Friday, July 28, 2017

Did I Just Say That? When Characters Say Dumb Things

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are moments in my life I wish I could take back. The kind where I opened my mouth and inserted my foot right up to my hip bone. They still haunt me even though it's been years and I'll never see those people again (it's worse with the people I still see all the time, ack). Sometimes, those verbal slips got me into trouble I would have avoided if I'd just kept my mouth shut. 

Characters can say stupid things, too. So at least my gaffes provided some good fodder for my stories.

As embarrassing as verbal slip ups are in real life, letting our characters say the wrong thing is a fun way to mess up a situation that should have been easy. A miss-spoken word can distract both characters and readers from a clue we might not want a lot of attention on, or send the scene in an unexpected direction, or reveal a truth even the character didn't know they had. They're also handy for showing flaws or that darker side a character would prefer to keep hidden.

(Here's more on examining what your character's aren't saying)

Some ways a character might say the wrong thing:

Give away a secret: Sometimes characters can reveal a secret without realizing it, such as mentioning a conversation they didn't know was meant in confidence. Even if they knew it was a secret, things do get blurted out in shock, or another character can trick them into saying more than they should.

Call someone by the wrong name:
Romance subplots the world over have used this with wonderful results. Does the wrong name carry greater meaning or was it just a mistake? Non-romance stories can also create trouble by saying the wrong name at the wrong time.

Tell the truth instead of lie:
Someone under cover who slips up and forgets their cover story might find themselves revealing more than they should. Or maybe friends know something that would hurt another friend and swear to keep it secret for their own good--only someone doesn't.

Lie instead of tell the truth:
Little white lies have a way of coming back to haunt us, so when a character avoids the truth, it's often an opportunity for future conflict. Fear or shame can also make someone lie, especially if they're deeply embarrassed by what really happened.

Misunderstand the situation:
Assumptions can lead to disaster, or just a horribly embarrassing situation. People see things differently, and a character can easily walk into a room and think something different is going on than what's really happening.

Be insensitive: We've all said something without thinking about how it might affect someone else, and then hurt someone's feelings. Characters having a bad day can say the wrong thing without meaning to.

(Here's more on creating what your character's are ashamed of)

Characters can also be on the receiving end of a gaffe. Bad guys might slip up and reveal something they shouldn't have, or the protagonist's friends might say the wrong thing at the worst time. The wrong comment at the right time might even force a protagonist to reexamine something they'd been doing or a belief they'd been firmly entrenched in.

While verbal goofs are fun to play with, we don't want our characters to make fools of themselves all the time--it's hard for readers to take them seriously if they never do anything right. There's a fine line between ditsy and idiotic, so be wary about letting them slip up too often (unless, of course, that's the whole point of that character).

If you need a character's brain to a break so they're not thinking clearly, consider letting them (or someone else) speak out of turn. Having to deal with a verbal slip definitely takes the focus off what they intended to say.

And if you embarrass them enough, they might hold back when they really need to speak up at a critical time later.

Do your characters always say the right thing? Are there any times when a verbal slip would make the scene more interesting? 

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Wow this is an excellent idea, I mean it happens in my daily life where I say something and realize it wasn't the appropriate time, it would work the same for my characters!!

    Great Post!

  2. Excellent! These are great things to think about.

  3. Characters can do stupid things, too, though their (I hope momentary) stupidity of action or speech needs to have some sort of reason behind it. I get irritated by books in which the character thinks "This is stupid" right before doing something and then proceeds to do it anyway for no apparent reason.

    In one book series I like, at the end of book 3, the narrator decides to do something that really isn't the best decision, if you think it through logically. I was concerned enough that I contacted the author, who said that yes, she'd done that on purpose—and book 4 demonstrated why that narrator's decision didn't work. I happily reread those books every so often.

    This is a handy reminder to make sure even the MCs have their flaws, though.

  4. One thing to remember, is that characters aren't always logical. They make mistakes, misunderstand things, and just act in ways that aren't in their best interests. While you don't want to have them do anything that doesn't feel plausible, sometimes you have to think "is this what the character would do based on these facts and their personality?" It might not be something you'd do, but they have different experiences. It's a tough line to walk sometimes.

  5. True, characters aren't always logical, but they do have reasons behind what they do. I've recently found The Emperor's Edge series by Lindsay Buroker. The FMC seems to lack a self-preservation instinct, but it's presented as an oddity and a problem—and the recklessness is a natural offshoot of her personality.

    As a writer, I have fun with this one. ^_^ I have one character whose slips of the tongue will get her in a lot of trouble, through the series.

  6. I was actually thinking about this subject recently. Or rather, the general subject of someone messing up in the heat of the moment.

    I'm not sure if there are any moments in my story where there is a verbal slip-up, as of yet, but I'll think about it.

  7. You're so right. Saying the wrong thing could lead to all sorts of complications and really rev up a story.

  8. I have found that is times of High stress, character tend to say what they're thinking, rather than what they intend to say. This is good for both Revelations of character and information.

