January 20, 2020

I’ve Gotta Be Me, She Said, Part 2

By Dan Walsh

Last month, I began talking about how vitally important it is when we write to spend as much time, if not more, creating characters readers really care about, than it is spending time on things like crafting the story itself (did you catch the phrase “if not more”? I believe it matters more). If our characters are boring, shallow and/or totally unlikable for the reader, the book will flop (no matter how good the story is).

I ended talking about one of the big problems authors have creating these kinds of solid characters. Many writers THEMSELVES (in real life) are not solid, interesting, compelling and/or fun-to-be-with people. So, if you’re not that kind of person in real life, how can you create characters like that in your books?

As I said, it can be done. I’m living proof.

Today, I want to talk about HOW to do this. I ended the column last month saying the Title above is a clue. And it is. But I’m not saying the biggest thing is the quality of our dialog. Although, it’s certainly a major part. To me, great dialog is simply dialog that sounds real. Part of creating characters people care about is making them feel like real people to the reader. So, they have to
SOUND like real people in our dialog, saying things real people would say (the way they would say them).

But underlying that idea is the principal idea. Which is, we need to let the characters be who they are THROUGHOUT THE STORY. The way they talk, the things they think, and the things they do (for example, how they react to the plot things that happen in the story). I think the problem many writers have is…they are MORE TIED to the STORY ITSELF than they are to the characters in the story.

What do I mean? I get that there’s a story. And that the story has to move forward, and it has to move forward in a certain direction. I believe great fiction and great storytelling go hand in hand. But…creating great characters is AN INTEGRAL PART of great storytelling. How do these 2 concepts interact and connect?

Let me illustrate it this way. Every now and then a character comes to me, right off the bat, fully-formed. But not often. Usually when I start writing my books, I have a general idea of who the main characters are, but I’m more aware of the story/plot than I am of them. I don’t let that hold me back. When I start writing, my characters are pretty weak and shallow.

Why? I don’t know them yet. As in any relationship, it takes time to get know someone. So, I keep writing. All the while, I’m getting to know them, trying to understand who they are, how they think and feel about the things going on in the story. At some point (usually by the first 50 pages or so), they become real people to me (when that happens, I go back and fix the first 50 pages).

And when my characters do become real, THAT’S when I let them start to take over the story.

I know, in general, where the plot needs to go, but HOW we get there and many of the things that happen along the way, is TOTALLY UP TO THEM. My job, as I see it, is to let them be who they are as the story unfolds. Let them act and react to the plot points the way real people would.

Sometimes that means a scene will end up differently than the idea I had in mind when I started writing it. But that’s OK. To me, it’s more important that my characters stay true to who they are, than for me to force them to think, say, or do something that works better for me (for the plot idea I had in mind). We’ll still get around to my plot point. Because the plot DOES matter.

Maybe, we’ll get to it in the next chapter.

But honestly, some of the best parts of my books have been the scenes created by my characters themselves (as I sit there watching in this unseen dimension, like a scribe, writing it all down).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book or watched a movie where a main character suddenly says or does something that seems totally “out of character” for them. I may even say aloud: “He would never do that” or, “She would never say that there.”

When that happens, I know exactly what’s going on. The writer took over and forced the characters to do or say something THEY wanted to happen. And because they did this, the story just became a little less real, a little more phony. It happens too many times (and it likely will) the story becomes a total flop.

“I’ve gotta be ME,” she said.
Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 21 novels (all available on Amazon), including The Unfinished Gift, Rescuing Finley, When Night Comes and The Reunion (now being made into a feature film). Over 750,000 of his books are in print or downloaded. He's won both the Carol and Selah Awards multiple times, 4 of his novels have been finalists for RT Reviews Inspirational Novel of the Year. Reviewers often remark about Dan's rich, character-driven storylines and page-turning suspense (even with his more inspirational books). He's been writing full-time since 2010. He and his wife Cindi have been married 42 years, have 2 grown children and 4 grandchildren. They live in the Daytona Beach area, where Dan grew up. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter, read his blog, or preview all his books by visiting his website at Dan’s books: If These Walls Could Talk - DAN'S NEWEST NOVEL, When Night Comes, Remembering Dresden, Unintended Consequences,  Perilous Treasure,  Rescuing Finley, Finding Riley Saving Parker and  The Deepest Waters (2nd Ed)

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