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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Stilted characters

   
Author Topic: Stilted characters
Smaug
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Quite often I'm getting feedback that my dialog is stilted and my characters are cardboard--at least that happens when I sub parts of my only completed novel for critiques. The thing is, I don't really have any idea how to fix the problem. I guess characterization is my weakest link and I need some ideas for how to move characters from the "cardboard" stage, to the living, breathing stage. If you've got suggestions, I'd like to read them.


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Jaina
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Open a new word document or pull out a fresh sheet of paper, whatever gets you writing. Now, put a character's name at the top. Beneath that, start writing anything you can think of that relates to that character.

At first, you're going to come up with stuff like where he lives, who his friends are, nothing terribly deep or interesting. But keep going. Start writing about what makes this guy tick. What does he want most? Why? What does he fear most? Why? What motivates him to do what he does? What is holding him back? Why does he think that character Z is the scum of the earth?

The more you can think of, and the more in-depth it is, the better. Make it realistic. Nobody lives in a vacuum--people have childhood memories and past decisions, etc. that shape who they are today. Most of this stuff won't ever make it into your book, but it gives you a better understanding of the characters. If you know who the characters are to start with, and you treat them like real people with real backgrounds and real lives outside of your story, they start to become real people inside of your story.

As far as dialog goes, developing your charaters will do wonders for it. But if you find that you're still having problems with it, read it out loud to yourself. If it sounds silly to hear yourself saying it (not silly because you're talking to yourself, but silly because it's not something a normal person would say in normal conversation), it probably sounds silly to hear your characters say it, too. Be honest with how you say it--you're acting the part of your character, so try to be as true to the character as you can.

Hope some of that helps--now get writing!

Jaya


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wbriggs
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Go for quirks?

A character that's too quirky is unbelievable; but you may be going too mundane.

Or maybe it's that your characters' motivations, although they look good on paper, are never really explored.

Or maybe each character has one motivation, whereas a real person has several conflicting motivations.

It's hard to say w/o seeing the text. (It may even be hard with seeing the text!)


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pixydust
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It's very important to get to know your characters--all of them. You are their creator after all. Definitely do what Jaina said, and take as many notes as you can. Get in his/her skin. Then when you're in their skin in the novel or story it feels more natural.

And like Will said: give them animation. Some kind of interesting tidbit that draws out his personality (ie. Rabecca chews her nails when she's nervous. Brian hates people talking down to him bacause that's how his Father always talked to him.) Exagerate things just enough to make the character stand out, but not enought to make them a characature. They're not a cartoon, but they aren't totally human either. Humans can be boring--we think about getting the dishes done and picking up the drycleaning--but a character has to be just a little bigger. Remember: little bit.

There's a delicate balance to creating people to run your story. It takes practice and patience, and LOTS of people watching. The more you write the easier it gets.

my 2 cents...


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autumnmuse
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Also try to see each scene through their eyes. What are they thinking about? What do they see? Hear? Smell? How is that different from character to character (often it will be) and why? Would you feel the same way as them or differently? Why?
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Smaug
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All great advice. Thank you so much.

Shane


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Elan
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When all is said and done, the thing that makes us living, breathing humans is our emotions. Show your characters having an emotional reaction, even if that reaction is simply gritting their teeth and trying to keep that emotion from coming out. Relate to our feelings. See if that helps.
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Smaug
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quote:
When all is said and done, the thing that makes us living, breathing humans is our emotions. Show your characters having an emotional reaction, even if that reaction is simply gritting their teeth and trying to keep that emotion from coming out. Relate to our feelings. See if that helps.

Yeah, and I guess I'm not that good at showing emotion in my stories (maybe it's because I'm pretty low-keyed myself and that's reflected in my characters).
Thanks.


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Survivor
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POV. Let us know why your POV character does and says things, and what your POV character thinks about the things that other people are doing and saying. That makes it easy to spot when something seems fake about the characters.
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Brinestone
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I suspect that dialog may be your biggest problem. As far as dialog goes, I think to some extent you either can hear what real people sound like or you can't. Thirty years of writing dialog hasn't made George Lucas any better at it, that's for sure.

However, I once thought my tone-deaf cousin would never learn to sing in tune. She picked up violin, though, and after several years she is almost always spot-on in her singing. This gives me hope for those of us who don't write winning dialog all the time.

