Paula Writes

Paula Puddephatt – Author

Character Development: Inspiration – Part 1 — August 31, 2018

Character Development: Inspiration – Part 1

character-inspiration-1

I definitely consider character creation to be one of the most important aspects – if not the most important – of writing great fiction.

Even in genres generally considered to be more plot-driven, characters matter – and excellent characterisation will set your fiction apart, giving it a definite edge over any other novels or short stories out there.

I have previously written post about my personal character development process, and about how to create believable characters – as well as various related posts, covering topics, including naming characters, and writing realistic dialogue. I would definitely encourage you to take a look at some or all of these, if you haven’t already.

I have already mentioned not finding “laundry list” style character profiles to be particularly useful.

I used to feel almost guilty for not liking this approach, but have learnt, over the years, that many other writers feel the same way.

I think the problem lies in the fact that we’re required to, in effect, give our characters the third degree.  We may well end up “writing anything”, in response to some of the questions, simply so that we can tick the “completed task” box, with regard to character profiles.

In real life, we usually get to know people gradually, over time.

It’s a natural process.  You wouldn’t suddenly go up to someone in the street and start interrogating them: asking about their childhood, favourite colours, favourite foods, and political views. Even if someone was prepared to tell all, attempting to absorb so many details, at a rapid pace, would become overwhelming. You wouldn’t remember half of it, or take in its significance.

So, here’s what I like to do instead…

Gradually, intuitively answer questions, that may sometimes be quite random, and sometimes, more obvious and generic.

When people include lists of nine thousand questions to ask your characters, I actually feel kind of inspired. But only momentarily. The questions may well be amazing, but they aren’t much use to those of us whose heads are spinning, from even attempting to take them all in.

So, my solution. A *series of blog posts, each including a few things to think about – properly, and slowly, minus the dizzy spells. *December 2018 note: I originally planned to write several posts in this “series”, which is why I used to term. However, I ultimately felt that two were sufficient, using this precise approach.

Let’s start at the beginning: your character’s name.

Presumably, your main characters already have first and last names. If not, you should probably read my naming characters post – mentioned earlier.

But does your character have a middle name, or middle names? Most of us do. Mine is Michelle. Okay, some people don’t have one – but, if the character specifically has no middle name, you should know that, as a fact. It’s probably not realistic to give every character in your novel a middle name, but it helps, when it comes to the main characters.

Also, consider maiden, and previous married, names for women, where applicable.

Now, pets – because pets are so important in many of our lives.

Do you know whether your MC currently has pets? And how about previous pets? Know dog breeds. The number and colour of gerbils, throughout the years. And yes, names. Our pets all have them, right? Then for personalities…

I believe in being thorough. That’s why too many questions in one go doesn’t work for me.

But if you do want to decide upon something with a simple answer – try your character’s birthday.

Date of birth is more specific though, so let’s go with that. Give your character a date of birth.

Oh, and if your head is currently spinning, from trying to approach this my way – maybe try one of those extensive questionnaires.

Each to their own. Just because I find them dry, doesn’t mean that they can’t help many writers. They wouldn’t be so enduringly popular, after all, if many people didn’t find them invaluable.

See also: Part 2, for more on character development

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Writing Believable Dialogue — January 7, 2018

Writing Believable Dialogue

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Dialogue is the representation – as opposed to replication – of realistic conversation.

By this, I mean that it should sound like real life conversation, to a point – but not entirely. It would be better to consider character dialogue in terms of edited highlights. In reality, people ramble, go off at tangents, and frequently use phrases such as “um” and “er”. This is boring to read through, so keep it concise and readable.

As with all aspects of telling a great story, conflict is necessary.

Pleasant conversations, where all is happiness and light, and there is no disagreement or problem between your characters, are pointless. Cut to the drama, wherever possible. Remember that dialogue is a tool, and should be used to move the story forward.

Use dialogue to develop your characters.

Differentiate the dialogue of various characters, in as many ways as you can. Consider the range of vocabulary that each would use – individual word choices. When you actually reach the point of being able to “hear” the characters talking, in your own mind, you will know that you have created real people. Then, you will know instinctively, if a line of dialogue doesn’t fit – because it will not be something which this person would actually say, in the particular context.

