Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • How do you write characters?
    (Originally published on my LiveJournal.)

    I had an e-mail asking about characterisation and what I thought made believable characters. Whole books get written on creating characters, and as I'm not being paid to do that here my mercenary hack spirit whispers in my ear that I should pick one aspect that I think gets neglected and stick to that.

    What follows is my personal view and I know it clashes completely with some received wisdom on writing. But it works for me, and that's the most you can claim for any technique.

    I write very tight third person POV. My aim is to get the reader to sit behind the character's eyes, so anything that jerks them out of the head of that character can destroy the whole scene. Getting dialogue and action consistent with the character is pretty obvious, but it's easy to forget the bit in between - the narrative - is an integral part of voice. Not only is it easy to forget, but there are also people who tell you that you shouldn't do it.

    I've read very strong opinions that matching dialogue and narrative is "ugly" and that editors don't like it because it reminds the reader that the character is a puppet. Personally, I think that's crap. I "match" all the time; it's how I wrote City of Pearl and my other books. For me, it's the gulf between dialogue and narrative that makes me think the character is a puppet, because all I can hear is that overseeing authorial voice, and it gets on my nerves. I resent it.

    In tight third person POV, the narrative is really the character's internal dialogue and I believe it has to mirror their speech, their attitudes and their experience. A peasant farmer won't be pondering the harsh reality of his existence in terms of Nietzsche: he'll have a farming analogy that corresponds to becoming stronger by surviving adversity. And even a highly educated, stunningly articulate character won't be using elaborate language in their thoughts when they find they're in the path of an oncoming train. So the thoughts - the narrative - have to fit the mind they come from.

    Many of my characters are ordinary working men and women with modest educations, so I reflect that equally in their dialogue and their narrative. In View of a Remote Country, my protag Evan was a semi-literate labourer who longed for education: as he acquired that education, his dialogue, his attitudes and the language he used in narrative changed between the opening of the story and the end. View was a story I wrote at Clarion when we were asked to try something uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and I decided to try using a character who had a poor command of English, which denied me all my usual language techniques and forced me to see the world through his eyes. Looking back, that was one of the most useful exercises I ever did.

    Some readers will find it hard to read, because it doesn't match their own language skills. It feels "dumbed down" to them. But for me, a character who thinks in terms and language outside their experience isn't a character: what I'm hearing is the author, and personally I don't like any back-seat driver telling me what to think when I read. I want to feel what it is to be that character by being in their head, not the author's.

    Mileages, as ever, will vary. Many people want to hear the authorial voice and a universal narrative style. I don't. The closest I've come to that is to opt for a reportage approach, because I don't want the style overpowering the content. I believe that if readers notice how I write before they hear what I'm saying, I've failed in my role as a storyteller.

    Part of the joy of writing is to go to new places, and there's no more alien territory than another person's mind. For me, matching dialogue and narrative is an integral part of that.

    © Karen Traviss 2005