In today’s interview, I talk to Roz Morris, author of Nail Your Novel: Bring characters to life . Roz is the author of over a dozen novels as a ghostwriter and has also written ‘Memories of a Future Life’ under her own name. She has a series of books for writers, the first one is ‘Nail Your Novel’ and now ‘Bring characters to life’ which we’re talking about today.
Why are characters so important anyway?
A plot is only as interesting as who the plot is happening TO. It will only come alive when you’re in someone elses shoes. Character binds us to a story – from the biggest, post-apocalyptic world to a personal, intimate drama. You can’t just have people do stuff without building a connection with the character and fathoming their humanity. In non-fiction, and even in business books, people use stories of real people/characters rather than just elucidating facts. You can’t go wrong in focusing on people and life.
What are the top 3 things people get wrong about protagonists?
- Novice writers often create a saintly paragon for a protagonist. But we connect with humanity in all its variation so you can have more complex characters with some unlikeable characteristics. By putting your character in an extreme situation, you can find ways to bring out the weak spots in your nicest characters.
- Plug the reader into the character’s internal life, as well as showing their behavior and dialogue. Have some scenes that allow this to develop.
- Don’t leave your mysterious characters empty, if you want them to be intriguing. You have to show something. Make the reader wonder if there is more there by creating conundrums.
Creating characters from within yourself and research
- Over time, as a writer, you understand yourself more and you can write more into your characters. Knowing yourself is critical but from that place, you can imagine many situations where you are many different people. We all present different faces to the world.
- Perhaps there is a hierarchy of character over our writing life. We develop into more different characters over time and move away from autobiographical characters.
- We talk about research for characters e.g. reading blogs of mothers whose children have died. Roz also mentions reading a lot of memoirs. Anything to give you an insight into how people live and survive after particular situations.
On antagonists, evil characters and villains
- A memorable antagonist needs to be as well developed as your protagonist. They have to be a good match and have the staying power to make it all the way through the book. An antagonist opposes the hero’s desire, it doesn’t mean they are a villain. But all villains are antagonists. We talk about some categories of villains that interest people because it’s not what they see in real life.
- Give your antagonist the same backup as your protagonist e.g. friends, colleagues, family. They are not in isolation. They are also highly motivated. Make it personal to the villain and humanize them so the reader can understand why they are this way. We discuss how fun it is to write a villain, perhaps because it is more based on your imagination.
- You do not write dialogue in normal life, so it is a specific skill you have to learn when you write fiction. We do have to make characters sound different but that doesn’t mean an accent. It is worldview, education, language, use of synonyms as well as humor and their physical/non-verbal actions around the discussion.
- Remember to keep the physical descriptions at the same time – have visual details, other characters doing things or have other noises that ground the scene in reality, rather than a dialogue in a vacuum.
- The character’s relationships with each other will also change according to roles and status e.g. Prime Minister talking to a King vs Prime Minister talking to a servant, or the King to his daughter. Change in status can be very interesting.
- Always read your dialogue out loud! You will find out so much from doing that.
Do you have any comments or questions on writing character for Roz? Please leave them below.
It’s packed full of loads of detail on how you can create memorable characters and increase your reader’s attachment to the character.
You can also find Roz at her fantastic blog NailYourNovel.com
Transcript of Interview with Roz Morris
Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m here with Roz Morris. Hi, Roz.
Roz: Hi, Joanna.
Joanna: Great to have you back on the show. So just a little introduction. Roz is the author of over a dozen novels as a ghost writer and has also written “Memories of a Future Life” under her own name. She has a series of books for writers. The first one is “Nail Your Novel,” which we’ve talked about before, and her latest is “Bring Your Characters to Life,” which we’re talking about today. So, Roz, you know, exciting.
I was just saying to you before we started recording, how big this book is. It’s seriously chunky. What’s all that about? Are characters really that important?
Roz: There are two things to a book, really. You’ve got plot, which is certainly necessary. You’ve got to feel your characters will do something that is going to interest you and it’s going to be a tale worth telling. But part of the reason it’s interesting is who it’s happening to.
