Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Detergents and Character Lists by Andy Scheer

Those were the first two topics in the “Hints from Heloise” column that appeared a week ago in my morning newspaper.

I scanned the first, about whether you can use new “HE” (high efficiency) detergent in older top-loaders. Turns out you can—but you shouldn't put old-style detergent in the high efficiency front-loaders. Standard stuff for Heloise.

But the next item wasn't. “A.M. in Ohio” wrote this:

Dear Heloise: I read a lot. I list the characters and their reason for being there as they are introduced. This way, it's easier to keep track of them as they reappear. It works for me.

I can't imagine such a scenario. (Granted, I can't imagine following most hints people send to Heloise.) But are books really published with such generic characters that a reader needs to keep a scorecard?

For years in the Thick-Skinned Manuscript Clinics at the Writing for the Soul conference, Jerry B. Jenkins has advised novelists not to give two major characters a name that begins with the same letter.

An upcoming Writer's Digest book on fiction I just finished editing advises that each line of dialogue should be character-specific. Meaning that if you tried to put one character's words into another's mouth, it would sound out of character. As a test, she suggests this:

Compose a line of dialogue for each POV character in your story. Use language only that viewpoint character would saybut no speaker tags. Show your work to someone who knows your story to see if she can identify who is speaking.

Yes, this writer suggests making a character chart like A.M. suggests, but only to help you plan the story—and to see if you can streamline the cast by combining several character's roles into one.

Maybe if more writers followed that advice, A.M. in Ohio could have more time for charting detergents.


Davalyn Spencer said...

I like that twist on the putting-words-in-his-mouth idea. Seems like it would be a great way to check your work, like multiplying your division answer in math to see if you got it right.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this applies to the original tip writer, but I have long-ish stretches when I don't get to read as much as I would like. So, I can start to forget the minor characters in a book. As I am mulling my first long fictional work, I am thinking about potential characters almost as a caricature. There should be something substantially different/interesting about each that forces them to stand out. Again, I'm a novice.