I have a favorite line in my debut novel, The Unfinished Garden: life is in the details. For my birthday, my husband put it on a bumper sticker, so now it goes wherever my rusty, dented CRV takes me. Why do I love that line? Because I’m all about character, and that one, short sentence sums up my beloved hero.
James has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which means he’s detail-obsessed. His world spins on order and control. Everything has to happen in the right way, at the right moment, and when he speaks, he chooses his words with care. As he turns to the heroine and says, “Life is in the details,” I imagine a slow smile spreading from the corner of his mouth, and I hear a touch of self-deprecating humor. The reader—although not the heroine—also knows that James is fighting an OCD fear, so the context makes an important statement about James’s attitude to his anxiety disorder. The second I typed those words, my writer’s gut tingled, and I knew I had found the real James. “Life is in the details” is James’s voice.
Finding the right words, and using them in unexpected ways, is how we reveal character. For example, last month my family went to see one of our favorite bands—The Airborne Toxic Event. Through a quirk of fate, we ran into the lead singer before the show. Afterward, I heard my son on the phone with his best buddy: “I hugged Mikel, and he smelled of miracles.” Is that not a perfect image? (Confession time—yes, I stole it for the hero of my second novel, The In-Between Hour.)
If my son were a fictional character, what would those words tell the reader about him? That he has a dream—which he shares with his best buddy—to be a rock star. Had he said, “I hugged Mikel, and he smelled of sex and drugs,” the reader may have made the same assumption…but without gaining any sense of my son’s voice.
The Beloved Teenage Delinquent is an award-winning poet and lyricist. When I ask him to read my work, I know he will focus on individual words in a way that none of my other readers do. He has the eye of a poet. In poetry—Every. Single. Word. Counts. Part of my learning curve as an author has been to realize the same is true when creating character’s voice. Finding that voice is all about the right word at the right moment….
Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden*, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt (Harlequin MIRA, August 2012). The In-Between Hour follows in January 2014.
* winner, 2013 Golden Quill Contest for Best First Book