How to make each character you write sound different

Jane Eyre

One of the foremost tips for writing dialogue is to make each character sound different.

Easier said than done, right?

Recently, I was reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a murderer. One of the many things I adore about Jane Steele is how unique and endearing so many of the characters are.

Jane SteeleYou could easily cherry-pick a piece of dialogue from Jane Steele and match it to its speaker simply by knowing the following:

  • The butler, Sardar Singh: a man of careful words and prone to phrases like, “So often the way with _____.”
  • The ward, Sarjara Kaur: an eager girl who references horses every other sentence at least.
  • Mr. Charles Thornfield: openly bold, sarcastic, and teasing. He participates in exchanges consisting of mock insults, calling Sarjara “Young Marvel” or “tiresome changeling,” for example.
  • Jane: has a tendency for foul, unladylike swearing.

This makes Jane Steele an excellent example of how to write distinct character voices. By giving your characters a quirk as to how they conduct themselves in conversation, you can make them vivid and memorable.

The 8 most important lessons about writing you’ll ever learn

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is one of my favorite books on writing, and it packs so much invaluable, hard-hitting advice into the beginning that it’s worth reading for the first 40 pages alone.

Story is imperative to our biology

Story Genius BookWhen it comes to story, we’re getting more than entertainment. We want to be engrossed because we’re asking ourselves, according to Cron, “What am I going to learn here that will help me not only survive, but prosper?”

Cron explains that humans evolved to work together, and storytelling plays a big role in doing that. “Don’t pet the lions” is an important message to communicate for our survival, but we need more help navigating the social world. “Sure, we can see what people do,” Cron writes, “but knowing why they’re doing it — which is what matters most — is elusive … That’s what we’re dying to know, and what we’re wired to respond to in every story we hear, especially novels.”

We don’t read to escape reality, Cron argues. We read in order to learn how to navigate it.

Story is not plot

Plot is what happens. Story is something bigger.

“A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result,” Cron writes.

But, Cron argues, we’re learning the wrong understanding of story when we’re kids and our teachers give us prompts along the lines of, “What if Freddy woke up and discovered that there’s a castle in his backyard? He hears a strong sound coming from inside … and then … Write a story about what would happen next.”

What happens next isn’t the story; it’s the plot. Context — the meaning those events have for the protagonist — is what makes a story.

Good writing does not equal a good story

Cron says most of us mistakenly believe that the trick to writing a good story is to learn how to write well. So we study grammar and strive to emulate beautifully crafted sentences.

But that’s backward. We should be first learning how to tell a good story and worry about getting the writing right later.

“The conventions of writing — voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it — are the handmaidens of story, not the other way around,” Cron writes. “It’s the story that gives those beautiful words, those interesting characters and all that drama, their power.”

If all we wanted was beautiful prose, Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t be so popular.

Beautifully crafted sentences are just shells without context and meaning — without the story. When we read a book that moves us, we mistakenly think, “I want to learn to write luscious sentences like that!” when we should be thinking, “I want to learn to write the kind of story that would give sentences like that their power!”

‘Writing is like driving a car at night’ (pantsing) is bullshit

There’s an E. L. Doctorow quote that says, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That’s bullshit, according to Cron.

Most people aren’t natural storytellers. The best example I can think of here is Stephen King, who vehemently argues against plotting your novel — of instead “pantsing” your way through it, which has always struck me as terrible advice.

King is a natural storyteller, someone whose “cognitive unconscious has the innate knack of offering up prose in story form.” King might be able to sit down and starting writing a great story without knowing where it’s headed, “but when the rest of us follow suit, our stories almost always end up taking a meandering, disjointed, episodic route that often ends abruptly when we inadvertently drive off a dimly lit cliff.”

If you can move things around, your novel is in trouble

Rough drafts are supposed to be shitty, Hemingway said. And Cron agrees. She just has a problem with taking that too far — to, as author Anne Lamott says, “let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Cron says that “chances are, after months of pantsing what you’ll see is a collection of events that don’t add up to anything — just a sprawling, aimless frolic. And trying to shape it only makes it worse, because there’s nothing to shape. … The very fact that you can move things around is a telltale sign that the novel has no internal logic.”

Yeah, Cron is a hardass. I kind of love her.

Plotters sometimes do it wrong, too

Plotting your novel is mostly right. But a lot of writers, Cron says, focus on plotting the wrong thing first: the external events rather than the internal story.

“Thus plotters begin by laying out the surface events of the story — beginning on page one — with little regard to the protagonist’s specific past, which is the very thing that determines not only what will happen in the plot, but how she sees her world, what she does, and most importantly, why.”

Or to put it more simply, “Outlining the plot first is like saying, ‘I’m going to write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone whom I know absolutely nothing about.”

BOOM.

