Dialogue is one of the biggest indicators of the separation between the amateur and professional writer. Too often in Wattpad serials or self-published novels, you’ll find numerous monologues where characters go on and on, revealing their deepest, most personal emotions to everyone in the entire world. It’s easy for anyone to look at these books, snicker to themselves, and snarkily say, “That’s not how people really talk.” But in order to find the root of the problem, you have to consider, “How do people really talk?”, and, more importantly, “How do characters really talk?”
This distinction is incredibly important. People in books and movies and TV shows don’t talk like everyday humans. Conversations in the real world often repeat, oversimplify, and wind like a backroad going nowhere. There are very few instances in life where these moments have weight and purpose. In stories, everything the characters say must have both weight and purpose.
Novel dialogue has a somewhat similar purpose to film dialogue. An easy way to think of dialogue initially is to consider it in the context of a scene. In scenes, there are two ways to forward the pacing: action and dialogue. Paired together, they take the scene, and the novel as a whole, from one point to another, whether positive or negative.
One of the best ways to enhance dialogue is to consider how different characters react to the same situation. Character traits always impact their word choice; you find it in the difference between someone saying the party is “huge” and someone saying the party is “overstuffed”.
What characters don’t say is more important than what they do say. When someone is having a bad day in a movie and their parents ask, “How was your day,” most of the time they won’t say, “Well, Mom, my girlfriend dumped me for my best friend, I flunked my geometry exam, the lasagna gave me food poisoning, and I stepped in dog crap on the way home, so all and all it’s been a pretty dreadful thirteen hours.” Instead, they’ll say something like, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or, “Same old, same old,” or simply, “It was fine.” It seems corny, but it’s true: less is often more when it comes to dialogue. Only in moments of extreme, well-earned catharsis will a character ever reveal their true emotions fully, but the reader can often infer how they feel through a combination of their actions and inner thoughts.
In short, dialogue is one of the most complicated and fascinating aspects of a novel. It requires more thought than many realize at first, and often takes draft after draft to refine and perfect. When done wrong, it takes less than a second to break immersion. When done right, however, it makes your world and your story more believable than ever, and proves to your readers that they are in capable hands.
Do you have specific questions about dialogue that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Comments posted after 11/12 may not be included.
Questions from "Character Part 2":
What is the best way to create an antagonist that is an understandable character yet also an intimidating force?
Something to keep in mind for this is a sympathetic character vs. an empathetic character. A sympathetic character is one you believe is truly in the right, an empathetic character is one where you can understand how they got to that point. Think Thanos: you can understand his fears of overpopulation and how he came to the conclusion that limiting every population will protect the ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean you believe his execution is the right way to go about it.
Give your antagonist empathetic motivations. Then give them flawed executions. Their goals and motivations should lie in the “right,” like fighting for a loved one or wanting to improve society. And then have their trek to their goals dive down the more evil path: corruption, manipulation, violence, doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
How can I make a compelling redemption arc with my antagonist/flawed character without throwing away all the work I did to make them seem evil/very human?
Redemption arcs can’t happen overnight. They take time, they take effort. Characters with flawed outlooks have to completely rearrange their ideals in order to reach redemption.
Something has to first trigger their desire to be redeemed. Maybe someone near them gets hurt, or they have a challenge to their ideals that doesn’t match what they earlier believed. From there, they have to start second-guessing their actions. Were they in the right? What did they do wrong? What is right? Chances are the redeemed character will have a guide, someone to help them along their arc. It would be easy to make the redeemed character reliant on this guide, but there’s always a better way. Small actions get corrected, so the character starts to make their own “correct” decisions. Corrections get larger and larger scale until the climax of the arc arrives. Some big choice between good and evil, and they choose good. The stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they should be high.
As for retaining the evil aspect - they’ll still have to suffer the consequences of their actions. The rest of the world didn’t correct itself from a redemption arc. Even if a character changes, that doesn’t mean their characterization was for naught. Let that characterization have an effect on a wide scale.
