What our authors say…
I found placing my MC in an impossibly dangerous and almost hopeless situation, having her address it with cool calculation, and then work her way out of the problem grounded her as a dominant force to the overall story. -Andrew Buckley
For more tips, grab the Inspired by Limyaael booklet!
I’ve done dialogue, I’ve done secondary characters, but I’ve read so many books lately that irritated me with the smaller things that I think these parts are still to be said.
Random Superstition/Belief: People who saw elves in the woods were once warned not to accept gifts of gold from them. Any gold they gave would turn to fallen leaves by morning.0
The first part of this will cover introduction.
1) Don’t try to introduce too large a group all at once.
Some authors seem to feel this can’t be avoided, and so we get a long list of names and descriptions. This would be one thing if it were done for effect, to give an impression of, say, noble names or the kinds of clothes the characters were wearing, but all too often these characters show back up again. Lord Leonardo may not be important on page 50, but if he comes back on page 200, the author will expect you to know who he is. And she will also probably expect you to remember that he’s the brother of Lady Sissindra, and likes wearing blue clothes, and so on. All too often I’ve had the unpleasant experience of saying, “Huh?” when the author drops a hint like an anvil, and then I’m forced to read that rushed introduction scene again to understand what she’s talking about.
It’s better to bring in significant characters with more fanfare than less significant ones, and it’s better to introduce them in ones and pairs when possible. That way, you solve two problems for your reader: he’s better able to keep track of names and faces, and he’s better able to know who will be important to the story and whom he can safely forget about. This might spoil a tiny bit of suspense, especially if the author drops anvils about a certain character being a traitor or spy, but it will save your readers the impatience of going back and trying to figure out exactly what is going on.
2) Let the introductory description depend on the circumstances of the meeting.
It’s amazing how many fantasy heroes, while running from their enemies and into the arms of a Helpful Stranger, will still have time to look at the Helpful Stranger and notice every detail of their eye color, hair style, and clothes. Save the descriptions for the time when the character would actually have the leisure to speak them, and when he could plausibly care more about that than anything else. While he’s running for his life is not the time for him to notice that his rescuer has violet eyes.
Also, consider the kind of place that the hero and the new character meet in. If it’s dark, exactly how is he supposed to notice that she has violet eyes at all? Or auburn hair? If she’s behind him, how is he supposed to notice every detail of her clothes? If it’s in a dungeon, and the character is described as looking “pretty,” then I have the urge to laugh. (Then I have the urge to kick the author). If it’s in daylight or firelight and the character hasn’t been traveling through the wild for weeks, then he or she could conceivably look pretty good. Otherwise, how is the hero supposed to know that the heroine’s hair is ordinarily an insanely bright red, and long and straight and smooth? It wouldn’t look that way coated with grime and bound around her head for easier traveling.
3) Don’t make the new character understandable in a single first impression.
Whether it’s a case of that tiresome old cliché about appearances being deceptive or the case of a canon Mary Sue/Marty Stu hero who never gets anything wrong, there are far too many characters in fantasy who tumble squarely into a personality stereotype. This is obvious from moments of the main character looking them in the eye. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a personality stereotype that corresponds to their looks; the character could look effeminate and not be gay. But if the protagonist senses a “hidden strength” in them, they will not turn out to be weak. If they’re cheerful, they do not turn out to have dark pasts. This is A Rule.
It’s a Rule that especially needs to be broken.
Consider. Is there anyone whom you’ve known for years and who has never surprised you? Did you really know everything about them in the first moment you saw them? Or did you honestly think that they were completely one thing and then have them turn out to be the complete opposite?
Most people are not so perfectly perceptive or perfectly blind. Have a balance between them for both your protagonist and the new character, and if they’re in association for a good part of the book, have the new character develop unexpected depths. The best kinds of dark pasts, secret weaknesses, and so on are the ones that author surprises me with, not the ones I can guess within one page of meeting the character.
4) Add in non-dialogue, non-adverb cues.
Sometimes, there’s really no other way to put something than “Give me the sword!” he said angrily.” But most of the time, adverb and dialogue are only shortcuts the authors take. There are other ways, more vivid ones, to show your character’s emotions.
Study body language. Note the way people act when interested in a conversation: leaning forward, widening their eyes, nodding at appropriate places, laughing, focusing intently on the person telling the story. Or notice the way that people act when trying to intimidate others: coiled body tension, clenched fists, direct and hostile eye contact, lowering their voice. Not everyone will have all the signals, but you can mix and match them as necessary to create a unique “body persona” for your character.
Not every character should have to say things “angrily” or “straightforwardly,” or snort or moan or mumble instead of speak all the time. Show your readers how they move, how they listen, how they argue.
5) Change group interactions subtly when a new character shows up.
Many authors are good at doing this in a dramatic fashion, such as showing a kissing couple leaping apart when someone new walks into the room. But the subtler dynamics are something they don’t think about. Two people speak to each other exactly as three people do, and two groups of three speak the exact same way.
In real life, it’s not like that. Sometimes the group will slow down the conversation and make a place for the new person in it. Other times, they’ll ignore him. They might avoid certain subjects now that the new person has come. They might adopt slight shifts of persona; if Lyona knows Dara as a sweet, fun-loving person, but Dara is ordinarily more open and nastier in front of Georg, Dara will probably adopt a mix of the two when Lyona enters her conversation with Georg. This isn’t always going to be a conscious decision. Many of us have personas we slip into. Who we are at work isn’t who we are at home, and neither of them is the same person we are on the Internet. Try to think about what kinds of personas your character is willing to adopt, and how thoroughly she would adopt them. Perhaps Dara is a little irritated at being interrupted by Lyona, and will say things just this side of risqué, or share private jokes with Georg.
6) Don’t make the characters into active speakers and passive listeners.
The only exception to this I can think of is when the characters have a master-and-servant relationship, and even then, it’s unlikely the servant will never ask questions, or only ask the appropriate ones. When the protagonist pulls out her agonizingly long tale of abuse without questions or remarks or thoughts from the character she’s speaking to, I become suspicious. The author seems to have forgotten about the other character and his or her likely actions. Other times, the person, even if he’s a perfect stranger, interrupts with only exclamations of horror, or asks questions that are totally and completely out of character (like the bandit captors who suddenly become sympathetic when they hear all about their captive’s sucky childhood). This glorifies the protagonist at the expense of the other character. Make him or her just as able to have his or her own thoughts, ask stupid or wrong questions, or, wonder of wonders, not really pay attention. This is especially true if he or she isn’t used to being the passive listener in a conversation. Dara shouldn’t tame all her thoughts and just listen to Lyona’s if she is aggressive and used to being heard.
Maybe more on this tomorrow. I just have to think of more things that annoy me.