by Jean Henry Mead
Are your characters made of cardboard with no real distinguishing traits to separate one from another? Do they all sound alike when they speak? Are they just sitting around on the front porch sipping ice tea and discussing the garden show or their current problems? Get them up and moving.
Author Tim O’Brien once said, “Memory plus language plus imagination make spirits dance in your head.” I don’t think O’Brien meant to place your characters in a 60s disco, although I took my senior sleuth widows to a male stripper club in my mystery/suspense novel, A Village Shattered.
If your characters are sluggish and don’t seem to want to do what you want them to, write character sketches and give each of them a problem or a least a shared experience to look back on. When it comes to memory, no two people recall the same incident exactly alike. If it was a murder scene they remember, are one or more of them having nightmares about the victim? Did one of them kill that person and the memory’s haunting him or her?
How are you telling about the past experiences your characters have had? What kind of time lines are you using? Make a list of time lines that apply to your characters. By time lines I mean periods since an important event took place. One character might say, “I ain’t had a drink since me da’s wake. I was so sick I thought I was gonna die, and feared I wasn’t goin’ to." His English cousin may remember the same wake, saying, “Bloody hell, that was a pip of a party, eh?” You get the idea. Flesh out your characters and give them their own distinct traits and speech patterns.
Imagination may not come into play until you revise your manuscript, or what Toni Morrison calls the “delicious work of revision.” First drafts are usually a massive blob that need revising, polishing and refining. That’s when your dreary dialogue or cardboard characters are really brought to life.
Margaret Love Denman advises writers to turn off their computer screens while writing a new chapter or scene so that you won’t be distracted by punctuation or spelling errors. When finished, turn the screen back on and begin the rewriting process. Take your time and refine the work until you’re satisfied it’s the best you can do, and that your characters are as defined and different as you can make them.
Novelist Marlys Millhiser once told me that she likes to sit in restaurants, airports and other public places to eavesdrop on conversations. It’s a great way to pick up story ideas as well as a variety of speech patterns. Because no one speaks exactly alike, a good exercise is to close your eyes and listen to the different speech patterns of those around you.
While you’re at it, watch the way people walk and gesture. Notice the way they look when they express surprise, anger, sorrow and happiness. None of us are cut from the same proverbial cloth and none of your characters should exist as cardboard cutouts.