What’s this? A columnist that isn’t Aaron Scott? It’s unheard of! Is this mysterious writer possibly Aaron’s evil twin? The antagonist to his story? No, but that is a wonderful transition into our topic today: antagonists and character flaws.
The antagonist is, as we’ve all learned each year since 6th grade English, the opposing force to the protagonist. But just being an opposing force isn’t nearly enough for an antagonist to be well written. Obviously, I can’t go into every twist and turn of your specific antagonist. So, instead, I will be focusing on the characterized antagonist’s motivations and humanism, as well as how a non-character antagonist would work.
The antagonist can’t just be evil for evil’s sake - they need a reason. Does your villain actively want to get in the protagonist’s way? Does the villain have connections to the protagonist? Or is the antagonist indirectly connected to the protagonist? Did their motivations just happen to collide? And, for all of these, why? What exactly is driving them? Is it monetary greed? Is it a hunger for power? Envy? Self-interest? Do they just really hate the protagonist? Or, perhaps, did they fall down the path of evil due to good intentions?
Always keep in mind that your antagonist is still human (or human-like, if you’re dealing with a non-human character). No character is just pure evil. The simplest way to give your antagonist humanity is through their backstory. What were they like before they became the villain? What led them to being that villain? A backstory may not flow within the content written within the story, but it should be kept in mind. Apart from the backstory, be sure that your antagonist is complex. The more complex an antagonist, the more compelling the character, the more compelling the story.
Chances are, an abstract antagonist won’t have a strict motivation. The “goal” will more than likely be destruction, either of a setting, a character, a society, or a relationship. Abstract antagonists should be overbearing, challenging to overcome. Think Joker: the antagonist is the society that abandons Arthur Fleck, and/or his own mental illnesses warping his perception of the world. In both cases, they’re overwhelming forces combatting Arthur, eventually breaking him down to become the Joker.
Character flaws are much less dense. I have just 4 rules when it comes to flaws.
A. Avoid the Mary Sue. Having no flaws whatsoever makes a character unbelievable, unrealistic, and just plain boring.
B. Avoid the Anti-Sue. This is a term less thrown around, but we’re all familiar with the concept. These are characters where every trait is a flaw. They tend to always be clumsy, loners, and have some mental illness. If your character sounds like a Wattpad protagonist, then you’ve gone into Anti-Sue territory.
C. A tragic backstory is not a flaw. A backstory will shape your character to have flaws, tragic or otherwise, but just having a tragic backstory is far from enough.
D. Flaws are best paired with a similar strength. People in general grow strengths from their flaws. If a person can’t cook, they learn which microwave meals are the best-tasting or the healthiest. If a character is overly trusting, they’re often a kinder soul. If someone is paranoid, they better know signs of imminent danger. These comparisons not only create a more realistic character, but they also allow for a more balanced character.
Do you have specific questions about antagonists and character flaws that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/31 may not be included.
Questions from "Character Part 1":
What is a good, easy to understand example in literature/film of a character that follows good indirect characterization and is not stagnant?
One great example of this can be found in the film Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The movie follows Andrew Neiman, a drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, as he attempts to become a great jazz drummer and earn the respect of his ruthless band instructor. Throughout the runtime, Andrew’s ambition and love for jazz is represented through his grueling practice sessions. He acts timid and scared when first meeting the band instructor, but also excited at the prospect of being an alternate drummer at a top band. After being promoted to top drummer, however, his attempts to keep his position lead to him drumming for hours until his hands bleed, leaving his girlfriend, and attacking his teacher onstage. When Fletcher, his former band teacher, invites him to play in his professional band with the intent of making him give up his dreams of being a jazz drummer, Andrew instead becomes confident in his abilities and performs an outstanding drum solo, finally impressing his instructor and achieving his goal.
What suggestions do you have to keep the protagonist from feeling cliche?
