This is the second of a two-part series. You can read the first article by Joe here.
Joe Murphy here with a much-delayed second instalment of his pick-and-mix advice assortment. My previous article ended on the ‘hard part’, the fleshing out of characters so that they stand on their own and are recognisable human beings rather than the ciphers that they are. Remember, nobody writes a character as a discreet and entire human being. In the character is encoded some theme or idea the writer is trying to convey.
My latest novel, The Taking of Colum Pyke was shortlisted for the Caledonian Novel Award on the basis that it was an unputdownable psychological thriller. I’d argue what made it so unputdownable was the focus on character. In fact, the entire thing is told through a series of first-person interviews. Character ‘voice’ is essential to making this type of writing work. Each character needed to have their own personality clearly communicated in the text but each character had to embody some aspect of the theme or some element of human nature that I wanted to emphasise. It’s a sort of literary sleight of hand. You think you’re reading one thing but there’s something else happening just out of sight.
The first tip I’ll give you when writing a character to sound like a real-life functioning human is to mirror verbal tics. My second novel, Dead Dogs, garnered some good reviews on foot of this tactic. The character’s voice needs to be consistent and needs to echo the beat of their cultural rhythm. A lot of novels tend to be populated by characters who all speak and act the exact same way. This is fine when everyone is drawn from the same social and linguistic pool but when you have to go back through two pages of dialogue in order to figure out what character is saying what line, then you have a problem.
To see how to do this absolutely perfectly, read anything Ross O’Carroll-Kelly related. Paul Howard is a genius for giving his characters unique identities expressed through terrifically individual turns of phrase.
This leads on to the question I get all the time, ‘How do you write good dialogue?’
And this is where I’m unfortunately going to have to get a bit, I don’t know, profound maybe?
I hate JK Rowling’s dialogue. Well, actually that’s not quite true. I hate the part that occurs in all her books when the characters all sit down and there’s about four pages of exposition that explains what’s happened to resolve all the problems thrown up by the plot. I realise her books are mainly aimed at children and it’s probably necessary to have a ‘round-up’ of events and having Dumbledore or whoever go step-by-step through everything is probably the easiest thing to do.
But it’s clunky. And artificial.
Dialogue needs to come from a deep understanding of where your character comes from and where they are at the moment they’re speaking. A loving parent may snap at a child through no fault of the child. A person may slip back into their own vernacular when confronted with the past.
Past, present and the attempt to shape the future are all at play when anybody speaks in real life. And readers know this. They feel it. We all do. Instinctively.
When writing dialogue we, as writers, need to keep this in mind. If we want to write good dialogue, we need to tap into where our characters were, where they are now and what they are seeking to do with their words.
For instance, just before writing this article I went to the shop and saw a guy there wearing a Tipperary jersey. While driving to the shop I had been thinking about friends down home in Wexford that I hadn’t seen in a while. And I miss them. I struck up a conversation with the guy in the Tipp jersey about hurling. Not through any real interest in hearing what he had to say but because, right then, I missed my friends and wanted to touch on something that brought me back to Wexford on a July evening.
Be aware of your character’s roots and what might motivate them in their speech. Basically, think about the background to your characters. If one, like me, is from Wexford throw in a quare. If one is from Cork, throw in a boy. You can even have characters trying to disguise their own individuality and allow them to slip up just enough for the reader and/or other characters to gain a sudden insight.
Of course, if you need to write reams of exposition to explain the twists and turns of your plot, then you may need to just let the characters do it. Just don’t expect it to sound natural.
Secondly, overwrought emotions are just that. Overwrought. Most people in real life, if you ask them how they are, they’ll say, ‘Grand’.
Grand is the natural state for Irish people. At least on the surface. They may be a churning mess underneath but God forbid that anyone should catch a glimpse of those hidden depths. For a character to outwardly show extremes of emotion must require either some extraordinary event or spring from some fracture in the character themselves. Interiority in description and allowing the character to reveal the tension between outer calm and inner torment creates a very nice tension that audiences tend to like. It’s a sort of dramatic irony that allows the audience to partake in the private emotional state of the character, a state that the other characters in the book are not aware of. This often has the effect of building an attachment between audience and character. The audience is privy to things that nobody else has access to. The audience starts to feel affection for the character. They’ll even side with and trust the character above all others.
Which brings us neatly to that great postmodern titan, the Unreliable Narrator. Of course, unreliable narrators have been around for centuries. Baron Munchausen is probably the most famous. But in latter years writers have developed a bit of a love-affair with them. This is understandable in a world where the narrative of traditional authority is constantly under scrutiny.
This is my third tip. And it’s a weird one. It came from several conversations I’ve had with people about Dead Dogs and indeed about the forthcoming The Taking of Colum Pyke.
Most ‘normal’ people have issues with unreliable narrators. There, I’ve said it. I’m not talking about literary types (whatever they are) or fellow writers. I’m talking about the regular readers who enjoy a book for a bit of escapism and to, somewhat voyeuristically, partake in the lives of a bunch of fictitious people for an hour or two a day. Most of them aren’t looking for an exercise in academia. I’ve had people at literary festivals ask me – spoiler alert – was there an actual murder in Dead Dogs. I tried to tell them that that wasn’t the point. Whether a murder happened or not didn’t really matter. What I got back was confused looks and myself standing in the middle of a rapidly expanding circle of empty space.
The Taking of Colum Pyke is a tapestry of unreliable narrators all vying one against the other. I’m looking forward to how it’s received.
So, to sum up, if you’re going to go all arch in your character development and have your character mislead the reader, be prepared for a lot of head scratching and funny looks. The good thing about this though is it makes great fodder for book clubs and forces people to form opinions about your characters and your writing.
And anything that does that can only be a good thing.
(c) Joe Murphy
About The Taking of Colum Pyke:
Mark Usher is a small-time journalist with big-time ambitions. Unfortunately for Mark, it seems like his ambitions will always go unfulfilled. Until, that is, he meets Colum Pyke. A strange little boy from a strange little family. A boy who just might provide Mark with the chance he craves. A chance to shape a story, not just report on one.
And then the killings begin… A series of savage murders provide Mark with a unique opportunity. Each body is elaborately mutilated in a way designed to echo sacrifices and executions from Ireland’s ancient history. And Mark thinks he knows who the killer might be. James Pyke. Colum’s father. A man haunted by his past and brimming with murderous potential.
Could this be Mark’s shot at the big-time? But what might Mark be willing to do to keep his story alive?
And why does he find himself drawn more and more to Colum Pyke and Sarah, his mother? Why does he feel more and more like a protector? A father-figure? A daddy to this little boy with the soulless eyes.
The Taking of Colum Pyke is a novel that blends the gothic and postmodern. It asks the question: Can we believe anything we’re told? And, perhaps more importantly: Can we trust those doing the telling?
The Taking of Colum Pyke will be published in September 2021. Further information available here.