One of my cousins was a soap opera actress who once told me how she experienced her characters’ emotions as she portrayed them. She said performing emotionally charged scenes often left her feeling drained.
I’ve found the same is true for me as a novel writer. With nearly every character I create, I experience their emotions as I write. Writing the dialog is what drives those emotions.
I’m currently working on my next contemporary romance novel, The Letter. Danny, a lead character, has a serious problem. Martha, a woman from his past, refuses to let him go. I’ve been building up to a major confrontation between the two for sometime. This past week I finally wrote the chapter where their conflict reaches its crescendo. I expected this scene to be fun to write. Martha has caused Danny a great deal of grief, so I wanted him to feel vindicated. However, as I wrote the dialog, I started feeling emotions I didn’t expect to feel.
Danny begins the conversation in a civil tone. He tells Martha he wants no further contact, but an obsessed Martha refuses to listen. As the scene plays out, Danny becomes increasingly frustrated. His tone becomes more harsh as he tries to get through to her. As his words became more harsh, I started feeling anxious myself. Harsh words, even when justified, can hurt like a fist. Some of the verbiage brought back bad memories of arguments I’ve had in my own past. By the time I finished writing the scene I felt as if I’d been sucker punched.
I planned on writing Martha out of the story after this scene, but now I think I’ll keep her around. She has a real knack for pissing people off, and talent like hers shouldn’t go to waste. While another antagonist will become the main focus for the remainder of the story, Martha will seek revenge on those who she thinks turned Danny against her.
One of the challenges I face as contemporary romance author is writing believable dialog. This is especially true when the conflict has intensified. The characters are feeling the pressure. Those are the times when an, “oh my goodness gracious me,” simply won’t cut it. However, I don’t want to take it too far and risk offending my readers. I’m fully aware that some readers have limits about what language is and isn’t appropriate for them.
When necessary, my characters will say an occasional, “damn,” or “hell.” Oftentimes, it’s enough to make the point. There may be occasions when a character may exclaim, “son of a bitch.” This usually happens when they’re suddenly shocked or surprised. It can also happen when they’re referring to a male villain who’s done something outrageous. My villains aren’t meant to be nice. They’re supposed to make other characters angry, and dialog is the most effective way for them to express their anger. It’s also the kind of language we hear in real life when someone is angry.
There are, however, places where I draw the line. First and foremost is using the Lord’s name as a curse word. While I may not be overtly religious, I still believe in God, so to me, it’s disrespectful. This is why you’ll never hear any of my characters, not even the villains, saying the, “G-damn,” word, or using the names, “Jesus,” or “Christ,” as curse words.
The other word I won’t use is the “f-bomb.” Some readers simply find it too offensive. This can be tricky, as there are some situations when even a “what the hell,” may not be enough. On those occasions I’ll have another character interrupt just in time. That way the word is implied, but not actually said.
I realize there are some folks out there who may even find the word, “damn,” offensive, but I simply can’t be all things to all readers. I’m also the first to admit that my novels aren’t for everyone. I write sensual romance, which includes some bedroom scenes, along with believable characters who speak the way real people speak.
The differences between men and women are more than just physical. A woman’s psyche is also different from a man’s. A challenge I face as a contemporary romance author is writing a male character’s dialog. I’m always having to stop and ask myself, would a guy really say that?
Years ago I read a book called, Men Are from Mars Women Are from Venus. And while I can’t recall all of the details, I do remember it talked extensively about how men are more analytical, and women are more emotional. This doesn’t mean one sex is superior to the other. It simply means that men and woman think differently. So, I’ve modeled my male characters accordingly. The female characters will talk openly about their relationships, while the men are more prone to retreat to their man caves.
Jeremy Palmer, a character from two of my contemporary romance novels, The Reunion, and The Journey is particularly known to do this. The challenge for me is when I have to have a male character discussing his relationship. I am, after all, writing contemporary romance. The main focus of the story is interpersonal relationships. So do men really talk about things like this?
One way I’ve handled it by having a male character confide in a female character. In my contemporary romance novel, The Deception, Steve, a supporting character, talks to his fiancee about his concerns over Alex’s relationship with Carrie.
an excerpt from The Deception.
“Is something wrong, Steve?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What is it?”
“Alex and Carrie. C’mon, you saw it. They’ve become much too emotionally attached to one another.”
“They go way back,” she said.
“No, there’s more to it than that. He’s fallen for her. Hard. Really, really hard.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
“In itself, no. They’re two of my favorite people and under normal circumstances I’d be happy for both of them, but their situation isn’t normal. He’s representing her in a civil case and he’s losing his objectivity.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he said, matter-of-factly.
This time, in another excerpt from The Deception, the conversation is between two men. I let them get to the point, as quickly as possible. They then discuss a solution. Had this scene been between two female characters more time would have been spent discussing their feelings
another excerpt from The Deception
Steve looked up when he heard someone tapping at his door. “Hey, Alex. What’s up?”
“I need to talk to you about something.”
“Of course. Come on in.”
Alex stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and pulled up a chair. He let out a sigh as he sat down.
“Are you all right, Alex? You look pretty serious.”
“I’m afraid your boy wonder has turned himself into boy blunder.”
Steve looked closer at Alex’s face. “You’ve slept with her, haven’t you?”
“Well now, that explains the happy glow.”
“Oh very funny.” There was a hint of sarcasm in Alex’s voice.
“Well, buddy, I can’t say I’m surprised. I saw this coming the day we all drove up to Flagstaff for her mother’s funeral. So, you know what happens next, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do. I’ll have to recuse myself from her case.”
“It’s for the best for everyone involved, Alex. Even if you hadn’t taken it to that level, I’ve been concerned about your objectivity ever since the day you flipped out after speaking to Scott Andrews on the phone. That’s not like you. You never lose your cool. If something like that had happened in a courtroom—”
“It’ll never see the inside of a courtroom, Steve. Louise doesn’t have a case. She never did.”
“I know she doesn’t. Hopefully you’re right and it’ll never make it to court. However, our immediate concern is the here and now, which means we need to talk to Reggie.”
Before Alex could respond, Steve picked up his phone and dialed Reggie’s extension. As soon as she answered Steve asked her to come to his office. A minute later they heard a knock at the door. Steve opened it and Reggie stepped inside, bringing a folder with her.
I don’t know if this is how men really talk to one another behind closed doors or not. But if what I’m told by male friends, and by the John Gray book, is true, then I’m probably close. So far I’ve not heard any complaints from male readers.