December 17, 2009

Characters + Narrator = Book ≠ Me

As I inch closer to being "beta-reader ready," I have a lot of fears bubbling to the surface.

One of these fears is that people will confuse my characters for me and it will cloud their reading experience.

Remember - a writer is not her work.

Pieces of me show up in the book, for sure. All writers borrow personality traits, mannerisms, and ideas from people they know, or have heard of, or experienced - consciously or not. There is simply no other way. We absorb the world, swirl it around in our brains, and use bits of the familiar to fill the gaps between the things we dream up. But this certainly doesn't mean a character with whom I share similarities is my paper and ink proxy.

I'll give you an example I think will throw off a lot of my beta-readers.  I don't cuss. The worst you hear me say is "freaking" or "sucks."

But my narrator cusses.  And so do my characters. And I hope that when my betas read, they will be able to process dialogue without the noise of "Abby wrote this, so that means Abby cussed!" floating around in their heads. Because I didn't - my narrator or character did.

My book would be boring and unrealistic if everyone went around saying "holy cow," "dang," and "what the heck" (things you are likely to hear me say). I value realism in my work.  To avoid certain words simply because I do not use them in real life would cripple my writing.

I want people to read my dialogue and feel that it is authentic. I want them to feel that a real person of my character's background, age, socioeconomic status, etc. would say the same thing in a similar situation. I want readers to think, "Hey! I know someone who talks just like that."

And that isn't to say one shouldn't use ironic or unexpected dialogue - the unexpected is good! But when you go the unconventional route, there must be a reason for it.

For example - meet Sister Mary Teresa, a nun with a potty mouth.  I could make the Sister say the f-word every other sentence, but if it isn't for a reason, my story loses credibility. If there is a reason for her foul language, however, it adds depth (and maybe a little humor).

Who knows? Maybe Mary Teresa is disenchanted with the church and has decided to buck her sacred vows. Maybe cussing is her way of venting frustration in private. Maybe she grew up in a house full of sailors and never quite broke the bad habit (no pun intended)!*

Regardless, my characters stand on their own two fictional feet. Because I created them does not mean they are slight variations of me. And if one of my characters happens to have grown up with an enlisted father and gets a giggle out of calling people an "f-stick" because that was Daddy's choice insult,* then she's gonna say it, so be prepared!

*Neither of these are actual examples from my book.

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