My suggestion would be to listen to people. Hang out with an interesting group of people (preferably not teenagers) and don't say more than a few words the entire time. Listen not only to what they say but how they say it. Do they begin a lot of sentences with and, or, and but? What makes one speaker distinct from the others? Who talks the most? And so forth.

Begin listening as you walk or ride anywhere to the conversations of strangers around you. I've heard some really interesting things this way.

As a final exercise, plant yourself in a public place where you can hear people talking. Try to transcribe as much of a real conversation as you can. Throw it away afterward, of course, but study it for the differences between your dialog and real dialog. You might be surprised by what you learn.


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Smaug
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More great advice. Thanks!
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DavidGill
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Here's a bit of sillness, really.

Walk around with a pair of binoculars on your eyes and a tape recorder in your pocket. Talk out loud about the things you see. Use the zoom feature in the binocs to draw tight on an object or person. Describe them/it. Also, make judgements about the things you see and project a bit of "what if" or "if that we me" into the description.

This is an exercise in close POV. When people complain about cardboard characters, they sometimes mean that they don't know a character well.

Just don't do it in traffic.


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pixydust
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Or at someone's window. You're likely to get arrested.
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Smaug
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quote:
Or at someone's window. You're likely to get arrested.

Shhh! Don't tell anybody!


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Sariel
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quote:
Thirty years of writing dialog hasn't made George Lucas any better at it, that's for sure.

Truly the worst aspect of that series, quickly followed by the cookie-cutter plot.

For me, dialog and characterization seems to be fairly easy. An interesting thing I saw in the movie version of that Whitley Strieber novel, the one with Christopher Walken, is where he's sitting at his desk, working on his stuff, acting out the scenes complete with dialog. I do that a lot, tweaking it so that my dialog comes across as naturally as possible.

Narrative is where I feel my works lacks something.


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Robert Nowall
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I have a hard time making characters "not me," that is, a bookish would-be writer who avoids human contact in most situations. So I try to look at the characters and their relationships, see if I've written out any descriptions or actions that might be cliches...and change where necessary.

It might be hard to do---I freely admit I have no first-hand knowledge of marriage or parent-child relationships to base something on, for instance---but sometimes it yields something worth the effort.


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Survivor
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It helps if you have at least some theatrical experience. And I mean getting up in front of some people (it doesn't have to be a lot of people) and trying too convince them with your voice and expressions that you are the character in a play or skit.

That's one of Card's big strengths in writing dialogue and internal monologue. He actually had a lot of experience as an actor when he was younger, along with the ability to sense when a line just wasn't the kind of thing his character would say.

The more valuable skill, when you're an actor, is to find something previously hidden in that character that would allow you to say that line. That's part of what makes the painfully stilted dialog between Anikin and Amidala so creepy, both actors go ahead and read the phony written lines as if it is their way of trying to smooth over the deep rift that they sense between them. Those scenes are almost unbearable to watch if you try and take them seriously. They're just mouthing platitudes at each other, while their looks and gestures say terrible things about betrayal and murder. I see Anikin thinking of killing Padme in every scene of the second and third movie, and you can sense her fear of that too.

Of course, in the final scene, they cover the actors with plastic and cloth (one all black and red, the other white and blue) so neither of them can actually act, and their lines are left alone in glorious stupidity.

So it helps to know how much you'll be asking of the reader's inner actor when you present a line. Most readers, if they see a phony line, they won't be able to think up a good reason for the character to say such a thing. At least, not on the fly, before that line jolts them out of the story. If you want the line to sound phoney, then tell the reader it is supposed to be phoney and give some reason why.


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Smaug
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quote:
That's part of what makes the painfully stilted dialog between Anikin and Amidala so creepy, both actors go ahead and read the phony written lines as if it is their way of trying to smooth over the deep rift that they sense between them. Those scenes are almost unbearable to watch if you try and take them seriously. They're just mouthing platitudes at each other, while their looks and gestures say terrible things about betrayal and murder. I see Anikin thinking of killing Padme in every scene of the second and third movie, and you can sense her fear of that too.

Of course, in the final scene, they cover the actors with plastic and cloth (one all black and red, the other white and blue) so neither of them can actually act, and their lines are left alone in glorious stupidity.


So true. Equally unbelievable were the lines (and acting IMHO) when Anniken let Windu die, then immediately knelt and said "I'll do anything you want me to".


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