Finding Your Character

By Bob McCrillis

I like to write in the first person. That POV helps control my natural desire to tell rather than show. That means that there is a lot of dialogue in any of my stories, which brings up a continuing problem – losing the reader in the dialogue.

Everyone, I’m sure, has had this experience. I’m caught up in a book when I realize that I’ve lost track of who’s speaking. Then I backtrack to the last speech that’s tagged and work forward again. While this may not be a fatal error, anything that takes me out of the story spoils the flow of the narrative and provides me the opportunity to decide it isn’t a very good book and move on. At the very least, it’s an annoyance.

The easy solution is to tag more speeches. Duh. The thought of all those “saids”, regardless of how artfully I conceal them by using synonyms, strikes me as beyond boring. In the back of my mind I also have the Elmore Leonard rule to not replace “said” with a synonym. He says that the word should disappear into the background. I call this the said-balance solution – to have enough tags to keep the reader on track but not so many that he gets bored.

There is another solution. It’s the one advocated by all self-respecting how-to authors. Namely, each character should speak in a recognizably different voice. Simple but not easy.

I could take the low road and put one of the characters in dialect. Have you ever read a story that is told with a lot of dialect? Huck Finn comes to mind. Even in the hands of a talent like Mark Twain, it ticks me off. “What? What are they saying? Do I have to read the whole damn book aloud?” I am confident that writing anything intelligible in heavy dialect is beyond me. I confess to sneaking little snippets in to take some of the pressure off my said-balance. More than that is too risky.

Where does this leave me? Somehow I must come up with different speech patterns, word choices, and attitudes for each character. Sort of makes a monologue attractive, doesn’t it?

Pondering this question while reading Sokolov’s Drama High (the story of Lou Volpe at Truman High School in Bensalem and the inspiration for the TV show Rise), I came across Volpe’s encouraging of his student actors to “find the character.” I know little about drama or acting but I have experienced the difference between two actors playing the same part well. They delivered the same lines, in the same story, using the same stage directions but ended up with different interpretations of the character. That’s what I need for my differing voices.

Yes, I’m doomed.

There may be hope. Maybe I should use Volpe’s direction and find my characters. My current short story presents two men in an emotion-laden interview – one is firing the other. Coming up with a physical description isn’t too hard but to find the character, I have to dig up the attitudes that would inform his speech. For example, my blue-collar father would never say, “…attitudes that inform his speech.” He’d say, “the way the guy talks.”

The story revolves around the retroactive application of current expectations for the treatment of women in the workplace. My first try ended up with a straw man – a slathering ogler, always quick with a double entendre. The story requires that we have some sympathy for him so it’s back to the drawing board.

Playing psychologist, I asked myself some questions:

  1. What was the world he grew up in like?

Skip Matheson is the scion of a formerly wealthy family that has fallen far down the social ladder. They are now solidly blue-collar but his parents insist on the social behaviors of the old days. Women are seen as the organizer of the household, bearers of children, and the rock upon which the family stands. He’s been taught that his ideal wife would be unassuming but implacable – and, of course, virginal.

Young women were expected to be a little frivolous, maybe even shallow. They might work until they marry or if tragedy struck, but the target was marriage and a family. Once in that role, she became the ruler of her small empire.

  1. How well off was his family? Other families in the neighborhood?

They’re working class with pretentions.

  1. What was his mother like? His sisters?

He idolized his mother and would put her up for sainthood. His sisters earn less respect, especially since neither dominate their families the way Mom did. Both sisters are a little sloppy. One has been divorced. They just don’t quite live up to the family myth.

  1. Was he popular in high school?

Yes, he was an athlete and enjoyed the acclaim. He dated cheerleaders and, on those dates, tried to get as far as possible. In his mind it was up to the girl to control how much progress he made.

  1. Did he go to college?

No, when he was discharged from the service he went right to work in the bank.

  1. What were the particular skills that fueled his career?

He has a powerful need to organize and no fear of getting his hands dirty. The operations department of the bank, which dealt with thousands of transactions every day, each of which had to be perfect, was a perfect spot for him. Over the past twenty-six years, he has maintained a comprehensive understanding of what actually happened in the guts of the bank. He’s not a particularly good manager but has a keen eye for other people like him. Young women make up a large majority of the employees in the department, mostly drawn from the lower working classes. Banter is often coarse but he is viewed as an indulged old uncle.

  1. Who are the people he gravitates to? Hangs around with?

He has some fishing buddies (they like to go for shark) and friends in the neighborhood. At neighborhood cookouts, he ends up surrounded by a group of the husbands telling jokes and talking about the Phillies.

In contrast, the senior officer who is firing Skip has an advanced degree, has made big money helping businesses come up with high-concept strategic plans, and has no fear of firing Skip.  He’s fifteen years younger than Skip and joined the bank at a very senior executive level so he sees Skip as a clueless fossil from another age.

It seems like I should be able to make it easy to identify which of these two men are speaking. We’ll see how well I do. Be sure to read the story, #MeToo?. It will be up on my website,, on Saturday.

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