Finding the Characters Among Us
One of the most frustrating experiences as a writer is to finally reach the end of a manuscript—that glowing, crowning achievement—only to start rereading and realize that every single one of your characters has the same voice. From the gun-slinging heroine to the middle-aged cabbie to the pool boy, they all sound remarkable similar. Even more distressing, they all kind of sound like you.
Writers pour themselves into their work. We write about topics we’re passionate about. We create heroes and heroines that we wish we had seen in storybooks and movies while growing up. And more often than not, we saddle our characters with our own unique inflections and word choices. Personally, I’m guilty of filling every character’s vocabulary with hey, yeah, bud, dude, and c’mon, like a tribe of mild-mannered stoners. Countless editing days are spent just cleaning up the dialogue to make sure that the uptight accountant doesn’t call her girlfriend dude.
So where can we find these voices? How can we make sure that each character has a unique personality and dialogue that feels natural? For me, the answer is simple: listen.
I’m lucky enough to be in a field that sees a steady rotation of clients each day. Men, women, young, old, rich, and poor, all walks of life come through my door. Like many writers, I tend to be quiet and serious, and I’ve always had a hard time writing bubbly, vivacious characters. The descriptions I write feel stiff and contrived, the dialogue unnatural. So when an outgoing firecracker walks into my shop, the best thing I can do is ask them an open-ended question, (asking about in-laws is a great way to produce a nice, long rant) and then just sit back and let the magic happen. Some of my best one-liners have come from clients that were aimlessly railing against family members.
Emotional moments, always tricky to get perfect, can also benefit from an outsider’s perspective. Listening to a grandparent talk about the death of a loved one, or living through hard times, can reveal a sense of acceptance and maturity that a younger writer may not fully understand, simply because they simply haven’t reached that stage of life yet.
There's a huge benefit to chatting with people who's life experiences are wildly different from your own. When writing a scene that focuses on soldiers coming home after battle, I assumed there would be sadness, possibly anger at their cruel fate. To me, a civilian, the scene felt like an accurate portrayal of a soldier’s grief. But when speaking with a friend about his own departure from the military, I was struck by how over-dramatized my version was. He told me he had joined the military because of his sense of patriotism. He wanted to protect the country he loved, and offer everything, even his life, to do so. So at eighteen, he signed up and shipped out. Soon after, Americans learned that our quest for weapons of mass destruction had been a lie. My friend was sent to Iraq to help rebuild their government, but he could see that everything they strived to achieve ended in colossal failure. Later, our destabilization of the region was the catalyst for ISIS’ formation. It was dawning on my friend that everything he had fought for was a joke. He accepted this without tears, or anger, or blame. He wished things had gone differently, but he accepted that sometimes life doesn’t go the way you intend, and you just have to accept it, bury the sadness, and move on. I found his version of the events quietly powerful, and exchanged it with my overly-dramatic first draft.
The world is chock full of characters just waiting to be explored. There are so many experiences, traditions, social statuses, and personalities that will never be a part of our own lives. When we write, we can either fake it, or we can take the time to go looking for the real thing. Take this opportunity to talk to your neighbor, your hairdresser, or your Great Uncle Marvin. Show some genuine interest in people beyond your normal social circle, and it’s amazing how quickly people open up. (Who doesn’t love talking about themselves?)
For the sake of your stories and your characters, go chat someone up. Honestly, you’ll probably make their day. And your readers will thank you for it.