Give Your Characters Bodies!

[Sarah: ] If you’re a newbie writer, you’ve probably got back the following criticism at some time: “You have talking heads.”

While this is far from the worst error a newbie can make – trust me, I have a Kindle Unlimited Lending Library Subscription, and I do use it (anyone for articles on “worst mistakes by newbies?) [Yes. Ed.] – it can be a problem.  It can even be a problem for experienced writers.  I often fall into it when horribly tired and just trying to get words down.


What is “talking heads?”

The full definition is “talking heads in an empty space.”  It is when you get so enamored of the dialogue/determined to get it down, that you don’t get anything else.

So, let’s try an example:

“We’re going to die,” Bob said.

“It’s not as bad as that,” John said.

“Oh, but it is.  We’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s raining, we lost our tent, and our cell phones have no reception.”

“It could be worse,” John said.  “There could be snakes in here with us.”

“Did you have to say that?”

Mind you this is not the worst possible example, because it’s only two people, and you can tell who is speaking.  Also, they describe the situation. Also, the names tell you the characters are probably male.  It could be much, much worse.  (Trust me on this.)

But the thing is that it’s not… enough.  Imagine a whole book written like that.  It becomes mind-bogglingly boring after a while.

Yes, okay, most writers intersperse some description, and “things happening.”  But then they get to the dialogue and the wheels come off again.  Trust me, please, that even a page or two of the “two heads talking in nothing” gets desperately boring and hard to follow.

How to fix it?  Remember to give your characters a body.  Then remind your readers of it.  It’s very hard to give a hang about heads in vacuum, but we can identify and empathize with humans going through challenges we understand.


Sure, we know the raised voices, the sweating, the annoyance above.  But we’re not reminded.  And we need to be reminded, so the illusion we’re watching real people is created. For this dialogue tags are useful.  Yes, I know, you learned you should always use “said”, but that’s “said” in preference to synonyms.  Not “said” in preference to more useful dialogue tags that, by being on the same line and giving the character’s name tell us who said something while also working at solidifying the people and their surroundings.

So, let’s try it again.

“We’re going to die.” Bob tried to pull his hair out of his eyes but it was wet and clung. He looked despondent and tired.

“It’s not as bad as that.” John wanted to give up and sit on the muddy ground and cry.  But he was twenty years old, and damned if he’d cry.  Why was Bob trying to give up?

“Oh, but it is.  We’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s raining, we lost our tent, and our cell phones have no reception.” Bob sounded like he wanted to cry too, which for some reason made John furious.

Do you think I don’t know that, John thought.  But we have feet.  And teeth and arms.  If we can keep walking to higher ground, we’ll be out of the way if this floods.  And we can make it.  We’ll probably starve or die of hypothermia, but hell, we can at least try.  Aloud he said, “It could be worse. There could be snakes in here with us.”


“Did you have to say that?” Bob jumped out of the way as a snake fell from an overhead branch.

Okay, it’s not my most inspired work.  (It’s three pm on Friday and I’m cleaning house. I have two books overdue and a load of editing to do. Give me a break.) However, the characters have a body.

Now go give your characters a body.

Today’s interview is with Alma Boykin

PJM: So, you’re one of the new independent writer/publishers, making it out there, in the new world of selling stories directly to the public.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Alma: I’ve been a story-teller all my life. In my teens I committed fan-fic (since burned), then started building my own worlds, as well as writing narrative non-fiction. The fiction sort of exploded during graduate school as a way to vent, and I never recovered.

PJM: Tell us how you came to publish indie? Was it a choice?  Did you ever do it traditionally? Do you also traditionally publish?

Alma: Several friends praised my work, enough so that I started looking into publishing. After reading Kris Rusch’s “The Business Rusch” for six months, then finding Mad Genius Club, The Passive Voice, and Sarah Hoyt’s blog, I realized that there might be a place for books that seemed to be between genres. So I collected stories into a more coherent package, but didn’t quite know where to go next. When Saul Bottcher from IndieBookLauncher left his address at Sarah’s place one day, I started looking around at editors and cover people, and in the fall of 2012, I “pulled the trigger” and prepared to release my first book-length fiction collection, A Cat Among Dragons.


I have published non-fiction through academic outlets.

PJM: Tell us about your latest book?

Alma: That’s hard, since I released a spate of titles this spring, against my better judgement, in several genres. I don’t recommend doing that unless you are a real glutton for stress. However, if you have to have just one…

In Sheltering Talons is the final book in the Cat Among Dragons series. Age and mileage have caught up with Rada Ni Drako, as has the man who has been in love with her (and vice versa) for several hundred years. The time has come for Rada to settle down a little, but not without one last round of the usual mayhem, chaos, warped humor, and bad judgement the series is known for.

PJM: How did you start writing?  What did you envision as your career in writing (if you did)?

Alma: No idea. It’s a condition I’ve been afflicted with since childhood. *wry grin*

PJM: What are the good and bad points of being an indie author?  Would you like to be traditionally published someday, or do you have absolutely no interest in doing it?

Alma: I control all aspects of my work: when I release, who does the cover art, who edits it, and where the books are released. That’s also the down side – it’s all on me to get things as right as possible. And to pay all the bills and taxes. Since I write what I want to, when I want to, I’m less tied to fashions and genres, and can go my own odd directions.

I will stay with traditional publishing for non-fiction. I do not foresee a traditional publisher picking up my fiction.


PJM:  A lot of people point to things like getting editing, covers and such things that the houses used to do.  Is this very difficult for you?

Alma: Yes and no. Yes, it can be difficult finding good, reliable people who have schedules that meet mine, and who fit my budget. I have been burned twice, once by an editor, once by a would-be cover artist. I reported the editor to “Predators and Editors.” The artist eventually returned my money, so I will not name them. But that is twice out of a lot of business contacts, and finding quality people is becoming easier and easier. I’ve shifted to using formatting software and doing that work in-house. Marketing… that’s one place where the traditionally published author still has a leg up, but not nearly as much as in the past, and that advantage is disappearing.

PJM: Where do you want to go with your career.  Pie in the sky – where would you like to be in your writing career in ten years.

Alma: I want my writings to bring enough to cover half my day-to-day expenses. I do not foresee myself writing full time, because my Day Job is such a joy (most of the time). It would be fun to go from “Alma who?” to “You’re Alma Boykin? Oh, I love your books!” but introvert-Alma would probably flee to the closest utility closet and never come out if that happened.


Set in the South Indian city of Hyderabad, Sweet Neem is a story of three generations coming together in the span of a year across cultural, social and generational divides to revive their family restaurant. They also sample their way across the foodscape – a mix of Mughalai, Turkish and Arabic influences on Andhra, Telangana and Marathwada foods.






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