it. That’s what Michael would say.”

And that, my friends, is why you seek input from others and why it takes time to write something vivid, meaningful, and realistic.

Now go and get to work.

Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

 

Come And Woo Me, Woo Me. ~ Wednesday Wisdom

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Shakespeare was no fool, people. He knew exactly what he was doing when he created Rosalind, an important female character in “As You Like It.” Rosalind’s best qualities are that she is witty, intelligent, scheming and lively. She makes the above remark to Orlando, her suitor, when she says, “Come, woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humor, and like enough to consent.”

Wikipedia calls Rosalind “the main character of the play who extracts the clarity of important traits in other characters.”

As a writer, I like to suppose I have the same qualities as fictional Rosalind: the ability to extract nuances and sketches of characters is important to fully understand the story, plot, and main and supporting characters.

Today’s wisdom from Rosalind through Shakespeare can teach us much.

It can also remind us to enjoy some holiday humor, all in good fun.

Go hang some mistletoe. Woo me.

Mistletoe
Mistletoe. Photo Credit: southernliving.com

(Visit Southern Living to make your own mistletoe ball. Click here.)

Help. I think my characters are real.

Michael's and Annabelle's Annapolis: On the Chesapeake Bay. Photo taken by Yours Truly.

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I just need a few more dedicated hours to finish the final edits of my novel. I’ve worked hard to make Michael’s voice sound like a man. My stellar editor Cheryl Klein’s final comments to me were that Michael’s voice needs to sound a little different from Annabelle’s voice, even though they are soulmates. I’ve been playing with his thoughts and dialogue to make him sound the way I want him to sound. And I do want him to sound different than Annabelle.

The other day I was driving in Annapolis, one of the settings where my novel takes place, and I turned to my husband as we passed Pendennis Mount and said, “Look! That’s where Michael and Annabelle live.” From their house, they can see the Naval Academy; they go boating on the Severn River; they go to pubs in town…

Wait! Stop! Somebody slap me because I think my dad and husband may be right: I’m happiest living in a fantasy world. I think my characters are real.

The truth of the matter is, when you write characters, a part of you is in them, even if the character isn’t you or isn’t based on you. However, you’ve created them. That old adage “write what you know” is true; I’ve written a novel that is based on things, places, and the actions of people, not necessarily people that I know. But it’s tantalizing; the evolution of the character combined with my imagination are so intense, I begin to believe in them.

I’ve lapsed into a state of fantasy. I love the “romance” of my characters. I love the conflict and angst they go through. And, I love the way they work through their problems, though it takes years.

I just love them.

I hope they invite me for Thanksgiving dinner.