One Writer’s Journey

January 9, 2019

Characters: Making Them Three-Dimensional and Realistic

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Earlier in the week, I was reading a Writer’s Digest guest post by teen author Lorena Koppel. In her post, “From YA to YEAH: 4 Ways to Keep Teen & Young Adult Readers Hooked,” she discusses a variety of things, including unrealistic dialogue, that turn off young readers. Among the topics in dialogue she discussed is “codeswitching.”

Code-switching, if you don’t know the term, is when someone switches between languages or dialects depending on who they are talking to. When I worked at the university, I saw this with the international students.  When they were talking to me, they spoke English.  When a group of Russian students spoke to each other, they spoke Russian.

When Koppel uses this linguistic term, she is referring to the different ways that we each speak to different people.  It may not be a matter of a whole different language or even a dialect but simply how formally we speak to one person vs another.  If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ve seen this in the difference between how the Crowley sisters speak to their mother or father vs how they speak to each other.  Then there’s the switch that occurs when they speak to one of the servants.  The same thing occurs when the servants speak to each other vs a member of the family.

If you employ code-switching in your manuscript, your dialogue will not only be more realistic, your characters will also be multi-dimensional.  A pair of twelve-year-old cousins will use one vocabulary and set of behaviors with each other and another with their peers.  The way they speak with and behavior toward their teacher will be more formal and different from how they behave toward an adult they don’t know.  Add in a lack of trust and you can change things up yet again.

The reality is that no one acts one set way with absolutely everyone.  But too often our characters behave and speak in one way and only one way.  Use code-switching to make your characters more engaging and also more realistic.


Picture Books: Making It BIG and Personal

The other day, I heard someone comment that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t about the wild things or adventure. It’s about more than that. It’s about wanting to be loved.  In case you haven’t guessed, I read and listen to a lot when I’m on the treadmill.  I also have time to think as I’m step-step-stepping along.

Where the Wild Things Are is about both being wild/wild things and being loved.  One is the character’s outer journey (wild things).  One is the character’s inner journey (love).  One is the plot (wild things).  One is the theme (love).

But about some of the other picture books I’ve recently reviewed?

Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt is about a girl trying to figure out how to feed her friend’s family.  That’s the outer journey and plot.  But it’s also about friendship, the inner journey and theme.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is about a boy who loves mermaids (outer journey/plot).  But it is also about self-identity (inner journey/theme).

Life on Mars by Jon Agee is a humorous picture book about a boy who is searching for life on Mars (plot/outer journey).  It is also about finding something new (theme/inner journey).

Theme is going to help young readers connect with your book because the theme should be something they will identify with.  After all, what preschooler doesn’t want to be loved?  Be their own person?  Or find something new and fantastic?

The specific plot line is what makes each of these stories unique.  But it is also what you can’t duplicate when you write your own story.  Try to sell fictional picture book about looking for life on Mars to Dial and they’ll turn you down.  They’ve got Agee’s book.  But try to sell them an original, creative book about struggling to find something new and you may very well have a sale.

Inner journey vs outer journey.  Plot vs theme.  Your picture book needs both.


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