While I was running last week, I listened to a song I haven’t listened to in a long time. The song is called Railroad Bill, and it was written by an acquaintance of mine, Greg Tamblyn. It’s a great song about a songwriter who can’t get his character to cooperate with him.
It got me thinking about my own writing. In the fiction I’ve been writing lately, my characters seem kind of flat. I wondered how my characters would react if I dialogued with them the way Greg does with Railroad Bill.
Here’s my try:
Author (Me): Now, Dr. X, you are going to overdose that patient with morphine!
Dr. X: What? I am not! You would never do that!
Author: Well, of course I would never do that! But you, on the other hand, are just a character in my story—I can make you do whatever I want!
Dr. X: Yeah, but if you have me kill someone off, people might think you’ve really done that.
Author: That’s crazy! I would never do that!
Dr. X: People might wonder (said in a really annoying sing-song voice.)
Author: That’s ridiculous! This is fiction. If I listen to you, none of my characters would ever do anything wrong, get into any trouble, or make a really bad decision.
Dr. X: What’s wrong with that? I’m Dr. X, the kind, caring, compassionate doctor who dedicates his life to his patients.
Author: What’s wrong with that? It’s boring, that’s what’s wrong with that. No one wants to read something like that, except maybe as an obituary.
Dr. X: You can’t make me do it!
Author: Yes, I can! You are not me; you are not even a version of me. You are a made up character and you will have many bad things happen to you before the end of my story. You will end up a little sadder and a little wiser, but you will not bore my readers!
My dialogue is not as funny as Greg Tamblyn’s, but my conversation with Dr. X taught me something really important: I’ve been afraid to let my characters make bad decisions and do bad things because I’ve been afraid people will think I made those decisions and I did those things.
But characters who do nothing wrong are extremely boring.
So my characters are now going to make all kinds of bad decisions and then do some really bad things as a result. They are going to end up a little sadder but a little wiser. And they are going to be very interesting.
What could you learn from a dialogue with one of your characters?
Diane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. I’ve been writing dialogues in my journal for years, but I never thought to dialogue with one of my characters before this. I’m going to do it again the next time I’m stuck in my story!