Category Archives: Characters

Honesty (in voice) really is the best policy

I know, I know…. Cliché , cliché, cliché! But sometimes the clichés best express exactly what we mean, which is the case for what I want to talk about today:  honesty in voice. It’s the next installment of what I believe are the components of compelling voice in writing and character development.

You know how mothers can tell when their kids are lying, or at least hiding something?  It doesn’t matter how many times little Suzie pinkie swears that she wasn’t in your make-up or little Joey cross-his-heart swears that the lamp busted all by itself, we know the truth! I think it’s the same with readers – they know instinctively when an author or character isn’t being real, when punches are pulled or words are minced. I think those omissions leave a reader with a sense of dissatisfaction, whether the reader can identify its source as “dishonesty” or not.

I’m not talking about those instances when  you deliberately temper words, whether in action or dialog, cases where you don’t want to ramp up the emotion or pace. I’m talking about those instances when you’re afraid to write what you really want to write. When your internal editor (or the imagined sound of your spouse’s, mother’s or best friend’s scolding) cautions you to hold back, to use watered-down phrasing so your readers don’t come away feeling seasick from all the waves you’ve created. I’m talking about those times when you let the PC police tell you what to say and how to say it.

Here’s how I feel: There’s no place for political correctness in fiction writing. Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way advocating deliberate attacks on a person or groups of people (outside of the story plot, of course). What I am advocating is honesty in the story-telling process, and fearlessness to express truth, as the writer or character knows it. Again, it’s the writer’s job to know how and when to use those truths to achieve the story’s goals.

Some people probably wouldn’t consider honesty or fearlessness to be elements of voice, but to me, they are. To me, so much of voice is that unfiltered monolog running through your head, and letting it loose, in measured doses, to blend character into your writing. Because it’s that reality, the truth of the situation, that will resonate with readers.

Debut novelist Elvy Howard (Love on a Half Shell) shows an amazing skill for using honesty in voice.  (Speaking of truth and honesty, full disclosure time:  Edward Allen Publishing is releasing this book sometime in the early spring. Since one of the goals of this blog is to examine what we feel is solid writing, I think it’s acceptable to use one of our upcoming releases as a demonstration. The main reason I’m using this, however, is that it perfectly illustrates what I mean by “honesty” in voice.)

Love on a Half Shell is the story of a 30-something Rae Green who takes custody of her sister’s daughters, ages 5 and 12, and the struggles they go through to form a family. Rae is single and unencumbered by responsibility for any other living being when she’s called in the middle of the night to pick up these two girls whom she hasn’t seen in several years. The girls have a troubled background (thanks to a drug-addicted mother), so the three go through some rocky times.

At one point, the older girl (Torey) pulls a particularly stupid and dangerous stunt – as children often do. In this snippet, Rae is trying to recover after a period of paralyzing fear.

How could she do this? How could she put me, Melissa, and herself, through this? … I push numbers into the microwave and hit Start. I watch the plate begin to spin and try to figure out what I should do next. But the more I think, the angrier I get. I hate Torey in so many ways it overpowers me. I can’t fit that much anger in a sentence, and there’s nowhere to begin, so I leave and go to bed. …

I don’t turn on the light, just let my clothes drop to the floor, and get in bed. My entire body quivers with emotions I’m unable to decipher. Eventually I understand I’m suspended somewhere between rage and fear. I hadn’t been able to consider the possibility she might be dead.

Rae’s reaction is intense, the kind of intense that only comes from a foundation of deep emotion. It might have shocked you, but if you’re a parent (or acting as one), you might recognize these feelings.  Of course Rae doesn’t hate Torey, but she does hate that Torey put her family through an ordeal, and in that instant, the feeling of hatred is too strong to be rationalized; it’s too strong to be anything but felt.

I think many authors would have been afraid to write that, afraid to admit that deep-down truth that for that brief blip in time, Rae actually did feel hatred toward someone she loves so much.