So you might have murders and natural disasters or events that make us wonder how will they get out of that. But there’s intellectual curiosity. If you’ve got a story about a natural disaster, you’ve got plenty of drama, you’ve got problems to solve, but it doesn’t really come alive until you put yourself in somebody’s shoes who’s actually there.
If you’ve got a story about a tsunami, you see someone being swept away and she’s just a matchstick on the tide. But if she’s on her way to her wedding, then she’s suddenly a person with a life and hopes, and we care that the disaster took that away. We’re immediately curious about what happens to her. Whether she’s going to get married. What now? So that’s really what binds us to a story. Another good example is Nevil Shute’s novel, “On the Beach,” which is about the last straggling survivors of a nuclear war.
On the one level, we’ve got intellectual curiosity which is, “How did it happen? What does the world look like? What will the end be like? How will people die?” All those sorts of plotty things. But what Nevil Shute also does, which is really clever, which is why this novel, which was written several decades ago, it still endures, because he shows what it’s like to be a person living under those conditions, knowing they will die, and coping with that. And that’s a huge difference, and it takes the story to a completely different level.
The reader starts to feel they are experiencing it, so they care about what happens next. And instead of thinking, “How do these people die?” they think, “These people are like me, and I don’t know what I would do, and I need to see,” and that need pulls readers along with the story.
Joanna: A lot of people think, “Well, genre novel, like a thriller or something, does character really matter?” But actually, I was just thinking of Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books.
Now, they are totally genre thriller, plot-based, but everyone knows them as the Jack Reacher books. So, is it that people also remember character more than story as such?
Roz: They do, because the character is their conduit, it’s the person they’re experiencing it through. And actually, writers have to work quite hard to make that connection; it doesn’t just come naturally or automatically. You can’t just watch people do stuff and then feel attached to them. Lee Child would’ve gone to quite significant lengths to make sure that you made that connection, and it all comes down to seeing the character’s humanity.
And quite a good example of this is, if you think of real life, because a lot of writing principles, storytelling principles, come from what just works in real life, think of being on a crowded commuter train. You’re scrunched up against people, and they are all people, but you’re not taking any notice of that. You’re just in your own cocoon. And it’s easy to create characters who just don’t really come alive as people; they’re just a name on a page, or a job description.
We need to connect with something else in them. And something this makes me think of is, when I was ghostwriting, I did one novel which was about hostage negotiations. I had to learn how you persuade people who have taken a bunch of innocents captive and may be about to kill them, how you actually persuade them not to. And what negotiators in hostage situations do is they try to establish a relationship with the captors by working on their common humanity.
And they edge things into the conversation, just asking them about their families, their lives, their kids, the things they like doing. So they gradually build up the hostage-taker’s sense that they are a human, and that they are talking to another human, and that they are all humans in this together. Good writers do exactly the same when they’re creating characters like Jack Reacher. They will find what’s in their hearts and souls that makes them like the readers.
Joanna: Absolutely. And because we have a lot of listeners who also write non-fiction, I actually wanted to just briefly talk about character in non-fiction. Because what I find now, even in business books, I read a lot of business and entrepreneurial books, that people essentially use little stories in the beginning of most chapters. That’s kind of become the norm. Even in memoir, like you’re the character and that type of thing.
Is character important in any type of book?
Roz: Oh, yes. I don’t think you can go wrong if you center your book around people. And as you said, that is a growing trend now, particularly as business books try to cross into the more mainstream. So you get things like The Moral Molecule. Or a friend of mine, Tim Harford, writes books about economics in which he makes economics about life. You can’t go wrong really if you make your books about people and life.
Think of things like recipe books. Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater, they all have a strong authorial voice, which is, “Here am I with you. This is how I do it. These are the things I like,” and they build up really strong persona that guides people through the book.
I did that actually with Nail Your Novel, my first Nail Your Novel book. I created the sense of being a teacher there, that holding the hand of the reader, which is what I do when I mentor people too. It’s a very good way of getting the reader to engage with you as the teacher and the persona and their company, really. Any book you read, you’re spending time in the company of the writer.
Joanna: Some nitty-gritty questions, because there’s so much in your book; it’s really hard. So I thought I’d ask you, a protagonist being, whatever the main character is, the main person in the book.
What are sort of the top three things that people get wrong about protagonists? And how do they fix them, or how do they not get them wrong in the first place?