Knowledge is power. The easiest way to prevent your protagonist from being cliche is the same way you prevent the rest of your novel from being cliche; you learn as much as you can about what you’re writing. Spare no detail. Many authors use self-made questionnaires where they fill in as much information as possible about their protagonist. Places they’ve lived, what’s happened to them in their life, how it’s impacted them when the novel starts. Familial relationships, favorite foods, even underwear color. You must know more information about your character than you reasonably intend to use, because it’s far easier to leave information out than to try to include things you didn’t already know. Don’t be afraid to use conventions like an orphaned kid, a rugged loner, or a chosen one to your advantage as a way to subvert tropes in a unique and interesting way. It all comes down to the presentation of the character and whether they feel like someone who could reasonably exist when taking into account the world around them.
Hello, folks, and welcome to October. A time to whip out classics like Hocus Pocus and
The Nightmare Before Christmas. Or go the horror route and watch a dude’s jaw fall off to Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” in Brightburn. Regardless of rating, these movies have at least one thing in common—they are littered with cliches.
As I don’t want my column cut from the get-go, we’ll hold off on the truly horrific stuff for now. Instead, let’s focus on Halloween movies, those PG-13 testaments to cliched childhood candy/monster hunting. Hop on board, if you dare.
(Spoilers: If you haven’t seen Monster Squad or Hocus Pocus and don’t want the ending ruined, don’t stick around.)
We have to close the portal/reverse the spell before the night ends. Otherwise __________ will infest our world/be stuck like this forever.
As Halloween was originally a pagan festival where Gaels attempted to appease spirits taking advantage of the thin “walls” between the world of the living and dead, I understand the whole portal thing. Even the daybreak time limit, as the walls got...thick again in the morning. Apparently.
What I have a problem with is the demon’s/spell’s lack of strategic preparedness. If an evil genius has been planning to show out on Halloween for the past 100, 500, 1,000 years, why can some ten-year-olds or six puppies spirit block them?
Simple, by following these three easy steps.
Your posse needs to have one outsider who previously failed to defeat the Big Bad.
Whether they’re a ghost boy, ghost dog, a boy who’s a cat, if you want to defeat the great evil, you’re going to need someone who faced off against them before. They usually have some horribly sad story like Cat Boy (His name is Thackery Binx, and I never want to type that again so…) in Hocus Pocus, whose sister got murked by three witches. Those witches proceeded to turn him into Cat Boy, made him immortal, and abandoned him to eternal solitude. Heavy stuff.
But, this depressingly wise character will guide our posse and help them defeat the Big Bad; and maybe the outsider will even find love, or friendship, or other grossness along the way.
You need to “get serious” halfway through and make weapons out of household stuff.
The posse will get their butt kicked by the Big Bad for the first ¾ of the movie, despite the help of the ghost/cat/dog, and finally, realize it’s time to level up. They go home, get their shin guards and softball bats, and make a sick plan. A plan that will defeat the bad guy in the nick of time and give every character the chance to show off how much they’ve grown.
In the movie Monster Squad, for example, when the kids finally get sick of being whooped by Dracula’s dream team, they create weapons to clean the monster's clock. One boy steals his mom’s silver and melts it all down to make silver bullets and another kid...sharpens sticks, I guess. They also find a spell to lock the monsters away, but they need a girl whose “pure of heart” to read the spell; one guy volunteers his sister, and that goes wrong...You get the idea.
The outsider/ ghost guide has to “die.”
In order to win the day (night), one final, self-sacrificing gesture must be made. Or maybe with their unfinished business finished, ghost guides finally move on.
Two of the lowest points in my childhood came from watching those kinds of scenes. The first was watching Cat Boy become a human ghost and walk to the afterlife with his sister. The second was when Frankenstein in Monster Squad sentenced himself to an eternity of suffering to save a little girl he’d become friends with. Watching her throw him her toy rabbit? Sobbing. These twists make a fun movie suddenly serious and tug at the audience’s heartstrings, but they never bothered me as much as the following cliche.
