Today’s guest is Sally Wiener Grotta, an author and journalist whose books include Jo Joe and just-released The Winter Boy. Sally’s a consummate storyteller, reflecting her deep humanism and appreciation for the poignancy of life; and she’s also an award-winning journalist who has authored hundreds of articles, columns, and reviews for magazines, newspapers, and online publications. Sally gives occasional writing workshops and speaks frequently on the business of writing, and she has co-authored numerous non-fiction books.
[pullquote]My fictional characters are my other “selves,” my best friends, the ghosts who haunt me when I ignore them. And the stories that I create in collaborations with them are my lifeblood and raison d’etre.”[/pullquote]
On why she feels it’s important to share how she relates to her characters, Sally says, “It’s part of my pay it forward. Throughout my career, I’ve had some wonderfully generous mentors. I would be honored if someday another writer could look back on one of my workshops, a discussion with me or an essay I’ve written, and say that it made a difference for her/him, helped set his/her writing on a new, useful, good path.”
Creating Living Breathing Dialog
“I’m having difficulty with the dialog,” Liz said to me. What a major problem, because she was talking about a play she was writing. Unlike a novel, a script is all dialogue—a story devoid of narrative. “My characters are too thin. Please take a look, and tell me where I went wrong.”
Liz is a good friend whom I could trust to welcome an honest critique, so I read her play. It’s nicely framed, but insubstantial, for the precise reason that she is forcing a plot onto stick figure characters which she has created for the sake of her story arc. When I sat down with her, I explained that the stage (or the book) is a window onto a much larger tapestry of life. “Dialogue,” I told her, “isn’t something that you plug into a play to tell a story. It’s something that comes out of the mouths of the characters who are living that story.”
To help her understand, I described how my characters are born and live within me, and the relationship I develop with them. I know them as intimately as I know myself, with perhaps a greater clarity than I have about my own history, my emotional tics and personal foibles.
For instance, when I think of any of the people in my latest novel, The Winter Boy, I understand not only who they are within the plotlines of the story, but also about their childhood, their family relationships, the traumas and triumphs that still haunt them. I recognize the twist of their lips when a smile is fake, the smell of their fears, the taste of their memories, the texture of their lives. I have experienced Ryl’s terror when as a child he witnessed his mother almost dying giving birth to his still-born baby sister. I have laughed with Jinet when she first experienced the deliciously sensual caress of a chrysanthemum petal. The characters are so alive within me that, of course, I would know how they will respond and react in any situation, because my descriptions of them and the dialogue I write for them are based upon a lifelong familiarity. (Well, at least, the length of their life within me.)
To help my friend flesh out her dialogue, I suggested that she sit back and get to know her characters, before she even starts to write the next draft of the play. Listen to the stories of their lives that your characters tell you, I explained, regardless of how they relate to the plot you hope to write. And if their version doesn’t fit into yours, find out why. Theirs may be closer to the truth of the tale.
[pullquote]To help her understand, I described how my characters are born and live within me, and the relationship I develop with them. I know them as intimately as I know myself, with perhaps a greater clarity than I have about my own history, my emotional tics and personal foibles.[/pullquote]
Here’s what writers should know about each character:
- Who were the important people and moments in your character’s childhood, adolescence, young adult years?
- What specific event or experience changed him, made him grow up quickly or caused him to trust/distrust others?
- What was his relationship with his father, mother, sister, brother like? Why? How did that shape who he is now, how he relates to others in his personal life, his professional world?
- Did she have friends in school? Was she popular? Was she a loner? Why? What happened?
- What makes him laugh or cry? What bores him? What makes him so angry that he can barely see straight? Why?
- Why did she choose the career she did? Or how did she fall into the jobs she has had? What was the sequence of events/accidents that led her to be the waitress or physician or mother she is now?
- Do certain kinds of experiences trigger a painful memory, a happy memory, one that is so sad that he can’t deal with it? Fully describe that experience within yourself, and live through it with your character.
- What does her voice sound like when she is happy, sad, angry?
- How does the rhythm of his walk change when he is fearful, pissed, in love?
You have to understand all this and more, I told my friend Liz. You have to know your characters so intimately that they live under your skin, invade your dreams and color your perceptions with their unique perspectives. But don’t include all of that backstory when you write your play or novel. Instead, use your in-depth personal knowledge of your characters to create a narrative and dialogue that has a rich foundation and which resounds with believable, poignant humanity. The result will be characters and a story that will be as alive for your audience as they are for you.
How do you flesh out your characters to create living breathing dialogue?