Roz: I’m only allowed three?
Joanna: Yeah, well, I just thought I better choose three, otherwise that’ll be the only question.
Roz: The hardest balance to strike is making the character likable, and what I often find is that novice writers, they try very, very hard to create a saintly paragon who everybody likes, nobody dislikes, they can never do one bad thing. But often, there are other characters that are more relaxed. They’ll let them have a flaw or two, a bit of bad temper like we all do, things that make them impatient. But with the main character, they think, “They’ve got to be brilliant and lovable. You have got to like them.” But that actually makes the reader think, “Oh, no, I can’t stand this person. They are just too much.”
It’s humanity we connect with. If you think of The Hunger Games, she’s a strong protagonist, Katniss, but she isn’t exactly that likable. She’s actually quite intolerant, prickly bad tempered, but we connect with her humanity and her sense of being in a very difficult situation. And she’s got people she cares about, and things that they drive her to do, and she’s got her own impulses that she has to balance. And that makes us connect more. We kind of need to engage with some of the rough sides as well.
So, normally, I think that even if you’ve got a protagonist who’s thoroughly nice…Katniss isn’t thoroughly nice. But if you’ve got someone who is just yummy person you’ve got to hug, they are in their comfort zone when they’re being like that. And everybody is nice when they’re in their comfort zone. So what you have to do is find places where they don’t feel so capable or comfortable or at ease, and I call it “discomfort zone.”
These are the places where they might get a little bit irritable or intolerant or there are things that get their goat, and that starts to show who they really are. And then further outside of that, you can find places where they’re really uncomfortable, which I call that the war zone, and you can really get characters to discover who they are.
That could be physical danger. It could be something like bereavement or any extreme situation, or it could be another person who brings out the worst in them, and that could be an antagonist or it could be an actual villain. We’ll talk about that later. But yes, there are ways that you can find even your nicest character’s weak spots. That’s very important. It goes a long way towards making the reader like them.
Another big mistake is not plugging the reader into the character’s internal life. So that means it’s hard to understand what actually matters to them, because everybody needs something they want or something they want to prevent, because that drives the story, and that also makes them stick with the bad things that are going to happen rather than just give up. And so, early on you need scenes that establish this, and establish them as individual people.
And usually, a good way to do this is to find what frustrates them and makes them feel something’s got to change, maybe bored of life on their dull planet, or they wish they could grow up faster, or solve a world problem. And so what the writer does is they’ll show us a bunch of things happening that make the character exasperated, but they don’t show us how the character feels about them. Usually when they’re writing the scene, they’re really immersed and they’re probably feeling the character’s emotions, but they assume that we know how the character feels.
So, a very simple example: the character gets fired from their job, and the writer might be thinking, “Everyone knows this is bad. Everybody will understand the character feels crushed.” But actually, there are a thousand ways to feel about this situation. You might feel liberated, or fearful, or vengeful, or a mix of lots of those things. Now which is it? And if you’re including that scene to show us who the character is, we need to see what they felt; we don’t need to guess it, because we’ll make the wrong guess. They might not feel as we do.
Now, later in the book, you don’t have to spell things out nearly so much. When we know the character better, we can intuit what they’re feeling, and that increases our attachment to them, in fact, because we feel, “I know how you feel.” It doesn’t have to be spelled out. But early on, if you don’t show a reaction, the reader assumes that there wasn’t one, and that this didn’t matter. That’s not what you want.
That’s a real biggie. I see that so often. I’ll be reading a passage and I’ll think, “I think this is supposed to be telling me something that really matters to this character. But there’s no reaction, so it looks like it didn’t.”
Joanna: That’s kind of one of the rules in inverted commas around scenes, that they should either advance the plot or develop character.
Roz: Yes, certainly. If a scene does more than one thing, then that’s great because you feel that you’ve seen something very significant. And if every scene feels significant, then it pulls the reader along. It makes the book feel like it’s moving fast.
And another writing principle it illustrates is show not tell, which people say all the time, and writers can never be told it often enough. I even have a post-it note on this monitor here, “show not tell,” because it’s easy to forget that we have to show the reader things, particularly why things matter to the captors.
