Saturday, October 10, 2009

Characters and Morals

When I was writing The Year of the Scream, I had a lot of decisions to make about my main character, AJ. Some of those decisions dealt with morals and ethics, yet I knew that I had to be very careful here, so that it wouldn't seem as though I were trying to "teach" a moral lesson. I thought it might be beneficial to others if I told a little about what I ( and AJ ) went through.

AJ is a wonderful, smart, sometimes funny ( humor is not my best subject) young teen whose self-image is mostly dependent upon what others, specifically her best friends, think of her. Now this is somewhat a common problem with kids, especially those just entering their teens. They want to be popular, to "fit in," so often they try to be something they are not. So one lesson AJ has to learn is that she can only be who she is, no matter what others think or say. She can pretend to be something she is not, but it's only pretending. Eventually, she must learn that the only thing that really matters is what she thinks of herself, not what her friends think of her. And even though fictional, that is not easy to do.

As her story goes along, she finds that she must make choices, right or wrong. We do that in real life, and we can't always be right, so AJ can't always be right, either. Sometimes this is harder to write than it is to live! Since this is fiction, somewhere along the way she must find herself facing a moral dilemma, and she must show some kind of growth from the decision she makes, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.

As writers, we usually learn that we must ask ourselves certain questions about our characters, and why they give us the answers they do. For me, those questions are: what does AJ love and why? What does she hate and why? What does she want and why? What does she need and why? And, what does she fear and why? If I can answer those questions for her, then I will also know exactly what she wants out of life and what she will do ( or not do) to meet her needs. I should also be able to know what could make her do something out of fear or perhaps temptation that she wouldn't ordinarily do. Believe me, that part was tricky!

Another good question to ask about your characters is...what if? AJ's friendship with her two BBFs is ruined by the antagonist, Celine. But later on, one of those friends wants to make up with AJ. So...what if AJ becomes friends again with her? What if AJ doesn't want to make up? Does this also become a moral dilemma for AJ? Is she so "good" that she can forgive and forget? AJ is not perfect, she must show somewhere that she is as much a flawed individual as all of us humans are, so is this where she shows that she is not some kind of heroine? Hmmm...well, we'll see!

In the end of the novel, AJ learns something about Celine that could destroy her life. She finds that she has the option of telling everyone at school about Celine's secret life, or she can protect her by not saying anything, in which case not even Celine will even know what AJ had found out. This is a very big moral... and probably ethical, also... choice for her. What choice does she make? And in the end, is it the right one or the wrong one for where she is in her life?

I answered this question one way. And AJ promptly woke me up in the middle of the night, saying she was not satisfied with what she was doing. It didn't seem like the right or logical choice for her. You know, I usually listen to my characters...especially when they wake me up at night! So I changed the end result, and everyone, including AJ, was much more satisfied.

I don't think you can write a long story ( or maybe even a short one), and certainly not a novel, and not have your characters, especially the main characters, face one or more moral dilemmas. Think about do you give your characters the answers to the questions that you often have to ask yourself, and then have them make choices? Are they always the right choices? If so, does that make them some kind of "super hero" which you wouldn't find in real life? Or do you allow them to feel their way, to be vulnerable and open to making mistakes and wrong choices, even when it comes to morals and ethics? No matter which path, your characters...take, do they grow from their decisions? Sometimes, this is the most difficult part of your novel.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dialogue, Part Two: Vocabulary

You have probably already realized that writing dialogue is really a challenge. We've talked about how it has to be indicative of the age and life experience of the character, how it should move the story along, and how to avoid certain regional dialects and most slang. So...what else is there?

Let's talk today about vocabulary. You always need to use the kind of vocabulary that your readers will understand. If you are writing for young children, picture books or easy readers, your vocabulary needs to be very simple, basic, and even repetitious. Children who are read to like to hear the same words over and over again, and they like to hear words that rhyme. The kids who are just learning to read by themselves need to see the same words repeated so they become accustomed to them, and to comprehending their meaning.

