This is the full text of a guest post I did on Rebecca Cahill’s blog back in September. If you get a chance, drop by and say, “Howdy” or whatever floats your goat. She’s got a great blog and it’s worth checking out.
Back in high school, I had a buddy who thought outside the box. I’ll call him CD to protect his identiy. CD used to write random thoughts, some of which were funny, others thoughtful, and try to sell them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. In his mind, if they were going to try to sell copies of The Watchtower to him, he was going to sell his own magazine to them.
He never did manage to sell any magazines, but he’s been a wealth of stories for me.
One day during a college break, we were sitting in the McDonald’s in the local Walmart and shooting the breeze. It would seem he had a lot of free time on his hands in college and decided on the ultimate way to pick up women at the bar. He was going to buy an Armenian Air Force uniform he’d found somewhere and try to convince people he’d flown Harriers during the Falklands War.
Yes, this was a long time ago. Thanks for asking.
Since he couldn’t do a British accent to save his own butt, he’d come up with some non-distinct, but vaguely foreign-sounding accent. He’d been observing the foreign students at UNM and had discovered a way to really sell his story. If someone were to ask him a question, he’d pause briefly, like he was translating the question from English to whatever language he was pretending to be fluent in, before answering.
“You really flew Harrier jump jets during the Falklands War?”
Pause. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
I don’t know if he ever tried it in real life, but I’m guessing probably not. However, if you ever come across a guy in a bar wearing an Armenian Air Force uniform and claiming to have flown Harriers during the Falklands War, tell him I said hi and remind him he’s got a wife at home who may or may not know about his past life.
CD’s attention to detail in building a character for the sole purpose of picking up women at dive bars in Albuquerque, New Mexico shows the level of effort that should go into writing characters and, more importantly, the way characters interact with the world you’re creating. It’s the little things that sell characters. Little vocal quirks, like pausing before speaking, add a depth of realism that you just can’t get by slapping some words on a page.
Now, this little diatribe of mine is less about character creation and more about dialogue. Unfortunately, those two things are very intertwined with each other. Also unfortunately, the dialogue aspect of character creation is one of the easiest things to completely screw up. How many times have you come across an excellent narrative only to have it nosedive the first time a character talks?
“I would never do something like, for in doing that, I have forgone my something.”
Seriously, who talks like that?
Writers tend to be introverts. Not always, but there’s definitely a trend that way. You can’t spend the day hammering away at a typewriter, smoking, and swilling whisky like it’s fitness water if you’re extroverted. Don’t get me wrong, introversion can be a good thing. It’s hard to craft worlds and create things to put in those worlds when someone wants to, you know, talk and do stuff.
I’m talking to my characters, thank you very much.
When we spend too much alone – whisky doesn’t count as an interactive friend – we start to forget what people are really like. Before you yell, “So what?” and start throwing things at the computer, remember this: regular people are the ones you’re trying to sell books to. And regular people like to see things that look real to them. As we’ve already established, one of the best ways to make a character look real is through the way they talk.
But dialogue is more than just character development, it serves other important purposes in a book. Everyone loves to say, “Show, don’t tell”, and dialogue is one of the best ways to do that. If you’ve got exposition to handle, try letting the characters talk about it. If there’s a complex plot substructure or twist, let the characters explain it rather than resorting to a few paragraphs explaining why something happened.
“You mean the minions of Hell aren’t really bad guys so much as misunderstood folks that have been the victims of a multi-millennium smear campaign propagated by a group that had a profit motive?”
“Exactly! These guys aren’t the real bad guys, those guys over there are!”
“My God! It was Old Man Jenkins leading them all along!”
Okay, not exactly my best dialogue, but you get the point. Let the characters do the heavy lifting when explaining things. It makes for more interesting writing and, let’s face it, it’s a time-honored tradition. Just ask Aristotle.
Now we’ve got a couple good reasons to work with dialogue in a story: character development and showing rather than telling. The problem is, if your dialogue isn’t realistic, no one will read it and all your time spent putting your characters in Armenian Air Force uniforms and letting them explain the dynamics of your world will be for naught.