THE PROTAGONISTS NEVER GET CANDY
Like, what? I get they’re fighting the forces of evil, but these kids never snag any sweets? What do they tell their parents? When you get home with no candy, a trashed costume, a handful of silver bullets, and emotional scarring from seeing your friend die, what in the world would you say? Either the movie ends on the way home from fighting baddies, or it ends at school on Monday when they fist bump and say, “Can’t wait for next year’s Halloween!” What?
And what if that year’s Halloween was on Tuesday or something? You’re going to come to school exhausted and sit through sixth-grade math, and then go to lunch only to have Milk Duds from the bottom of your parent's candy bowl to trade? No. I don’t think so.
This is the most idiotic, poorly planned, unrealistic part of a Halloween movie.
Ramblings aside, movies like Hocus Pocus, Monster Squad, and Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy made Halloween Halloween when I was a kid. It’s also important to keep in mind that cliches don’t make something inherently bad, just cliched.
Unless it's the one about no candy. That’s stupid.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, look for the continuation of Cliches for Days on the website. This was the first installment and I can’t wait to start the next one. If you’ve got any comments, questions, or suggestions, feel free to leave them below. Until next time!
October 1, 2019
Every living person believes they are the main characters of their own story. What separates us from true protagonists is that they are constantly in pursuance of a goal that, as a result, affects them and the world around them in lasting ways.
Imagine most popular films you’ve seen. The main character is often easily identifiable. Beyond being the character we spend the most time with, they are the centerpiece of the story as a whole. These are people who the story cannot exist without because they drive most of the conflict.
Many amateur writers offer characterization over true character. Ask anyone crafting their first novel what their main character is like, and most will give an answer along the lines of the following:
“Jack Everyman is a medium-build, black-haired, green-eyed captain of the high school’s lacrosse team. He has a girlfriend, a part-time job at the local bookstore, and three siblings. His mom died when he was little and he has a well-meaning stepmom etc. etc. etc….”
Essentially, they reduce character down to the surface level, easily identifiable traits. This is a common mistake to make early on, because often it is all we know about each other; what we look like, how we act in public, the things we allow other people to see .
The true nature of a character is revealed when put into dire situations. Imagine a person is forced into a life-threatening choice. (Keep in mind this does not always have to be the case; all that matters is these choices are important to the character themselves.) They are given two clear-cut choices: sacrificing themselves or allowing a close friend/loved one to die. What will the character do in this situation? Will they choose one of the two options, either bravery or cowardice? Will they attempt to find an alternate solution, either cunningly escaping the choice or recklessly endangering all involved? How is the character affected by what they’ve chosen after the event? You must understand your protagonist well enough to know the decision and the outcome before they do.
The most complex and often most recognizable protagonists meet this simple criteria as well as another crucial point: character arc. Purposeful character arc cannot be simple, clear-cut “this happened then this happened”. The most defining feature is the unawareness of the protagonist in the change he will make. In this model, our protagonist has a personality trait that prevents them from achieving their goal. By the end of the story, the character must become aware of the flaw and either overcome or succumb to it. This reveals the truest form of the character in their ability to change, either positively or negatively.
Stories are all about change, and if the characters do not change, specifically the protagonist, the journey to get there will not feel worth it. As a result, the most important thing to keep in mind is to ask yourself why this point in the character’s life is important enough for you to write about, and why it matters to all of the readers who come across your work.
Do you have specific questions about protagonists and character arcs that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/23 may not be included.
Questions from "Opening a Novel":
How can I start a novel so that is keeps a linear path but isn't boring in the beginning?
There are two main options you could go with; you could choose a scene in which the “inciting incident” occurs, or a scene that simply introduces the character(s) in a fun and unique way. The inciting incident is the event that begins the plot of the novel. If you want to have the events begin immediately, this is a way you could do it. However, if you want more background before the plot begins, you could find a way to introduce your character in a scene that best represents them and their place in the world. Ideally, this would also take place in the inciting incident so you could gain an understanding of the protagonist, but if you go this route, the character is the MOST important aspect of what you’re focusing on in this scene. If you have too much trouble finding something interesting to start with, think about the unique aspects of the way you might be presenting a novel. Is the narrator involved in the story, and to what capacity? Is there an intriguing backstory to the novel? If you can’t find any opening with these ideas, keep in mind that you don’t have to be afraid to break out of a linear path. Every story is told best in a different way, and it may not always be the way you have in mind when you first sit down to start writing.