And the third mistake – you wanted three – enigmatic characters. We love to write about people who are strange or mysterious, but it’s very easy to make them empty instead of mysterious, because we don’t want to show too much but we want to preserve this intrigue. But we have to show something to keep that intrigue. Now, we can’t show that internal life, because if you show how these mysterious characters feel about things, what makes them tick on the inside, you’ve destroyed the mystery. But you have to show something.
Again, what writers often do is just leave it blank. They don’t show us anything about how the character is feeling about something. They’re a complete blank face; nothing is really registering or affecting them. A better way to generate a mystery is to make things that make the reader wonder if there’s more there. And it’s not by under drawing them, it’s by creating conundrums. So you might have dates that don’t add up, or things that other characters do that don’t make sense.
Certainly show them responding to things, but never letting on what they feel. So they keep their cards close to their chest but there are definitely a lot of cards there. You have to give a sense of there being a lively consciousness and a big background that the reader wants to know about, but you don’t actually show it from the inside.
Joanna: As you’re talking I’m thinking this almost like a hierarchy of character that you do or that you see in books. And as a writer, we kind of go through from the very basic genre type of novel where the character is important but it may well be underneath the plot. Like you’re talking about a mysterious character there, and that seems to me to be like an advanced character tip that you kind of get to. Well, I just say this from my perspective because I’m writing novel number four right now. Whereas you’re like 15 or something.
Over time, you understand yourself more, so you can write into your characters more.
Do you think writers need to get deeper into themselves to write deeper into character?
Roz: That’s a very interesting question because we’re all in danger of making characters who are carbon copies of us, and that’s possibly because we can’t see that there are actually a lot of ways that we could write from the inside of a character but create different characters. Probably the easiest way to describe it is, if you imagine there are lots of situations in life where we might be slightly different people.
So you might have the mode that you draw on when you’re doing a speech, and you might have another mode that you draw on when you’re getting deep into the writing, and they both feel like quite different people. So I’ll give you a questionnaire of what balances it.
Answer me, the ten things that are most important to you right now. There’d be different lists, and these are different ways you feel just by yourself. Now, add other people to that mix and other situations, and you can actually tap into quite a few different ways that you yourself feel. So you behave differently perhaps with the older members of your family than your friends you knew at college.
And these are all little compartments that you can draw on to start making people who come from you but feel different from you, and they will have slightly different priorities from priorities you can build up what a character wants in a story and the things that matter to them. So, yes, the more you become aware of yourself and the different faces you present to the world, the more you can write different people with depth and insight.
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. From there…well, I’m thinking about this hierarchy, and where it’s happening with my writing is, really, that this time the characters are quite different. I’m writing like a crime novel and with a detective, something I know absolutely nothing about. So there’s a layer of research there as well. She has a daughter, and there’s a death, so there’s bereavement; stuff that’s not me.
I wonder if when we start writing, do we start by writing far more also biographically? And then as we develop, we can actually start going further than that. And is there a problem with writing auto-biographically, if people are worried about that?
Roz: Oh, that’s so interesting. I think we do start writing auto-biographically, we start by thinking, “What would I feel like?” “And what has mattered to me?” And then as we become more sort of flexible, it’s like getting to learn an instrument.
After a while, you begin to realize there are other places you could go imaginatively. Like bereavement, for instance, many of us may not have experienced it but we could probably imagine what it might be like. And when you’re writing people who do very bad things – and I’m going to come on to this later – there’s another leap that you might have to take to understand what it feels like to be that person. But I’m leaping ahead there. We’ll talk about that later.
We often do start by putting a lot of our real selves as we see ourselves into books, and that can be quite inhibiting in a way because we become aware of people who might read it and will be thinking, “Is that you?” “Do you really feel like that?”
Joanna: Yeah, and for some reason, there’s more around the sex than the violence.
Roz: Oh, goodness. Yes, it is, isn’t it? Or, are we? Is that just what we think?
Joanna: Yeah. No, I’m pretty sure it is.
Roz: I think I am the other way around. If people say to me, “Well, the character of yours is quite sexy,” I’d probably go red. I think, on the inside, I definitely feel it. It just sort of feels like it’s a thing that they’ve seen that’s rather private. But when they’re there with the page, I just think, “What’s right for these characters? What’s right to keep people immersed in my story and in the truth of the experience?”
