The Roles of Dialogue, Character, and Research in Fiction: CWC Session V


Author Highlight: Michael Raleigh

How do you really create a character?

  1. Make Your Character Want Something. Sailing afloat in a lack of want… that only worked (arguably) for The Catcher in the Rye. Make your character want something – even if they don’t know what it is.
  2. Make Them Sympathetic. Use every detail in your arsenal to make us like your character. If you’re good, you’ll even make us like bad guys. And when we like them, even a little, we care about what happens to them. Try these tactics:
    • Backstory. Have they overcome suffering? Or will they?
    • Personality & Appearance. Use description to break us into the character.
    • Name. Daisy Faye sounds wimpy and feminine. Dirk Pitt? Not so.
    • Dialogue. How do they talk?
    • Actions. What are their habits/quirks?
  3.  Then Attack Them. Yep. Once the reader likes them… “let the monsters loose.” Sorry, but good stories come from hard times. Don’t make it easy on them.

Dialogue. This gets its own section, because it can so easily get screwed up.


  • Too Many “Said” Synonyms. Every human reader has seen the word “said” about a billion times. We basically don’t notice it exists. But replacements like “asserted” and “exclaimed,” we notice. Watch yourself.
  • Speeches. People almost never talk in speeches.
  • Long, Formal Sentences. Not a thing.
  • Repetitive Hellos. “Nice to meet you.” “Nice to meet you.” “Hello.” “Hello.” Yeah. People do this, but it doesn’t read well.
  • Writing Completely Realistic Dialogue. You are writing, not speaking. It won’t match real-life dialogue exactly. It should just read right.
  • Affecting a Dialect. Don’t mess with words’ spelling or add unneeded punctuation unless you really think it’s necessary. Think of Hagrid. He was done right.
  • Contemporary Slang. If you start using contemporary slang, you will alienate both current and future readers. If you have to do slang, make it accessible and understandable – like in A Clockwork Orange.

Some other notes from the session…

Research – Do Enough to Make You Comfortable. If you get caught up in research, you might stop writing. Great writers like Karen Abbott researched just enough to piece the story together – then went back later to flesh things out. If you can define what’s different about a place or thing, then the research has carried you far enough to use placeholders.

Don’t Write What You Know. Learn things. Then write those. Even in writing fantasy, you’ll need to learn – about the different types of bird feathers (for phoenix descriptions), or about how best to smelt your own weapon (for grumpy elf weaponsmith scenes). Research adds authenticity – but frankly, it doesn’t make stories. Curiosity – and corrected ignorance – make stories.

In my next post in this CWC Recap Series, I’ll go over the Meet the Agents session from CWC 2015 (granted, I missed the first few minutes).

Session I Missed: To see this session, I had to miss the De-Mystifying the PR Process session. If you went to that session, consider doing a simultaneous or guest blog to correspond with my CWC Recap!

YA (Or Any!) Structure – CWC 2015 Session I (2)

Author Highlight:

cardhouseNow that we have gone over how to choose a structure, it’s time to think about what to do once we’ve settled on one. After you have chosen a structure,try to:

  1. Use Details to Strengthen Structure. Everything can help strengthen your structure – even details as small as the names chosen for characters. Try not to let details go to waste by doing little more than describing the physical nature of characters or settings. For example, if your structure centers around songs like Michelle’s does, it can’t hurt to have your characters have the same first names of the artists that wrote some of your feature songs – especially for side characters, or for when you can’t find names that “just fit.”
  2. Form Chapters that Stand (Moderately) Alone. Some structures do not allow for a chapter format, but if yours does, consider forming chapters that “make sense in isolation.” If a chapter reads beginning-to-end like a miniature story, than you are breaking your book up into pieces that will fit together tightly. This in turn will make your structure stronger.
  3. Finalize Your Prologue Last. Your tale should always be tellable without a prologue; if you add one, it should add something to the story, but not be required for the story to make sense. Because of this non-necessity, a prologue can exist outside your normal structure, or even help to set it up. A way to maximize the structural potential of your prologue is to add or reevaluate it after the rest of your draft is done. It took me three years to figure out my prologue for IWTYT – but it does ten times the work of anything else I’d come up with before, in part because I added it last.
  4. Align Your Emotional & Event Arcs. During the course of the story, there are both event and emotional story arcs – and they should basically run parallel to one another. After all, they often form a cause and effect relationship. If you already have an event planned in your outline, pencil in what emotion will follow, and vice versa. This will allow for natural progression.
  5. Maximize Your Scene Order Potential. If your plot structure or progression doesn’t feel right, try putting all your events onto note cards and penciling in the reasons why each scene is important. You could find a better order for them, and cut out scenes that don’t pull their weight.

Session I Missed:

The next post will be about the Writing Place in Fiction session with Christine Sneed. To see this session, I had to miss the #SoMe: Why Social Media Really Isn’t About You session by Nora Brathol. If you went to that session, consider doing a simultaneous or guest blog to correspond with my CWC Recap!

Off-Time Character-Building, or, “That Baggott Girl’s Gonna Crash”

During my time at Michigan State University, I was only able to meet one invited author and two poets (having to pay your own rent in college makes it hard to find time for these things). The author, Julianna Baggott of Puresaid something that stuck with me: she imagines how her characters would respond to various stimuli – words, actions, etc – while she is driving.

Even now, this seems unsafe to me, but I was looking to economize at the time – to fit my writing into my everyday life. Unable – thankfully? –  to partition my mind while driving, I felt like a failed writer. Then I realized I’ve been finding me-time for my stories since I could count my age on two hands. Every night before falling sleep – ever since I was a kid – I’ve been concocting stories, and even now I use that twilight time to come up with new scenes and new sub-spaces where my characters can teach me about themselves, even if the scenes never make it into the books. Then I have the benefit of sleeping on them, and we all know how advantageous science has proven that to be.

Like so many other experiences of mine, this has taught  me that all writers are different. Where Julianna Baggott’s mind can operate smoothly and safely on two levels, mine requires dedicated focus, and even then my thoughts scatter all over at the slightest touch, which is both a strength and weakness. What is important across the spectrum, however, is that a writer experiences his or her works in their everyday lives. Even if making rent gets in the way of our daily writing, the presence of our stories is what makes us writers – although unless you are as badass as Julianna, I’d suggest keeping your eyes on the road.

In Medias Res

In the middle of thingsit’s how I begin. Even now I am doing laundry, the clothesline strung across my room to save dryer money; I am watching the lake effect blizz by, dreaming of the day I can smoke a cheap cigar without my fingers falling off; and I am creating a website, my first ever, and gazing into my author’s future with a half-shadowed smile on my face.

As I see it, though, everything exists in the middle, and nothing really ever begins. It’s a lesson I was gratified to learn from one of my own characters.

After all, every epic story needs a muse.