Hey, I have 100 WordPress followers now. Maybe I should do a celebratory giveaway or something.
Last time I talked about setting out dialogue.
Today I want to talk about characterisation via dialogue.
Dialogue, as a reader, is hands-down the thing that makes me engage in your writing (if you write fiction). As a writer, it’s the thing that makes me write. You see, I’m not a visual reader. I don’t see this talked about often, such that it took me twenty-nine years to know this absence of response to visual media (as opposed to a preference for other methods of engagement) is in fact a thing: there seems to be this assumption that everybody has the ability to see things inside their heads on some internal movie screen. I don’t. I don’t have, and never will, see anything I write in my head. It wasn’t until a teacher (speculative fiction writer and poet Tracey Rolfe) mentioned that she also doesn’t have this ability (she knows things on an abstract level, but she doesn’t see), and this is why she works so hard on visual description in her writing, that the penny dropped. Other people see things when they read. Would you believe that I had no idea this was the case? It explained so much: visualisation techniques recommended by psychologists and other sundry pain specialists resulted in frustration, annoyance and tension such I’d end up wanting to tear my eyeballs out of my head (sadly, no hyperbole). I never understood why they set such store by this thing or how it was even possible to do. To me it was absurdity.
I don’t interact with the world on a visual level. I can tell by your tone of voice what your mood is, but I’m never going to know the colour of your eyes or how many times you’ve worn that pair of shoes. However, readers who are not me expect (especially in speculative fiction) a moderate to high level of visual description, the painting of images via words. We might laugh at the extremes of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin, who describe everything and at length, but most of us still expect the words an author writes to provoke a mental image. I work hard to describe as much as I do (and to find the right balance of description: because I don’t see anything or even desire it, I don’t know on an instinctual level what is too much or too little) and I’m nowhere near mastering visual description in the way I need to be a great writer.
Why am I telling you this?
Dialogue is my entry point into a book. I’ve got fantastic auditory processing in terms of memory and comprehension if I’m in an environment where my sensory processing issues aren’t overburdened by competing noise (I don’t go to clubs because I hear everything, which means I hear nothing, and I’ve been to many a restaurant, bar or cafe that’s almost as bad). I can hear and recollect (flashback, even) words people spoke, complete with pitch, tone and emotion. When I read each character has a different-sounding voice in my head (and their dialogue voice sounds different from their prose/narration voice). None of this makes me unique or special, by the way. We all do it. It’s just that for me, in the absence of my inner film screen, I am more reliant on my inner radio to develop a connection with the characters. I can appreciate what they look like on an abstract level – ooh, the protagonist wears metal band T-shirts – but I’ll never see it. I will hear everything they say. Good, human, real-feeling, emotional, distinct dialogue – not necessarily clever dialogue, snappy dialogue, funny dialogue or witty dialogue – matters to me because it’s how I build a sense of your character beyond the abstract. It’s how I slide into their skin and journey with them through your book.
This is relevant for the same reason I need to work on developing the visual aspects of my narrative. We, as writers, should aim to create stories that the largest possible amount of people can connect with. If I write stories that lack visual cues, I’m creating works that the majority of visual-minded people won’t enjoy. If you write works where the dialogue is secondary to the visual description, you’re creating a book that can’t and won’t be accessible to me on an emotional level. You can do that, if you wish, but good writing should be, as much as possible, accessible to people of all learning and engagement styles.
Not to mention the other truth: you’re missing out on a fantastic opportunity to build character and setting detail through a medium often less invasive than blocks of prose.
Dialogue as Characterisation
Your main characters should sound like unique characters (as opposed to sounding like the prose, which often means sounding like the author). This helps the reader know who is speaking without cluttering the book with speech tags, and it’s certainly a sign of a well-crafted book and creates dialogue that’s interesting for the reader, but it’s also an opportunity to show the reader many things without specifically stating them. Why would you want to do that? Well, it means less exposition, but if the reader gets to learn something through seeing (or hearing) it in action they’re going to respond to that knowledge with far more emotion than they will via telling. Sure, it’s subtle, but readers are intelligent people: we generally respond well to subtlety.
As a case in point, let me introduce you to the protagonists of my novel via dialogue.
Raider (speaking in his native language) is a colloquial, working-class, not-book-educated, somewhat ocker (trans) man with a tendency to directness, a man who just spent the formative years of his teenagerhood solely in the company of men:
“Mate, you know how many fucking scrapes I got myself in because I punched someone in the fucking face over something they said? I ain’t laid-back. You need to rest or you right to take the other side?”
