Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Importance of Having Your Characters Talk Good

So my writing class has begun the workshop rounds and once again, I get to enjoy the fruits of my classmate's creative labor....yay.

Yeah, I know it's not the sort of workshop I'm talking about but it's a lot cooler than showing a bunch of writers sitting around in a circle.

So what I've been noticing is that a lot of young or inexperienced writers really seem to have a big problem with dialogue.  Either the words spoken by their characters come out stiff and unnatural - more like written prose than actual speech - or there is little within the dialogue to differentiate one character from another.  It's something I see again and again throughout these workshops and it's usually my number one critique whenever I read a dialogue-heavy story by another student.

I would honestly think writing structured, narrative prose would pose more of a challenge than simply giving speech to a fictional character.   Everywhere we go we are surrounded by spoken words, in real life, on television, in the movies, different people all talking differently with decidedly different quirks to their word streams.  Emulating these speech patterns in writing, for me at least, is only a matter of channeling whatever person or people I'd like my character to sound like and then basically allow that character to begin speaking for themselves on the page - I only need supply the essential story details.

But are a few tips I think would really help anyone who finds the dialogue sounding a little flat within their stories.

  1. Use Contractions.

    While avoiding contractions is usually essential when writing formal essays and, depending on the tone of your fiction, is not necessarily a bad thing when crafting your prose, having all of your characters say things like "do not" or "can not" or "would not" rather than "don't", "can't", "wouldn't" can and will become tiresome for the reader.  People generally use contractions when they talk.  Sure, there may be certain people that don't and if you have a character that doesn't, that's fine.  But be realistic, most English speakers naturally use contractions in their everyday speech and it sounds very unnatural when you try too hard to have every character speaking "correct" of formal English when the story or the scene doesn't call for it.

  2. Avoid Proper Grammar.

    Okay, this isn't a hard and fast rule.  But much like with the contraction rule, you don't want to have every character in your story speaking textbook English.  It just sounds weird.  Generally people speak in sentence fragments, use idioms, and intersperse their language with one form of slang or another.  Using different speaking patterns for you different characters (perhaps depending on where they are from, what their education level is, nationality, how vulgar or not they are) is a great way to give personality and distinguish one from another.   

  3. Swear.

    No, it's not necessary or even advisable to have all your characters be complete potty mouths, but the use of vulgarity can be yet another way to give an identity to a fictional person.  I've seen writers who have done everything in their power to avoid writing the word "fuck" or "shit" during dialogue, even when it would seem perfectly natural for a person in a similar situation to use such language.  People swear, not everyone of course, but again, a good deal do.  Even people who don't normally swear will do so under the right decisions.  Having a character that usually watches their language suddenly find themselves overwhelmed to the point of cussing can be a powerful tool in expressing the emotional depth of a scene.

  4. Think About Word Choice.

    Really think about it.  Think about who your characters are.  Would they really use that word in a sentence?  Not everyone possess or rather uses the same working vocabulary.  A great deal of us stick to a set number of key phrases and favorite words even if our knowledge of language extends far beyond what we say in everyday life.  So it's important to assign each of your characters a distinctive voice of their own.  It's really just a matter of getting the right "feel" for how a certain character thinks, getting inside his or her head, from then on it should be easy to pick out the right words for each character's speech.  Word choice is probably the best and smartest way any writer can give dimension and depth to the people living within their stories through dialogue (at least on a purely technical level).
  5. Give Your Characters Some Personality.

    Aside from knowing how your characters should talk and interact with one another, it's equally important that they all have something interesting to say.  Avoid boring, polite dialogue sequences (How are you? I'm okay, how are you?, etc.) and instead ask yourself how each line spoken by your character either a) gives the reader insight into the personality of the character or b) moves the plot along while also giving the reader insight into the personality of the character.  Avoid dialogue filler, no one wants to read it and you shouldn't want to write it.  Your stories and characters can reflect real life but should avoid the painfully dull aspects of it. 

    One thing I've noticed in regards to number 5 is that a lot of young writer's will have trouble creating characters of the opposite gender.  Male writers will often write female characters as being overly bubbly or "girly" - or worse yet their female characters sound no different than the male ones - while many female writers will create male characters that sound too feminine to be believable.  Of course I'm generalizing but this is what I've noticed after countless workshop sessions.  But it is important to remember that, usually (not always), men and women have very different speech patterns which can also change depending on region, background, ethnicity, etc.  The point is, you definitely do not want your boys and girls to sound identical unless there is a specific reason for it, it's important to assign your characters some sort of gender identity (which gender is entirely up to you though).

I'm probably forgetting something in my little list but those are the areas that seem the most troublesome when I read the work of my fellow writing students.  Of course if anyone disagrees with me on these points or has something to add to conversation I more than welcome it.  I'm always ready to be proven wrong and to learn something new about the craft.