Serious writers are constantly trying to strengthen their weaknesses and even their strengths. Dialogue comes easier to me than many other writing areas, I think perhaps because as a child I carried on countless conversations with imaginary characters in stories from my head. Sometimes I acted out stories from the ever-present library books that filled my room. When I began writing down my stories I wrote as if I were the speaker. The main problem with that is that there was too much similarity in dialogue. Everybody sounded the same, well—like me. Kids pick up on trendy expressions at early ages, and of course we try to avoid the trendy because it is quickly outdated. But even kids have different personalities that we can bring out through dialogue. With dialogue we can “show, don’t tell,” in interesting ways. So in self-editing I make a specific check on these points.
We have to watch the dialogue tags, and try to avoid repetitive patterns. Conversely, being too creative with the tags can be destructive. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the good, old-fashioned, “said.” But I try to vary sentences with characters’ action, making tags sometimes unnecessary. Children need to be reminded more often than adults who the speaker is. Writers of adult novels sometimes goof and lead us astray. I dislike having to come to a stop in my reading and backtrack to see who said what. Several lines of speaker changes in a row can even lead to error, as I recently discovered. Children can become frustrated easier than adults. Another check-point.
I think my most glaring weakness in fiction writing over the years has been in weak characters. As in dialogue, my characters all sounded alike. Writing biographies of my characters was a tremendous help, and having them printed out and propped up where I can glance at them from time to time enables me to keep them the way I painted them. Sometimes new ideas pop into my head that will improve a character, so when I edit I scan my manuscript if I make changes to ensure that I have been consistent. The story itself has been my first thought, but I see now that plot and character are both needed for strong fiction.
When I attended the Northwest Christian Writers’ Conference/Alaskan Cruise in 2007 author James Scott Bell and Harvest House editor Nick Harrison had a pretend debate on which was more important—plot or character. One mentioned Gone With the Wind for the terrific plot. The other replied, “Yes, but where would the book have been without Scarlett O’Hara?” By editing I can ensure my characters are worth reading about. If not, time for a major overhaul!
Another thing we have to watch with characters is how they grow and change by the end of the book. Character change is important, including in a short story, and should be more or less subtle, leaving the reader figuring out the change herself, not a declaration by the author as “So Charlie learned that telling lies was wrong.” Even Scarlett matured and made changes that enhanced her character. And yes, with all the marvelous history and great plot, where would that book have been without her?
I don’t try to delude myself into thinking I can construct another Scarlett O’Hara, but with careful work and even more careful editing, I can bring interesting, funny or thought-provoking characters onto the printed page to bring enjoyment to others, especially children, my favorite readers.
-Contributed by Shirley Shibley