Leïs (speaking in hir second, fluent language) is an over-educated philosophical soul who reads the dictionary, ponders everything aloud, uses as many words as possible and does so despite slight anomic aphasia (a condition ze is well accustomed to):
“Do they just tell you that because they wish you to not feel upset or angry or annoyed at their cruelty, at their lack of acceptance, at the way they will not accommodate your … your not sameness? If you said and did those things to them, would they be justified or would they be … I do not grasp the word, the opposite of laid-back? If they are all like this, how can it be truth?”
Dialogue isn’t the only way in which we tell or show information the reader needs to know, but what it can do, in conjunction with the other ways in which we give information about a character, is validate that truth. I say that Raider has spent seven years at an arms school for boys, and then I show him speaking like those boys in that school. Each time the dialogue meshes with what the narration has to say or show about our characters and the world they live in, we are building an image of authenticity such that it is easy for our readers to believe in our story and the journey we are creating for them.
Unless you’re writing an unreliable narrator, make sure your dialogue isn’t saying something about your character that meshes with their characterisation (and what that characterisation means for that character’s position in the world). An working-class, ocker bloke like Raider in a world where bookish/literary education isn’t something he wants or misses, and is in fact something he finds laughable, isn’t going to say ‘demonstrably’ or ‘to the effect that’. He is going to have a large vocabulary for horse-specific words. Leïs, on the other hand, is never going to leave out auxiliary verbs or speak in direct, simple sentences (ze relies on circumlocution to communicate ideas), but hir dialogue for talking horses is rather more limited. As soon as you start writing dialogue that doesn’t mesh with what the reader expects that character’s dialogue to sound like based on the world you have built around that character, you lose validity and authenticity. You give the reader another hurdle to leap in the quest to connect with your characters.
(If you are writing an unreliable narrator, having a character’s dialogue that doesn’t mesh with what the narrator tells us about said character is a subtle way to show the disconnect.)
Dialogue is also a great way to show relationships. Here’s a little more of Raider:
“That ain’t fucking crazy. To be locked up and assaulted? You got to be fucking mad if you want you should be that, and you ain’t mad.”
This is Raider’s father (complete with misgendering/transphobia):
“You come to me now? You ain’t willing to face me like a man, and you want you should break my neck on the road, but you come now? Why the hell did they give an afraid girl the earring?”
Now, I can tell the reader that they both speak with the same somewhat-drawling accent. I can say that they were both born and raised on the same family horse farm. I can describe physical similarities. I can also give them similar word usages and grammatical quirks to show the reader a sense of regional commonality. In Raider’s case his dialogue is modified by his gleeful usage of words stronger than ‘hell’, something his father doesn’t share, but it is evident to the reader that these men are connected by place and, to some extent, time. I also don’t need to tell the reader that Raider’s father is no more book-educated than he: it is all there in the dialogue.
For a writer of dialogue, these characters are in the best possible situation for sounding distinct. Raider and Leïs speak different languages, have varying levels of education, hold divergent philosophies on swearing, come from different classes and social backgrounds, and even have health issues that shape how they speak. Both of them lack a vocabulary for certain things (trans identities, mental illness) they must learn from other people. It makes it very easy, as a writer, to sit down and make some decisions about how characters in those situations speak: Leïs, for example, comes from a culture where the very idea of using sex-based (or misogynistic) slurs and profanities is ludicrous. I can decide that Raider’s pragmatic characterisation lends to practical, direct language. When creating a work that has a pair (or coterie) of protagonists, the best way to begin creating dialogue is to sit down and ask questions about the characters.
- What are their class, racial, ethnic, regional backgrounds?
- What languages do they speak and how might the rules of those languages shape their approach to dialogue?
- Do they swear? What words constitute swearing in their cultures?
- What is their education? What is their attitude to education and intellectual versus non-intellectual pursuits?
- What are their ages and how much does their age impact on the kinds of words they’d use?
- What are their relationships to literature, to oral storytelling traditions, to film, to internet social media, to the word as both a medium of communication and an art form? How do these relationships shape what they say?
- What kinds of unique words (a vocabulary set) will someone of that background, education or occupation use?
- Do they suffer any health conditions that impact, shape or inhibit dialogue?
- Are they more articulate when speaking or when writing?
- How comfortable are they to speak at all?
Don’t be afraid to take these outside the expected norm: a traditional interpretation of a character with difficulty speaking would be to make them self-conscious about saying anything aloud, so I made Leïs loquacious when in the company of safe/supportive people – something that speaks more truly to my experiences with being a person with words to say having survived a world (high school) that used to pick at and mock my (minor) speech difficulties. I’m self-conscious about speaking around strangers, but when I’m around people I like the trick is getting me to shut up.