Whatever I’m writing. And when I’m ghostwriting too, which is, for me, I don’t really ghostwrite in the literary way. They’re far more plot-based thriller type novels that I’ve written. But I’m still trying to mine an experience and keep giving the reader, really, the experience that they want. They want to be in those shoes. However, whether it’s deeply literary or whether it’s an adventure, they still want to be in the truth of the moment.
Joanna: We talk a lot about research for novels in terms of ideas and plot and things, but I actually have ended up doing research for character emotions – for this bereavement, the death of a child – by reading the blogs of women, mothers whose children had died. Which was awfully emotionally wrenching.
You can’t just research your character’s physical traits by looking at movie stars. You do have to research an emotional level as well. Do you do that, or do you actually make it up?
Roz: Oh, no, I gather memoirs, and blogs as well, of people who have been in situations that I’m going to be writing about. There’s this memoir I just read recently, Darren Strauss’ book about accidentally killing a girl by knocking her off her bicycle. I think he just learned to drive. And it stayed with him all his life. I just wanted to understand what that was like, and it was feeding into something that I was writing. But yes, I guess a lot of memoirs by people who have been in those situations, because then that contact with their mind and emotions will let me start to live it.
I think writers get very good at being emotional sponges and at understanding what it’s like to be behind another person’s eyes and to carry their soul for a little bit. And from that, we can come out and then we can understand how they would react and the situations that might make their lives different from our own. So, yeah, that’s a brilliant way of understanding the soul of somebody who’s been through something quite different from you.
Joanna: I was writing something and actually cried myself. I was weeping at my death scene. But it was interesting because it was the first time it happened to me. I think I’ve been able to get far more into the character than I have before. Because my other writing – we’ll talk about bad guys now – because in the past, like with my ARKANE bit, I really enjoyed writing the bad guys.
In my last book, I had an evil woman who has ritual sex and kills people in tombs and then blows people off and shoots people and beats people up. You know, that’s really fun for me, but all of those things I just said are all kind of physical manifestations of quite boring evil, let’s just say. Like, killing people is an obvious antagonist.
What are the things people get wrong with the antagonist or the villain side of things in that high genre versus more normal life?
Roz: Well, a memorable antagonist needs to be as well-developed as your protagonist, because for a start, they’ve got be a proper match for them. They’ve got to be worth defeating and they’ve got to have enough staying power to create enough trouble. We should have a quick definition here because it’s easy to get mixed up. All villains are antagonists, but all antagonists aren’t necessarily villains.
An antagonist is just someone whose interests oppose your hero’s, and they might be an ordinary person, just as nice as your hero but they want something different. So, a man on the run needs to evade the policeman who’s out to arrest him. There’s no evil there, but they do what they’ve got to do.
A villain, though, intends real evil, and they have a different set of rules that they live by. And they’re often a brush at the dark side of humanity, but this makes it really fascinating to read about and fascinating to write if you really delve into what drives them. As you’ve got murderers, psychopaths, con men, assassins, serial killers, people want to know about this side of humanity that’s not like what they get in their real life.
But there are other ways that it goes wrong. The first major thing is that writers often make their antagonists act in isolation. It’s as if they don’t want to give their antagonist their own home tribe. Now, protagonists will be surrounded by family, colleagues, supporters, friends, everybody. The antagonist is on their own.
Now, really, in real life, they would usually not be completely on their own. They might have organizations working for them, they might work within organizations, they might have henchmen. Even if they’re loners, like the assassin in The Day of the Jackal, they need people from time to time. Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s fantastic antihero. What would you call him? But he needs people from time to time.
They’re disposed of once they’ve outlived their usefulness, but still, they need people around them. And if they’re an antagonist rather than a villain, they often have friends who believe in their cause. But I often see stories about, say, somebody battling their ex-wife. The ex-wife is on her own, lonely and miserable. And that’s just not very realistic. So we’ve got to be realistic in lots of ways. And that’s one way, one key way, in which they can be made more realistic.
Another factor is strengths. Writers often don’t want to give their antagonist good characteristics, especially if they’re villains. But all antagonists are usually highly motivated, or they wouldn’t be causing any problems. And the more villainous they are, the more likely they are to be very intelligent and original and inventive.
