Words. Worlds. Characters. We create them, so we should be able to control them, right? But there are consequences to holding the reins too tightly, and carpal tunnel is only one of them.
Here are some pitfalls you might want to avoid:
1) “As You Know Bob” Dialog
This is when the author makes the characters talk about things which it makes no sense for them to talk about. Characters who have known each other for years chat about each others’ hair and eye color, the number of siblings one characters has, and other facts that should be long-established.
Characters who talk like this are pale shadows of who they could otherwise be. They’re the monsters on Dr. Frankenstein’s table who never received the lightning strike. Worst of all, they’re gigantic red flags that remind the reader “None of This is Real.”
Tip: Don’t use your characters as your personal ventriloquist dummies. This is their story, not yours. LET THE LIGHTNING STRIKE. Let them talk like real people. Let them be real people.
Yes, I know I’m mixing my metaphors. I am the Neapolitan ice cream of writing advice.
2) Overt Use of Inner Dialog
Some authors think they’ve found a lovely little loophole and use inner dialog instead. Their main character runs into someone they know and immediately starts thinking about their friend’s backstory. How their parents divorced two years ago, that their dream is to become a champion chess player, and how they really hate onions.
Tip: Normal people do not think like this. If you mentally assess everyone you encounter and do a quick inner monologue about their life story and dietary preferences, you might need help.
Spend a little time thinking about your mental reactions to various situations. Do you mentally describe rooms to yourself when you walk into them? Do you synopsize the lives of everyone you know? Do you regularly ponder your own tragic backstory?
There are moments when these things need to be touched on. If your main character doesn’t have a certain amount of introspection going on, we’re not going to learn a whole lot about them and their world. But please, dial it back. Keep it natural. And make sure your main character doesn’t end up sounding like a sociopath.
3) Imposed Morality
Your characters should not be a clone army of mini-you’s. They should have their own sense of morality based on their individual upbringings and life experiences. Now me, I’m religious. I believe in a loving God who wants me to live my life in a certain way, and (most of the time) I act accordingly.
Many of my characters do not.
The world is full of a rich variety of cultural, moral, political, and religious beliefs. Ideally, our stories should reflect this. Let your characters be who they are—not who you are.
4) Purple Prose
This is one of my personal weaknesses. I love pretty words. I love stringing them together in poetic ways. And sometimes I get so caught up in doing so, I slip out of my main character’s voice and into my own. When I’m revising my manuscript and come across a particularly flowery passage, nine times out of ten it’s coming from me rather than my main character.
Just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean it fits.
5) Emotional Inconsistency
When your character is having a no-good-very-bad-day, there shouldn’t be a switch you can flip to make everything all hunky-dory again. Real people don’t have them, so your characters shouldn’t either. If your writing has emotional switches in it, build a wall over them.
We NEED to lose control of our stories sometimes. We need to create characters and stories so powerful, so alive, that the notion of controlling their every move becomes laughable. This is what we can and should strive for. Giving up a measure of control—not all, but definitely some—is one of the dividing lines between mediocre stories and extraordinary ones.
Make sure you’re on the right side.
Kimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.