Answering these questions will give you important information for characterisation, but it also gives you the building blocks for the words your characters say. Now, this might be enough for you to start writing, and I often do, being a pantser who doesn’t need a lot of information to get started. I find out a lot about my characters, worldbuilding and plot as I write, and that’s fine with me. However, I almost always discover in the second draft that I need a little more definition to make the dialogue truly distinct, and that’s when I whip out a second Word document and get busy with the bullet points.
What I do is make a list of word usages and grammatical quirks my characters possess. You might like to think of this as choosing a character’s stock phrases, which it is, but doing this well means giving some thought to word choice in general as well as sentence structures and omissions (words your characters don’t say).
A fragment of Raider’s list looks something like this:
- ‘You want I should’ and similar
- I/you/we/they ain’t’ instead of ‘I’m not’ or ‘you/we/they aren’t’
- Fuck, fucking, fucking hell, fuck me, fuck me dead, those fucks, fuck this
- Catch words: Mother and Dam
- Never misogynistic slurs save in reference to himself (slut, whore)
- ‘I got’ / ‘They got’ / ‘We got’ instead of ‘I’ve got’ or ‘I have got
- ‘Thing is’, ‘Say’, ‘Right’ and ‘You know’ to begin a sentence (never ‘I mean’)
- ‘If … was’ not ‘if … were’ (no subjunctive mood)
Leïs’s list is little different:
- Never uses ‘okay’ but ‘yes’ or something more formal (I am well)
- ‘Have’ or ‘need’, never ‘got’
- ‘Recollect’ instead of ‘remember’
- Uses a ridiculous amount of progressive sentence constructions, especially in situations where others would use simple past/present (‘[subject] is –ing’ tends to be used even when simple present would be more likely used)
- Long sentences held together by many coordinating conjunctions
- ‘I mean’ to begin sentences
- ‘Uë’ as hir native equivalent of ‘um’
(As a JSL student, I found the hardest thing in speaking Japanese was to not say ‘um’ or ‘ah’ in English, and we’d be marked down for that on oral exams. I’d argue from my experience that’s a real-to-life, subtle way of indicating a second-language speaker without forever harping on about Japanese spoken with the broadest of Aussie accents.)
What this does is give me a handy reference list every time I wonder if a character would use or not use a certain phrase, word or grammatical construction. I make a decision, add it to the list and keep going. Over time this creates a multi-page document (similar to a style sheet) and a word picture of all the differences in dialogue, and during the later redrafts and edits I can make sure that their dialogue is consistent with the list. It also helps me ensure that my protagonists (and even secondary characters) don’t sound identical just by making sure they use different words. By the time Raider says “I reckon” and “We got to go” compared to Leïs’s “I think” and “We should leave”, nobody is going to mistake them for the same character. The consistency also helps their dialogue feel more true to life. It’s not as though we don’t have a selection of words we use over other words: most of us don’t use ‘recollect’ and ‘remember’ (unless you’re a writer writing a character who uses ‘recollect’ and you start, at times, unconsciously adopting that usage).
(In fact, we generally cycle through words, so a character’s stock phrases might differ if we see them five years later. Right now my tendency is to describe anything good as ‘epic’. It used to be ‘awesome’. Before I discovered swearing and worked in a warehouse around swearing people, my curse word was ‘rats’. None of these things were chosen consciously.)
An ear for how people speak and knowledge of grammar/sentence construction helps, but this list can be done simply just by choosing which words characters do and don’t say. By the time you’ve created a submission-ready manuscript, you should have be able to identify a main character’s dialogue solely based on word-choice and sentence construction.
Dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Not even Leïs, who reads dictionaries in two languages, speaks with perfect grammatical correctness. This is because just about nobody speaks with perfect grammatical correctness (and if they do, that tells us something significant about that character and their relationship to the world around them). I have edited transcripts from well-regarded, literary and articulate political figures with more degrees than I’ll ever have, and the transcripts, typed as spoken, make these articulate people look stupid. This is because we just don’t speak in ways that correspond with what we expect to see when we read. We have trailing or overlong sentences, missing words, sentence fragments, contractions, abbreviations, words that only make sense in context – a whole bundle of things that make the editing of transcripts an unholy horror. Dialogue in writing shouldn’t be massively different if you’re shooting at authenticity. I would recommend getting the punctuation in dialogue correct, because we are reading it in its written form, but there is no need to write grammatically-correct sentences. You can’t develop a sense of character through dialogue if everybody speaks your language of choice without the usual quirks even the most literary of us possess when we speak.
