Notes from Robert Dugoni’s Novel Writing Seminar at the PNWA Conference

Notes on Robert Dugoni’s Novel Writing Seminar

The theme of the PNWA conference centered on character development. As I listened, I realized that it is our love for the characters that keeps us turning the pages and makes us feel invested in the outcome of the story. It is the desire to have those beloved characters back in our life, if only for a few days, that has us anxiously awaiting a sequel. For a reader to really care you need to show your character’s change. Take your readers through the obstacles, hurdles, and opportunities, along with your protagonist, to show that change. 

A strong novel will take your character through different levels. 

Level 1 ~ Self: Protagonist only thinks of himself

Level 2 ~ Another: Protagonist begins to think of someone else or something else

Level 3 ~ Group: Protagonist expands his/her circle of caring and concern

Level 4 ~ Community: Not every character will get to these higher levels (It is the ‘Pay it Forward’ concept), but if your character can it will make for a more compelling story.

Level 5 ~ Mankind: Protagonist begins to consider what will be best for the greater good or for all mankind, i.e. Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, or Ghandi

Hint: Don’t stop the flow of your novel to give a biography or snapshot. You don’t need to tell about each character as they come in. Weave it into the story by getting the character to speak or act. Include tidbits of movement where you can describe the character. Get them to move or talk in a way that will give the reader a clear picture of them. Or, show them through the eyes of another character.

Show don’t Tell: As I mentioned in my last blog post. This is a good rule, but impossible to do 100% of the time. Some telling has to be done, but there should be a lot of showing and the showing should be fantastic.

We want to write extraordinary characters, but we also want them to be real. No one wants to read about ordinary people doing ordinary things. Discuss your character’s strengths: empathy, morals, leadership.  Put obstacles in front of your character that show his strengths. Show them as just a little better than everyone else. Make them a tiny bit smarter, i.e. they are the detective that sees that one clue that everyone else missed.  Another great strength is forgiveness & self-sacrifice, but you won’t see it very often. 

We aren’t talking about Superman here, so we need to talk about their weakness, or rather their flaw or vulnerability. Another way to look at it is their inner conflict. What makes our character vulnerable? What is inside of them that makes them so? (Addiction, greed) When you give them their flaw make them sympathetic and maybe empathetic, but not pathetic. We don’t want them so flawed that our readers dislike our characters. There needs to be something endearing for a reader to grasp onto to. Character will be sympathetic if they recognize their weakness and are trying to change.

Difference between sympathetic and empathetic: Sympathetic you feel sorry for them. Empathetic you feel the same thing, you have experienced the same thing.

Give your character self-regard. Does your character care about themselves and the situation they are in. Books are written in peaks and valleys. Don’t forget the scenes where the character pauses to think about what has happened and/or what will happen. 

Additional things to think about:

What is your character’s physical appearance? Would the reader be able to identify my character if they were in a police line-up? Use movement or some unique observation to distinguish your character. Use their appearance to tell us something about them as well as giving us a physical description.  How does your character dress? Use that to tell us something about them. Starched shirt Armani suit? Or looks like he just got out of bed. Our characters should have a certain style.

We don’t have control over much in this business, but we do have control over the writing. Don’t throw any opportunity away. Make your writing as good as it can be!

Characterize your character through physical behavior. i.e. He turned sideways to get through the door. (we now know this character has a wide girth)

He ducked to get in the car and folded his legs like an accordion. (we know this character is unusually tall, or perhaps the car unusually small)

She stepped in the room and twirled around, saying, “How do you like my dress?” (we know she is vivacious and confident)

Similes and metaphors when done well can be a writer’s best friend. But overdone, they can be suicide. They must be original and well-placed.

Dialogue: How does your character talk and what makes them unique? You want your reader to be able to identify who is speaking without all the dialogue tags. Not everyone sounds the same and your dialogue should reflect this.

Quick Review of Definitions ~ Dialect vs. Diction:

Dialect is how a person pronounces something. With this, remember if you can’t write it like Mark Twain, be careful. Don’t overdo it with dialect. Put a little in and then have them talk normally. Just like a spice, adding a little dialect here or there will go a long way. Your reader will be able to fill it in after that.

Diction is the way characters say something, their grammar, their choice of words and the way they express their feelings.

Ask yourself, “How does your character see the world?” Then have your dialogue reflect that view.

Robert Dugoni is a New York Times Best-selling author of legal thrillers and a fabulous presenter. He regularly teaches the the PNWA conference and I always look forward to his classes. 







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