Making characters really speak through your mouth.

luscious lips

Writing in biographical mode, in other words, becoming someone else on the page is a challenge, and to me it is a karmic experience. Let me explain, as there are many misinterpretations of this word karma. I am a practicing Buddhist so perhaps can clarify its real meaning.

Karma actually means ‘actions,’ the idea being that when we act in our lives, or speak or think, which are also viewed as ‘actions,’ everything we each do, or think or say, has a consequence. So, we are each the result of all the actions of our ancestors, which might have been good or bad. Along with modern notions of personality and psychology, character traits, etc., Buddhist thinking says that we, the living, also manifest the karma of all of our lineage, all our ancestors.

To put it more simply and without religious implications, I believe we are each drawn to certain stories and character-types, certain narratives and images, because of our accumulated karma. That would explain as writers why we are not attracted to write about certain topics, and instead develop passions, we might call them, for events and people, and write about them again and again.

We can see this passion more transparently in the credibility of an actor playing a certain part – Liz Taylor as Cleopatra, Chris Reeve as Superman, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. We can see how they become the character they are portraying, and sometimes have to live in that character in order to maintain its authenticity. So, I do become obsessed by some of the characters I create. They get into my dreams, into my senses, and I find that I am hearing them speak and preparing to write their utterances into my story.

This happened very strongly in the creation of my second novel, ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy.’ The two main characters of this Australian fable are Ninija (female tribal leader) and Lumaluma (white-Australian, womanizer and chauvinist). Their dialogue underpins the whole story, which I will resist giving away so that you can read it for yourself. Whilst writing this dialogue my part was Ninija, and Lumaluma’s part was an archetype composed of many cruel despots, misogynists and con men I have been exposed to in my life, either personally or through media.

At first glance, this may seem straightforward. However, the challenge was that Lumaluma is a ghost, visible only to Ninija. No other members of her tribe can see or hear him, even Ninija’s tiny grand-daughter, Gina. The other challenge I gave myself is that Ninija’s mother-language is not English. She speaks her native tribal dialect and her English is broken and mannered, a mélange of Missionary English and the sounds of the phenomena in her world.

Here’s her very first utterance at the beginning of 1 to give you an idea:

‘It no good Lumaluma! I won’t listen!’ Ninija puts her fingers into her ears so that she can’t hear Lumaluma’s whispering. ‘You can’t get me listen the way Ginger did. I too old. I too clever. I never leave the Lands like he did.’ She goes on…….… ‘You whisper again with you silky white voice. You questions. You white-fella bossy with “ought” and “if I were you.” And you promises. Always you offer of money, greenbacks. I got better things to listen to. You white ghost not belong Ninija Lands!’ (p1)

As I was transcribing how I heard her talk in my dreams, I simply found it impossible to make her speak flawless native-speaker English. I had somehow to make her express her disdain of Lumaluma in broken desert English. By contrast, Lumaluma is a smoothie, eloquent and quick-witted. He has a theatrical presence in the story. Here’s his first utterance to give you an idea, though it comes late as only Ninija’s answers to his eternal questions are written at first.

Ninija and Lumaluma are at the dog-box, the name of the prefabricated huts white Australians provide at the settlement. She stands outside, he inside in the dark windowless space. He is logical, insulting.

‘Why are they all staring up into that old tree? On and on. Haven’t they got anything better to do?’

(Ninija tries to explain about tribal customs concerning the Burial preparations for her dead son Ginger. He chain smokes, sucking hard to make his cigarette end glow red in the dark).

‘How can you possibly believe in that rubbish? Look at all those filthy black birds hopping around up there! They’re no “heroes” are they? And higher?’ (p24)

I enjoyed this incredible contrast which shows through their dialogue, and which no-one else except the reader can hear. I dreamed it very often, and I vented a lot of deep-seated anger at the maltreatment of the original people of Australia which my ancestors were doubtless responsible for in the process.

I believe that dialogue in fiction writing, much as in transcribed interviews, is very powerful. Without the surrounding description and time/condition-setting, etc., it can stimulate the imagination and create strong colourful pictures. I would like to feature the dialogue between these two fabled protagonists exactly as it is on this site so you can see what I mean (see side menu).

Finally, I think it important as writers that we encourage readers to use their imagination to the full in the midst of this virtual image-crammed world in which we live presently. Technology is only a wonderful tool! It’s the human spirit, the pulsing heart, that we need to preserve at all costs!

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