Now, it might not be intellectual intelligence, it might be more an animal intelligence that’s just so feral. It’s very difficult for a normal person like even me to resist them or overcome them, because you couldn’t do the things they do. But still, these are strengths, these are positive characteristics. And if you show these, you can make them far more memorable and scary. You make somebody who becomes a creature of nightmare rather than just someone who kills somebody. They become someone whose motivations make you just shiver every time they’re on the page, because you feel there’s something about the darkness.
And another thing, following on from that, is their motivation. Often, writers want their villains to be simply evil, but evil is quite hard for a reader to grasp. But if we see why it’s personal to the villain, we understand far more about what keeps them going and why they won’t give up. Because actually, villainy needs quite an effort.
You’re going to cause trouble. You’re going to get in trouble. All sorts of things might happen. Messes might be made which you’ll have to clear up. But they have to be motivated. Now, they might want to rule the world, or they might be doing what they’re doing because they genuinely feel they can sort out the mess humanity has got themselves into, and it just needs someone with a bit of backbone.
But all of these make a villain far more believable because there’s something inside them that’s keeping them going, rather than just the plot’s convenience. And if there is actually nothing noble about them at all, if they’re simply cruel and horrible, we still have to see why they keep doing it, because there is something that’s keeping them going.
Now, if they are just the kind of people who like to destroy for the sake of destroying, they’re getting a kick out of it, because they’re nothing without victims. If they don’t have victims, there’s nothing that’s worth doing. The victim makes it worthwhile for them. What you have to do is show the kick they get out of it. It’s very nasty indeed.
Joanna: I think writing villains can be a lot more fun. I think maybe it’s almost that when you’re nice people, like we are, you can actually really let your imagination go with villains because you can never be autobiographical, unless, obviously, you’re some kind of psycho killer, or that’s in a thriller, for example.
Maybe you can let your imagination run more freely with a villain than you can do with a hero character. What do you reckon?
Roz: Yes, certainly you can get far more interested in them, because once you start thinking, “What do they get out of it? What’s keeping them going? What are the rewards?” you can go into endlessly fascinating places. But then you have to keep your own interests in the hero, and that comes from the things at stake for them, and the dilemmas that they get presented with in order to go on the journey that they must go through.
It’s like two different sets of equations. On one half, we’re interested in the hero because we’re thinking, “What do they need to prevent? What are they protecting? What do they want to accomplish? What dilemmas does this put them into? What keeps them going?” And they’re quite often on the defensive but we’ve got to be in there with them and thinking, “This matters,” and we’ve got to keep the reader thinking this matters. And that comes from you, as the writer, feeling, “This matters. I want to battle on.”
And on the other hand, we have the villain who thinks, “This is great. I’m inflicting cruelty and getting a kick out of these weaklings,” or, “I’m getting further in my plan to make the world a better place, because I’m the only person who can do it, and I don’t know why everybody is so bothered by this.”
Joanna: And that can mean so much more fun.
Roz: Well, it can be, but you’ve got two ways of having fun with your book in that case.
Joanna: Yes, saving the world or destroying it.
Roz: Yeah. When you have your hero who’s causing it even, and you have your villain who you also see why they’re doing it. So that creates the really absorbing place for you to be as a writer. And that all comes from understanding the people you’ve created.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely. Now, probably the biggest issue I’ve had, and I still have, is dialogue. This is probably the biggest difference I see between writing non-fiction and writing fiction, because I think I really believe that pretty much anyone who writes business documents at work could probably write a decent non-fiction book about something, you know, just a how-to book or whatever. Because we know how to write sentences, we know how to put things together. But dialogue is something that you do not write in normal life. Even if you journal, you write in your journal, you write business documents, you write letters. You don’t write dialogue unless you write a novel.
There are some people who get away with doing accents and who do regional stuff. I personally will put down a book if I see that because I hate it; I hate reading all the kind of regional stuff, or funny names that I can’t pronounce in my head. That’s why I can’t read fantasy books because they all have funny names.
Help us out with dialogue. What are some of your tips for getting it right?
