Writers On Writing / Toni Jordan on crafting authentic characters

We spoke with best-selling author Toni Jordan ahead of her six-week online course, Online: Character, Plot and Dialogue beginning Monday 16 March.

Great characters often stay with us long after we’ve finished the book. What makes a character memorable and compelling? 

There are lots of things that make for memorable and compelling characters, but one thing that I think helps is the authenticity of contradiction. I’ve sometimes heard writers say that characters in novels should be ‘consistent.’ I’m afraid I don’t agree. Total consistency, I think, leads to wooden characters. The most human characteristic of all, in my view, is contradiction – and I believe that fictional characters are most believable when they share this human trait. We’ve all heard of examples like a cardiac surgeon who nips out the back of the hospital for a sneaky fag, a comedian who suffers from depression, or someone who seems sweet on the outside, but is really savage when you least expect it. These are the kind of contradictions that can make characters seem real. Of course, the contradiction must be believable. We’ve all read novels where characters behave ‘out of character’ to cover plot holes – that’s not what I mean. I don’t mean: contradiction in order to make the writer’s life easier. I mean something that makes sense, and makes the character more interesting.

What are some common mistakes authors make when writing dialogue?

I loathe dialogue that is ‘on-the-nose.’ This means: dialogue that communicates exactly what the character intends, without subtext. The best way to achieve good dialogue is by never letting characters say exactly what they mean. This sounds difficult, but with some practise, it’s actually fun.

Mark Twain said, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities.’ When creating the plot for your latest book, The Fragments, how did you ensure it was both thrilling and believable?

My goal with The Fragments was to sweep the reader away on an unpredictable adventure. After much research and thinking, I decided to create a world where a young bookseller could become obsessed with the missing novel of a long-dead author. I wanted my dead author to be a Harper Lee-type figure, and I wanted the world to be obsessed with details of her life, the way readers were obsessed with the identity of Elena Ferrante. The relationship between readers and writers is a source of continual fascination for me, because I still categorise myself as a reader first and a writer second.

Toni Jordan The Unpredictable Plotter

Toni Jordan is the author of five novels. The international bestseller Addition was a Richard and Judy Bookclub pick and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Fall Girl was published internationally and has been optioned for film, and Nine Days was awarded Best Fiction at the Indie Awards, was shortlisted for the ABIA Best General Fiction award and was named in Kirkus Review’s top 10 Historical Novels of 2013. Our Tiny, Useless Hearts was shortlisted for the Voss Literary Prize 2017 and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018. She was named Outstanding Sessional Teacher of 2014 at RMIT University. Toni’s latest book is the literary mystery The Fragments.

Join Toni Jordan for her six-week course Online: Character, Plot and Dialogue beginning 16 March. Online_ Character, plot and dialogue with Toni Jordan, Characters

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