The Hero’s Journey structure is misleading

External story structure models only contribute to the problem. Cron says “it’s deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape” — something big happens here, something dangerous there, instant gold — “and you’ve got a story.”

But story is more than a paint-by-numbers plot. The problem is, these models like The Hero’s Journey analyze finished works, not works in progress.

Writers follow these story models beat by beat, Cron says, and then wonder why their novel isn’t “nearly as engaging as all those novels, movies, and myths that the ‘story structure model’ was based on.”

In other words, you can’t create a good story from the outside in.

Be careful with ‘in medias res’

It’s good to start your story in medias res, meaning “in the middle of the thing” — as long as you understand that you still have to know the why.

Too many writers take in medias res to mean “plunge us into current action and explain it later,” Cron says. “… By leaving the ‘why’ out of the picture, the action often reads as a bunch of things that happen” — which we know is plot, not story.

My favorite books this year were all by women

Kristen Bell sloth

It’s December, which means soon we’ll have a whole new year of books to look forward to. What’s your favorite book that you read in 2016?

Without a doubt, mine is …

Uprooted

Okay, Uprooted is from 2015, but … sigh. It’s so beautiful. And powerful. And enchanting. It’s the best fantasy literature that I’ve read since Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle (my favorite series). I don’t often encounter genuine page-turners, but this is one of them. GO READ IT PLEASE.

Also, yay for positive female friendships!

I also have to give a big shout-out to Liane Moriarty, who’s my new favorite author that I discovered this year (her books are secretly amazing), and Ava Jae, who’s my new favorite debut author (go read her too, please!).

I finished my Goodreads challenge this year. Did you?

Let’s not be lit snobs

Illuminae

Recently, I borrowed Illuminae from the library and found this note inside: “So cool! But is it literature? Is this the future of novels?”

I promptly took a photo and then crumpled the note into a ball and threw it away.

Because ugh. Who cares about these things? I doubt that authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff were writing the book and thinking to themselves, “Gosh, is this literature? Are we writing literature right now?” and patting themselves on the back.

My fiancée and I rolled our eyes. We started making jokes. We pointed at our cats and said, “So cool! But is this cat? Is this the future of cat?”

The future of cat

The note has a tone of condescension that basically says, “Gee, I see why you like this. Space is nifty, especially to teens like you! But let’s think seriously now. Is this good? Is this actually worth our time?”

Because literature = good and non-literature = bad, obviously.

As for the “future of novels” jab, that’s in reference to Illuminae’s unique format. It’s a story told through emails, interview transcripts, diary entries, Wikipedia articles, etc. These resources 1) make you feel like you’re right there, living through this cataclysmic space event with the survivors, and 2) create the intentional feeling of a historical record. It’s an objective collection of very subjective witness accounts.

So look. Whoever wrote this, I have a message for you: Stop patronizing teens (and oh hey, adults too) for what they want to read. Stop acting like the content and the format is so inferior that you have to question, “Golly, is this going to be our standards for novels now?” because you’re not reading Dickens or Twain or Joyce. No one is worried about this except for you.

I threw your note in the trash as a favor to the readers that matter — the readers who love to read, the teens who read, the adults who read, and who shouldn’t have to feel bad about that no matter what books they choose.

Please don’t be a lit snob.

Your first novel isn’t any good

Author and YouTuber Travis McBee said in a recent video that no one should publish their first book. At times like these, I’m reminded of those old Animaniacs skits:

Doing nothing with your novel — good idea or bad idea?

Travis argued that “if it’s your first book, it’s not good. It’s not nearly as good as your third or fourth book will be. Do not publish it — you will regret it.”

He says instead to do a rewrite and then set it aside — then repeat for at least one more book after that. His point is that your skills will grow dramatically from your first book to your second, and your second to your third. Publishing that rough, early work will turn off readers who may otherwise become loyal fans if only you had waited until your skills advanced.

I … totally agree with him. Rarely are debut published novels actually a writer’s first novel. More often, it’s their second or third — or twentieth.

The first novel I completed was crap. At the time, I didn’t realize that, but I can pretty much look back on that manuscript now and shrug my shoulders and nod my head. Yep. Terrible.

Why was it terrible? Because your first novel is often your “practice novel.” You’re going to make a lot of mistakes in it. And it’s not that those mistakes can’t be fixed — if you really wanted to, you could spend years performing major reconstructive surgery on them. But there’s only so much you can do for a body that’s badly broken.

For me, the clincher was that I no longer enjoyed my novel after writing it. I was bored by it, and I didn’t care about the characters. Not really. I didn’t believe in my story anymore.

It only took me a few years of procrastinating in revisions to figure that out for myself.

Travis’s advice is to move on — shelve that novel, at least for now, and write something new. There’s a big chance it’ll be much, much better. Your first novel isn’t the only novel you have in you — it’s not your “one and only” dream book. Trust me. Your imagination’s a lot bigger than that.