  9. I have had fun with this in my WIP. The best friend of the male protag lets slip a secret and the female protag gets really upset.

    The fun thing is that even as the reader (who knows all the facts at this point) is holding their breath, the heroine only follows the info to its logical conclusion, but not as far as the big reveal, because she's mission one more piece of info.

    She knows she's been deceived by the boys, and is naturally upset, but she doesn't realize the enormity of the cloak and dagger stuff going on because she's been working at it from the other end.

    It works to keep the tension high as they go into the last stages of the finale.

  10. Great points Janice. It's a way to build up the tension. I think having characters not tell the truth is one many authors use. It creates tension for the character lying and between characters when the truth comes out.

  11. Great post! I totally agree. This was a flaw in one version of my WIP. My character usually said "the right" thing. She didn't hurt people with her hasty words. Others hurt her with their words instead. That made her too much of a victim, instead of someone who also hurts others. Now that she messes up with her words (the way I do many times), the story has more tension.

  12. Carradee, that would be fun :) Readers would probably anticipate when the next cringe-worthy line would happen.

    C0, there might not be, but it's one more tool you can add to your toolbox. You never know when this might be the perfect thing to do to improve a scene.

    Traci, it can indeed. And it's fun to write :)

    Kathie, good example. And a high stress moment probably already has good tension, so that slip up would likely add to that.

    Amelia, oo fun! That's great since it works as both a tension raiser and a reveal.

    Natalie, it's also good to have them simply misunderstand each other, too.

    LinWash, great! Flaws make characters so much more interesting, don't they?

  13. Great idea! Verbal slip ups would make a character more human too :)

  14. This is something I try to work on with my stories. Acutally, something I'm tinkering with right now in the story. Something the MC's potential love interest says makes her even more leery of a potential rival.

    It's definitly interesting to play with. :-)

  15. While occasional verbal slips can be interesting, what should not be forgotten is that "words once spoken and hearts once broken, cannot be fixed" ;-D

  16. We all have said and done things we're not proud of, but just like our characters, we can't always stop it, and however mean it sounds, we have to remember that conversation, and arguments have one thing in common, they take more than one person to instigate.

    I really believe most people don't like to argue for the fun of it, but sometimes things are difficult to talk about, and just because what comes out isn't calm and rational, doesn't mean it's pure immature babbling, and I know no one's saying anything like that, I'm speaking generally here, and think it's a fair and on-topic point to make. Just a discussion point, okay?

    Sometimes people do not make it easy to ignore hostility we didn't imitate first, and there are moments when leaving the room isn't an option, I know you probably meant this in a jokey and wispy way, but I've had to battle through this very thing in much this year, so forgive me.

    Getting back on topic, I do this more often now than I used to, sometimes you don't do what your story demands because reliving, however indirectly, those feelings of letting others push your buttons are hard to type, no matter how far removed you are from what your writing.

    Just a friendly warning to not underestimate how what your writing makes you feel.

    Still, it's a skill worth having, because you never know sometimes when you need it most.

  17. Zena, exactly :)

    Sbibb, oo sounds like fun! Good luck.

    Lukkydivs, ah yes, the great consequence. That's why it's such a useful device.

    Taurean, good point, it does take two, and having one character push another too far is a good way to get these situations to happen.

    I actually knew a guy who liked to argue for fun, and he was infuriating to be around sometimes. This could be a very interesting trait to bring to a character. (I have a character like this right now)

    I didn't mean it in any particular way, just that sometimes people say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Like all my tips, what the writer chooses to do with it is up to them. This can be used seriously as well as flippantly. (my titles are always cheeky, but the advice isn't meant that way)

  18. True Janice, Having read The Shifter I can see how it can work to your advantage, I think I might've gotten a bit mixed up, but you put what I was thinking in better context than me.

  19. Great points! I'm playing with this a couple of ways in my series--one fun way is to have people muttering things they don't realize they're saying out loud. That can lead to some interesting awkward situations.

    And letting people's own assumptions work against them--in the first book one set of characters needs to deceive another character, and so they sort of let his own assumptions set up his beliefs about them. They originally thought he'd be leaving soon, but it turns out he's not, and then the consequences of "all these half-truths, not-quite-lies, and faulty assumptions" are going to catch up to them.

    And I use language issues to open the second book with a touch of humor (first line):

    Tynan Demarion, Lord Protector of the Outer Perimeter, known as the “Butcher of Cassos,” huge and hard and scarred, opened his mouth and said, “Your humble ships are pregnant,” in the ir’dakhon Middle Tongue.

    This post reminds me to let more of these things happen later on, too. Particularly when things get a bit grim in the middle--thank you!

    1. I love that "leaving soon" setup. That must have been a lot of fun to write. Miss-speaking in a foreign tongue is a trope that never gets old :)