Using Dialogue to Create Dimensional Characters
So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue.
We can tell a lot about people by the way they speak. What people say or don’t say speaks volumes. As the writer, it is our job to understand our characters and to know who they are and how they think. We have to master the art of empathy. If we don’t, our dialogue will all sound like US talking. Writing, in many ways is a lot like method acting. We have to crawl inside the head and the psyche of our cast.
Not as easy as it might seem.
Dialogue done well is the stuff of legends though. Think of favorite movies. Why do we love them SO much? Very often…dialogue.
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
Social Roles—The Broad Strokes
Whether we like it or not, most of us will fall into some kind of social category with the way we speak. The way we speak will tell others a lot about who we are, our job, our background, level of education and even where we exist socially.
Don’t believe me?
How many of you were once young and wild and free and swore you would never be like your parents? Then one day you heard, “Because I said so, that’s why” fly out of your mouth?
“Why can’t you just do it the first time?”
“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.”
I am bee-bopping along and suddenly hear my mother….
“Well, Spawn, when the mind is stupid, the body suffers.”
Shoot. Me. Now.
No matter how much we try, we are helpless in the face of mimesis. But, that isn’t such a bad thing. This actually makes it easier to do what we do. Since we’ve been around moms, we know how they talk. We can emulate the lingo. We know how teenagers, grandparents, grouchy neighbors, picky librarians, and con-artist family members all talk.
Through these “roles” we gain the broad strokes of what a character should “sound” like. This will help our characters ring true in the mental ear of the reader. There is nothing wrong with having characters who fit into a tidy box. They can still be interesting and unique even in that role.
Yes, I am a mother and I say all the stuff I swore I would never say.
No is just a part of life.
I also play XBox with Spawn and say things like, “Burst-fire! Conserve your ammo!” “You can’t kill a zombie like that!”
Thus, even though a lot of what I say would be very prototypical “Mom Talk” there are elements of how I speak that make me unique within that subset. Not all moms shoot for sport, practice Jiu Jistu and randomly quote Monty Python. Spawn’s mom, however, DOES.
But this is is when we get into the…
Character—The Fine Strokes
Moms say things many other moms say, but each mom is unique. That is the case with most characters. If we don’t take time to really think about who each character IS, we can run the risk of a character sounding like a stock character.
Recently I read a YA and only finished it because I paid full-price. But the biggest reason I had a tough time getting into the story was that all the characters were blasé.
Each character talked like a stereotype. The broad strokes were there, but there was no nuance. Thus, I was left with a cast of characters who were utterly forgettable.
How do we get fine strokes?
Can we buy some on eBay?
This is a tough one to answer. The fine strokes can take years to master. We have to learn to be excellent listeners. We have to learn how to look beyond what people are saying. We have to become masters of empathy and we must study people. Beyond this, though, what is it that transforms a plot-puppet into a 3-D person?
I believe it is in our idiosyncrasies and our contradictions.
An Idiosyncrasy is a peculiarity that is specific to one person. For instance, last time I mentioned the no-no about having every character speak in full sentences. Most of us don’t speak in full sentences so it rings untrue when everyone is using full sentences. BUT, some people DO speak in full sentences. That would be an idiosyncrasy and it’s one that is used regularly to convey highly intellectual characters—Ie. Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
A character who is foreign might not use contractions. A character who has OCD might always repeat verbs. A character who is advanced in years might never answer directly, but always answer in colorful parables.
I wrote a really funny character who constantly used malapropisms.
You just don’t cheat on your wife. When you get hitched, you promise to be faithful. You know. Monotonous.
We all have sayings and filler words that are unique to each of us. But adding these subtle details, now we have characters who are far more dimensional.
So we might have a mother who is saying all kinds of mom-like things…only she is unique because she is bad about smashing words together and speaks in hyperbole.
Eat your vegetables and don’t correct me. It’s very condensending.
I know what I said, Mr. Smarty Pants. Hurry up before I trade you to the Jones family for a puppy. At least the puppy would have some respect.
Add Some Layers
Remember that most humans are actually a unique blending of experience and roles. Yes, we might have a mom who is talking like a mom, but what else is she? A mom who is a Japanese violinist would probably talk differently than a mom who is a cop and grew up in Brooklyn.
Culture impacts a lot more than we might realize. I was born in Texas, but reared by a Yankee mom who is very direct and no-nonsense. I have run into all kinds of trouble with Southern women who feel I am rude. Conversely, I get short with Southern women because I am aging and don’t have time for all the niceties.
My roommate in college was from Georgia and we went round and round and round. She’d say:
Roommate: Kristen, do you think the trash needs to go out?
Me: Nah, looks good to me *keeps going*
Because her culture dictated it was more polite to hint and suggest? I missed most of what she wanted because I was always direct. If I wanted someone to take out the trash, I simply asked.
But here is an extra lesson in dialogue. Just from this example, can you see how conflict can arise simply from expectations? She believed she was asking me to take out the trash and believed that I was ignoring her. Conversely, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted an opinion on the state of our garbage so often. Why didn’t she just ask me to take it out? I would have happily obliged.
How does your character feel about him/herself? A low self-image might make a person a people pleaser. Maybe she is always agreeing with everyone and terrified to have her own opinion. Maybe the character talks too much, tries too hard, never asks about others.
If a character is selfish, he might brag all the time, or have to outdo everyone else in the conversation.
That’s great you caught a fish, but you were on a lake. Now go deep sea fishing. That’s real fishing. I once struggled with a fifteen foot shark for three hours….
Maybe the character is always interrupting others. Maybe the character uses profanity or quotes bible verses all the time. Or both.
Sometimes we can use dialogue to make contrasts. Contrasts are very interesting and say a lot about our character. A great example would be Elmore Leonard’s character Boyd Crowder (refer to television series Justified). Now, Boyd fits into a broad-stroke category of a hillbilly. He has a deep southern accent, works with his hands, drives a ratty truck, wears boots, and drinks like a fish.
But what makes Boyd a fascinating character study, especially for dialogue, is he is unexpected. He is a fascinating contrast. Though he is a redneck (and plays this up for his own ends) he uses a twenty-dollar word when a ten cent one would do. He speaks very colorfully. If you ask him the time, he will tell you how to build a watch.
Not only is his speech idiosyncratic, but it is a very unique contrast. One usually doesn’t expect a hillbilly to use words most of us would have to look up in a thesaurus.
Show Don’t Tell
Dialogue is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE for Show Don’t Tell.
Instead of telling us a character is a certain way, SHOW us by how she talks and what she says.
“Now, for the record, I’ve never seen her drink, but she always looks so tired. My brother-in-law always looked that way because he was throwing them back in secret.”
A self-involved jerk.
“Sure, Babe. After I meet with my client, how about I meet you for that cute little college thing you’re doing. What was it again? Art history?”
Y’all get the gist. Now go have fun with it!
All of this is to say that dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for showing who a character is, who they are hiding and maybe even who they could be with a little help from us (Writer-God). Next time, we will dig a bit deeper into dialogue. Who knew there was so much to this? What are your thoughts? What other suggestions do you have for authentic-sounding dialogue?
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