So, how do you write realistic dialogue? Well, fortunately, that’s the easy part. It does require a modicum of effort, but it’s effort well-spent. Go back to that idea that regular people read books and they want to read about people that seem real. Then go listen to some real people talking. Bada bing, bada boom, you’ve got the makings of good dialogue.
The real world, no matter how irksome it may be sometimes, is full of examples of how to write good dialogue. The first thing you have to do is toss aside all the rules of grammar that we’re all supposed to adhere to when we’re writing. Follow the rules in the text, but realize people don’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. People talk over each other, they use contractions and colloquialisms, conversations wander, points don’t always go where we think they’re supposed to go. Sometimes people forget their points entirely.
My buddy in college and I could spend all night talking. This was back before texting and when Geocities was still a thing, so talking was a good way to pass the time waiting for the damned modem to connect. Our conversations went all over the place and outsiders had trouble keeping up. One night, he, his girlfriend, and I were all out by the fountain chatting and looking at the stars. As per usual, the conversation drifted all over the place like a drunken frat boy and his poor girlfriend was feeling a bit lost.
“You guys shift topics constantly,” she said, “how do you do that?”
“Yep,” I replied, “We shift gears so fast…”
And then I lost my witty retort and ended with the lame-ass “we go really fast.”
“We shift gears so fast…we go really fast.”
I swear, I actually had something for that and lost it mid-sentence. Poof. Gone. Vanished. I want to say my buddy wrote that whole scene into a book of his own.
People do that kind of thing all the time. Conversation is rarely linear, sometimes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and almost never follows the grammatical rules that govern writing. If you want to make your dialogue more realistic, listen to people talking and use what you learn. Toss aside the monologuing, kick the perfect sentence structure to the curb, and revel in all the things you don’t get to do in the main part of the text.
You’re not supposed to use “ain’t” in good writing because it’s not a word? People use it all the time, so stuff it into dialogue. Do you love thinking in run-on sentences, but worry about getting tagged by grammar Nazis? Let a character babble away. Give them linguistic quirks like pausing before talking or saying “Okay” a lot at the end of sentences. Christoph Fischer did an excellent job with this in his book In Search Of A Revolution. In that book, Fischer had a character repeat words when he was stressed or otherwise out of his element. “No, no, no. That’s not what’s supposed to happen.” Things like that.
The trick here is that the dialogue must fit the character. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have an aristocrat use the word “ain’t”, but it ain’t outside the realm of possibilities if you develop the character that way. This is where you embrace the character with all his or her flaws and really dig into their head. Remember, just like real people, characters reveal their natures through not only what they do, but what they say, so the dialogue has to fit the psychology of the character. Since you created the character, you’re the ultimate arbiter of whether a line of dialogue fits a character’s development. As long as you as a writer don’t look at what your characters are saying and think it’s out of character, it’s unlikely anyone else will, either.
One gotcha here: a character’s linguistic quirks and dialogue have to remain intact throughout the whole of the book or story. I had a character in a recent book who I decided shouldn’t use contractions. The last few pages of the story explained why, so it became important that none of his dialogue had a contraction. It was nightmarish looping through the whole text and verifying Chan never shortened his words.
In the end, it might pay off or it might not. It’s possible, that was something most people will ignore or not even notice. That may be a perfect example of taking a linguistic quirk too far, but it did differentiate his dialogue from the rest of the characters who cursed and used contractions with reckless abandon, so it wasn’t a complete waste.
Let your characters live and breathe. Sure, dress them in Armenian Air Force uniforms and let them claim to have flown Harriers, but if you want to make them real, it’s their dialogue that will do that. Pay attention to how people really talk and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t be afraid to copy conversations from your best friend in high school or the quirks your boss gets when she’s mad that the project still isn’t done. Take all those things and weave them into the story. Observe the world and use what you find to enhance your writing. Your dialogue will be that much more realistic because it’s based on real conversations.