Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
I love creating new characters and stories. The challenge is ongoing to come up with situations and people/other beings of choice which will hopefully grip me first and, later on, readers (hopefully).
But my favourite thing to write is dialogue. I literally put words into my characters’ mouths. That in itself is fun but it is when you get the words exactly right for the kind of character you’ve created, that is a wonderful feeling. It confirms I’ve got my character portrayal right.
When I’ve got a feisty character, I love coming up with cracking one-liners for them and just know if this character could somehow come to life in front of me, what I’ve given them to say is exactly what they would say.
In my Identity from Tripping the Flash Fantastic, my elderly character, Walter, is suspicious of the new postman because he is convinced he has seen that face full of stubble, which Walter has never liked in any bloke, on a Wanted poster. So when the postman knocks on his door, Walter’s response is a grumpy “And what do you want?”. It is exactly what Walter would say and you can hear the tone in those few words too.
Challenges in Writing Dialogue
There are challenges to dialogue writing though.
Firstly, it can only be a rough approximation to how we speak for real. Why? Simply because if we copied our speech patterns directly, there would be far too many hesitations and repetitions in it. There are the awkward silences too.
The latter is awkward to convey in text to say the least! The former is boring to read. So writers have to “tidy up” our characters’ speech. Yes, we can and do have the odd hesitation where it is appropriate but not many. We don’t want to risk switching readers off.
Secondly, we have accents, we use slang etc. It is a good idea, if you need to bring these into your story, to do so sparingly. You want to give a flavour of the accent and the slang your character uses. This is mainly for clarity. Some dialects are hard to read (as is Old English) so this should be borne in mind.
Back in 2022, I judged a short story competition for the Scottish Association of Writers. Interesting and fun experience in and of itself but what was especially good here was that many of the writers used Scots words and phrases. This wasn’t a problem for this Sassenach because the writers used them sparingly, where it was appropriate for the character to use them, and the meaning was clear from context. That last bit is vital.
Many, many years ago, I came across the word soporific in one of Beatrix Potter’s tales. My late mother told me it meant sleepy. I still remain surprised Miss Potter put that in her book instead of simply using the word sleepy. Now interrupting your reader so they go and look something up is fine as long as they come back to your story. The risk is, of course, they might not.
In this day and age, I think there would a high risk of switch off. This doesn’t mean you write everything too simplistically either – that too could switch readers off, nobody wants to be talked down to after all – but you do want your story, its narrative and dialogue to be so engaging people aren’t going to mind having to check out the odd strange word if they need to do that. Even better is where they can pick the meaning up from context as happened when I was judging – readers are learning subconsciously here.
Approaches to Writing Dialogue
My own approach to writing dialogue is to ensure I know my character well enough. I must know what makes them tick, what drives them etc as that will often show up the likely ways in which they will speak. I mention ways plural because characters will talk in one way to someone and in quite another to someone else, especially if they’re trying to impress.
In knowing what makes my characters tick, I get a sense of their likely educational level too. That will also have a major impact on how they will speak and likely vocabulary range. I have written a character in the past who was so posh they would not use any contractions whatsoever, even though their far superior boss would. So you can use dialogue itself as a way of showing more about your characters.
Character Types – Why Knowing These Matter
Different characters speak in different ways as we ourselves do. If your character is known to be impatient, you can guess the kind of things they would say but they would also be snappy in how they said it. Short, sharp sentences. To the point. Would come across as blunt. May well swear. But that all backs up the portrayal of this character as being impatient.
Long-winded characters will go on and on, of course, but in fiction you just want to give a flavour of this. So what I do is get my long-winded character to use a complicated expression when most of us would use a simpler one and leave it at that.
This is also useful if you want to convey the character is pompous, thinks more of themselves than they should etc because if someone uses a complicated expression at us, what would we think of them? Would we think they were trying to show off? Probably. But you get the idea. We pick up a lot from how people speak to us in life. We can do the same with fictional characters and writers can exploit this to help with their characterisation.
A humorous character will have an upbeat tone of voice, will “sound” cheery, and will use language appropriate to that trait.
So think about how your character is and that will tell you how they speak and the kind of words they use. It may well show up what they would never come up with. That can be interesting because you can then work out why they’d never say these things. There will be reasons, which you can use to deepen your character portrayal.
Don’t forget that a character’s thoughts counts as internal dialogue. You can have fun here because you can get your character to speak to other characters in certain ways and have them think differently as you share their thoughts with your readers. Great way to show your character being a hypocrite or holding back what they truly feel about another character.
Dialogue then is fun to write but one thing to beware of is the temptation to engage in what I call conversational ping-pong between your characters. I know I could easily do this. What helps me avoid this is to ask myself, while editing, does this piece of dialogue move the story in some way or give the reader crucial information? If the answer is no, then I cut the dialogue out.
Everything in a story, regardless of length, regardless of whether it is narrative, description, or dialogue, must contribute to the story positively. Readers do get switched off by what they consider to be wasted words. All they want is the story. And that is what we must give them.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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