For middle grade and young adults, vocabulary is still important. I think it is this age that is the most difficult to write dialogue for. Kids in middle school don't want to be "talked down" to, so you certainly don't want to use vocabulary that you just used in writing an easy reader. On the other hand, you don't want to make the dialogue sound like they are in college. It's particularly difficult if you don't have kids around you that are 10, 11 and 12 years old, or are just getting into their teens. So what do you do? Ask if you can volunteer in a middle school, or go to the mall where kids this age hang out and listen to the way they talk. But the best thing to do is to read, read, read.

One of the things I did when I first started to write for this age was to check out books from the library. I took them home and sat down to read the dialogue. I really didn't care much what the story was about, I simply wanted to take note of the way the authors put words, phrases and expressions into the mouths of their characters. I learned a lot from that.

The same thing goes for YA writing. If you don't know how teens talk today, you can read books. thing you have to remember is that "teen talk" changes from day to day. Thus, the vocabulary that is present in books published 5 years ago, or even 2 years ago, may not be exactly the same as teens use today. Because of this, and because so much of their conversation is slang or their own versions of common words and expressions, teens are the hardest of all to write for. At least, I think so. So, how do you get around this?

First of all, you have to know your characters. You have to know what their attitudes are, what little quirks they might have, if they use gestures such as rolling their eyes or 'talking with their hands,' and what emotions they might be expressing at any given time. These characteristics all play a part in how someone speaks, both in real life and on paper. Each of us has a distinct speech pattern, so you want to reflect that in both your vocabulary and in how the character uses that vocabulary. For example: almost all people speak in contractions: can't, don't, aren't, etc. But in my last novel, one of the main characters had lived in Europe for several years, and she had learned a very formal way of speaking so she never used contractions. She always not, will not, should not, and so on. This was a distinct speech pattern which also resulted in a more formal vocabulary for her.

Second, dialogue also has a rhythm to it. If your vocabulary is stiff and formal, your dialogue is going to be the same, and the pacing of the words may seem stilted and unnatural. If this is the way your character is, that's fine, because this kind of dialogue with its more formal vocabulary will be indicative of her life experience and attitude. An example: Lisa is the girl with the European background, and although she is American, she has learned to be very stiff and formal in her speech, so her vocabulary must reflect that. When asked if she could do a particular cheerleading stunt, she replied, "Certainly I can do it. I do not understand why you would question my ability at all. After all, I have learned many complex moves in my European education." This from a 13 year old!

If your character is upbeat, active and enthusiastic about life, then the vocabulary needs to reflect that. For example: my MC asked her new best friend, Amberley, if she wanted to learn to ride. Amberley grins, and says, "Oh yeah! If you don't mind watching my backside bumping up and down in the saddle!" Not only is the vocabulary different, so is the rhythm of speech.

Vocabulary also reflects the emotions a character is feeling. A character can lie, get angry, scheme, feel sad or other words, have the same emotions we have. Dialogue needs to reflect these emotions through the choice of vocabulary and also actions or gestures of the character. As an example, read this paragraph and see if both vocabulary and actions set the dialogue up to reflect the emotions each person is feeling.
"Hey, Alison, how about going to a movie tonight?"Brad put his arm across Alison's shoulders.
"Uh, no, I'm...uh...I've got homework to do." She slipped out from under his arm.
"What's wrong with you, anyway? Now that you've got that inheritance, I'm not good enough for you?" He slammed his hand down on the table.
"It's not that, honestly.'s just...well, I just have to stay home. Please don't...don't get mad!" She blinked rapidly, her pulse racing.

Can you identify the emotions here? If I took away the actions, could you still tell by the dialogue/vocabulary that one person is angry and the other is frightened? Remember, too, that when a character is expressing an intense emotion, their speech pattern changes and so does their vocabulary.

So the bottom line concerning dialogue and vocabulary is this: Know your character! This is so important. Know how she or he will act or react in a given situation. Know that men and women don't have the same speech patterns, nor do teens sound like adults. When your characters are displaying a sense of humor, or becoming angry...whatever the emotion...keep your dialogue consistent with the kind of vocabulary that most easily and clearly defines that emotion. Most of all, keep your vocabulary consistent with the age and life experience of your characters.