(Remember, too, that the definitions of ‘perfect grammatical correctness’ vary by region, ethnicity, culture and class. Classism, racism, ethnocentrism and colonialism have impacted what is and isn’t considered grammatically correct.)
However, a caveat. Dialogue in fiction isn’t actual, real-life conversation. Write in too much of these quirks and you risk creating something unintelligible or uninteresting. The phatic speech most of us engage in has no place in fiction (unless you’re making a statement about phatic speech) because it tells us nothing. Dialogue that’s nothing but sentence fragments will no doubt infuriate even the most placid editor. Dialogue that is always long, multi-conjunction sentences will make people put your book down. Dialogue, by its very nature, is always a little unrealistic, because it is conversation that is edited by the author to be as realistic as possible while also being as comprehensible as possible. There’s no reason not to change a few commas to full-stops to break up a run-on sentence, not if you can do it without changing word usage or meaning (which you very often can). It might be natural and normal to speak in repetitive, run-on sentences (this is me) but if my character, who speaks similarly, repeats hirself too often, the reader is going to be rolling their eyes and ranting about authors who think them stupid and need hand-holding. Write a little repetition to show this trait in your character, but use it judiciously. Sure, repetition is certainly realistic, but nobody wants dialogue to be that realistic.
We should only be hearing dialogue that tells us something about character, setting, situation or plot, but we should also be hearing dialogue that strikes a balance between being so grammatically correct it’s unrealistic and so true to life it’s unreadable.
The Things We Don’t Hear
Before I finish, I want to remind you of a powerful truth: just because a character says something doesn’t mean a second character hears it.
This is Kéyal’s handler. Kéyal is a precognitive in a magitek world who solves crimes via psychometry (reading emotions, past and future, that attach to objects) and has a known mental-health history, in part due to hir talent. Ze happens to be acting rather more edgy than usual while at a scene, so hir handler makes an ableist comment:
“Ké. You did take your usual dose this morning, didn’t you? There’s no way you could have taken your dose upstairs, forgotten and taken another downstairs?”
This is Kéyal:
“Because the medication the IJD psychiatrist prescribes me explains everything wrong about me? Everything I said, say, will say, has attributed to it less. Everything I will do, do, did is because I’m a drug user—not because outside this house there was, is, no trace of resonance from the last twenty-six hours, no. Surely not that. I can’t know anything for sure, can I?”
This is Kéyal’s handler, again:
“I know you’re intelligent and capable—wait. What? No resonance? Nothing? You mean you felt nothing? No. There can’t be nothing.”
Kéyal is talking about the ongoing ableism endured by people who take medication as treatment for mental illness.
Hir handler thinks Kéyal is talking about personal/individualistic offense to having hir ability called into question. The interesting thing here is that she reacts to the problem by, once again, telling Kéyal ze can’t be right in hir conclusion (thereby demonstrating just how much she’s not listening).
We get to say so much about our characters’ personalities and personality faults through the things they say, the things they don’t say, the things they hear and the things they brush over, ignore or deny. Characters talking at cross-purposes are the source of ongoing and delicious conflict, but every time a character hears or doesn’t hear something another character speaks, we learn so much more about the characterisation of the listener. I don’t have to tell you that Kéyal’s handler, for all that she means well, doesn’t grasp what it means to have mental illness in this setting (or how hurtful her questions are). The truth is there in her response. Characters should mishear and misunderstand, deliberately and accidentally, as often as people do in real life. Good characters should make conversational missteps. These missteps give us character arcs (does Kéyal’s handler learn to stop hurting someone she does care about?), story problems and foreshadowing (why should Kéyal trust hir handler when the murder suspect, himself a mental-illness sufferer, winds up in hir lounge room?) without a whit of the telling or exposition that so often clunk-up a narrative.
Now, if you can go and do all this, your dialogue is doing far more than telling us what characters need, know, like and feel.
Your dialogue is showing us who your characters are.
Next time, because I’m nowhere near done with dialogue: subtext and setting. I’ll tell you why the words ‘chicken shop’ in my Crooked Words play ‘The Art of Letting Go’ are that damn important, and why we shouldn’t have characters speak exactly, all the time, what they think, feel, want and are.
(Today’s examples, save Kéyal, come courtesy of the novel manuscript I’m always talking about. It’s not agent-ready yet, but it will be, one day.)