Part 2: Giving Your Novel Personality
I finished my major developmental revision of Devil’s Fire (August 2013) on Friday. Let’s just say I learned a lot of lessons–and I am so grateful to have two great editors behind me. So, let’s get down to business on some tips I picked up during this revision that were either requested by my editor or worked their way in to make the novel more interesting, passionate, and cohesive.
1. Make even supporting characters interesting and quirky.
Give us reasons to think they are still real people, even if they are mainly in the background. Obviously, you want to know your protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, habits and biases–but best friends, husbands, parents, even mere acquaintances (aka, plot devices) should be fleshed-out people, too.
Sometimes all you need is to emphasize one or two unique traits–and they can even contradict each other. Is your protagonist’s best friend kind of a stereotypical jock, who we later find out is gay? What about a mom who loves to make snacks for her kids’ friends, but can’t even make apple slices and peanut butter without messing it up? A tech-savvy grandma. A bitchy blonde alpha-girl who can’t cheerlead to save her life. You get the point.
2. Say it plain.
Can a character say it plainly? Think about dialogue in real life: short, fragmented sentences, that flits back and forth between speakers usually in one or two-sentence intervals.
One of the keys to realistic (and entertaining) dialogue is to bring a touch of reality. We don’t want “um” and “er” everywhere, but we do want a sense that these characters are real, and their conversation even more so. Rarely does someone monologue in real life, unless they are socially awkward, crazy, or presenting at a tech conference (probably still awkward and crazy).
Do your characters speak in paragraphs? Can you say it in one sentence instead? Make assumptions. We make assumptions in real life when we speak–context is assumed and doesn’t need to be explained.
3. Pump up the voice.
I’m going to break this one into a few parts for ya.
First: What is voice? Voice is a lot like #1: voice is what makes us, the readers, believe your protagonist is a living, breathing person. That the person telling us the story is human.
And what are humans? Flawed. Quirky. At times, irritating–and at times, delightful. A good voice is a nuanced voice.
“Voice” is employed in different ways depending on the kind of book you’re writing. A third-person omniscient might not have a lot of voice; a first-person, present-tense narration will have a lot of voice. Each presents different opportunities and challenges.
Second: Some ways to pump up your voice. Read any literary agent’s “wish list” and you’ll probably see “unique voice,” or some variation of it. Agents and editors want protagonists that speak to us, that are relatable but still human (quirky, flawed, etc.).
The first step to voice is knowing who, exactly, your protagonist is. Know their habits, their desires in life, the flaws in their personality that hold them back (hubris? low self-esteem? any of the seven deadly sins) and, if you can, know them even down to how they dress. There are a lot of “cues” you can use to indicate or imply these kinds of inner conflicts–what we wear, what we own, what we eat and what we drive say a lot about us.
A great voice sounds like the protagonist is speaking directly in your ear. If our hero is informal, his voice is informal; if he’s snarky, his voice is snarky. Now that you’ve written the first draft, and you know what happens each step of the way, look for ways to subtly implement voice. Word choice is key. A girl might not be a “girl” to a jaded old knight, but a “harlot,” or “car” could become “death trap.”
And remember, everything in your story is viewed through this character’s lens–how does the voice distort that lens? Does the protagonist skew others’ meanings because he has self-esteem issues? Does he think everyone is putting him down? If she’s confident and strong, let her be strong–but know there are holes in anyone’s armor.
Come back tomorrow for Part 3: The Nitty-Gritties, where we’ll talk about goals, direction, cutting exposition, and writing natural-sounding dialogue.