November 3, 2003
Simon & Schuster Bulletin Board
Q: How do you write such wonderful dialogue? Do you have a method you use? My hang up has mostly to do with the fact that I involve real people in a lot of what I write, and I get stuck feeling uncomfortable and wondering if they would actually say that. Any thoughts?
I don’t doubt that your dialogue “hang-up” is probably related to the fact that you’re involving real people. I’ve tried to do that myself and I’ve hit a wall every time, for exactly the reasons you mention. Fifteen years ago, I stopped trying to model characters after real people because I could never make the characters “work” well.
I tried one more time though in SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME—I have a friend who is a famous astrologer, and I told her I was going to use her as the model for “Sybil.” It didn’t work when I tried that. In the festive party scene in STWOM where Sybil is introduced, I needed the Sybil character to be witty and a little outlandish in order to introduce humor and some colorful characters at a time the story needed both those things. However, my real-life astrologer friend is a lovely, gracious woman who does NOT joke about astrology, so I tried for days to model Sybil after her. The harder I tried, the more the character–and the entire mood of this very important scene–suffered. I finally gave up and created the character I needed for the sake of the scene and the story.
My friend the astrologer read the book recently, and although she didn’t say it, I know she saw absolutely no relation to her—or to her view of the science of astrology—in the Sybil character I created. Nevertheless, I did the right thing—for my story and my readers. If you’re hoping to become a published novelist, then “doing the right thing for your story and your readers” has to be your primary goal. If you’re hoping to become not merely published, but also to write stories that your readers will someday cherish, then this will have to be more than your primary goal–it must become your only goal. Actually, I’m not phrasing that strongly enough. The word “goal” implies a target that you should merely strive for. The reality is that if your writing is important to you–and if you truly want it to have genuine meaning to readers–then “doing the right thing for your story and your readers,” isn’t merely your goal, it’s your obligation.
Trying to use real people as the model for fictional characters automatically creates all kinds of real and perceived problems—so much so that I don’t even name major characters after people I know. Just the use of a “real” name of someone you know well can cause you to start feeling confused and uneasy when you’re trying to work with their fictional namesake. You start worrying that the living person won’t approve of something his fictional namesake does or says, then consciously, or unconsciously, you start trying to do what’s “right” for the person, even when it’s “wrong” for the character and story. Eventually, you’ll sense that your character isn’t “working” and then you’ll agonize over it and experiment with “acceptable” ways to fix the problem, but you can’t fix it because the truth is, you’ve created a character with a split personality. And unless you intended to write about a schizophrenic, or hoped to create an unbelievable–or unbelievable boring character, you’ve now created some insurmountable obstacles for yourself and your manuscript.
I have found, however, that there are some exceptions to the above–at least for me–so I’ll share them with you. These are my personal exceptions:
(1) I can name adult characters after children without a qualm or problem. For example, Whitney and Clayton were 10 and 9 when I wrote WHITNEY, MY LOVE, but because there was no possible way for my children to remind me of my 19th century adult hero and heroine, I had no problem with it. Conversely, I had to wait 20 years before I could name a hero “Michael” after my deceased husband, and even then, the only way I could work with this was to create a hero with a background that was completely, diametrically different in every respect from that of my real Michael. If that hadn’t been true, I’d have had to abandon the namesake idea or else the whole manuscript because it wouldn’t have been good.
(2) I can often name very minor characters after people I know, probably because their roles in the story are so small and nonessential.
(3) I can always use names of people I don’t know well for fictional characters—probably because I don’t know these people well enough to feel obliged, or able, to be true to reality.
(4) This last exception isn’t really an exception, it’s a trick: If I especially want to use a close friend or family member’s name for a character, I use a different name while I’m working on the manuscript. When the manuscript is finally finished, I do a “Search and Replace” on my computer.
However, if you or anyone reading this decides to try the above trick, here are two ESSENTIAL WARNINGS: First, keep a back-up copy on the computer of the finished manuscript with the original name on it. Second, be SURE to put a space after the name you want to replace and after the name you want to use instead of it. Otherwise, your Search and Replace will pull fragments out of every word with the same combination of letters. I once tried to change a “Pris” to “Laura.” When I did it, this sentence went from, “She was apprised of the consequences,” to “She was aplauraed of the consequences.”
My all time favorite blooper that resulted from one of my last-minute computer generated name changes nearly made it into the book because the copy editor thought it was deliberate. I’d originally named a character Mary and then switched it to Jennifer. As a result, in a dramatic scene where a Catholic character whispers reverently, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” the published book nearly contained this line instead: “Jesus, Jennifer, and Joseph!”
To those of you on our board who are reading this, but who have never tried to write a novel, most of what I’ve just said about the difficulties of choosing names and creating good, believable characters will seem vastly overstated. You will surely wonder why I’m making a relatively simple task seem very complicated and a little treacherous. You may even recall times when you noticed flaws in characters that you would have known how to fix if you’d been the writer.
To that, I can only say with a smile of heartfelt amusement: Try it. But first, make very sure that your fix wouldn’t in any way whatsoever, harm–or conflict–or confuse–impair–or negatively impact anything else the character has done, or will do, in the rest of the novel.
When you’ve accomplished that, and when you’re absolutely certain your way is an improvement, then post it on the board and ask for honest, informed critiques. LOL
Oh, before you read the responses, make sure you know how to accept lavish praise with humility. And be equally sure you can accept being humbled with a degree of dignity. ROFL