A major role of dialogue is, as I mentioned, to move the story forward.

As such, dialogue is often the perfect place to convey necessary information. However, be careful not to “info dump”. Dialogue must sound natural.

And, on the subject of natural sounding dialogue – please take care not to overuse character names.

As in:

“Hello, Mary. How are you today, Mary?”

“Hello, Tom. I’m fine, thank you, Tom. How are you, Tom?”

Okay, so it’s not normally this bad – but, at times, can come close. Pay attention to real conversations, and you’ll realise that we don’t generally use each other’s names that often: mainly at the start of our interactions, or when trying to emphasize a specific point.

Said is not dead.

It’s generally much better than “exclaimed” and the like, which draw attention to themselves, and are principally used for the sake of it, in a misguided effort to keep dialogue “interesting”. Some variations, such as “asked” and “yelled”, have their place, but “said” is an “invisible” word, and should be your default option. Mix it up with action tags, and instances where no tag is used at all. The latter is more difficult when three or more characters are present, but can be used effectively in dialogue between two characters.

Make use of subtext in your dialogue.

It’s unrealistic, as well as tedious, for characters to say exactly what they mean, at all times. Multiple layers of meaning add that subtle touch, that will make readers believe in your fictional people and situations.

 

Hopefully, these tips will help you to write believable dialogue – an essential aspect of creating strong, and highly relatable, characters.

My posts on character development and describing locations in realistic fiction, may be of interest.  Also, some additional thoughts on writing convincing dialogue.

I would also recommend a post from Standout Books, for another perspective on the subject of writing awesome dialogue.

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Writing Modern Historical Fiction — December 21, 2017

Writing Modern Historical Fiction

write-retro-fiction

So, what is “modern historical fiction”, right?

Well, my work in progress (novel) is modern historical. It’s set primarily in the 1980s, although readers will be given a glimpse of the early 1990s.

We can debate as to where the line is drawn.

Some would say that, if anyone is alive today who remembers a given period of time, then it’s modern historical. It would generally be accepted that the 1950s through to the end of the 1990s qualifies.

As to anything later than 1999, but more recent than – well, now, pretty much – as in, contemporary…

This is a grey area, and one that it’s not easy to sell publishers or readers on. If your novel is set in 2005, it’s basically “dated” – neither historical nor contemporary.

If you can’t “move” the characters from 2005, then it might be a case of holding on to the manuscript until it is old enough to be considered historical. Harsh, I know – but that’s pretty much how it is.

What defines historical fiction, in general?

Obviously, the story must take place in a historical period – but is that sufficient?

In my opinion, the historical setting does need to play a central role in the story.

The genre may be more specific than simply historical of course, and genres can be combined. A historical romance, for example, would need to meet the requirements of both historical fiction and romance.

Is it easier to write modern historical fiction, as opposed to stories set in more ancient times?

The obvious answer would be that it is – as, from a research point of view, it’s easier to find out about more recent time periods.

Everything has its down side, however. Mistakes will be spotted more readily.

If you weren’t alive during the period you’re writing about, try talking to people who were, as well as doing research online, and reading relevant books.

If you were born at the time, do your research anyway, as you can’t rely upon memory for every detail, particularly if you were a child, during the era in question.

Keep in mind that you may have to research aspects of life prior to the period that you actually cover, in order to relate fully to the experiences of your characters.

Character names are important.

Classic names work well, but avoid modern, trendy ones, that may not even have existed, at the time. Replace these with “dated” names, which would have been the trendy ones.

It’s easy enough to Google the popular given names for any particular era, and remember to take the age of the characters into account, too.

I love writing modern historical.

It’s not significantly different from writing contemporary fiction, and I get to address many of the social issues that are close to my heart – but the music is better (personal opinion only), and no-one has a mobile phone, or Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.

 

Writing Modern Historical Fiction – Pinterest Board

Writing Modern Historical Fiction – Reddit (subreddit)

 

This post is a slightly updated version of one published on my previous blog.

