Monday, August 13, 2012

Building Effective Characters: Dialogue

Write dialogue realistically, not how people speak.

One of the biggest problems new writers have when building effective characters is in the area of dialogue.  It either sounds forced, or doesn't fit the character, or the reader has a hard time distinguishing one character from another, or it just doesn't sound... right.  How do we create dialogue that sounds like normal people talk, and that really puts the character in the "realistic" column?  

First off, we don't write the way people talk.  We write realistically in that we obey a few simple guidelines that people follow, but we don't write the way people actually speak.  When people speak, they fill those little empty spots with an endless barrage of grunts, "ums," "y'knows" and a thousand other little vocal tics.  We speak in accents, which, when written out, make the language seem foreign.  We, in short, massacre the language (whatever language it is...Don't think I'm speaking only about English here), and to write it out would not come across well.  So, to write good dialogue, we do not write how people speak.  We do, however, write realistically.  But just what does that mean?  

Well, for starters, we must draw upon all the work we did on the character biography to figure out how that person would speak, then we need to adhere to a few guidelines.  Keep in mind, these work for me and may not work for you.  Find your own way that works.  
  • Colloquialisms - These are things that are said with geographic reference that most people outside a given area won't understand.  For example:  "That guy's drunker than Cooter Brown."  Now, unless you met the right Mister Brown, you wouldn't know just how drunk he was.  We can infer his state of inebriation to be quite advanced, but it's just not something that someone outside Mister Brown's area of influence would even think to say.  Similarly, "Possum on a gum bush!" is not something commonly heard outside of the deep south, or a Dukes of Hazard marathon.  These things give insight to the character.
  • Regionalisms - Often thought of as the same as the colloquialism, but very different.  In the south, folks say "y'all."  Up north, folks say "yinz" or "youse guys."  Same sentiment, but made different by where the character grew up.  Regionalisms range from the simple to the bizarre.  In the south, any form of carbonated beverage is a "coke."  We will then narrow the field of choice by stating what kind of coke (often by saying "a coke-coke").  Up north, however, it's a "soda" or a "pop."  Down south, we say "garage."  Up north, the same structure is a "car hole."  Things get even more bizarre when dealing with other countries, some of which have entire sub-cultures that seem to be dedicated to confusing people.  Cockney, for example, is a version of English that is characterized by substituting that relate to another word that rhymes with the noun meant.  So instead of saying "my wife," the speaker substitutes "trouble and strife" for "wife," then shortens the whole thing to just "trouble," so instead the speaker says he's going to go "tell my trouble."  
  • Dialect - When we write, it's easy to want to get carried away with certain dialects.  I'll take the easiest target, the deep south.  Theah, ah swe-ah folks trah to tawk in thu most genteel mannah, but they nevuh seem tu ghet it rhit.  (There, I swear, folks try to talk in the most genteel manner, but they never seem to get it right.)  You can see the problem.  So how can we throw dialogue in that has the same flavor?  By choosing the words that we affect, and letting the audience fill in the blanks.  In the above example, I might only use "swe-ah" instead of "swear" for the whole sentence, but it gets the point across that the speaker is using a dialect.  The same thing works with other dialects.  "Dere" instead of "there,""Noocyuler" instead of "nuclear," and even "wessles" instead of "vessels."  They are used sparingly, but effectively.  
  • Contractions - Unless your character is an android (like Lt. Commander Data), he will, most likely, use contractions.  Why?  Because we all do, and we all are essentially lazy creatures.  We want to say what we want to say in the smallest time possible.  "You can not be serious" becomes "you can't be serious."  "Why did you say that?" becomes "Why'd you say that?" Chances are, your character will enjoy using contractions as much as you do, and you love them so much that you often don't even realize you're using them. 
  • Education Level - There is a big difference between the way a college graduate speaks and the vocalizations of, say, a grade-school drop out.  Make sure your character's dialogue matches your character. 
  • Experience Level - People with more experience in certain areas tend to use terms that are more "insider" words.  The term for this is "jargon," but most folks like to refer to it as "geek-speak" or "nerd-eese."  Everyone has something they're a nerd about.  You may know everything there is to know about fly-fishing, and I wouldn't know the first term to even make a decent example, so you'll just have to go with me on this one.  
The bottom line here is that every decision you made about your character determines how they speak, how they walk, how they interact with other characters.  Do they react with hostility when being scrutinized?  Is that right for the character?  Decisions should be based on the character's upbringing, his education, and even his social class.  

A few other things that beginning writers do in their dialogue that needs to be addressed:
  • Contracted Sentences and Words - Which do you say in your daily life?  "Yes, I would like to go to lunch with you," or "Yeah, let's eat?"  Again, we are fairly lazy creatures who will break down our spoken sentences to bare minimum, given the chance.  Once something is said, or even inferred and understood, we pretty much take it as "known" and don't say it again. 
  • Naming Protocols - We, by and large, don't call each other by name.  We don't.  Go listen to people talking, and count how many times you can figure out people's names from the conversation.  Chances are, unless that person's name is "man" or "dude," you're not going to get it.  If your characters are constantly calling each other by name, they should either do it for a purpose, or you're doing something wrong.  
  • Overexplaining - When real people talk, they usually don't try to reiterate things that are, or should be, already known.  If we do in our every day life, we get people saying things like "I'm not stupid, you know," or "don't talk down to me" or "well duuuuuuh!"  It's a common trap to try to explain plot points through dialogue in an attempt to cleverly let the reader in on what's going on.  And it doesn't work.  Phrases such as "as you know" or "like I said" are dead give-aways that you're about to drop an information dump on your readers.  Worse, it doesn't sound the way a real person talks. 
Of course, everything above is opinion.  They are techniques that work for me and me alone.  But here's my suggestion:  Go out to a park, a mall, a restaurant, and eavesdrop.  I know, you're not supposed to because it isn't nice (and could make for some awkward moments if you're discovered), but listen to the conversations people have.  Then realize that, based only on what you've heard, a little five-minute snippet, those people have depth of character.  And that's what you're trying to achieve. 


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