In Writing Fiction, How Your Characters Talk is Just as Important as What They’re Saying

url-31In literature, as in life, the way people talk to one another can tell you more about their psychological issues than the content of what they’re saying. This is also true of fictional characters. The best writers create satisfyingly realistic characters by consciously and carefully choosing psychologically accurate unconscious word choices for them. These characters don’t just further the narrative with their dialogue; they inadvertently (to themselves, deliberately to the writer) reveal their psychological and emotional shortcomings and/or sophistication through the words they use.

Nowhere is this more true than in the use of “I” statements versus “you” statements in emotionally charged dialogue between fictional lovers, friends or family members.

A character who says “I feel hurt when you don’t return my phone calls” is revealing information on two levels – one, the other person didn’t call them and they were hurt by this; and two, they take responsibility for their own emotional state and are careful about other people’s feelings.

Conversely, a character who says, “You never call me when you’re supposed to, what is your problem? You make me feel so worried, obviously you don’t care about me at all,” is furthering the narrative in the same way as the first (the other didn’t call, the speaker was upset) but they are also telling the reader that they are emotionally unskilled and immature, likely to blame others for their problems and to create needless drama in their lives.

This difference in communication styles is one example of what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” in character development. You could write something like She was clueless about his feelings and always sounded like she was accusing him of a crime when she was upset, telling your reader about the character, or you could write dialogue that shows her doing this.

The reason showing rather than telling is more effective is that your readers will come to your story with their own psychological deficits and strengths, and each will relate to your individual characters in their own unique way. I have been amazed to hear from readers who related most to characters I’d created to whom I’d related the least, or even hated.

In the fiction-writing workshops I give, I often come across writers who, while technically proficient, create characters who feel flat or underdeveloped. These writers could greatly benefit from studying people – whether in a psychology text or in real life, and preferably both.



Top 3 Reasons Writers Should Work Out

People are often surprised when they ask me how I go about writing a novel and I answer that my first step is taking a really long run, bike ride, or inline skating jaunt along the beautiful bosque trail in my hometown of Albuquerque. “What?” their eyes seem to ask. “You mean you don’t, like, write endless outlines, or drink copious amounts of wine, like other writers?”

Of course I do those things, too. But I start with a good, hard workout. Some people say they get their best ideas while driving, or in the shower. I get mine while exercising.

It has been this way for me as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, I rode my bike to school – a round trip of about 15 miles each day – and listened to lots of music on headphones as I did it. That’s when I first began writing stories, poems, books. The long rides – and on weekends I’d go 50, 60 miles at a pop – were magical, connecting me to what felt like something much bigger than myself, a place where stories lived. I’d come back physically exhausted, but mentally primed to write.

Recent research into how the brain works has verified this instinctual knowing. Contrary to popular stereotypes, being a “jock” doesn’t make you dumb; it makes you smarter. Here are the top three reasons science is proving that exercise builds better brains, and by doing so we can extrapolate that it also makes us better writers.

1. Voluntary Exercise Will Make Your More Creative

Research out of UCLA clearly shows that working out not only increases the strength of your body, but also “primes adult dorsal root ganglion neurons for increased axonal regeneration through a neurotrophin-dependent mechanism.” That’s a fancy way of saying your brain builds more, better and stronger connections if you work out. Unusual, new (or novel, parum-pum) neural connections are the basis of creativity. Having writer’s block? Go for a writer’s walk.

2. Exercise Makes Your Plots Better and Lessens Your Mistakes

Research published by the United States National Institutes of Health shows that regular aerobic exercise increases the brain’s ability to process information and remember things. That means you’ll devise better plots, and you won’t forget your protagonist’s aunt’s hair color in chapter 13 if you work out. If you get dehydrated, though, that benefit is lost. So get up and sweat, writers, but drink lots of water, too.

3. Exercise Will Create Space in Your Mind For New Ideas

Research out of Stockholm shows that running has the unexpected side effect of growing new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is not a university for hippos but rather a place where your brain learns new stuff. Want more ideas? Go jogging.

Fit writers are better writers.


Top Five Reasons Writers Love Rainy Days


It’s raining here in Albuquerque today, and I’m hard at work writing a new book – which is to say, I’m drinking coffee and texting my other writer friends and wondering if it’s too early for vodka. We writers LOVE rainy days. Here’s why.


Let’s face it. Writers are a moody, broody bunch. Even those among us who show up clean and cheerful at RWA conventions can tend, in our own homes and lives, to be wistful, mopey creatures who scowl at screens most of the time. Usually, our temperament inspires normal people to yell “Smile!” at us on sunny days. On rainy days those aggressively cheerful souls crumple up beneath their Spongebob umbrellas, and they mutter and shuffle – just like us! Hurrah!


Writers love cats. Just ask Ernest Hemingway, who lived with dozens of them in a tower, where he wrote, standing up and naked. Poor cats. Anyway, writers love cats because cats don’t give a fuck. Writers want to be liked, but they also want to be left alone, meaning we have a predictably codependent and unsatisfying relationship with most of the cats in our lives most of the time. Writer craves cat love, cat insists on killing things outside instead. Rainy days force the cat to come inside. Cold rainy days drive the cat to seek warmth on writer’s lap. Writer knows this is not genuine love, but does what writers do best and lies to self about the cat’s true intentions. For this brief moment, in this ephemeral gloom, the cat seems to love. Us.


After booze and weed, nothing inspires writers to new heights of creativity more than caffeine, except perhaps oxycontin. And we’re not talking about the passive, patient caffeine one finds in green goddamed tea, either. We are talking the dark brown, almost black, bitter brain blast that comes only from coffee. The more, the better. On sunny days, there is something shameful and decadent about the writer slinking back to the kitchen for cup after cup, as she tries to piece together a meaningful narrative about imaginary people doing unthinkable things. On a rainy day, the slink feels imperative and the mug in the hand carries the ponderous weight of The Thinker’s fist below his chin.


The sound of drops falling from the eaves. The seductive susurration of tires on slick streets. The mind wanders. Homicidal clowns. Socipathic lovers. Affordable housing in New York City. This is where outrageous ideas are born, in these cozy corners of rainswept scribbling. There is nowhere to go on these days except inward, where literary lunacy resides.


Writers were the kids picked last for the team, and this was our own choice. We preferred to stay indoors reading about lions, witches, wardrobes, Hogworts, that sort of thing. If we were lucky enough to have equally bookish parents, this was never an issue. But if we were, say, born to a parent who thought we ought to be outside enjoying the fresh air instead of huddled in the corner with a dog-eared tome, then rainy days became bodyguards for our brains. Back off, let the kid read, ma’am, can’t you see it’s raining outside? Delicious.

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