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.