Roz: Well, it’s so interesting that you mentioned accents, because we do have to make the character sound different from each other and they’ve got to have their own voice, but that doesn’t mean accents. It actually comes from within. There are different approaches to life, there are different backgrounds, and so a highly educated person might use more complex sentences with sub clauses.
Someone else might use short sentences with one idea per sentence. And their language will tell the reader to know exactly who they are. Synonyms are very characteristic. So does your character say “girlfriend,” “partner,” “bird,” “bit on the side,” or “trouble and strife”? These are all very different ways to describe one thing. Synonyms are a very good way of creating your character’s own vocabulary.
Another way you can make them sound different from each other is by giving them different senses of humor. Something I really noticed in manuscripts is where all the characters have the same sense of humor, because the writer has presented the things that they do to make people laugh, or to lighten the mood, or to make light of something awful that’s happened. But actually, people all have different ways of doing this. If you’ve got a bunch of characters, a good way that you can make them have different personalities is just by making them differently humorous. So, find different ways for them to be humorous.
Also, if they curse or don’t curse, this is all part of the personalities. Some people never say a naughty word at all. Some people say it all the time. And we all have favorite words that we use in stressed situations. So all these can be used to build up your character’s vocabulary without you ever having to put in funny accents. Which I agree, they can be very difficult to read and you’ve got to be very, very careful.
And another thing you can do in dialogue is use non-verbal communication, because characters don’t have to verbalize everything. Instead of answering a difficult question, they could shrug or look at their shoes.
Joanna: That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m aiming for now. That’s exactly the tip I would say to people, and it’s where I’ve gone, is very much use the non-verbal as a way to demonstrate character, and also emotion as well.
Roz: That’s the thing.
Joanna: Because if you write less…write less dialogue.
Roz: Right, right. Don’t put too much non-verbal communication or stage directions in. But if you get to a stage where someone has had a shock, and they can be shocked, have them just silent for a moment, instead of trying to write, “I feel very shocked.” Often, the writer doesn’t know what to put, but I actually think the person may not know what to say. So, yes, definitely use non-verbal communications. And you can also use those kind of directions to mean that you don’t have to state quite so often, “He said,” “Joanna said,” “Roz said,” and you can use those to do that work for you as well.
And another thing you can do is keep the reader in the scene with the visual descriptions as well. Often, when we launch into a dialogue scene, the previous scenes will have been maybe quite visual. They will be describing a sunny day, or me sitting in my office with a lamp beside me. But then those characters will start talking. All these visuals have disappeared because the writer is suddenly thinking, “It’s ears. It’s all about noise,” but actually, it’s not.
You need to keep the reader in the other kind of details as well or they’ll suddenly feel there’s been an abrupt gear change. So, give some visuals. Say, if there’s a wedding reception, have a waiter pad off and indicate the menu or something, someone just asked for it. Just something like that of a visual thing. Or you can add other oral details that keep the reader in the scene. So, if you’re on a spaceship, it’s the burble of instruments on the flight deck.
Or if there are two of you crossing the desert on camels, take a beat to describe the steady pad of the camel’s feet as they’re on the swing of these animal’s back. Keep us in the scene as though there was no dialogue there. And another thing to really be aware of is the character’s relationship with each other. This is really interesting.
We could get into quite deep levels of what dialogue can do, but at the most basic level, many dialogue scenes can be flat because we don’t have a sense of how the characters are responding to each others status according to their roles in the book. You might have a king talking to his prime minister. There are certain things that the prime minister will just have to go along with because it’s the king he’s talking to, and his language, his demeanor should all reflect that.
And it’s particularly interesting if you want to show a switch in status. So you could begin with the king starting off by being in charge and giving orders, but then the prime minister says something that means he suddenly gains control, and he’s the one who’s dictating terms. That can be very interesting.
These switches in status can keep a reader feeling there are real developments going on all the time. So you might apply that to almost any situation. Somebody says something that tips the balance of power between these two people. So this is going on under the dialogue, under what they’re saying. It’s their emotions and it’s how they’re reacting to each other, to be aware of the souls in the room, people there.
Joanna: Like you say, we could talk about this forever. There really are so much. But we are out of time.
The book is full of stuff, I wonder if you could briefly give us an overview of what people can find in the book.