What is the best way to start a novel when you have multiple points of view?
The first thing you should do is make a list of each point of view you have and rank them in order of importance to the plot. Which characters have more significance? Which voice is your true protagonist? If each character has equal involvement in the story, then consider the relationships between the points of view. Is every character aware of each other at the start of the story? Will they all eventually meet due to circumstances in the plot? Similarly, you must also contemplate whether the characters are writing in first or third person. Is this some sort of collaborative novel written after the events of the novel? If it is, there are intriguing ways you could have the characters introduce the story of the novel and highlight their clashing personalities interacting with each other. Maybe characters cut each other off as they attempt to scribble down information. If you’re going for third person limited, ensure that the character you choose to focus on first not only has an interesting hook for the novel, but plays an important role in the plot’s development and introduces vital information for the story. Multiple points of view present their own sets of challenges and pitfalls, so all of these components are key to deciding which point of view will leave the most impact and create the most buzz in the opening pages.
I love the idea of starting in media res but how do you avoid confusing the audience too much from the get-go? Particularly when it comes to writing fantasy or science fiction.
The main thing to consider when writing in medias res, whether in a high-concept novel or not, is that you must always root the most important concepts in a semblance of the reality the audience is aware of. You can accomplish this by planning out before you begin writing this opener. What is happening in the scene? Which elements does the audience need to understand, and which ones do you prefer for them to be questioning? Once you know this, you can start figuring out the ways you want to introduce these elements in a way that makes sense and that the reader can easily follow. Novels are much easier to do this with than films or television shows because the author can delve into the character’s inner thoughts in case they believe anything needs to be explained upfront. At the same time, never think too little of the reader to believe they need to be hit over the head with the mechanics of your world. The best way to find this balance is through trial and error. Instead of constantly second-guessing yourself while trying to write the draft, give your first couple pages to people you know, have them peruse over it like an average reader, and ask them to explain to you what they understand, what they’re confused by, and if they could follow it overall. Be patient if it takes more than a couple times to create the perfect mix, and if you find it too difficult for what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s okay to use a “fairy-tale” opening.
Every story you’ve ever read began. That may be a broad statement, but it is the one unifying characteristic of every piece of literature ever produced. If it began, the beginning had to matter for people to pay attention. So, how do you create an opening that screams at someone that they must keep reading?
A commonly used method is in medias res, Latin for “in the middle of things”. These works abandon exposition and prologues in favor of distinct moments; a runaway RV in Breaking Bad, a sword fight between warring houses in Romeo and Juliet, or a couple hurriedly fleeing in the night in The Stand.
They could be used to excite the audience with immediate action. They might incite questions in the reader as to why certain events are happening. Perhaps the author just wants to provide a general overview on how the world works through a demonstration rather than an explanation. The best openings often do all three at once. In medias res does NOT always have to start in the chronological middle of a story, as long as it occurs during an event or circumstance with little or no explanation.
“Fairy-tale openings” are nearly the opposite. These start with an explanation of who these characters are and what this world is. An excellent example of this can be found in the opening of How to Train Your Dragon (the novel by Cressida Cowell). We are introduced to Hiccup the Viking, many members of his tribe, and their traditions of capturing dragons and teaching them to be loyal. While there is much to explain about the world, Cowell turns it into a lesson within the story itself, allowing us to view it through the eyes of the students and learn along with them.
Every novel has a different type of perfect opening, and it is up to the author to determine which would be best. As writers, it is our job to keep the audience engaged from the start. If they aren’t able to stomach five pages in the first chapter, they won’t be willing to read another four hundred. You’ll know when you find your sweet spot because it will excite you just as much as the reader.
Do you have specific questions about novel openings that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/9 may not be included.