Monday, October 6, 2014

Putting Character In Your Dialog

"Real life is sometimes boring, often inconclusive, and boy does the dialog need work"
-Sarah Rees Brennan

Captain Editor got on everyone's nerves
Its more often these days that I get a look at people's writing, hoping for critique.  I try to be as kind and gentle, as supportive and positive as I can, even if the offering isn't great; we all had to start somewhere and who knows what that writer will develop into with time and study?

Something that comes up fairly often in these sections is a weakness in dialog.  Its not that they do a poor job writing the lines of dialog or that its boring to read.  Often the content is interesting enough, often funny, and sometimes witty.  The problem is that it lacks character.

Not characters, obviously there are characters discussing things in the dialog, but character.  The dialog comes across less dynamically than it could because everyone sounds like the same person, probably the author.  Some very successful writers do this; Robert  Parker for example had a template of dialog he wrote, and only about 4 different types of characters: the wise guy who jokes, the impatient authority, the snooty rich person, and the sad client.  

And there was Susan, the wise psychologist who analyzed everything every other chapter but wasn't so much a character as a sort of computer to spit out psychological profiles and a voice to say the stuff about himself that Spenser wouldn't.  I don't like the character of Susan.  Just had to get that off my chest.

The names and descriptions in Parker's books would change, the content of the (brilliantly written, often hilarious) dialog would change, but the voices wouldn't.

Other writers such as Joss Whedon, for all his talent and fun, can get into this rut with every single character offering the same sarcastic quips, interchangably.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, you could often randomly scramble the character names in the script and nobody would notice.  

Now, you notice that these are very successful writers, so if you have enough talent and creativity, you can get away with it, but imagine how much better it would be (and is, in Whedon's later work, such as Avengers) if the characters were more distinct in their dialog?

And if you can give your characters more distinct, unique voices then your dialog will soar even higher, too.  For example, consider this portion of dialog:

"Its been two weeks, Bob," said Allaine
"I know, and I promise the money will be there," Bob said.
"You promised me last week, where's the money?"
"I will get you the money, you know I will."
"I don't know you will."
"One more week, that is all I need!"
"This is difficult for me, I have obligations as well."
"Yes, I understand, just please be patient, I promise."

OK now, look that over: by the fourth or fifth line, who is saying what?  You can kind of tell from the context but for the most part, they sound like one guy talking to himself.  There's no distinctiveness, no character to the dialog.

The problem here is that even if each character has been meticulously detailed in background, personality, description, and behavior, they talk like everyone else.  Its a tough skill to learn, but its a critical one.  No matter how unique your three armed Venusian Plant-Man Bounty Hunter is, if he sounds like every other Jobu in the story, the dialog falls flat.

One way to help jazz up the dialog for a character, to make it more distinct, is to imagine how they talk in your head.  Give them a sort of patter, an accent, or a slang style that you've run into before.  Crafting their dialog around patterns and voices you've heard before can help.

Use more adverbs, I dare you!
You need to be careful not to be too much a copyist, or people will say 'that's just Yoda in an orc suit!' But it is very useful to listen to TV, movies, and plays; to read plays, good books, scripts, and other sources of good dialog.  They don't necessarily have to have an accent, you don't need to mimic Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction or James T Kirk to create a character's voice.  But you can learn from it.

The more exposure you have to the way people talk and study that, the better your dialog gets.  Listen to voices around you in the store, in the mall, at work, at the bus stop, wherever you happen to be.  What?  We're authors, we're poor!  As you travel, everywhere you go, listen to patterns of speech.  Don't listen so much to the content, don't eavesdrop because their conversation is none of your business.  Just listen to the cadence, the rhythm of their speech.  Catch fun and colorful phrases or ways of wording things, so you can remember and use them later.  If someone uses a terrific simile, remember it and use it again later.  That boy is sharp as a bowl of gummy worms... gotta write that down.

Armed with this, you can give your dialog more life, and make it more fun to read.  And further, you give it the advantage of making each character distinctive enough to tell them apart without dialog tags (he said, she said...).  So here's a try with the same conversation above, given some character:

"I've waited a fortnight, Bob," said Allaine
"Aw, lay off, I'll get it to you next week," Bob said.
"Why, this is familiar to me, a song you sang to me just seven days ago.  And yet here we are, and the money you owe is not on the table.  How disappointing."
"You know I'm good for it, lay off I said."
"I must demure, you do not seem 'good for it' at all.  The money.  Now."
"I got a big score comin' in, just one more week, I'll have it!"
"You understand, if you delay, then I must delay in paying my superiors.  They are even more impatient than I.  this puts me into an uncomfortable position, and you do not wish me to share my discomfort."
"Yeah yeah I got it.  Gimme just a week and I'll have the dough."

Now, while this is a bit stereotypical (the entire exchange is, on purpose - the voices are very distinct and opposite for effect), I hope you can see how giving each character a distinct voice makes the dialog suddenly come alive in a way it did not before.  Bob and Allaine are clearly different people, with a different way of speaking.  You can get a sense of who they are simply through their words and what they choose to say, how they say it.

And you see how without any dialog tags, you can tell who is who very quickly and easily, because of the differences in their wording.

Using this sort of tool can transform your dialog into something fresh and interesting, and even more it is a simple device to build your characters.  Reading what they say and how gives insight into their background, their personality, their education, even their social class.  That makes your characters grow and become more definite in the mind of your reader, and easier to identify later.

As I said, this isn't easy to do, and might require extensive note-taking, character definition and even a sheet explaining each character, but over time it becomes easier and more natural, so much so that when the character shows up again, you can comfortably slip into their clothes and out comes their sort of speaking.

And as a result, your book becomes livelier, more interesting, and the reader is pulled more fully and easily into your story. Its worth the extra effort!