Roz: I’ve been assessing manuscripts for about 20 years alongside all the writings I’ve been doing, and what I wanted to do is create a book that would help people with the problems that I’ve found they’ve had creating characters and getting us involved with them, and making the reader feel they know them and want to follow them.
So there’s a lot about when the reader can fill in the blanks and when you mustn’t let them fill in the blanks. And when they do fill in the blanks, this increases their attachment to the characters. It’s a very important thing to learn how to do. I’ve also written about how to write the opposite sex. A lot of people are worried about writing men, if they’re women, and vice versa, so I tackled that. And how to write teenagers. That was really interesting to research.
Various stages at which the changes happen and how it makes the characters feel. But also how you don’t want to end up with a character choke because it’s very easy to just write somebody who’s bad tempered and wears black. But teenagers can be really interesting. Even if you’re not writing young adult, you might have teenage characters who you can use in ways that you can’t use fully adult characters. So that’s quite an interesting thing to have in your armory.
Another point I’ve got into is characters in dystopias. How you write people in a situation where the society is perhaps what you’re more interested in than the characters, but it’s how you create characters who will do that job for you, who will get the reader interested in your society. And also, characters who are symbols. Often, we want quite symbolic roles for some of our characters. So there are whole ways to do this, that work really well. And there are also ways you can muck it up and just make them cardboard cutouts.
Passive characters, this is something that’s a real problem for many writers. They create a hero who, as you said, isn’t as interesting because they’re having stuff happen to them all the time but they actually need to do more to solve that. It’s a really big problem, I find, of manuscripts: the central character is passive. But there are ways that you can make them into a far more interesting and invigorating hero. One, not making them swashbuckling. They can still be ordinary people.
Joanna: I love swashbuckling.
Roz: You can buckle your swash if you like, but not everybody will be like that. Sometimes they’ll just be an ordinary person who’s been thrown into an awful situation. It’s how to tackle that. I’ve also written a lot about relationships, friends, family, including awkward bits like sex and stuff.
And development games and questionnaires, exercises that will help you populate a novel and make the characters into three-dimensional people. And all the time, I address what’s right for the genre that you’re writing because mystery novels needed whole different kind of dimension from a straightforward adventure story.
And also, stories for different age ranges too. You won’t go into much detail in a middle-grade book as you would for a very considered book for adults. So, all that is in there.
Joanna: Fantastic. So give us the title again and where people can find it.
Roz: It’s called “Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life,” and it’s on all the e-book platforms and it will shortly be in print as well. If you want to find it, the best place to start is my blog, Nail Your Novel, and I’ve got a little tab there that will show you links to all my books and where you can find them.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. And we also have a multimedia course together, don’t we?
Roz: We certainly do, yes.
Joanna: We do, How to Write a Novel.
Roz: Right. All our expertise, my 20 years’ worth of doing it and helping people to do it, and you’re starting from scratch and figuring it out.
Joanna: Yeah. That was really fun to do because I feel like when you’re at the beginning, and I’m sure some people listening just maybe writing their first novel, or were just starting out, you actually have a completely different mindset than someone like yourself who’s so experienced now, and you’ve written so much and you’ve read so much. So if you’re interested in that, it’s at TheCreativePenn.com/writenovel, and you can find out about that. But otherwise, people can find all your stuff at NailYourNovel.com. Is that right, Roz?
Roz: That’s right, yes. And they can also find me on Twitter @nailyournovel.
Joanna: Everywhere, nailing novels.
Roz: Yes. Just nailing, nailing, nailing.
Joanna: In general. And thanks ever so much for your time, Roz. That was great.
Roz: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Joanna: So thanks to Roz Morris for a great interview, and also thanks to Audible.com who sponsored the show today. And remember, you can get a free audio book and a 30-day free trial by signing up at www.audiblepodcasts.com/thecreativepenn, and that’s Penn with a double N.
Thanks for listening today. I hope you found it helpful. You might also like the back list episodes at TheCreativePenn.com/podcasts. You can also get your free Author 2.0 blueprint at TheCreativePenn.com/blueprint. If you’d like to connect, you can tweet me @thecreativepenn or find me on Facebook at The Creative Penn. See you next time.