That’s what I mean by honesty in voice.  I can feel what Rae is feeling, and I get it.

Here’s my message:  Don’t be afraid to use your unique voice to tell the truth, to express emotions that we human beings all share. Not everyone will love your story, or your voice, but those universal truths will always be recognized.

Happy writing! Have a great week!

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as senior acquisitions editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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Characters – Love them; love them not?

The other day my sister and I were talking about a book she’s reading. She said she was enjoying the book immensely, but the story’s main character was troubling her. “She’s heartless,” my sister said. “I don’t like her.” She almost spit the words out, like she’d just bitten into a bad tomato.

What a great reaction!, I thought to myself.  That author had done a terrific job of bringing that character to life. To me, that’s solid writing, when you can evoke a reader’s emotions – good or bad, love or hate – like that.

Much is said and written in writing circles and in reviews about a character’s likability, but I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant. When I read for pleasure, I’m not consciously calculating whether or not I like a character. I do subconsciously pick up on traits that I like, but more importantly, traits or behaviors that I can understand.

Let me clarify and make a distinction here. If you’re writing romance (as defined within the industry), I think it is vital that the main characters (the ones who fall in love) are likeable. It’s tough to make one character fall in love with another who’s a jerk all the time, after all. That’s not to say they should be perfect (quite the opposite), but they should be the type of characters readers can find themselves falling in love with, and the romance between the characters should be believable.

Aside from romance, though, I think it’s more important for a character to be relatable than likeable. Sometimes the “baddest” characters who do the most horrific things are the most interesting. (On a side note, I love writing bad guys. They’re my favorites. I love digging into their heads and trying to figure out what might have changed along that character’s life to make him or her a monster.) I think that’s what drives the popularity of some of the highest-rated TV shows and movies:  the fascination with the bad guy.

But “bad” isn’t enough. Some spark of humanity has to be present in that character’s profile, a reason that he/she turned bad. Why? Because can’t we all, in some deep, dark place in our psyches, at one point in our lives or another, imagine  being that angry, that self-focused, that we could almost understand the bad guy’s actions?

It’s that “almost” that keeps us fascinated, I think. We know we’d never go as far as these characters, but if they’re well written (acted), we can relate to or maybe understand, on some level, what they do and why they do it.

Look at one of our most beloved bad guys: Tony Soprano. He made New Jersey cool, didn’t he? (As a native Garden Stater, I say it’s about time!)

Tony could go from having drink at the sleazy topless bar that served as his headquarters (yuck), to having a fight with his wife or kids (most of us have been there, done that), from chasing off a bear in his back yard (yikes!) to ordering a hit on one of his competitors (no way), all without breaking a sweat.  But wait…he did break a sweat, didn’t he? In fact, Tony spent a lot of time on his therapist’s figurative couch. It was the therapist who served as the viewer’s conscience, I think – forced by her profession to try to help this man, this murderer, come to grips with what he’d done. I think there were times when she forgot who and what he was, times when she almost began to like Tony.

It was the same for me. Sometimes I sympathized with Tony and really pulled for him. And then he’d go and beat the you-know-what out of someone, or order the extermination of his nephew’s fiancée, and he lost me. It was a fascination with the yin/yang of his personality that kept me watching week after week. It’s the same reason I watch shows like Justified and Sons of Anarchy, shows that aren’t afraid to reflect the reality of life, that sometimes  good guys do bad things, and sometimes bad guys aren’t all bad.

People are people. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. Characters should be the same, especially your main characters.  Even when drawing a character that’s (hopefully!) so far beyond an author’s reality – like a Tony Soprano – the author needs to incorporate the elements of humanity that readers will understand. With a full-dimensioned character like that, you can take your story anywhere.

So, to answer my sister’s complaint, I told her to keep reading. That character, like most people, had a lot of living, and growing, to do before the last page of her story could be turned.

Happy reading, happy writing!

Leah

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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