 

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Character Names: 8 Tips for Naming Your Fictional People — October 19, 2017

Character Names: 8 Tips for Naming Your Fictional People

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Do you ever struggle with the naming process, when it comes to your characters? Most of us, to some degree, do.

Choosing names for our fictional people can be fun. It can also be time-consuming and frustrating. These tips have helped me, and hopefully some of them will be useful to you.

I should mention that the tips are applicable to realistic fiction, and I don’t cover naming characters in genres such as fantasy. Names used in these genres tend to be specifically invented, or extremely rare, and I don’t personally have experience in this area.

1. Use baby name websites, such as Nameberry and Behind the Name.

There’s so much valuable information on these sites, making them excellent resources for writers.

2. Baby name books can also be useful.

As a writer of Modern Historical Fiction, I actually find it a bonus that the name books I own are somewhat out of date.

3. Search online for popular names from specific years, for your own country, or the one in which your story is set.

This is, again, particularly relevant for writers of Historical Fiction. Remember to take into account the age of specific characters, regardless of whether or not your setting is historical. If your story is set in 1983, for example, you may look up the most popular names for 1983 – but possibly the most popular baby names of 1960 or 1970 will be more relevant.

4. Avoid having too many character names that begin with the same letter, or have a similar sound, particularly if those characters are going to appear together in many scenes, throughout the story.

If two names start with the same letter, but have a different number of syllables, and don’t have a similar sound, it may work. There are twins named Jade and Jessica in my work in progress, and this feels fine to me, but Jade and Jane would be confusing.

5. It can be tempting to simply give characters your favourite names.

We all do it, to some extent. Just don’t name all of them as if they were your own children. Presumably, not every character in your novel is supposed to have the same parents, or be from the same background. Try to consider what particular fictional parents might realistically have named their children.

6. For surnames, phone directories or similar lists can be useful.

I sometimes take names from the authors on my bookshelves. Non-fiction titles often work best for this. Ensure that first and last names sound right together.

7. Once you have a first and last name combination that feels right to you – and preferably before you have become too attached to it – do a Google search, to ensure that there isn’t someone well-known with the same name.

We might assume that, if someone was famous, we would have heard of them, but that isn’t necessarily true. Certainly in my own case, I wouldn’t have a clue about some of the celebrities out there.

8. Don’t overthink the process.

Enjoy naming your fictional people, and remember that you can always change the names, at a later date, if any of them don’t work out.

It’s usually best to have names in your notes and draft, even if you aren’t entirely happy with your choices, and intend to alter them. It’s equivalent to having a working title for your WIP and, like that title, your character names are by no means set in stone.

From a psychological point of view, it tends to be easier to work with a provisionally named story, containing characters with “that will do for now” names.

I mean, Girl A. and Girl B. and Bloke A. and Bloke B. in “Untitled Novel”…? Enough said.

 

Need more advice and inspiration, on the subject of choosing character names? Standout Books also have a post about how to name your fictional people, which I would highly recommend.

 

My post on character development might be of interest.

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Character Development: My Process — October 17, 2017

Character Development: My Process

character-development-my-processFor me, characters are the make or break factor, in a work of fiction – more so than any other element, such as plot or description.

My own characters are real to me.

This doesn’t mean that I know everything about them. It means that, what I don’t know, I can potentially discover. I know some of my characters much better than others. That is the way with real people, after all.

I don’t consciously “make things up”.

My process is more intuitive. I would say that I “realise” details about my various characters. I learn as I go. I might be daydreaming about something unconnected to my story, and then something will occur to me. Sometimes I even have a thought, or experience an intense emotion, and it takes me a moment to understand that I am inside a particular character’s mind. Because some – okay, most – of them have been through hell, their minds can be scary places, at times.

Ultimately, all of my characters are myself, and yet, none are entirely me.

There is a part of me in each of them. We are on parallel life journeys – my fictional people, and myself. They do sometimes shut me out, but I can usually get through to them eventually. I am closer to them than almost anyone in real life.

This is just a brief introduction to my personal character development process, and hopefully, I will write more blog posts about aspects of character development, in the future.

My posts about creating believable characters, and naming your fictional people, might be of interest.

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